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Setting the Stage

After July 4, 1776, the people of the American colonies found it increasingly difficult to avoid a critical decision. They could continue to consider themselves Englishmen, loyal to the mother country, or they could join those who saw separation from Great Britain as the only way to maintain their liberties. These decisions bitterly divided colonies, towns, and even families. Those who chose the first path were called Loyalists by their friends and Tories by their enemies. The second group called themselves Patriots, but their enemies referred to them as Rebels.

Most sources suggest that of the approximately 2.5 million people living in the American colonies at that time, 20 to 30 percent were Loyalists. Another 20 percent were enslaved Africans (few of whom were allowed to participate in this war) and another 300,000 to 400,000 did their best to remain neutral. Those supporting independence probably counted for less than half of the people of the colonies.

At the end of 1776, it was far from clear that the Patriots would succeed in achieving the independence they had claimed earlier that year. Although the British were forced out of Boston in March, the newly-formed Continental Army under Gen. George Washington lost the port of New York in the fall, barely escaping total defeat. Victories at Trenton, New Jersey, in December and Princeton, New Jersey, in January seemed to stop the downward spiral.

1777 was a critical year. The British planned a major northern campaign designed to split the rebellious colonies in two. During the summer, Gen. John Burgoyne led his army, which included thousands of professional British and German soldiers and American loyalists, down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor toward Albany with apparent ease. In August, however, things began to go wrong for the British. American militiamen routed a British force trying to capture provisions stockpiled at Bennington, Vermont. What seemed like a small defeat here at the Battle of Bennington in New York near the border between New York and the new Republic of Vermont cost Burgoyne 10 percent of his army and critical time. In October, the British campaign ended in humiliating defeat at Saratoga in New York, when Burgoyne was forced to surrender his entire army.



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