Glossary of terms

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  • American Revolution

    The eight-year struggle for independence by thirteen of Great Britain’s American colonies between 1775 and 1783. The war concluded with the Treaty of Paris which gave the United States of America its independence.

  • Articles of Confederation

    Constitutional instrument which created a loose confederation of the states during the American Revolution. The central government was extremely weak under the Articles of Confederation, as the government lacked an effective method to raise revenue, and there was no national judicial system. The structural weaknesses of the government under the Articles, evident during the American Revolution, were factors that led to the call for a Constitutional Convention.

  • Articles of Peace

    Preliminary terms of the Treaty of Paris signed on November 30, 1782, in Paris between Richard Oswald, representing Great Britain, and John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and Henry Laurens, the American commissioners. The nine articles outlined the terms of the final treaty.

  • Baron von Steuben

    Former Prussian army officer who came to America in December 1777 to help the American cause. Known as the “Drillmaster of Valley Forge” for his role in introducing European concepts of military discipline to American troops. Served as a major general in the American army and saw action at Yorktown.

  • Battle of Brandywine

    After taking New York City in 1776, General William Howe concentrated his forces for an attack on Philadelphia, the site of the Second Continental Congress. After landing south of the city, British forces moved north to take the city. General George Washington planned to stop the British advance by taking up a defensive position on Brandywine Creek. On September 11, 1777, General Howe outflanked the American forces and forced them to withdraw toward Philadelphia. The British subsequently took Philadelphia.

  • Battle of Bunker Hill

    The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on June 17, 1775, early in the Revolutionary War and during the Siege of Boston. Though the battle is named after Bunker Hill, which was the original target location, most of it was actually fought on Breed’s Hill. A few days before the battle, Patriot leaders learned that the British were sending troops to occupy the hills surrounding Boston. In response, American forces moved swiftly to occupy Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill and built earthworks there. Once the British learned that colonial forces were positioned on the hills, they initiated an attack on them. Though the British were the resulting victors, they suffered great losses. The Battle of Bunker Hill is an example of a pyrrhic victory, where the immediate gain for the British was minor and did not change other battle outcomes, while the cost in casualties was very high. The relatively inexperienced American army was able to retreat with few losses.

  • Battle of Camden

    The Battle of Camden was fought on August 16, 1780, in South Carolina. It was one of the major American defeats of the Revolutionary War. Brigadier General Horatio Gates, the hero of Saratoga, was mauled by British forces under General Cornwallis. Many military historians fault the conduct of the untrained American militiamen in the face of professional British forces.

  • Battle of the Capes

    The Battle of the Capes was fought near the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay on September 5, 1781, between the French and British fleets. While the battle was a standoff, the British fleet suffered greater damage than the French fleet and was forced to sail to New York City for repairs. During the battle, another French fleet from Newport, Rhode Island, entered the Chesapeake Bay, bringing siege cannon, which were critically important during the Siege of Yorktown.

  • Battle of Cowpens

    This battle fought in South Carolina on January 17, 1781, was a critical American victory during the final phase of the war. Coming shortly after the British defeat at King’s Mountain, this engagement was a major setback for British forces during their Southern Campaign. American forces under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan outmaneuvered a British force under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Morgan placed his militia in front of his veteran Continental soldiers. He directed them to fall back to the main line after two volleys and regroup. The British forces misread the withdrawal of the American militiamen as a retreat and pushed forward recklessly into the strong defensive line held by the Continental soldiers. Morgan’s well-designed trap allowed American forces to surround the British forces. Though Tarleton escaped the debacle, more than 800 British soldiers were captured. The British defeat was their first major setback of the Southern campaign and limited the offensive capabilities of General Cornwallis. The battle demonstrated that militia could be used to good advantage against regular British forces.

  • Battle of Germantown

    Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Brandywine led to the British occupation of Philadelphia in late September 1776. General Howe, hoping to crush Washington’s army before winter stopped the fighting season, pursued American forces after taking Philadelphia. As General Howe had left a number of his soldiers to defend Philadelphia, General Washington ordered an attack on British forces at Germantown. Though the Americans were again defeated, European leaders were impressed with General Washington’s resolve and the American army’s tenacity so soon after its crushing defeat at Brandywine.

