July 4: Independence Day
Independence Day is the national holiday of the United States of America. It commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
When the Americans declared their independence, they consisted of only 13 colonies, all of them on the East Coast, under the rule of England's King George III. If you take a look at the following maps, you can see them (in red). To the west there was an enormous Indian Reserve under English rule, and the Province of Quebec (both in pink), and further west we could find the Spanish Louisiana (in orange).
But why did they decide to declare independence?
The people in the colonies were very angry with the English King George III, because they had to pay very high taxes to London. They called it "Taxation without Representation" because the American colonists had to pay a lot of money to England, but they did not have any representation in the English Parliament. The English decided everything about America ... without the Americans. And if an American colonist committed an offence, he was forced to cross the ocean, to be judged in London.
In 1774 the 13 colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to form what they called the First Continental Congress. The delegates were very unhappy with England, but they were not yet ready to declare war. In the picture below, we can see an assembly of representatives from every colony: It's the Continental Congress, a coordinated effort to resist the British.
The situation of unrest and anger against the English grew in the colonies, although there were many Americans who remained loyal to their king (they were called "loyalists"). But the possibility of a rebellion was very clear, so in 1775 King George sent extra troops across the ocean to control the situation.
THE WAR: A SHORT SUMMARY
The English soldiers arrived in America in 1775, and the first State they reached was Massachusetts, the most rebellious one. The shout "The British are coming, the British are coming !!", was heard as an alarm in April 1775, as the King's troops advanced with some 700 soldiers. The first battle took place at Lexington, with an easy victory for the English, but then in Concord, 16 miles from Boston, the Colonists (who called themselves "Patriots") gathered thousands of volunteers (the Militia) and they defeated the British. The fight was terrible. The battles of Concord-Lexington and its "shot heard round the world" would mark the unofficial beginning of the colonies' war for Independence. Who shot first? nobody knows.
Then the Patriots captured Fort Ticonderoga, just between the States and Canada, in May 1775, while the English were sleeping!! They got lots of cannons and weapons, which they used to force the English to leave the area of Boston. They had established there after defeating the Patriots at the battle of Breed's Hill (June 1775). The English were finally defeated in Boston in March 1776, at the battle of Dorchester. But the English were still strong, and they captured the town of Charleston, South Carolina. They burned the town and forced the Patriots to surrender, in June 1776.
Then came New York, a big town with some 22,000 inhabitants by that time. Different battles were fought in that area. General George Washigton was in Boston, and he knew the British were marching towards New York, a really strategic place, so he sent messages to the Patriots there, telling them to fortify the city. It was useless. The English entered New York harbour on June 30th 1776, but they didn't attack at first: They gathered more and more men and ships there, until they attacked the Patriots in August, at the battle of Long Island. The victory was clear for the English, and George Washington's troops had to escape. Now the English were in control of Manhattan, and New York city would be next.
On September 15, 1776, the English crossed the East river and took New York. There was no battle, because the Americans had escaped to a part of Manhattan called Harlem Heights. Five days later, New York was burned and destroyed. Who burned it? we can't be sure. Maybe some of the 500 American inhabitants who remained there, because the English wanted to use New York as their headquarters. The English defeated again the Patriots at the battle of White Plains, in October. George Washington's troops, now just 500, were cold and hungry, they had very few weapons, and they felt very sad.
The American rebels needed a victory more than ever ... and they got it in Trenton, New Jersey. The English had left there a few German soldiers (yes, George III paid the Germans to help him in America!!), and on Christmas night, 1776, the Patriots attacked and defeated the German mercenaries quite easily (they were celebrating Christmas, and they were drunk). Later that same night, the Patriots continued towards Princeton, New Jersey, and again they won the battle. They took ammunition and food, which helped them in that cold winter.
The English re-captured Fort Ticonderoga in July 1777, and burned it down, and they also captured Philadelphia. But then the rebels won the battle of Bennigton, New York, in August. The English were helped by Germans, American loyalists and Indians, but they couldn't resist. There were 207 British killed and 700 more taken as prisoners. Only 30 Americans were killed and 40 wounded. This victory at the Battle of Bennington spread through the Colonies, and the morale of the Patriots was increased.
Then came Saratoga, which is now known as Schuylerville. Between September and October 1777, the English tried to divide the Colonies with the full control over the North. Going south from their headquarters in Canada, They wanted to control The area of the Albany, New York and the Hudson River. After a first victory at Albany, forcing the Patriots to escape, the Americans gathered more men and forces, because they knew it could be a decisive battle for independence. As many as 20,000 Patriots met in Saratoga, and the English( just 5,000) had to surrender.
