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Revolutionary War: Northern Front, 1775-1777

In the first eighteen months of armed conflict with the British (the conflict would not become a "war for independence" until July 4, 1776), Washington had begun to create an army and forced the British army in Boston to evacuate that city in March 1776. The major question after their evacuation was what they would do next. Washington was almost certain that the British would attack New York, since that position was of critical importance for their operations both North and South. Besides, that is what he would have done had he been in Sir William Howe's shoes.

Washington Passing the Delaware
George Washington Papers

Even though his premonition eventually proved true, British intentions did not become clear until their fleet descended upon New York in August 1776. For a variety of reasons, Washington and his generals made a number of mistakes during the engagements in the New York area. These mistakes and Britain's far superior naval power led to decided British victories on Long Island and on Manhattan. Had the British commanders been a bit more aggressive, their naval power might have put the Continental Army at great risk of total defeat.

After Washington was driven from Manhattan, his army fought Howe's forces to a standstill at White Plains. Even so, the British were now in control of New York City. Again, the question became, what would the British do next? Washington thought the logical next step for them to do was to move on Philadelphia, so he moved most of his army south into New Jersey. Indeed, British forces under General Charles Lord Cornwallis chased and harrassed the Continentals all the way through New Jersey. When Washington's army reached Trenton Falls, their fortunes seemed at low ebb. Surprisingly, at that point Howe ordered his army into winter quarters rather than attacking the Americans. Seizing the opportunity Howe presented him, Washington counterattacked at Trenton in late December 1776 and then at Princeton in early 1777.

What Washington had done in nine days was truly staggering. Just when many Americans thought all was lost, Washington had produced two major victories over one of the world's most powerful armies. Trenton and Princeton tended to put to rest the second-guessing about Washington's leadership, a belief that had grown as the Continental Army suffered defeats in New York and then retreated through New Jersey. These victories had also been watched closely by many European leaders; they now came to view Washington as an adroit and able commander.

On the other hand, the British were not impressed with Washington's accomplishments. All in all, Lord North thought 1776 had been a very good year for the British. They had retained Canada and captured New York City, their losses of soldiers had not been great, and nearly 40,000 loyalists had received pardons from Howe. British leaders would also have been heartened had they fully known what Washington knew about the chronic problems experienced by the Continental Army. Washington was continually concerned with problems of the militia, recruits, and deserters and he constantly reminded Congress of the need for a standing professional army and a better system of supply.

For additional documents related to these topics, search using such key words as Boston, Long Island, Manhattan, White Plains, New Jersey, Trenton, Princeton, and General Howe. Search Washington's Papers by date (of specific battles, for example), and use the terms found in the documents.