17 Gritty Facts about the American Revolution You Probably Didn’t Know

The American Revolution led to Britain recognizing the United States’ independence, primarily caused by colonial resistance to British attempts to impose a greater degree of control over the colonies. Thousands died in combat and from disease, notably from outbreaks of smallpox. Here are 17 gritty facts you probably didn’t know about the American Revolution.

The Deadly Smallpox Epidemic 

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Smallpox killed over a hundred thousand people during the Revolutionary War. Its impact on the Continental Army was so severe that George Washington mandated all soldiers be inoculated in 1777.

The Harsh Winter at Valley Forge 

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Brutal winter conditions marked the Battle of Valley Forge in eastern Pennsylvania. Shortages of clothing, shoes, and provisions were compounded by regular freezing and thawing, coupled with intermittent rain and snowfall, necessitating the construction of 1,500 log huts.  

The Role of Women

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Women played an essential role in the Revolutionary War. The Museum of the American Revolution explains that women “took on a range of roles traditionally reserved for men” because “work still needed to be done.” Women, as “deputy husbands,” ran farms, managed finances, hunted, repaired houses, sewed clothes, and made military supplies. 

Espionage and Counterintelligence Efforts 

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Espionage and counterintelligence efforts were crucial to the Revolutionary War. It established early American espionage techniques, whose spies effectively spread disinformation among the British.

Naval Battles and Privateers 

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Naval battles played a significant role in the American Revolution. The British won more naval battles and relied on their navy to defect their supply lines. However, the naval battles culminated in British Lieutenant-General Earl Charles Cornwallis surrendering, directly leading to the war’s eventual end. 

Unsung Heroes: Slaves and Free African Americans in Battle

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Thousands of enslaved African Americans fought for both the American and British sides during the war, seeking freedom. The first American killed during the Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a stevedore of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry. The NPS notes that his death at the hands of British soldiers “instantly transformed him from an anonymous sailor into a martyr for a burgeoning revolutionary cause.”

Economic Warfare 

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Boycotts, embargoes, and smuggling were effective tools to fight the British economically during the war. The Continental Congress had financial struggles to fund the war, and it spent $400 million in wages for its troops. 

The Loyalist Perspective 

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Loyalists, also known as Tories, Royalists, and King’s Men, remained loyal to the British Crown during the Revolutionary War. After their cause was defeated, 15 percent of them (around 65,000–70,000) fled to different parts of the British Empire, especially Britain and Canada, then British North America. Southern loyalists largely moved to Florida and the Caribbean. 

Native Americans

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The American Battlefield Trust argues that the war didn’t “only determine the future of the American colonies, but it also shaped the future of the Native peoples who lived in and around them.” Native Americans had complex alliances with America and Britain, and some tribes were split, with different factions pledging allegiance to either side. 

Guerrilla Warfare and Revolutionary Tactics 

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Hit-and-run tactics were some of the unconventional warfare strategies that puzzled the British during the war. America surprised the larger British forces with ambushes, raids, and by spreading disinformation. Militia units famously deployed guerilla tactics against the British forces at the Battle of Saratoga in New York. 

The Prison Ships of Wallabout Bay 

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The British prison ships docked in Wallabout Bay held American prisoners in hellish conditions. Thousands of American soldiers died in these cramped “floating dungeons,” which lacked natural light or fresh air. The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Brooklyn memorializes the soldiers who perished on these ships. 

Foreign Volunteers

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Brittanica explains that Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat, “fought in the Continental Army with the American colonists against the British in the American Revolution.” Baron von Steuben, a Prussian military officer, also played a vital role in training American troops. 

The Impact of Propaganda 

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Pamphlets and newspapers shaped public opinion during the conflict. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis, helped inspire the Patriots to declare independence from Britain. 

Franco-American Alliance

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This agreement saw France supply the 13 insurgent American colonies with critically needed military aid and loans, which was seen as the war’s turning point. After losing their North American Empire, France welcomed the opportunity to undermine their rival Britain’s position in the New World. However, the treaties later proved embarrassing to America during the French Revolutionary Wars. 

The Spy Rings That Swung the War

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This network of spies played a crucial role in gathering British intelligence for the Americans under then-General George Washington during the occupation of New York City. Intel.gov explains that “the Culper spies provided Washington with a wealth of secrets about British plans, unit strengths, and defenses.” They relayed information with invisible ink and coded messages in newspapers, and their existence was virtually unknown until 1929.

Environmental Challenges

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Geography influenced the tactics and outcomes of major battles during the war. Having to cross various rivers led to America’s first major defeat, the Battle of Quebec of 1775. However, American soldiers were used to the large and challenging terrain of the continent, which often flummoxed the British. 

The Treaty of Paris: Negotiating Peace 

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Signed in Paris on September 3, 1783, this treaty between the Thirteen Colonies and Britain ended the American Revolution. The U.S. was formally recognized as an independent nation and set the boundaries between the country and what would become Canada.

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