Revolutionary War: Key events in Congress’ time in York County

York County historian Jim McClure shares some key dates during the time the Continental Congress spent in York, Pennsylvania.

The fight begins

1775: The American Revolution begins with “the shot heard ’round the world.” Patriot minutemen and British troops clash at Lexington, Mass., on April 19. The British then march to nearby Concord. Many from both sides die that day. The first troops from York County arrive to serve in Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army in July.

1776: Congress votes in favor of independence on July 2, and the Declaration of Independence is approved on July 4. James Smith from York County, a signer of the Declaration, brings a printed copy of the document to York Town for a reading on July 6.

In York Town, Pa. Sept. 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778

1. A Continental Army retreat at Brandywine Creek in Pennsylvania leaves Philadelphia open for British occupation, and the redcoats oblige. Delegates of the Continental Congress put the wide Susquehanna River between them and the British by relocating to York Town by Sept. 30, 1777. Washington camps for the winter on Dec. 19 in Valley Forge.

2. American forces under Gen. Horatio Gates repulse British Gen. John Burgoyne’s troops in the First and Second Battles of Freeman Farm in New York. Burgoyne retreats to Saratoga where he surrenders on Oct. 17, 1777. Some consider this patriot victory as the turning point in the American Revolution. Congress receives the official news with great joy in York Town on Oct. 31.

3. Congress proclaims a day of thanksgiving and praise to observe the American victory. People in the 13 states widely observe this national observance on Dec. 18. This is the first of seven such days of thanksgiving declared during the American Revolution and extends the New England Thanksgiving custom to all the states.

4. When Virginian Richard Henry Lee called for independence in 1776, he also proposed a formal plan of union among the states. Congress engages in an on-again, off-again debate on a formal plan – a constitution – for more than a year and resumes these talks on Oct. 7, 1777. The debates culminate in the adoption of the Articles of Confederation on Nov. 15. Congress sends copies to the states for ratification.

5. Gates’ victories, combined with Washington’s defeats, cause some in Congress and the military to express unhappiness with the commander in chief’s leadership. Thomas Conway, a Continental Army general, writes a critical letter to Gates about Washington. This leads many to believe that an organized effort – known as the Conway Cabal – is under way to replace Washington with Gates. The influential Marquis de Lafayette of France, in York Town to meet with Gates in early 1778, calls for a toast to Washington. Gates’ support wanes, and Washington’s popularity increases as the cabal plays out during Congress’ visit.

6. France and America form an alliance on Feb. 6, 1778, stating that each would consider the other a most favored nation for trade and friendship. Within months, France and Great Britain are at war. With a wide ocean separating Congress in York Town from American diplomats in Paris, Congress is unaware of the alliance for three months. This period is among the most discouraging times for Congress in York Town, battling sparse attendance, a high cost of living, a freezing Army in Valley Forge and criticism of the commander leading that Army.

7. Simeon Deane delivers news of the Franco-American alliance to eagerly awaiting delegates in York Town on May 2, 1778. The treaties are read in Congress on May 4.

8. Concerned about the alliance, Parliament offers to repeal the Tea Act of 1773 and Coercive Acts of 1774. Congress counters that the states seek independence. British commissioners later return to Great Britain, their mission for reconciliation a failure.

9. The British leave Philadelphia for New York to prepare for a campaign in the South. Congress recesses on June 27, 1778, and exits York Town for Philadelphia, while Washington, leading a reinvigorated Army, pursues the British across New Jersey.

The conflict’s last rounds

1781: French and American forces attack British fortifications at Yorktown, Va. British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrenders. Britain loses hope of winning the war in America. Some of Cornwallis’ men are detained in Camp Security in York County.

1783: The preliminary treaty between France, Britain and America goes into effect after congressional approval on April 15. Warfare formally ceases. The United States and Great Britain sign the final peace treaty in Paris on Sept. 3.

1788: New Hampshire ratifies the new U.S. Constitution on June 21, making its adoption official. The Constitution replaces the Articles of Confederation as America’s guiding legal document.