Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

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

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


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

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

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

The first years of the Revolutionary War were not happy ones for Britain's rebellious colonies. 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. In George Washington Congress found an able leader, but his record on the battlefield in the early years of the conflict was not heartening. His most impressive accomplishment was keeping the army together after a string of defeats, and making enough of a showing in battle that eventually France would be tempted to enter the conflict.

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.

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?

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.


When the first fighting broke out in Massachusetts in 1775 the rebellious colonies of North America each had their own militia, but lacked anything that could properly be termed a national army. By orders of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia a fighting force was hastily assembled and placed under the command of George Washington, who had commanded colonial forces from Virginia in the French and Indian War.

Although Americans succeeded in driving the British from Boston in March 1776 there would be very little good news for the colonies in the months ahead. While the Congress debated independence in Philadelphia, an attempted invasion of Canada failed disastrously. Moreover, a massive British army arrived in New York in 1776 in what would stand until 1944 as the largest amphibious invasion in history. Washington and his Continental Army were forced back into northeastern Pennsylvania to regroup and wait for another opportunity to strike.

The opportunity came near the end of the year, when Washington launched a surprise attack at Trenton, New Jersey, on Christmas night. But while this momentarily helped to restore American morale, it soon faced another crushing blow at the Battle of Brandywine. Not only did the British inflict heavy losses on the Continental Army, but the redcoats were also able to occupy Philadelphia, forcing Congress to flee for their lives.

Within a few weeks, however, there was another revival of American fortunes. Moving from their positions in New York, the British launched a three-pronged offensive aimed at taking the Hudson River Valley and therefore cutting off New England from the rest of the states. But this drive was stopped in the Battle of Saratoga, a victory which had the additional benefit of drawing France into the war against the British.

After the disaster at Brandywine, Washington sought to avoid another large-scale engagement in the North, and he and his army spent the miserable winter of 1777–1778 in Valley Forge while the British enjoyed the comforts of nearby Philadelphia. However, at this point the alliance with France began to bear fruit. The British, fearing an attack from the French Navy, evacuated Philadelphia in June 1778, and when Washington learned that they were retreating to New York he decided to risk another battle. The two armies met at Monmouth Court House, in southern New Jersey, but neither side was able to achieve a convincing victory.

Thus far British strategy in the North had accomplished little, so the British commander, Lord William Howe, decided to shift their priorities farther south, to the Carolinas. Nevertheless, they continued to occupy New York. Washington and his army may not have been able to inflict a decisive defeat on the British, but by keeping his army together under desperate circumstances he made it possible to achieve victory in the South in the years to come.

For more detailed information on the course of the war in the North, teachers are encouraged to consult "The American Revolution: Lighting Freedom's Flame" (accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the National Park Service, Links to the Past). Of particular note at this site are a brief history of the war and a timeline of events.

Preparation Instructions

Review the 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 PDF.

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 entire campaign in the North, starting with the British occupation of Boston and ending with the Battle of Monmouth Court House.

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.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. "Shot Heard 'Round the World"

Students will begin the lesson with a panel discussion of the engagements at Lexington and Concord. Students will be broken into groups of five, with each member of each group being assigned one of the following accounts, available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resource "Teaching American History." Links to these documents, along with brief biographical information about each of the authors, are available on pages 1–10 of the Text Document that accompanies this lesson.

As they read, students should answer the following questions (included on the relevant pages of the Text Document):

  • What do we know about the author of this account?
  • What was the individual's role in the event? Why might that be important?
  • What was the purpose for creating the record?
  • To what extent might self-interest have influenced the account?
  • Who was the intended audience? Was this document intended to be public or private? Why is knowing that important?
  • When was the record made? Why is the time important?

The activity should conclude with a class discussion about the various ways in which the five individuals interpreted what had occurred, particularly as it reflected on relations between Great Britain and its American colonies.

Activity 2. Washington Takes Command

Students will begin the lesson by studying the following documents (or excerpts thereof), pertaining to Washington's appointment as commander of the Continental Army. All of these are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed resources American Memory Project and the Papers of George Washington. Excerpts of these documents may be found on pages 11–15 of the Text Document.

As students read these documents, they will answer the following questions, available in worksheet form on pages 11–16 of the Text Document.

