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During the American revolution, Great Britain was, and had been, the most powerful empire in the world. As the old saying goes, “the sun never sets on the British empire”, meaning that the British owned land on all sides of the world. They had gained all this land through their immense military (they had a particularly strong navy).
British soldiers were trained very well. They were able to perform precise drills, even during battle under heavy fire. They were obedient, efficient, and were very skilled with muskets. Under good conditions, a typical British soldier could fire off an average of 14 rounds per minute.
The British army was split into three branches: the infantry, the cavalry, and the artillery. The infantry consisted of ten companies of 475 men, making it the largest branch. They endured many hardships, always marching and engaging in combat more than the other two military groups. Yet they were diligent and consistent and very well trained. The cavalry consisted of 231 soldiers mounted on horseback. They were of a higher class than the other military groups; men who had received a formal education. They wielded a saber, which was a special curved cavalry sword. Only two of England’s 18 cavalry regiments served in America during the revolutionary war – the 16th and the 17th. The Royal Regiment of Artillery was a very independent army branch. It had four battalions which were divided into eight companies, bringing the branch to a total of 2,256 men. Each company had eighteen highly skilled gunners and seventy-three matrosses, or gunners’ mates.
The British Royal Navy had 340 ships in total at the beginning of the war, 27 of which were stationed in American waters. That number increased, however, to 70 by the end of the war. The navy was largely made up by debtors, ruffians, beggars, criminals, and foreigners, but good officers made them into skilled crews. They operated the best warships in the world, ships that carried between twenty to over 100 guns each, effective in holding the line in a sea battle or scouting the waters and escorting merchant ships. The guns ranged from carronades firing twenty-four-pound shots to large cannons firing thirty-two-pound shots.
The Continental Army was established by the Second Continental Congress on June 14, 1775, appointing George Washington as its commander in chief. Enlistments were originally set as three-year services, but in 1777 Washington convinced Congress to permit enlistments for the duration of the war. While most of the men involved in the conflict were part of militias that fought locally, they were generally untrained and undisciplined. The real credit for American victory lies with the Continental Army itself, a smaller group, but comprising of men more fit for the bloody war scene. But ill fit nonetheless; although more reliable than the militiamen, the average Continental soldier was still young, poor, unskilled, and had no war experience. For these were the type of men that were easy to pick up off of the streets by recruiting officers. They endured sickness, exhaustion, starvation, blistering heat and bitter cold. They also faced the largest and strongest military in the world. The average Continental soldier could fire off four musket rounds a minute, while the average British soldier could fire off fourteen. They were outnumbered, outgunned, and untrained.
Seeing the vast difference between the British and the Continental Army, and the seemingly hopeless prospects faced by patriots throughout the war, what factors contributed to America’s unexpected victory?
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