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Visiting a battlefield can give you a far richer experience than just reading what happened there. It gives a greater depth to the story, and you can strive to visualize what the hills, fields and woods looked like when covered with armed men. Over the years, the Discerning History team has had the opportunity to visit many of battlefields from the American War for Independence. Here’s our picks for the best Revolutionary War battlefields to visit. We have chosen them based on the beauty of the location, how much they enhance your understanding of the battle, how well the landscape has been preserved and how important the original event was.
After the British army under William Howe captured Philadelphia in 1777, George Washington mounted an attack on a British outpost at Germantown. After hours of fierce fighting, his army eventually retreated from the field. Although there is no park or museum commemorating the battle, several buildings from the time still stand. Most interesting is the Chew House, a strong stone building in which a group of regulars took shelter and beat back attacks from the Continental forces for several hours.
9. Gilford Court House
In the Battle of Gilford Court House, under 2,000 British solders under Lord Cornwallis defeated an American army under Nathanael Greene over twice their size. The British quickly pushed through three Americans lines, and won the battle in only ninety minutes. But they suffered very heavy casualties along the way, with about 25% killed, wounded or captured. The wooded battlefield is preserved today by the National Park Service. There is a road which you can drive or walk to take a tour of the site. You will find commemorative monuments and markers explaining the story of the battle.
Washington’s surprise victory at Trenton is one of the classic stories of the American Revolution, but the battle of Princeton is less well known. Just days later, the Continentals attacked the British garrison at Princeton. The battle was hard fought, at one point the patriot militia began to falter, and Washington himself rallied them. But at length the British collapsed, and the day was won. The battlefield is better preserved than many from this war. It is commemorated by several monuments, and a state park contains some important sites including the Clarke House, which was standing at the time of the battle. Also of interest is Nassau Hall at Princeton University, at which Alexander Hamilton fired American cannon to drive out some British who had taken refuge inside.
7. Fort Ninety Six
The small village of Ninety Six was an important Loyalist stronghold in South Carolina. In 1780 the British built a palisade and several redoubts to defend the place. The next year it was besieged by the American army under Nathanael Greene. For nearly a month he tried to capture it from the smaller force of loyalists. The Patriots successfully stormed one redoubt and fought fiercely for the large Star Redoubt, but they were eventually driven off by hand to hand fighting. Greene quickly retreated, as a relieving British force was close at hand. Today the National Park Services maintains the old site of the town of Ninety Six, as well as the earthworks and a reconstructed stockade.
Daniel Morgan’s stunning victory at Cowpens, South Carolina, was a critical battle for the American cause. Morgan handled his mix of militia and Continentals ably in what was arguably the war’s greatest tactics. When they fell back, the British were convinced that the battle was won, leaving them unprepared for a double envelopment from the Patriots. More than a thousand British were casualties, compared with about 150 Americans. Today the battlefield is preserved by the National Park Service. Walk the battlefield trail to see the positions of the troops, and get a sense of the scale of the fighting.
5. King’s Mountain
King’s Mountain, in north-central South Carolina, was a crucial victory for the Americans in the southern theater. The loyalists under Patrick Ferguson were defeated by a force of patriots, many of them “over mountain men” who came from the settlements on the other side of the Applacian Mountains. It is easy to get a sense of the fighting today, as you walk around the top of the mountain where the loyalists made their stand, and imagine the patriots charging up the steep sides, studded with rocks and trees.
4. Fort Ticonderoga
Fort Ticonderoga is the best and most important fort surviving from the American Revolution. It was built by the French during the French and Indian War, and saw two battles during that war. Its dramatic capture by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys was one of the patriots’ early successes. The fort later fell into British hands, and they defended it against an American attack in 1777. Ticonderoga was restored in 1909. Today it is an excellent site to visit, and costumed guides do cannon firing demonstrations.
3. Lexington and Concord
It was the “Shot Heard Round the World” on the green in Lexington, Massachusetts that began the American Revolution. The victory at Concord later that day was pivotal to the American cause, as it showed that the colonial militia could defeat the regulars. Lexington is a great place to visit today, and while walking around across the green and through the period houses and taverns around it you can really get a sense of how the fighting progressed. The landscape along “Battle Road,” from Lexington to Concord, looks much like it did in 1775. Also interesting is the reconstructed North Bridge at Concord. Walk down from the Visitor’s Center to retrace the steps of the Patriots who gave the first check to the British forces.
The capture of the British army under Lord Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, was the crowning victory of the Revolution. While the war went on for several more years, the fighting in America was effectively won. It is also one of the most interesting battlefields to visit. Many of the fortifications that were built during the siege have been reconstructed, and they have palisades and cannon to boot. Make sure to see Redoubts No. 9 and 10, which were stormed by the American and French troops near the end of the siege. You can also go into the village, where there is a battle monument and several historical homes run by the National Park Service.
Although Saratoga, in upstate New York, is one of the more remote of the battlefields of the American Revolution, it is unarguably one of the most picturesque. Standing on the bluffs next to cannons marking the artillery positions, you can look across the beautiful fields and woods down to the Hudson River. Victory in the Saratoga campaign was crucial to the American cause, as Horatio Gates’s capture of John Burgyone’s British army helped convince France to enter the war on the American side. Although virtually none of the earthworks have survived, colored stakes mark the positions of the armies. Of special note are the many artillery positions, the Neilson House which Benedict Arnold used as his headquarters, and the site redoubts which the Americans attacked during one of the battles.
Bonus: Downtown Boston
Boston, Massachusetts was arguably the most important city in America for the revolutionary cause. It was one of the main places that stood up against the authority of the British Parliament. The town itself was besieged by the Patriot forces in 1775-1776, in the longest siege ever to take place in the United States. Although the terrain has changed considerably and the sites of the battles around the town have fallen to development, you can still see many historic locations. These include monuments commemorating the battles of Bunker Hill and Dorchester Heights, the Old State House, in front of which is the site of the Boston Massacre out in front, the Old South Meeting House where the Boston Tea Party was planned, the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House, and many more.
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy our Top 10 Best Civil War Battlefields. What Revolutionary War sites have you visited? Which was your favorite? Comment below and let us know!
On April day in 1851, an old man walked into the office of the justice of the peace in Talladega County, Alabama. He was there to tell the tale of his service many years before in the War for Independence, so that he could file for a pension. His story began as a sickly young man of 17, going off with his uncle to fight with the Patriot militia:
[I] was first taken to the wars by my uncle John Brewer. I went with him to gratify curiosity, and went with him wherever he went. I went with him to a place called the Pine Tree, on Catawba River in South Carolina, but soon after and ever since called Camden. I arrived there about 3 weeks before Gates defeat, and was ignorant of the way people done in the wars, but they gave me a gun and I mustered with them, answered to my name and obeyed orders. Soon there was preparations making among them for a battle, and in about 3 weeks from the time I arrived there the Battle came on….
The Battle of Camden transpired after the Patriots under Horatio Gates ran into the British under Lord Cornwallis during a night while each was marching to surprise the other. The militia behaved badly in the battle. Gates made no accommodation for their known unreliability. When the British changed bayonets, they were struck with a panic. They turned and fled the field, many without firing a shot.
[T]he clash of arms and the struggle of death took place, in which our people were defeated many of them slain, but many more ran, and I am sorry to have to say of my uncle John (peace to his ashes) that he ran, and I was induced to run to because Uncle John ran. Uncle John Howell and I were both taken prisoners & after serving in the sepulcher of the dead, we were turned at liberty.
By “the sepulcher of the dead” he most likely means a prison ship. On the British prison ships, the American POWs were kept in very cruel conditions. Thousands died.
This trying experience did not end Brewer’s military career. He fought at the Battle of Guilford Court House, and was badly wounded in the back the Battle of Lindley’s Mill in North Carolina. After the war he volunteered to fight the Creek and Seminole Indians, serving as a spy. When the War of 1812 came along, he joined a company called the Silver Grays, “old gray headed men who still felt Patriotic, and determined to show that if the Country needed them they were ready, also to excite younger persons.” But they didn’t see enough action for his tastes, so he found a job as a wagoner for the army, driving all over Indian country between the armies forts. By 1851 he had raised nine children, the youngest being 37. After a long and full life he declared, “[I] still live, for which I thank my Maker with an overflowing heart.”