  • Battle of Guilford Courthouse

    This critical battle during the Southern campaign was fought in North Carolina on March 15, 1781. The battle matched British under General Cornwallis against Brigadier General Nathanael Greene, who had been appointed commander of American forces in the south after the American disaster at Camden. Though the British forced the Americans to withdraw from the field of battle, British casualties were so high General Cornwallis had to withdraw to Wilmington, North Carolina, to regroup before advancing into Virginia.

  • Battle of King’s Mountain

    Stunning defeat of British loyalists under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson by American militiamen from the western frontier. Many of the Americans came from west of the Appalachian Mountains and became known as the “overmountain men.” The British defeat on October 7, l780, forced General Cornwallis to stop his advance into North Carolina and required him to retreat into South Carolina to regroup his forces.

  • Battles of Lexington and Concord

    On the night of April 18, 1775, British troops marched out of Boston to seize munitions (weapons and gunpowder) held by the Patriots at Concord. At the village of Lexington they met resistance by local militiamen. Though no one knows who gave the order to fire or which side fired first, shots were fired by both sides and a number of American militiamen were killed and wounded. The bloody encounter at Lexington is commonly cited as the beginning of open warfare in the American Revolution.

  • Battle of Long Island

    In the summer of 1776 the British decided to attack New York City. General William Howe, the British commander, outflanked the Americans forces on Long Island under the command of General George Washington and forced them to retreat to Brooklyn Heights, directly across from the island of Manhattan. Though several of General Howe’s commanders urged an immediate attack on Brooklyn Heights to complete the British victory, General Howe delayed the attack overnight to regroup his forces. On the night of August 29 and the morning of August 30, 1776, General Washington withdrew his forces from their fortified position at Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan. Despite Washington’s successful withdrawal to Manhattan, he was subsequently forced to abandon his defense of New York City.

  • Battle of Princeton

    After the Battle of Trenton, General Washington and the American Army recrossed the Delaware River and again engaged British forces at Assunpink Creek near Trenton on the evening of January 2, 1777. After stopping the British advance across the creek, the Americans marched through the night and made a surprise attack on the British garrison at Princeton on January 3, 1777. American victories at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton improved the morale of the American army and forced the British out of southern New Jersey.

  • Battle of Saratoga

    British General John Burgoyne was attempting to separate the New England states from the middle states when he waged battles with the Continental Army on September 19 at Freeman’s Farm and at Bemis Heights on October 7. Though he was the victor at Freeman’s Farm, he suffered significant casualties. When he again attacked American troops at Bemis Heights, the Continentals captured some of his defenses and forced Burgoyne to retreat. The American forces surrounded Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, forcing his surrender on October 17. The French government, which had been providing secret aid to the Continental Army in the early years of the war, was encouraged that the Americans could win the war following the victory at Saratoga. In early 1778, the French became official American allies.

  • Battle of Trenton

    By late December 1776, British General William Howe believed the campaign season was finished for the year and distributed his troops into small garrisons across southern New Jersey. Though the American troops were badly demoralized by their flight after the disastrous New York campaign, General Washington made the courageous decision to cross the Delaware River on the evening of December 24 and surprise the Hessian forces at Trenton. General Washington took more than 800 Hessian (German troops in the employment of the British Army) soldiers captive on Christmas Day 1776 before quickly recrossing the Delaware River into Pennsylvania.

  • Boston Massacre

    The British government stationed troops in Boston in late 1768 in order to enforce its new imperial policies. The citizens of Boston resented the presence of British forces, and there were numerous clashes with soldiers. On March 5, 1770, British soldiers were called out to defend a British sentry who was protecting the Customs House. The angry crowd refused to disperse and pelted the soldiers with rocks and snowballs. In the confusion, the soldiers heard an order to fire and discharged their muskets into the crowd. The British government allowed the soldiers to be tried in America, and John Adams was one of the defense attorneys.

  • Boston Tea Party

    Destruction of tea owned by the East India Company by a Patriot mob on December 16, 1773, in Boston harbor. Under the Tea Act of 1773, the East India Company had a monopoly to sell tea and enjoyed certain tax benefits that reduced the price of its tea to lower than smuggled tea. The colony’s Royal Governor refused to allow the tea to be returned to Britain before duties on the tax were paid. The mob destroyed the tea by dumping it in the harbor to ensure it did not reach the market.

