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Was the last battle of the American Revolution fought in India? A growing number of historians think so

<i>Hulton Archive/Getty Images</i><br/>A depiction of Generals Rochambeau and Washington giving the last orders for attack at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. With them is the Marquis de Lafayette.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A depiction of Generals Rochambeau and Washington giving the last orders for attack at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. With them is the Marquis de Lafayette.

By Brad Lendon, CNN

(CNN) — Final Jeopardy category: the American Revolutionary War.

The answer is: The last battle of America’s war of independence was fought on this continent.

Cue the familiar music, and write down your response.

If you said “What is North America?” and wagered your entire pot, you’ve lost. At least that’s what a growing number of historians will tell you.

They’ll say the correct response should have been, “What is Asia?”

Ummm, what?!

Listen to Kathleen DuVal, professor of history at the University of North Carolina (one of the 13 original states, just saying).

“Americans and almost all historians of the United States until just recently focused almost exclusively on the Revolutionary War within the 13 colonies that rebelled against the British. The focus was almost all on Massachusetts and Virginia,” she says.

“But in just the past decade or two, historians have broadened their focus and started to write about the Revolutionary War as being, as you say, a world war,” DuVal says.

Scholarly works back that up. In 2018, Smithsonian Books published “The American Revolution: A World War,” a collection of essays from 17 authors from eight countries that gives “a multifaceted but coherent account of the American Revolution’s international geopolitics,” according to a review in the Journal of American History.

DuVal and others say two key protagonists of the Revolutionary War – Britain and France – actually fought the final battle of the conflict in Cuddalore, India, in June of 1783.

Wait! I know France helped the colonists beat the British redcoats, but what does India have to do with this? And even then, a “world war?”

DuVal explains.

“France’s help for the United States has long been part of Americans’ knowledge of the American Revolution, but the French king decided to enter the war because of France’s opposition to Britain more than any love for the Americans – after all, he was a king with his own empire,” she says.

OK, I get France and Britain didn’t like each other, but they didn’t control the entire world, right?

Well, Britain with its colonies across the globe had more enemies than just France, DuVal says.

Spain and the Netherlands allied with France to fight Britain, too, she says.

And the American struggle for independence was a way to harass Britain on another front.

“Looking at this from say the French perspective, taking on a role in the American Revolution enabled them to stretch British forces in just another place around the globe,” says Don Glickstein, a Seattle-based historian and journalist who covered the subject in depth in his 2015 book, “After Yorktown.”

Second war in 10 years

France and Spain were also trying to settle scores from a previous global conflict a decade earlier they had lost – the Seven Years’ War, of which the French and Indian War, fought in North America, was a part, DuVal told CNN.

And lest you think the North Carolina professor is reaching here, Glickstein and even the US State Department agree with her.

In the Seven Years’ War, which started in either 1754 or 1756 depending on who you ask, Britain dealt defeats to France and its ally Spain across the globe, from the Indo-Pacific to Portugal to Canada, but that came with a steep price, the State Department’s Office of the Historian says on its website.

“The war had been enormously expensive, and the British government’s attempts to impose taxes on (American) colonists to help cover these expenses resulted in increasing colonial resentment of British attempts to expand imperial authority in the colonies,” it says.

Those taxes on colonists eventually led to the Revolutionary War, it says.

The battle of Yorktown

For much of America’s 247-year history, it’s been taught that the last battle of that war was at Yorktown, Virginia, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 19, 1781. (And that may have been why your Final Jeopardy response was “North America.”)

But Glickstein says even describing Yorktown as an “American” victory is a bit generous.

“Kids learn that Yorktown was an American victory. In reality, it was a French victory, made possible by a French strategy, two French fleets, French siege engineers, French artillery that pounded the British, was fought largely by French soldiers, marines, and sailors who outnumbered their American rebel allies four-to-one,” Glickstein argues.

The National Park Service says about 600 French troops were killed at Yorktown and an associated naval battle. It says just over 100 Americans were killed at Yorktown.

“It was a victory not just of Americans, but of allies,” the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian says of the Battle of Yorktown.

“French soldiers at Yorktown outnumbered Americans. Spain and the Dutch Republic supported the colonists financially and logistically,” the museum says on its website.

In a 2018 interview with Smithsonian magazine, historian David Allison of the museum put the foreign help for Washington in a broader scope.

“Without allies, the colonies would never have gained their freedom,” he is quoted as saying.

“We Americans are too narrow-minded in how we view our national history, as if we alone have determined our own destiny. Yet this has never been true,” Allison is quoted as saying.

Fighting a world away

Still, few would dispute that defeat at Yorktown had Britain looking to cut its losses. Peace negotiations began in Paris that would lead to the signing of a preliminary peace deal between the colonies and Britain in late November of 1782.

News, however, traveled at the speed of sailing ships to the far reaches of the empires of the main combatants Britain and France.

After Yorktown, the fighting between Britain and France and Spain continued elsewhere, in places like Jamaica, Gibraltar and India.

Speaking to CNN from his home in Seattle, Glickstein argues that controlling India was a much bigger prize for Britain than controlling portions of North America. British colonizers coveted its resources, like silk, cotton, textiles, spices, tea, opium and precious stones. Historians point out that the British plundering of Indian wealth during the colonial years turned India’s economy from a near peer of Europe to something exponentially smaller.

“Everything that India made, the Brits wanted,” he said, adding that India’s strategic location meant it was a base from where Britain could protect its trade routes to the Asia-Pacific.

Britain and, to a lesser extent, France were well established with colonies in India when the American Revolution began and had already brought their hostilities from Europe to the subcontinent, according to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

“When France entered the war in 1778 as an American ally, the British East India Company immediately moved to attack France’s Indian colonies, drawing both countries’ Indian allies into the fight,” the museum’s website says.

So the garrison of the French and its Indian allies at Cuddalore on the Bay of Bengal was an important target for Britain in late June of 1783.

Fighting took place on land and at sea. The naval battle of Cuddalore on June 20 was considered a French victory. On land, the besieged French forces tried attacking British troops around them on June 25, but were pushed back, Glickstein says.

Back at sea, the French admiral ordered his ships to prepare a bombardment of British land forces in support of the French ground operation, Glickstein says.

But before it could commence, “a British ship appeared in the distance flying a white flag,” Glickstein says.

“They brought news that six months before in Paris, the British, French and the Americans – the Dutch were a little later – signed the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution,” he says.

“Cuddalore, India, was indeed the last battle of the American Revolution.”

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