top of page

1776: The most important year in American history.

Today we know America to be this great superpower which is essentially the most powerful country in the world. But what if even the idea of America being an independent nation was never self-evident? From the time the American continent was discovered, until 1783, North America was an English colony. It was ruled by the King of England, for the benefit of the British Empire. But after a while, the Americans wanted their own government, especially since the British rule became more and more self-centered. But the British weren’t in the mood to just give the Americans what they wanted, so if the Americans wanted their own form of government, they had to fight for it. So war broke out. Little did they know, that this war would turn into a war for independence and that this would create the most powerful nation in our world today. Let’s look at the most important year of this Revolutionary War, which was 1776. The year the most important battles were fought and the year the war turned into an actual war of independence. 

A victory in Boston

If we’re going to discuss the most important year in American history, we have to actually start a year earlier, in April of 1775. This month the British decided to strike the first blow. They wanted to stop the possibility of the Americans setting up a genuine resistance, and they believed the way to do this was to go to the town of Concord and confiscate the Americans’ muskets and gunpowder. The British believed this would be a walk in the park. The Americans were untrained farmers, and the British were all experienced soldiers. However, the British were surprised when they arrived at Concord. The Americans actually put up a massive fight and drove the British back. They had to retreat, and they did this on the famous road from Lexington and Concord. But in Lexington too were Americans who attacked the British, and as a result, the British troops had to retreat all the way back to Boston, where they remained until early 1776. This battle sparked the first real American resistance and inspired the creation of the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington. It was war.

With the British essentially stuck in Boston, waiting out the winter and planning their next moves, the Continental Army decided that they needed to drive the British out of Boston. To do this, they needed to surround the peninsula and put the British in a position where they couldn't stay in Boston. The year was now 1776, and not much but a few skirmishes had happened between the Americans and the Brits in Boston. But at one point, the Americans decided to go for the kill. They knew that if they captured the Dorchester Heights and pointed their weapons at the British in Boston, the British troops could never hold the city. But the Americans needed a miracle to get enough guns and cannons to form a real threat on those heights. That is exactly what they got. Henry Knox, an officer under General Washington, asked Washington if he could set out on an expedition to retrieve guns and cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, a fort that previously was held by the French and was now not in use anymore, but still had an abundance of weapons laying around. Washington approved, but Knox could only choose one officer to go with him and spend a total of one thousand dollars. So Knox set out to Ticonderoga in the heart of winter, which was a trip of more than a hundred miles, and retrieved the guns and cannon. Because of the snow, they could do this with sleds, which made the transport of the weapons easier and faster, because they didn’t have to cope with the mudded or unsmoothed roads. Eventually, Knox arrived at the camp and the plan to capture the Dorchester Heights was made. One night, the Americans went out on those heights, filled them with men and guns, and brought up the cannons that were brought over from Ticonderoga. When the British woke up the next day, they were astonished. They couldn’t believe that the Americans could get up those heights so quickly without them even noticing. The British realized that it would be impossible to defend themselves from such a disadvantaged position so they decided to leave the city. Boston was recaptured by the Continental Army. They had their first victory of the war. But the British were still in the game and were in no mood to give up. They decided to sail towards Halifax, and eventually set their sights on New York, which was the place where the next battle would be fought. Sadly for the Americans, their streak of victories would come to an end in the city that is now called the Big Apple. 

The Declaration of Independence

The American Revolution didn’t start out being a war for independence. The idea of independence came only several years after resistance against the British had already started. The fighting started because the Americans were tired of not having the same rights as British citizens and wanted to have the right to form their own government. Most Americans at this point still wanted to remain under the rule of the British Empire, mainly because of the benefits they would still receive under the crown. They traded a lot with Britain, and lots of Americans were immigrants from England and still considered themselves Englishmen. 

But as the war progressed, more and more people started to like the idea of independence, and eventually, they saw it as their only viable option. After the Boston Massacre, an accident in which British soldiers gunned down and killed several American citizens, and thereafter several economic measures such as trading embargos and the Stamp Act, the revolutionary Americans were fed up with British rule and now saw independence as their only option. So to make it official, the Revolutionaries wrote the Declaration of Independence, a document which stated ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ and further stated a list of 23 points why King George III, the King of England, was a tyrant. It was an excellent propaganda document that rallied the American Revolutionaries and also got the essence of their ideal of an independent America. On the 4th of July, the Declaration was in effect, and the war had officially turned into a war for independence.

However, the people who wrote the document and strove for an independent government didn’t make this decision without risk. After King George heard about the declaration, he was pissed off. As a result, he blocked trading in America and said that all of the people who contributed to the revolutionary cause were traitors, which for punishment, would be hanged. The phrase ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ was quite literal for the revolutionaries. It was fighting and winning, or death and hanging. 