  • British Southern Campaign

    The Southern Campaign was an attempt by the British to shift the war to the southern colonies (Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina). British leaders believed they would have support for their operations from the numerous Loyalists who lived in the South. The campaign started with the fall of Savannah, Georgia, in December 1778 and was followed by the occupation of the City of Charleston in May 1780. The surrender of General Benjamin Lincoln’s army of approximately 5,000 men in Charleston marked one of the worst defeats suffered by the Americans during the war.

  • “Common Sense”

    A pamphlet written by Thomas Paine that outlined the reasons why American should be independent from Great Britain. Paine wrote in a style that common people could easily read and understand. The pamphlet, first published in January 1776, was mass produced and distributed by the thousands in the early years of the war. It was critically important in shifting public opinion towards independence from Great Britain.

  • Comte de Rochambeau

    French nobleman and general who commanded French land forces in America. He arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1780 with 5,000 French soldiers. He was of critical importance coordinating the movement of American and French land forces with French naval support led by Admiral de Grasse in the months leading up to the victory at Yorktown.

  • Constitutional Convention

    A convention of delegates from twelve of the thirteen states that met in Philadelphia from May until September 1787 to address problems governing the United States under the Articles of Confederation. Instead of revising the Articles, the delegates proposed a new constitution with stronger power for the central government. George Washington presided over the convention.

  • Continental Army

    Created by a resolution of the Second Continental Congress in June 1775, the Continental Army was made up of soldiers from various states. The Continental Army was placed under the command of George Washington. While state militias stayed under the control of state officials, the army itself was under the control of the Continental Congress.

  • Declaration of Independence

    By the spring of 1776, open warfare between Britain and her colonies had been going on nearly a year. Many Patriot leaders realized it was time for the colonies to declare their independence from Great Britain. This act by the American colonies in creating a separate nation was a sign to France that there would be no reconciliation between Great Britain and her American colonies. It was a significant factor in moving France toward an open alliance with the new nation.

  • First Continental Congress

    Convention of fifty-five delegates from twelve colonies that assembled in Philadelphia to respond to the growing crisis with the British government. Delegates met from September 5, 1774, until October 26, 1774. The delegates petitioned King George III to hear their appeals for redress from the acts of Parliament and voted to use economic boycotts as a tool to change British policies towards the colonies. The delegates agreed to meet again in 1775 if the British government took no action to address their concerns and resolve the crisis.

  • French alliance

    While the French government had been providing secret aid to the Patriots in the early years of the war, the Battle of Saratoga convinced the French government the Americans had a real possibility of success. The French alliance in early 1778 forced the British to reallocate their military resources to fight the war on many fronts. The American victory in the war would not have been possible without the massive assistance provided by the French.

  • French and Indian War

    The French and Indian War (1754-1763) pitted Great Britain against France for control of the Ohio Valley. Both countries sought the support of various American Indian tribes in their epic struggle. The French and Indian War became part of a larger worldwide struggle known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The British victory in this war drove the French from North America but saddled Great Britain with heavy debt.

  • General William Howe

    British general and brother of Admiral Richard Howe. General Howe replaced General Thomas Gage as commander of British forces in America in October 1775. In May 1778, he was replaced as commander of British forces by General William Clinton. In the American Revolution, General Howe is best remembered for his brilliant campaigns to take New York City in 1776 and Philadelphia in 1777.

  • General George Washington

    Wealthy Virginia surveyor and planter with military experience during the French and Indian War. As commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he led the American Victory over Great Britain in the American Revolutionary War. Following the Revolution, Washington presided over the writing of the U.S. Constitution. He later became the first president of the United States of America, establishing a solid national government and forging many of the systems used by American leaders today.

  • General Cornwallis

    British aristocrat and general. Served in the British House of Commons and the House of Lords. As a member of the British Parliament, he voted against the 1765 Stamp Act. Commanded British force in the south after the fall of Charleston and commanded British forces at the Siege of Yorktown. The breakdown in communications between General Cornwallis and his superior, General Clinton, in the months before the siege of Yorktown contributed to the British defeat. After Yorktown, General Cornwallis had a distinguished career as a colonial administrator in Ireland and India.

