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THE MAKING OF A NATION - American History: Peace Treaty Ends American Revolution

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Washington, Crossing the Delaware
Washington, Crossing the Delaware

From VOA Learning English, this is THE MAKING OF A NATIONAmerican history in Special English. I'm Steve Ember.

This week in our series, we complete the story of the American Revolution.

The time is December seventeen seventy-six. British General William Howe has decided to stop fighting during the cold winter months. The general is in New York. He has already established control of a few areas near the city, including Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey.

General George Washington and the Continental Army are on the other side of the Delaware River. The Americans are cold and hungry. They have few weapons. Washington knows that if Howe attacks, the British will be able to go all the way to Philadelphia.

"And he's looking at his army which is melting away…"

Historian Gordon Wood says that moment was the low point of the war for George Washington.

"…and he decides to make one great effort on Christmas night and crosses the Delaware in dead of winter — cold, ice — and he crosses it and attacks Trenton, where you have about one thousand Hessians who are kind of overwhelmed and defeated. It's a small tactical victory but a great psychological effect, because it's the first time that Washington's ever actually done something positive, and it really does, I think, change the psychology of the war."

Another result of the victory at Trenton was that more men decided to join the army. It now had ten thousand soldiers. This new Continental Army, however, lost battles during the summer to General Howe's forces near the Chesapeake Bay. And in August seventeen seventy-seven, General Howe captured Philadelphia.

Following these losses, Washington led the army to the nearby area of Pennsylvania called Valley Forge.

"Valley Forge was the camp where George Washington and his army spent a really miserable, miserable winter."

Alice Kamps is a curator at the National Archives in Washington, where some of the country's most important documents are kept. One of those documents is a letter that George Washington wrote from Valley Forge.

KAMPS: "The men had nothing to wear, they had no blankets, they had very little to eat. Illnesses were rampant. It was a very, very miserable experience for them."

But in the middle of that winter, Washington finds out that France has decided to sign a treaty with the colonists.

"This is fantastic news. This is the kind of news that would make anyone just run about screaming with joy and doing handstands. But Washington is so reserved, and he says that he's received this news with, quote, the most sensible pleasure, unquote."

He also says he is going to wait for the government to approve the treaty before he tells the army.

"The fact that he is not going to announce this news immediately to his army speaks to the fact that he was always, always concerned with doing the right thing and with protocol."

By the spring of seventeen seventy-eight, General Washington and his army were ready to fight again.

General Howe was still in Philadelphia. His behavior as a military leader was sometimes difficult to understand. At times, he was a good commander and a brave soldier. At other times, he stayed in the safety of cities, instead of leading his men in battle.

The next series of important battles in the American Revolution was led by another British general, John Burgoyne. His plan was to capture the Hudson River Valley in New York state and separate New England from the other colonies. Doing this, the British believed, would make it easier to capture the other colonies.

The plan did not succeed. American General Benedict Arnold defeated the British troops in New York. General Burgoyne had expected help from General Howe, but that help never came. Burgoyne was forced to surrender at the town of Saratoga.

The American victory at Saratoga was extremely important. It ended the British plan to separate New England from the other colonies. It also showed European nations that the Americans might be able to win their revolution. This was something that France, especially, had wanted ever since being defeated earlier by the British in the French and Indian War.

The French government had been supplying the Americans secretly through the work of America's minister to France, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was popular with the French people and with French government officials. He helped gain French sympathy for the American cause.

After the American victory at Saratoga, the French decided to enter the war on the American side. The two nations signed military and political treaties. Historian Gordon Wood says this alliance created bigger problems for the British.

"Because, once the French were involved, it turns the thing from counterinsurgency for the British. They're now fighting a world war."

The British immediately sent a message to America's Continental Congress. They offered to go back to a time of better relations. The Americans rejected the British offer. The war would be fought to the end.

In seventeen seventy-nine, Spain entered the war against the British. And the next year, the British were also fighting the Dutch to stop their trade with America.

The French now sent gunpowder, soldiers, officers and ships to the Americans. However, neither the Americans nor the British made much progress in the war for the next two years.

By seventeen eighty, the British had moved their military forces to the American South. They quickly gained control of South Carolina and Georgia. But the Americans prevented them from taking control of North Carolina. After that, the British commander moved his troops to Yorktown, Virginia.

The commander's name was Lord Charles Cornwallis. Both he and George Washington had about eight thousand troops when they met near Yorktown. Cornwallis was expecting more troops to arrive on British ships.

What he did not know was that French ships were on their way to Yorktown, too. Their commander was Admiral Francois Comte de Grasse. De Grasse met some of the British ships that Cornwallis was expecting, and defeated them. The French ships then moved into the Chesapeake Bay, near Yorktown.

The Americans and the French began attacking the British with cannons. Then they fought the British soldiers hand-to-hand. Cornwallis knew he had no chance to win without more troops. He surrendered to George Washington on October seventeenth, seventeen eighty-one.

The war was over. American and French forces had captured or killed half of the British troops in America. The surviving troops left Yorktown playing a popular British song called "The World Turned Upside Down."

(MUSIC: "The World Turned Upside Down")

How were the Americans able to defeat the most powerful nation in the world? Historians give several reasons:

The Americans were fighting at home, while the British had to bring troops and supplies from across the ocean. British officers made mistakes, especially General William Howe. His slowness to take action at the start of the war made it possible for the Americans to survive two difficult winters.

Historian Gordon Wood at Brown University in Rhode Island says the British also thought more colonists would support them.

"When Burgoyne comes down the Hudson Valley he starts out with an army of ten thousand or so, and he has to hack his way through the woods, and he keeps losing troops to small militia. He counted on more loyalist support than there was. And I think the British miscalculated terribly on that point."

Another reason the Americans won was the help they received from the French. Also, the British public had stopped supporting the long and costly war.

Finally, America might not have won without the leadership of George Washington. He never gave up hope.

The peace treaty ending the American Revolution was signed in Paris in seventeen eighty-three. The independence of the United States was recognized. Western and northern borders were set.

The thirteen colonies were free. Now, they had to become one nation. That will be our story next week.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at www.unsv.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

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This was program #14

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