  • What was Washington's reaction to his appointment as commander?
  • How much payment does Washington expect for his service? Why?
  • From this document, what can you determine about Washington's character and the qualities he brought to positions of leadership?
  • For what reasons did Congress choose Washington as commander?
  • What powers does Washington have over this army? From where is Washington to seek guidance concerning his duties?
  • Is the language used in this document political rhetoric, or were members of Congress sincere in their estimation of Washington's character?
  • What instructions were given to Washington concerning the retaining and recruiting of troops?
  • Ultimately, what powers and discretion does the Congress give to Washington? Why?
  • According to this letter, how does Washington feel about having been given command of the Continental Army?
  • What does Washington ask his wife to do during his absence?
  • Describe the provisions Washington makes before embarking to war.
  • Washington was in the habit of attending meetings of the Continental Congress wearing the uniform of the Virginia militia; everyone else present wore civilian clothes. What might this tell us about Washington's real thoughts on being asked to command the Continental Army?
  • What orders does Washington issue here? Why do you think he issued them?

After the students have completed the worksheets, use the questions to form the basis for an in-class discussion regarding Washington's character and leadership style. The discussion should also consider the nature of the task that Washington faced, and the high expectations that the Continental Congress had of him.

Activity 3. The Course of the War

At this point students will use the interactive map to trace the events of the war from the outbreak of hostilities in 1775 through 1778. For each battle, students will be asked which side—the British or the Americans—won the engagement. Clicking on the locations indicated will produce pop-up windows with additional information on what happened there. Arrows will also appear showing the movement of forces by each side.

After studying the interactive map students will be asked to list (on the worksheet on page 17 of the Text Document) what they consider to be the three most important battles of the war in the North, and explain why they think those particular engagements were so critical. After students have individually completed the worksheet, break students into pairs where they will discuss their individual answers and then compile, as a group, the top three battles and the reasons behind their choices. Finally, have each group discuss their findings before the entire class and have them defend their choices. The entire class should then decide on which three battles were the most significant. Of course, in order to do this it will first be necessary to determine some sort of standard for what makes a battle significant. Is it the number of people involved? The losses suffered? The political implications that stemmed from it?

Activity 4. "The Times that Try Men's Souls"

Students will conclude by reading excerpts from the following documents, outlining the difficulties which the Continental Army repeatedly faced during the war in the North. As above, they come from the EDSITEment-reviewed resources American Memory Project and the Papers of George Washington. Two additional documents come from the site "From Revolution to Reconstruction," which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library. Excerpts are available on pages 18–22 of the Text Document.

Students should read these excerpts in conjunction with the interactive map used in the previous activity. They should use these resources to create an interactive timeline using the resource available at the EDSITEment-reviewed site "Read, Write, Think". This timeline should include all of the above documents, as well as the events referenced in them.

Instruct students to begin their timeline by entering a title and their names on the opening page and selecting "Date" under "Unit of Measure." They should then click "Next Entry." On the page that appears, they enter the date, title of the event or document, and a brief description before going on to the next entry. Once the timeline is complete they should click "Finished," then "Print" to print out the final product.


After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:

  • What kind of army did Congress hope to create in 1775? Why did they choose Washington to lead it?
  • What was the most important battle in the North, and why?
  • Which side do you think held the advantage in early 1778, and why?
  • What made the American war effort so difficult during this early phase of the war?

Alternatively, for more advanced students the above questions could be woven together into a single larger question: Did George Washington live up to the expectations that the Continental Congress had of him? Why or why not?

Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Lexington and Concord
  • General William Howe
  • Brandywine
  • Saratoga
  • General John Burgoyne
  • General Horatio Gates
  • Valley Forge

Extending The Lesson

Teachers who wish to devote additional time to this subject might want to show their students a movie such as 1776, a musical about the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, or "The Crossing," about the attack on Trenton.

Any of the locations indicated on the interactive map could be the subject for deeper study. In particular, Links to the Past, the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the National Park Service contains a resource called "Teaching with Historic Places," which includes several lesson plans dealing with specific battles from the Revolutionary War.

The EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital History contains links to some famous paintings portraying events in the Revolution, such as Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and Chapel's "Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth". It is important to note, however, that both of these were painted in the mid-19th century—in other words, long after the actual events that they portray—and are more of a symbolic representation than a faithful record of what occurred. In the case of the latter painting in particular, it is worth mentioning that women were always part of 18th century armies, traveling with their husbands and living in camp, and that Molly Pitcher was a generic name for women who brought water to artillery batteries to cool the guns. There were times when some of these women ended up manning the gun when their husbands or other men were killed or wounded, most famously at the battle of Monmouth, when a woman named Mary McCauley helped fire artillery after her husband was either killed or wounded.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > World > The Modern World (1500 CE-Present)
  • 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
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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