  • George Mason

    A Virginia planter and an American Patriot who is commonly known as one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. In 1776, he was one of the primary authors of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Mason served as a delegate from Virginia to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and was a strong proponent of a Bill of Rights for the Constitution.

  • House of Commons

    The lower house of the British Parliament composed of commoners, people not of the nobility. Though membership in this body was by election, many of the counties and boroughs (towns and cities) entitled to send members to the House of Commons were controlled by rich, powerful and well-connected individuals. They gave the positions they controlled to friends and family members, which gave them undue influence in the House.

  • House of Lords

    The upper house of the British Parliament. Membership in this body in the 18th century was reserved to the Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. The Lords Spiritual held their positions in the House of Lords by virtue of their standing within the Anglican church. The Lords Temporal were peers, members of the nobility holding the title Duke, Earl, Marquess, Viscount or Baron. General Cornwallis initially served in the House of Commons but was elevated to the House of Lords upon the death of his father, when he inherited his father’s noble title.

  • Intolerable Acts

    A series of five acts passed by the British Parliament in 1774 to punish the people of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. These acts closed the port of Boston until restitution was made for the tea, revoked the governing charter of the colony of Massachusetts, and impacted the administration of justice. One of the acts, known as the Quebec Act, expanded the boundaries of the Province of Quebec and extended certain rights to the residents of that province.

  • King George III

    King of Great Britain during the American Revolution. King George III came to the throne in 1760 as a young man after the death of his grandfather.

  • Marquis de Lafayette

    French nobleman who came to America to volunteer his service to the American cause during the American Revolution. He was well-liked by George Washington. Lafayette served as a major general in the American army and saw action at the Siege of Yorktown.

  • Major General Henry Clinton

    Member of the nobility in Britain with a long history of service to the king. Clinton served as a British army officer and politician, but was best known as a general during the American Revolution. Arriving for duty in Boston in 1775, Clinton became commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America in 1778. Following the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Major General Clinton returned to England, where he resumed his seat in Parliament and published a narrative that blamed Cornwallis for the loss of the colonies.

  • Paul Revere

    A silversmith from Boston who played an important role in the early days of the American Revolution. Thanks to a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Revere is best known for his midnight ride on the evening of April 18, 1775, to warn Patriots outside of Boston that British forces were on the move. Revere is also famous for his engraving depicting the Boston Massacre. This iconic image of resolute British soldiers firing into a group of unarmed Boston citizens was widely distributed in the months after the incident and enflamed colonists against the British army.

  • Parliament

    The national legislative body of Great Britain composed of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Parliament of Great Britain was formed in 1707 after the Acts of Union unified the Parliaments of England and Scotland.

  • Proclamation of 1763

    After the British victory in the Seven Years’ War, many American settlers anticipated crossing the Appalachian Mountains to settle the new lands acquired from France. In order to provide for an orderly development of this newly acquired land and calm the fears of the American Indians living in this area, the British government prohibited movement of American settlers into the areas won from the French and ordered all Americans who had settled there to remove themselves to the east.

  • Quartering Act of 1765

    An act by the British Parliament that ordered American colonies to provide housing and food for British soldiers. Soldiers were to be lodged in barracks, pubs, inns, uninhabited houses and barns. Colonial authorities were required to raise revenues to pay for these provisions for British soldiers.

  • Second Continental Congress

    Delegates from all thirteen colonies assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775 to consider further action after their earlier petitions to King George III were rejected. By the time the delegates had assembled, the battles of Lexington and Concord had been fought and New England militiamen were besieging the British forces in Boston.

  • Seven Years’ War

    A worldwide conflict that pitted Great Britain and its allies against France and Spain. The conflict ended in 1763 in a complete victory for Great Britain. France lost most of its North America Empire to Great Britain. Spain also lost East and West Florida to Great Britain (see also French and Indian War).

  • Siege of Yorktown

    Last major land engagement of the American Revolution. General Cornwallis and 8,000 British troops were trapped in a small port town on the York River in Virginia by a combined American and French force under the command of General George Washington. The French navy’s blockade of the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay stopped any escape by sea for the British forces. The surrender at Yorktown marked the loss of a second major British army after the surrender of British forces at Saratoga in 1777.

