The Price of Independence

American liberty did not come cheap. The war of American independence was a bloody affair for those involved. The loss of life as a percentage of the population was very heavy. Only in the Civil War did a greater fraction of the available manpower perish under arms.

American Losses in the War

Altogether about 100,000 men served in the Continental army. Many more saw some measure of duty with the militia. This was an enormous percentage of the available manpower, perhaps one-third to one-half of the white men in a country with a total population of 2,500,000. It is impossible to set a precise American casualty figure for the war. Record keeping in the Continental army was often sloppy and self-serving. Losses in militia units or among western settlers were often unmentioned or even unnoticed except by those most intimately involved. There were many ways to die. Men were killed on the battlefield or succumbed to wounds in an era of rough-and-ready medicine. More men died of disease than from bullets or bayonets. The mortality among the men held in British prison ships was extremely high. Many men undoubtedly died from the usual accidents that befall soldiers and sailors living amid weapons in dangerous circumstances.

Probably some 30,000 fighters died during the war. Civilian casualties are even harder to estimate. People who were not bearing arms died as the armies maneuvered, sometimes wantonly killed by troops, sometimes caught in the crossfire of combat. Many people on the frontier were killed in Indian raids. Others perished of the diseases that followed in the wake of the armies. Certainly the total of civilian deaths numbered in the thousands.

The mortality rate among Americans in the Continental army was very high. One in four died. By comparison, in the Civil War one in five soldiers died, while in World War II the death rate was one in forty.

British and European Losses in the War

British losses were also heavy. Roughly 25 percent of the British and Hessian troops sent to America died — 10,000 of 42,000 British soldiers and 7,500 of 29,000 Germans. Estimating loyalist losses is as problematic as reckoning those of their Patriot neighbors. Some 21,000 loyalists served in regular provincial units. Many others served in bands of militia. The numbers of deaths in loyalist provincial regiments whose records have survived were about 20 percent of enlisted men. If this percentage holds true for all loyalist units, some 4,000 died wearing the King's uniform. Thus, at least 21,000 men died serving in the British army. It is impossible to estimate the number of loyalist irregulars and Indians who died in the war.

The British navy suffered high losses, indicative of the human cost of maintaining large fleets at sea in the age of sail. Full figures are not available, but by the end of 1780 the navy had lost 1,243 men in battle and 18,541 to disease. Many more would die before the end of the war. The bulk of French losses were naval. Several hundred French soldiers died in America, but some 20,000 French seamen perished. Allowing for Spanish and Dutch casualties, the American War of Independence and the world war that arose from it probably cost the lives of more than 100,000 people.

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