However, the Declaration of Independence was still only a piece of paper if the Continental Army didn’t achieve any military victories. So General Washington set out to defend New York, where the British were arriving at the ports. The war was far from over.

The Battle of Long Island

To George Washington, it was known that New York was essentially completely indefensible for the Americans once the British had arrived. The British fleet had arrived in the bay of New York with hundreds of battle-ready ships and thousands of men. This naval superiority gave the British the absolute upper hand and made it impossible for Washington to hold the city. Washington was aware of this, but Congress instructed him to defend the city of New York because of its importance for morale. They were under the false impression that defense of the city was possible and believed that a loss of New York would severely damage the revolutionary cause. So the attempt was made to defend this indefensible city, and as was to be expected, they weren’t able to defend it, and the city of New York quickly was in British hands, but that is not all there is to the story.

Many of Washington's troops, under the command of Nathaneal Greene, were stationed at Fort Washington, a fortress the troops set up on the island of Manhattan. When the fighting started, Washington recognized that this fortress would never hold out and that a retreat was necessary. But Washington, not willing to make the decision, left it up to Nathaneal Greene. He told him that he could decide whether to hold or retreat, and Greene made the costly mistake of choosing to hold the fortress. When the British arrived, the fortress was overwhelmed with British troops who captured the entire fort. The American troops stationed at Fort Washington who weren’t killed were captured, along with Nathanael Greene himself. 

The Americans still had other troops in New York, but Washington knew that fighting on would only result in an even more terrible defeat. So as a last hope of saving the revolutionary cause, he decided to retreat. If he could get his troops across the East River before dawn, his army would be saved. But this was not so easy. The British could’ve easily sailed up the river and made retreat impossible. If they’d go even further they could’ve encircled the entire army, captured all of them, and ended the revolutionary cause then and there. But the Americans had one faithful companion: luck. The British couldn’t sail up the East River, because the wind was headed in the wrong direction, and the 18th century was still an age where ships were heavily dependent on the direction of the wind. This bought Washington much-needed time to get his troops to safety. So in the middle of the night, the Americans passed over the river in boats, transporting their troops to the other side of the river. The British however were still near, so they had to move very silently, and if they didn’t have the cover of night anymore and dawn would arrive they could get caught, and that would mean they’d be captured anyway. The Americans moved as silently as they could, and they were successful in safely transporting thousands of men over the river. But then dawn arrived, and the Americans still hadn’t finished their retreat. This meant that the British could have well spotted the American retreat. However, America’s faithful companion again intervened and stopped this from happening. In the early morning, suddenly a thick fog set in, a fog that covered the American retreat and made the British unable to spot them. This fog, however unbelievable it may seem, was only visible on the British side, the Americans had no fog at all. This made that the American retreat was not hindered in any way by bad visibility and could proceed. Eventually, because of these environmental miracles, the army successfully made their retreat and lived to fight another day. New York may have been captured but the war was not lost. But as Churchill said after the evacuation of Dunkirk: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

The hour that changed history

After the American retreat from New York, they moved southwest towards Philadelphia. Here the Americans could set up their defences for the coming battle against the British and stay for the winter. The British however were not planning on fighting in wintertime. They intended to wait out the cold North American winter and resume their campaign the next spring, but General Washington had other plans. At the town of Trenton, thousands of Hessian troops were stationed in their camp. These Hessians were German mercenaries hired by the Britains to fight against the Americans, mainly because the British had their wars in India and Europe to fight as well and couldn’t afford to bring that many troops to America. 

Washington was notified of the camp, and sensing that a military victory was necessary if they wanted to maintain the revolutionary cause, he decided to take the gamble and attack the Hessian camp at night. For this he made two separate armies, one would cross the river, which lay on the west and south side of Trenton, on the west side, and the other on the south. This however didn’t initially go as planned. The army group in the south couldn’t cross the river and was heavily delayed. This meant that at least for now Washington's western army was on its own. But unaware of the delayed army in the South he decided to strike, even though he could only use half of his army. Heavy fighting broke out between the Hessians and Americans, and all was pretty much even. But then, the delayed army finally crossed the south of the river and joined Washington, encircling the Hessian camp. The Hessians surrendered. Some were killed in battle and most were captured. The battle only lasted about an hour, and in this short time, the whole war turned around. 

The revolutionary cause seemed almost entirely lost. They lost the major battle of New York, and it seemed as if the British were way too powerful for the American army. Hope of victory was low, and the thing you never want in a war is to fight with an army that doesn’t believe victory is possible.

The battle of Trenton gave the Americans a huge boost in morale and showed them that the British weren’t as invincible as they seemed. It gave them confidence in ultimate victory, and that the ideals of the revolution could be put into effect.

The American Revolution dragged on for another six years, but the year 1776 was the most important and decisive year of the entire revolution, and therefore of America itself. The year started in triumph, continued with utter disaster, and ended with the hope that America would, after all, become an independent nation.



bottom of page