The Battles of Saratoga were an important moment in the war. The British wanted to control the North, but they had failed, and hey had lost all authority over the northern Colonies. The French, convinced by Benjamin Franklin, decided then to join the Patriots and their Militia in the war against the British, and probably more importantly, the Patriots themselves knew they had gained control of the northern Colonies, which gave them more confidence and reason to continue fighting.
The North was lost, so the English decided to fight for the South. The British army defeated the Patriots at Savannah and Augusta, so now they controlled the State of Georgia. They re-captured Charleston and defeated again the Patriots at Candem, South Carolina, in August 1780. The Americans were losing control of the South.
But the Patriots attacked again. First, there was the victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain on October 7, 1780. The rebels surrounded a group of British soldiers and they had to surrender. Three months later, on January 7, 1781, the Patriots defeated British General Cornwallis' troops at the Battle of Cowpens.
Now the English were forced to retreat to the north. Another battle between the Patriots and British soldiers took place at the Guilford Courthouse on March 15, 1781. Even though the British actually won this battle, they were forced to retreat to Wilmington, North Carolina, and then to Virginia.
The rebel troops remained in South Carolina and they completely pushed the British out of that State. They were defeated by British Lord Rawdon's regiment at Hobkirks Hill on April 25, 1781 and again by Colonel Alexander Stewart at Eutaw Springs on September 8, 1781. Each time the British technically won the battle but they were worn out and tired, so they had to retreat again and again. From Eutaw Springs, the British fell back to Charleston.
Once General Greene had all the British soldier limited to Charleston, the Continental Army could attack Yorktown, which would become the very last battle of the war. Yorktown, now Williamsburg, Virginia, is a river port near the Chesapeake Bay. British General Charles Cornwallis moved his troops to the coast of North Carolina. British General Henry Clinton ordered him to stay in the Carolinas and support the British troops there.
But General Cornwallis decided not to remain in the Carolinas and instead he moved his troops to Yorktown, Here the British troops had no reinforcements and very few supplies, and they were waiting for help from New York City.
At the same time, George Washington was planning to attack New York with the help of the French. The British knew the Patriots' plan to attack New York, so they did not send reinforcements to General Cornwallis in Yorktown. Actually, General Cornwallis was ordered to bring all his men to New York, but again he did not obey orders. Instead, all 7,500 of his men stayed in Yorktown.
There was a major naval battle at Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, between the French protecting the Patriots and the British in September. The British lost again, and they retreated to New York.
On October 6, 1781, with the help of the French, the American Army attacked General Cornwallis and his men at Yorktown. All together the French and the colonists were over 16,000 men. Finally, on October 17th the British sent a fleet from New York to help General Cornwallis and his men, but by that time it was too late. The British were outnumbered and had hardly any food, so they had to surrender to the Patriots..
It was the end. The English had lost the North at Saratoga, and now they had lost the South at Yorktown. They had to acknowledge their final defeat.
Everything finished on 3 september 1783, with the treaty signed at Versalles. In this treaty, Britain retained Canada, but lost the American colonies, which were recognised by the world as an independent nation.
While English and Americans fought in the battlefields, the American politicians didn't stop, life didn't stop because of the war, and politicians talked and talked. In 1776, in May the colonies again sent delegates to the Second Continental Congress. For almost a year the Congress tried to find a solution for its differences with England, again without formally declaring war, although the English troops were actually there.
By June 1776 their efforts had become useless, and the colonies decided to form a committee to write a formal declaration of independence. The main person at the committee was Thomas Jefferson, but there were other important colonists such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the first draft, which was presented to the Congress on June 28. After various changes, they decided to vote, late in the afternoon of July 4th. Of the 13 colonies, 9 voted in favor of the Declaration, 2 (Pennsylvania and South Carolina) voted No, Delaware couldn't decide, and New York abstained.
To make it official, John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence. It is said that John Hancock signed his name with a great signature, ... so King George could read it without spectacles!.
The following day, they distributed copies of the Declaration. The first newspaper to print the Declaration was the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6, 1776. On July 8th the Declaration had its first public reading in Philadelphia's Independence Square. Twice that day the Declaration was read to very happy crowds, as church bells could be heard.
And although the signing of the Declaration was not completed until August, the 4th of July has been accepted as the official anniversary of United States independence. The first Independence Day celebration took place the following year - July 4 1777. By the early 1800s the traditions of parades, picnics, and fireworks were established as the way to celebrate America's birthday.
And although fireworks have been forbidden in most places because of their danger, most towns and cities usually have big firework displays for all to see and enjoy.
Would you like to see the text of the Declaration of Independence? well, just CLICK on the picture below.