1776 is certainly one of the most important years in the history of our country. 1776 is when our Founders — Washington, Franklin, Hancock, Adams, Jefferson and others-declared independence from England with the inspiring opening phrase “We the People” defining us as a democratic people.
But 1776 was also a time of bloody conflicts and critical battles in Boston, New York and New Jersey as the American revolutionary army sought to drive the British out of the colonies to establish an independent and sovereign nation.
There has been much written about the events and personalities of 1776 — some fact, some myth, some legend. The revolutionary army of General George Washington was a ragtag group of farmers who were untrained, without uniforms, poorly paid (if at all), subject to a range of diseases and often drunk from rum and other alcoholic concoctions. Yet they held off a superior British army sending them into retreat at Lexington and Concord and inflicting 1,000 British casualties on Bunker Hill in 1775.
The most important story from the early days of 1776 was the leadership of George Washington and his key generals — Nathanial Greene of Rhode Island, Joseph Reed of Philadelphia, John Sullivan of New Hampshire, and Henry Knox of Boston. In a key battle, with cannons brought overland in the dead of winter from Ft. Ticonderoga near Lake Champlain, Washington and his small army fired on the British from Dorchester Heights. The attack proved so successful that days later the entire British contingent fled to Nova Scotia.
Filled with pride and confidence, the American colonial army left Boston for New York and what was viewed as the final battle to force the British out of newly independent America. The British, however, were in no mood to retreat or surrender. With considerable support from loyalists in New York City and a powerful naval armada of hundreds of ships, the British under the capable leadership of William Howe, prepared to do battle with the revolutionaries, who were no match against the English military.
The glory and legend of George Washington as a military leader was challenged during the New York battles, which occurred largely in Brooklyn. In a series of battles Washington’s outmanned and demoralized soldiers were easily defeated by the experienced British and German Hessian mercenaries. Many of the revolutionary troops ran away from the battles and returned home in large part because they were not paid or because they were deathly sick. Despite his reputation as a courageous and inspiring general, Washington led his army into retreat. The campaign to drive the British out was a huge failure and there was increasing criticism of Washington and talk of ending the war and surrendering.
But the colonials under Washington had one last chance to challenge the British. On Christmas eve 1776, Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey and attacked a garrison of Hessians who were likely drunk on this holiday evening. The attack was successful as the Hessians were routed and Washington’s reputation was saved. The victory was hailed by the supporters of independence as a turning point in the war, although the revolutionary army had to endure enormous sacrifices during the winters of 1777 and 1778 in Valley Forge. Thankfully with borrowed money and military leadership from key figures such as the Count de Lafayette from France, and Generals Pulaski and Kosciuszko of Poland, the revolutionary army gained a new spirit and proper training. The fighting continued for four more years and spread throughout the colonies. In October of 1781, American and French troops under the leadership of George Washington overran 7,000 British troops under the command of Lord Cornwallis. Seeing no way to retreat or regroup, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the British effort to control the colonies.
As Americans we celebrate our independence from England on July 4, but it is important to remember the long war for independence and the bravery of a citizen army to establish a nation based on “We The People.”