Drawn from Isaac Brewer’s Pension Record. We have changed his pronouns and wording better readability.
It can be difficult for anyone, especially for a civilian who has never heard a shot fired in anger, to imagine what a battle of the American Revolution would have been like. Billowing clouds of smoke, a thundering cacophony of sound, adrenaline coursing through your body, and many other factors combined to produce events that may never be seen or felt again, In his book on the Battle of Cowpens, historian Lawrence Babits gives an admirable description of some of the things that soldiers would have been experiencing.
In combat, distances seem foreshortened. When a person is in desperate straits, time seems to slow down; action seems to occur in slow motion. … [T]he musketeer, under the eyes of watchful sergeants, mechanically follows the manual of exercise that will guarantee his survival. During loading and firing, soldiers noticed little increments of their task. The dry taste of black powder and waxed paper cartridges was one step. Then, a rattle of ramrods in the barrels as new charges of buck and ball were forced home against the breech plug with a distinctive ping. Platoon and division volleys crashed with bright yellow flashes from pan and barrel…. The blast of noise and light was so dramatic a soldier could not tell if his own musket fired. … The acrid smell of burnt powder, greasy black smears on the hand and face from ramrods grown slick with sweat and powder residue, and cut thumbs from mishandling the musket’s cock added to individual perceptions of the fight. There was a disconcerting whiz of balls going overhead, thwacking against trees, thudding into the ground, or the awful thunk of lead striking flesh and bone. A growing undertone of groans was punctuated by shrill screams of the wounded. Cutting across these distractions came the commands as officers called out, “Prime and load!; Shoulder; Make Ready; Take Aim!; Fire!” and then repeated the cycle.1
1. A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens by Lawrence Babits (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) p. 103-104
What is grandeur, what is power?
Heavier toil, superior pain!What the bright reward we gain?
The grateful mem’ry of the good.
It was a disgusting scene. What had begun as a sober and important council of war to discuss the affairs of a besieged American city had become a drunken party. Officers were behaving like drunken privates. Lucid statements of military defense had become boisterous shouts of confidence, confidence inspired by the illusions of liquor rather than by concrete plans of sound strategy.
The successful defense of Charleston, South Carolina, was vital to the Patriot cause. This proud seacoast city, having already resisted several attacks by the British navy, was now assaulted by a combined land and naval force that was quickly cutting off all hope of escape or of help from friendly armies.
The American officers charged with Charleston’s defense had met to discuss affairs even as the British tightened their hold on the harbor. The tavern keeper, in whose tavern the meeting was held, was a selfish man who desired to profit from his customers’ fondness for drink. He kept the liquid flowing, and the conversation became more and more boisterous as the night crept into the wee hours of the morning.
In the middle of this wild hubbub of drunken officers sat a slim, athletic figure of medium height. He was a good officer of French Huguenot descent who had played a leading role in the defense of the city in the past. He was resolved again to do his best or perish in the attempt. But he was becoming disgusted with the conduct of his drunken comrades.
Knowing that meaningful statements were now rare and that any clear remarks he could make would be lost upon the drunken ears of his comrades, he decided to leave the meeting and return to his post of duty. But when he tried to leave the upper room of the tavern, he found it locked. The tavern keeper had locked the officers in the room so they could have their fill of rum and give him a good profit.
Now the only sober man in the place, the Christian officer looked for a way out of his dilemma. He was a very abstemious man who, in the hard days of active field campaigns, often subsisted on sweet potatoes and water. He would not become drunk, and he sought a way out of the room.
There was only one way of escape, a window. He opened the window and looked out. The ground was a long way off, but he was an athletic man, and he thought he could make the jump and get out of the drunken company he was in. Deciding to try, he made the leap. But in falling, his ankle turned the wrong way, and his ankle was broken badly.
