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In the 2000 movie "The Patriot," set in 1776, an American colonial landowner named Benjamin Martin, portrayed by Mel Gibson, reluctantly joins the rebellion against the British Crown after one of his sons is arrested as a spy by British forces and threatened with execution. For his trouble, Martin's home is burned, two of his sons are killed, and he nearly loses his own life in hand-to-hand combat against a brutally sociopathic British officer named Tavington. Fortunately, by luck as much as by skill, Martin manages to survive and kills his antagonist with a desperate thrust of his bayonet. Then he goes on to fight for the Continental Army, which defeats the British at Yorktown to win independence, and eventually returns home to resume his life [source: Mitchell].
Though fictional, "The Patriot" has a strong element of truth, in that it gives a sense of just how much courage it took for the colonists to rebel against the awesome might of the British Empire -- and how lucky they were to eke out a victory. As the historian David McCullough noted in his book "1776," the Americans suffered terrible losses -- about 25,000 casualties, or roughly one percent of the colonial population. That would be the equivalent of a modern war claiming more than 3 million U.S. lives. "To those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning ... the outcome seemed little short of a miracle," he wrote [source: McCullough].
Indeed, modern historians have speculated that if the colonists hadn't caught a few breaks, the rebellion might have been crushed, and the American colonies would have remained under the rule of King George III. What would have happened to the defeated 13 colonies? Unless we're someday able to venture into an alternate universe where Cornwallis accepts Washington's surrender instead of vice versa, we'll never be able to conclusively answer that question. Nevertheless, based on available historical facts, it's possible to engage in what scholars call counterfactual history and speculate how a British victory might have altered the events that followed [source: Bunzl].
What might have happened to America if it wasn't for providence and the bravery, resilience and resourcefulness of a good many true heroes?