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Unit 1: From Revolution to Constitution

Suggested Activities

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney

Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation

  1. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, portrayed here in the uniform of an officer in the South Carolina militia, fought against the British in the Revolutionary War until he was captured at the siege of Charleston in 1780. Although Pinckney had extensive military experience, the majority of American soldiers were farmers and tradesmen with little military training. Create a chart that compares the colonial army to the British army in size, experience, and character. What were the strengths and weaknesses of each army? Based on this information, which army seemed better prepared to win the war?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

The American army was composed of the Continental army—nationally organized troops commanded by General George Washington—and state militias. Throughout the war, the Continental army numbered approximately 230,000 men, and state militias contributed about 164,000 soldiers. At any one time, however, there were only a total of around 20,000 men fighting. Competition existed between the two groups, but soldiers in both organizations were generally unaccustomed to military discipline, reluctant to be away from their farms for extended periods of time, minimally trained, and poorly paid for their services. Colonial soldiers were fighting on their home turf, however, and their cause was well-supported by the public.

The British army comprised 42,000 professional soldiers. Although many of these men were hastily enlisted, they received excellent training and were subjected to extreme discipline. The British military had a strong organizational structure that the colonial army lacked. To supplement their ranks, the British government purchased the services of 30,000 troops from a variety of German princes.

The importance of the navy was recognized early by the Continental Congress which authorized the creation of the Continental navy and established the Marine Corps. At its best, however, the Continental navy had only 27 ships compared with England's 270. The war at sea was primarily fought toward the end of the war between the British navy and the navies of America's European allies.

The British and colonial armies were remarkably unmatched in size, training, organization, and financial support, and had the French not provided financial and material aid, it seems unlikely that America could have defeated the British.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746–1825)
Henry Benbridge (1743–1812)
Oil on canvas, 1773

  1. Pinckney fought with General George Washington in 1777 at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown (Pennsylvania). Washington was defeated by the British at both of these battles. What was Washington's military experience before the war, and why did the Continental Congress select him to be commander-in-chief of the American forces? What were some of Washington's military successes and failures? How do historians characterize his leadership abilities in the Revolutionary War?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

George Washington fought in the French and Indian War, and was appointed commander of all Virginia troops when he was but twenty-three years old. In the years preceding the Revolution, he served in the House of Burgesses and was elected to both the First and Second Continental Congress. After the clash with British troops at Lexington and Concord, an army quickly formed around Boston, and the Congress needed to find someone to take charge of this force immediately. Washington was nominated unanimously for the job, owing to his reputation in the French and Indian War, his residency in the powerful colony of Virginia, and the positive impression he had made on the delegates of the Second Continental Congress.

Washington was successful in organizing the volunteers in the New England army, collecting provisions and arms, and garnering support from Congress and citizens. His first military victory resulted in the British evacuating Boston in March 1776. This victory was countered with a resounding defeat in New York in August 1776, where he lost 5,000 men on Long Island and was eventually forced to retreat to New Jersey. It was in December 1776, at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, that Washington orchestrated a brilliant attack on German and British soldiers, resulting in the death or capture of more than 1,500 men and the acquisition of badly needed arms and ammunition. The final battle of the war—in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia—which led to the capture and surrender of British General Cornwallis, was won largely through Washington's strong leadership, vision, and perseverance.

Historians characterize Washington as a military commander whose strengths as a leader outweighed his weaknesses. Washington was not a superior tactician and made some serious military blunders during the Revolutionary War. He also appears to have relied too much on the advice of his council of war, which tended to argue caution when Washington's natural bold inclinations might have resulted more often in victory. Washington is remembered as a strong and unifying leader, however. He demanded strict discipline within his army, inspired the troops with his own bravery, and was effective at rallying the soldiers and the public to the cause of the Revolution.

George Washington (1732–1799)
Attributed to Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827)
Mezzotint, circa 1778
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

  1. The American victory over the British in the Revolutionary War has been described as "a combination of British blunders, American efforts, and French assistance." Explain the meaning of this statement. What were some of the British blunders? In what ways were American efforts successful? What kind of assistance was provided by the French?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

The British never formulated an overall strategy for winning the war and acted cautiously at critical points when powerful and decisive strikes could have fatally weakened the American army. Incidents of poor communication and cooperation between British commanders resulted in missed opportunities as well. In addition, the British government thought that loyalists would be a more formidable force and play a more active role in the conflict than they actually did.

Despite England's superior army, the colonial army pulled together under good leadership and was able to capitalize on British blunders. General Washington proved to be a fine commander and made a number of excellent decisions at crucial times throughout the conflict.

Without French aid, however, it is doubtful that the colonists could have been a match for Britain's large and well-equipped troops. France secretly gave supplies and money to the colonies from 1776 to 1778, and upon formally declaring war on England in June 1778, committed soldiers and naval fleets to the cause.