Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

The American War for Independence (3 Lessons)



The Unit


The decision of Britain's North American colonies to rebel against the Mother Country was an extremely risky one. Although each colony had its own militia—of varying quality—there was no Continental Army until Congress created one, virtually from scratch, in 1775. This army, placed under the command of a Virginian named George Washington, would have the unenviable task of taking on the world's largest empire, with a first-rate army, supported by what was at the time the most formidable navy in history. Indeed, it was no doubt with these risks in mind that the Continental Congress waited until July 1776—more than a year after the outbreak of hostilities—to issue a formal Declaration of Independence.

This is not to say that the Americans lacked advantages of their own. In order to fight the colonists the British had to maintain a large army on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean—over 3,000 miles away from home. Moreover, this army actually had to conquer an area much larger than Great Britain itself; the Continental Army, on the other hand, could win simply by preventing this from happening. Even so, the first years of war were difficult ones for the Americans, and ultimately it required substantial aid from France to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

In this unit, consisting of three lesson plans, students will learn about the diplomatic and military aspects of the American War for Independence. Through an examination of original documents and an interactive map they will learn about the strategies employed by both sides, and how those strategies played out in reality. They will study the most important military engagements, both in the North and the South. Students will also become familiar with the critical assistance provided by France, as well as the ongoing negotiations between the Americans and Great Britain.

Guiding Questions

  • What hardships and difficulties did the Continental army face in the early years of the war, and how were they able to sustain the war effort in spite of those challenges?
  • Why did the decision of the British leadership to move the war into the South prove unsuccessful?
  • How successful were the Americans in obtaining their goals in the Revolutionary War?

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the significance of the battles of Lexington and Concord on both America and Great Britain.
  • List the expectations that the Continental Congress had of George Washington, and assess how well he met them.
  • Articulate the problems that the Continental Army faced during the early phase of the war.
  • Explain how Washington and his men turned the tide in the North in 1777-78.
  • Identify the most important military engagements and explain their significance.
  • List the major terms of the Franco-American alliance, and explain their importance to the cause of independence.
  • Identify the most important military engagements in the South and explain their significance for the outcome of the war.
  • Explain the role that African-Americans played in the southern phase of the war.
  • Describe the American peace feelers of 1775, and why the British rejected them.
  • Describe the British peace offers of 1776 and 1778, and why the Americans rejected them.
  • Explain why Britain was willing to grant American independence by 1782.
  • Articulate the main provisions of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Preparation Instructions

Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable Text Document.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

Perhaps most importantly, study the interactive map that accompanies this lesson. This map will walk students through the major campaigns in the North (for the first lesson) and the South (for the second lesson). In addition, students can use this interactive to map the borders of the new United States of America, as determined in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

Analyzing primary sources:

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers helpful pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Letters and Diaries" which gives helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: The War in the North, 1775–1778

    George Washington in the uniform of the Continental Army, by Rembrandt  Peale.

    Lacking any organized army before 1775 (aside from local colonial militias), the Continental Congress had to assemble a more or less improvised fighting force that would be expected to take on the army of the world's largest empire. This lesson will trace events in the North from 1775 to 1778. By looking at documents of the time, and using an interactive map, students will see how an army was created and understand the challenges that Washington and his men faced during this critical early stage of the war.

  • Lesson 2: The War in the South, 1778–1781

    The battle of Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, 1781.

    The failure to restore royal authority in the northern colonies, along with the signing of an alliance between the American rebels and the French monarchy, led the British to try an entirely new strategy in the southern colonies. This lesson will examine military operations during the second, or southern, phase of the American Revolution.

  • Lesson 3: Ending the War, 1783

    Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown.

    During the Revolutionary War there were several attempts made to end the fighting. In this lesson students will consider the various peace attempts made by both sides during the Revolutionary War.

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills