Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The end of the Revolutionary War

On 3 September 1783, the Peace of Paris was signed and the American War for Independence officially ended. The following excerpt from John Ferling’s Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence recounts the war’s final moments, when Washington bid farewell to his troops.

The war was truly over. It had lasted well over eight years, 104 blood-drenched months to be exact. As is often the habit of wars, it had gone on far longer than its architects of either side had foreseen in 1775. More than 100,000 American men had borne arms in the Continental army. Countless thousands more had seen active service in militia units, some for only a few days, some for a few weeks, some repeatedly, if their outfit was called to duty time and again.

The war exacted a ghastly toll. The estimate accepted by most scholars is that 25,000 American soldiers perished, although nearly all historians regard that figure as too low. Not only were the casualty figures reported by American leaders, like those set forth by British generals, almost always inaccurately low, but one is left to guess the fate of the 9,871 men—once again, likely a figure that is wanting—who were listed as wounded or missing in action. No one can know with precision the number of militiamen who were lost in the war, as record keeping in militia units was neither as good as that in the Continental army nor as likely to survive. While something of a handle may be had on the number of soldiers that died in battle, or of camp disease, or while in captivity, the totals for those who died from other causes can only be a matter of conjecture. In all wars, things happen. In this war, men were struck by lightning or hit by falling trees in storms.  Men were crushed beneath heavy wagons and field pieces that overturned. Men accidentally shot themselves and their comrades. Men were killed in falls from horses and drowned while crossing rivers. Sailors fell from the rigging and slipped overboard. As in every war, some soldiers and sailors committed suicide. If it is assumed that 30,000 Americans died while bearing arms—and that is a very conservative estimate—then about one man in sixteen of military age died during the Revolutionary War. In contrast, one man in ten of military age died in the Civil War and one American male in seventy-five in World War II. Of those who served in the Continental army, one in four died during the war. In the Civil War, one regular in five died and in World War II one in forty American servicemen perished.

Unlike subsequent wars when numerous soldiers came home with disabilities, relatively few impaired veterans lived in post-Revolutionary America. Those who were seriously wounded in the War of Independence seldom came home. They died, usually of shock, blood loss, or infection. Some survived, of course, and for the remainder of their lives coped with a partial, or total, loss of vision, a gimpy leg, a handless or footless extremity, or emotional scars that never healed.

Washington Resigning Commission at Annapolis

It was not only soldiers that died or were wounded. Civilians perished from diseases that were spread unwittingly by soldiers and not a few on the homefront died violent deaths in the course of coastal raids, Indian attacks, partisan warfare, and siege operations. There is no way to know how many civilians died as a direct result of this war, but it was well into the thousands.

The British also paid a steep price in blood in this war, one that was proportionately equal to the losses among the American forces. The British sent about

42,000 men to North America, of which some 25 percent, or roughly 10,000 men, are believed to have died. About 7,500 Germans, from a total of some 29,000 sent to Canada and the United States, also died in this war in the North American theater. From a paucity of surviving records, casualties among the Loyalists who served with the British army have never been established. However, 21,000 men are believed to have served in those provincial units. The most complete surviving records are those for the New Jersey Volunteers, which suffered a 20 percent death toll. If its death toll, which was below that of regulars and Germans, is typical, some four thousand provincials who fought for Great Britain would have died of all causes. Thus, it seems likely that about 85,000 men served the British in North America in the course of this war, of which approximately 21,000 perished. As was true of American soldiers, the great majority—roughly 65 percent—died of diseases. A bit over 2 percent of men in the British army succumbed to disease annually, while somewhat over 3 percent of German soldiers died each year of disease. Up to eight thousand additional redcoats are believed to have died in the West Indies, and another two thousand may have died in transit to the Caribbean. Through 1780, the Royal Navy reported losses of 1,243 men killed in action and 18,541 to disease. Serious fighting raged on the high seas for another two years, making it likely that well over 50,000 men who bore arms for Great Britain perished in this war.

The French army lost several hundred men during its nearly two years in the United  States, mostly to disease, but the French  navy suffered losses of nearly 20,000 men in battle, captivity, and from illnesses. Spanish losses pushed the total death toll among those who fought in this war to in excess of 100,000 men.

Washington was anxious to get home, it now having been more than two years since he had last seen Mount Vernon.  It must at times have seemed that New York would not let him go. He remained for ten days after the British sailed away, looking after the final business of his command, but mostly attending a seemingly endless cycle of dinners and ceremonies.  At last, on December 4, he was ready to depart.  Only one thing remained.  At noon that day Washington hosted a dinner at Fraunces Tavern for the officers. Not many were still with the army. Of seventy-three generals yet on the Continental army rolls, only four were present, and three of those were from New York or planned to live there. Not much should be made of the paltry turnout. Men had been going home since June. Like the enlisted men, the officers were anxious to see their families and put their lives together for the long years that lay ahead. All who attended the dinner knew that the function was less for dining than for saying farewell, and it soon became an emotional meeting. At some level, each man knew that the great epoch of his life was ending.  Each knew that he would never again savor the warm pleasures of camaraderie, the pulsating thrill of danger, the rare exhilaration of military victory that had come from serving the infant nation in its quest for independence. Each knew that he was leaving all this for an uncertain future. No man was more moved than Washington, who, if he had planned to give a speech, discarded the idea. He merely asked each man to come forward to say goodbye. With tears streaming down his face, he embraced every man, and they in turn clasped him. Henry Knox grabbed his commander in chief and kissed him.

When the last man had bidden him farewell, Washington, too moved to talk, hurried to the door and to his horse that awaited him on the street. He swung into the saddle and sped away for Virginia, and home.

John Ferling is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of West Georgia. He is a leading authority on late 18th and early 19th century American history. His new book, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry that Forged a Nation, will be published in October. He is the author of many books, including Independence, The Ascent of George Washington, Almost a MiracleSetting the World Ablaze, and A Leap in the Dark. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only American history articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.

Image credit: Washington resigning his commission at Annapolis, Dec. 23, 1783. Thomas Addis Emmet. Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *