Historic Valley Forge

Factors Contributing to the American Victory

Q.I want to know what factors helped the Continental Army win the war against a country as powerful as England?
Tiffany, NJ

A.Historians have devoted entire careers to that question. And some of them have spent quite a lot of those careers arguing with one another about the answer. While there remains plenty of debate concerning their relative importance, most historians consider these to be among the most important contributing factors:

  • Alliance with France

    Arguably the single most important of Benjamin Franklin's many contributions to his nation was securing a French alliance during the revolution. Without the financial and military assistance provided by France, the colonists would certainly have fared much worse against the mighty British empire.
  • British Debt

    Ironically, this was one of the key factors that caused the revolution in the first place. Britain had acquired a massive debt fighting the French and Indian War. It attempted to pay down that debt by taxing colonists through the Stamp Act, generating far more resentment than revenue. When hostilities first erupted, the crown did not anticipate that the war would drag on as long as it did (nor cost them so much). The ever-growing expenses of the war piled on top on an already enormous mountain of debt that Britain could no longer afford.
  • Distance

    At the time of the revolution, there was no internet, no telephone, not even a telegraph. Sending even a simple message from England to North America took several weeks at a minimum. Transporting troops, munitions and supplies presented even more difficulties. Washington, his officers, troops, supplies and reinforcements were all within a few days travel from one another. King George was on the other side of the world.
  • Familiarity with the Territory

    Many of the British soldiers had never set foot in North America prior to fighting war there. The colonists were fighting in their own back yards. While British officers were well-trained and often had plenty of direct battlefield experience, that experience was primarily acquired in the fields of Europe. Military tactics that were effective in that environment were disastrous in America. Some military historians place particular emphasis on the colonists use of guerilla warfare, with individuals and small squads initiating hit-and-run attacks on the enemy, instead of marching out in huge, orderly, easily targetable columns like good European gentlemen. To what degree this specific tactical shortcoming contributed to British defeat is a matter of debate, but the colonists' familiarity with the territory and adoption of tactics appropriate to that territory was certainly a significant factor.
  • Hearts and Minds

    In some sense, the Americans had already won the public relations war before a single shot was fired. Many intellectuals throughout Europe, including England, felt that the colonists' rebellion was the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. And while it's a misconception that the colonists were united in a spirit of revolutionary fervor (many colonists remained loyal to the crown), British public support for the war was even more tepid. They were already deep in debt and digging deeper, fighting on the other side of the globe against an opponent with powerful allies and which, many within their own country believed, was in the right. After Cornwallis' defeat at Yorktown, Britain's military was not crushed. It could have continued fighting. But it was simply not worth it.