To his deep chagrin, he had to be taken out of the city on a litter. He had longed to play his part in the defense of Charleston, but now he would be able to play no role in her defense. He was disappointed, frustrated, and dismayed by the lack of military preparedness among his comrades. But he was advised that he should leave the city and head into the interior of South Carolina to recover from his broken ankle. There was but one safe way out of the city, and on this route he was removed to a place of safety.
In only a few days, the city was environed by the enemy, and General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered the city of Charleston to the British forces. The vast majority of commissioned officers in the Southern Department had all become prisoners of war. But our hero’s noble resolution not to become drunk had, in the providence of God, preserved him at a crucial period of South Carolina history.
Now one of only a handful of officers in the State of South Carolina who held a commission from the Continental Congress, our hero began to plot how to field a viable force that would oppose the advances of the enemy. After his recovery, he gathered a small band of men that would become famous in the history of South Carolina’s struggle for liberty.
Today, every South Carolinian knows the name, or at least should know the name, of General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” as he was called by the British. But few know the story of how his resolution not to get drunk preserved him from becoming a prisoner of war in the fall of Charleston.
For three long and grueling years, Francis Marion harassed the British forces in South Carolina. With a fluctuating force of mounted men and boys, General Marion succeeded in baffling the most determined efforts of the British to destroy his command. Emerging from the dismal swamps, he would strike the British column, disperse pickets, raid supplies, cut communications, and capture isolated posts.
“Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee and comrade in arms of General Marion, said of his friend,
Fertile in stratagem, he struck unperceived, and retiring to those hidden retreats selected by himself in the morasses of the Pee Dee and Black rivers, he placed his corps, not only out of reach of his foe, but often out of the discovery of his friends—never elated by prosperity, nor depressed by adversity, he preserved an equanimity which won the admiration of his friends and exalted the respect of his enemies.
Finally, a real army was sent south to his assistance, and the British were slowly and gradually drawn out of the state by such able generals as Nathanael Greene and Daniel Morgan. Francis Marion continued to render assistance, raiding British posts in concert with the efforts of Greene and Morgan.
The supreme American commander in the South, General Nathanael Green, gave this glowing tribute to the labors of Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” in a personal letter,
Certain it is, no man has a better claim to the public thanks than you. History affords no instance wherein an officer has kept possession of a country under so many disadvantages as you have. Surrounded on every side with a superior force, hunted from every quarter with veteran troops, you have found means to elude their attempts, and to keep alive the expiring hopes of an oppressed militia, when all succor seemed to be cut off. To fight the enemy bravely with the prospect of victory is nothing, but to fight with intrepidity under the constant impression of defeat, and to inspire irregular troops to do it, is a talent peculiar to yourself.
After the war, Francis Marion went on to a useful life of agriculture and service in the South Carolina Senate. He married a Godly lady of Huguenot ancestry like himself, but they never had children. Marion had a bright Christian testimony and once gave this testimony of the power of the Gospel, “The religion of Jesus Christ is the only sure and controlling power over sin.” Marion died peacefully in February of 1795 beloved by the grateful people whom he had served so well. His tombstone reads:
History will record his worth,
and rising generations embalm his memory,
as one of the most distinguished patriots and heroes
of the American Revolution;
which elevated his native country
to honor and Independence,
and secured to her the blessings of liberty and peace.
This tribute of veneration and gratitude
is erected in commemoration
of the noble and disinterested virtues of the citizen,
and the gallant exploits of the soldier,
who lived without fear, and died without reproach.
The bold deeds of the “Swamp Fox” have stirred the hearts of each generation. Young Thomas Jackson held Marion as his foremost boyhood hero, and the subsequent campaigns of Jackson, Stuart, and Mosby reflect Marion’s exploits in South Carolina.
But were it not for his resolute decision to jump from a window to avoid drunkenness, Marion would have been captured along with the rest of the officers defending Charleston and would never have been able to liberate his native state from the clutches of the enemy. A man’s resolution to do right may seem insignificant, but the God of providence can do great things with such resolute and obedient men.
The American Revolution in the South by “Light Horse Harry” Lee
The Life of General Francis Marion by M. L. Weems
The Life of Francis Marion by William Gilmore Simms
The Swamp Fox by Robert D. Bass