  • Sugar Act Tax

    The Sugar Tax, passed by the British Parliament in April 1764, was one of the earliest attempts by the British government to tax the American colonies to defray the expenses of administering the colonies. Strict enforcement of the tax hurt New England rum manufacturers, who needed cheap molasses from the West Indies.

  • Stamp Act

    The Stamp Act, passed by the British Parliament and approved by King George III in March 1765, was an attempt by the British government to raise revenue to defray the costs of the British government. The Stamp Act put a small tax on almost anything made from paper including newspapers, playing cards and legal papers. Massive protests directed against the American agents selected to sell the stamps forced the British government to revoke the act in 1766.

  • Tea Act

    The Tea Act, enacted in May 1773, was designed to help the East India Company, which was struggling financially. The Act allowed tea owned by the East India Company to be shipped directly to the American colonies and sold directly to the colonists by agents of the company. Allowing direct shipment of the tea to the American colonies allowed the East India Company to sell tea in the colonies for less than smuggled tea.

  • Treaty of Paris in 1783

    The Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War between Great Britain and its former thirteen American colonies. The treaty gave the Americans all of the land east of the Mississippi River except Florida, which the British transferred to Spain. Great Britain made separate peace treaties with France and Spain.

  • Townshend Acts

    A series of acts passed in 1767 by the British Parliament designed to raise revenue from the American colonies. In addition to raising duties, the Townshend Act expanded the governmental mechanisms to collect and enforce the duties. The duties were meant to raise revenues lost by the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766. The Act placed taxes or duties on a number of items imported by the colonies from Great Britain including paper, paint, lead, glass and tea. The Townshend duties were met by widespread boycott of the imported items. All of the Townshend duties were removed in 1770 except the duty on tea.

  • United States Constitution

    The U.S. Constitution was adopted by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in September 1787 and was ratified in June 1788 after nine states voted for ratification. The Constitution remains the supreme law of the United States today. It established the three branches of the federal government and defines the powers of each. In addition to ensuring the concept of checks and balances within the federal system, the document also establishes the concept of federalism. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.

  • United States Congress

    The legislative body of the United States government composed of two bodies; the House of Representatives and the United States Senate. While each state elects two United States senators, representation in the House of Representatives is apportioned by population among the various states.

  • Valley Forge

    Armies during this period generally did not fight during the winter months because of adverse weather and road conditions. In order to keep his army together, Washington took the American army into the fortified encampment known as Valley Forge west of the City of Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-1778. It was selected as it was near British-occupied Philadelphia but was protected by elevated ground and the Schuylkill River.

  • Virginia Declaration of Rights

    Document drafted by George Mason and adopted by the Fifth Convention of Virginia in June 1776. The document set forth the rights of Virginians and influenced the Declaration of Independence and the United States Bill of Rights.

  • Virginia General Assembly

    The Virginia General Assembly originated from meetings held at Jamestown in 1619, making it the oldest legislative body in the Western Hemisphere. Before the end of the 17th century, the General Assembly was made up of three entities: the House of Burgesses, the Governor and the Governor’s Council. This group met at Jamestown until 1699, when they relocated to Williamsburg. By the 18th century, the General Assembly consisted of the House of Burgesses, Royal Governor and the Governor’s Council. Virginia became the first state to adopt its own constitution when the Assembly ratified the Virginia Constitution in 1776, a document that was influential in America and abroad. The General Assembly under the new constitution had a governor, upper house and lower house. In 1780, the Virginia government was moved to Richmond during the administration of Governor Thomas Jefferson.

  • Virginia House of Burgesses

    The Virginia House of Burgesses was the legislative body for the government of Virginia before the American Revolution. Its members led early protests against the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts and the Intolerable Acts. George Washington, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses before the American Revolution. As the American Revolution unfolded in Virginia, the House of Burgesses was effectively replaced by a number of revolutionary conventions led by a Committee of Safety which governed the state. The Fifth Virginia Convention in 1776 adopted a republican form of government before the Second Continental Congress declared America independent.