Thesis: Military Tactics During Revolution

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American Revolutionary War Tactics

Prior to the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, circa 1770, military tactics in the American colonies were virtually unknown, due to not having the need for a standing army as a result of depending upon Great Britain and the English Crown for guidance, assistance and support. But when the war broke out in 1775, the American colonies and their leaders quickly realized that warfare tactics would have to be designed very quickly; thus, they turned to tactics utilized long ago in Europe, tactics which required "large, well-trained and standing armies and extensive training in the use of new weapons," 1 such as muzzleloaders, pistols and other weapons.

For example, new battlefield tactics had to be developed in order to accommodate the use of these new weapons, due to the colonists and those who joined the colonial militias having little or no prior experience with these weapons. One famous tactic used by the so-called "Minute Men" and the members of the militias was the development of ranks of men, similar in nature to the ancient Greek system known as a phalanx in which rows of men "lined up in three ranks deep, bringing the maximum number of muskets to bear on the enemy." In this way, firing rank by rank, "the massed musketmen could fire a devastating nine volleys per minute" which in effect "blasted their opponents off the battlefield with concentrated musket fire." 2

Thus, the colonial Continental Army under the command of General George Washington quickly mastered the art of 18th century warfare and as the war progressed through the 1770's and into the 1780's, the British "Redcoats," one of the most highly-trained and efficient military operations in the history of Europe, became "cautious about attacking American soldiers when in fortified positions" in relation to the rank by rank formation, and by the later stages of the war, "the lines of blue-clad, battle-hardened American Continentals... struck terror" in the hearts of the British "Redcoats" and even their highly-experienced military leaders and commanders. 3

One of the most efficient military tactics was known as the Fabian strategy in which face-to-face combat was avoided in favor of more limited confrontation which slowly wore down the enemy until they were completely exhausted and unable to return fire. 4 This type of military strategy is most commonly associated with General George Washington, sometimes referred to as the "American Fabius," who was instructed in its use by General Nathanael Greene as a member of the Councils of War. 5 When Washington became aware of the advantages of this type of military strategy which can be compared to some extent to guerrilla fighting techniques, he encouraged all of his generals to teach their men the "Fabian way of war," especially after the bloody defeats of 1776 by the British and in the Battle of Long Island in New York. 6

In the case of General Nathanael Greene, military tactics were of especial importance, for in 1781, Greene was forced to instruct his Continental soldiers and those who had joined as militia volunteers on how to fight in battle according to the military strategies handed down from the British in the preceding years before the war. As Charles W. Heathcote points out, Greene relied heavily upon the old-fashioned rank by rank formation, for in many battles with the British under the command of Cornwallis, he "arranged his army in three lines. The first line made up of untrained militia" quickly gave way to a second line "under the command of seasoned officers," while the third line "was composed of trained Continental soldiers" with muskets. In one famous battle against the British, these tactics served Greene very well, for the British forces "were stopped and crippled... losing hundreds of men" with American losses being much lower. 7

In a similar fashion, Colonel Francis Marion often utilized the above-mentioned "Fabian strategy," especially during a number of important battles in the colony of South Carolina. In 1780, following the capture of the city of Charleston by British forces under the command of Banastre Tarleton, Marion "organized a small force of poorly-equipped men" and trained them in guerrilla tactics. For a time, his troops lived off the land and then began to harass the British troops "by staging small surprise attacks in which they captured small groups of British soldiers, sabotaged communication and supply lines and rescued American prisoners." 8 Marion then sent his troops into swamp country which Tarleton was completely unfamiliar with as far as tactics was concerned and quickly discovered that Marion could not be captured, thus giving him the nickname of the "Swamp Fox." In 1781, Marion and his "Swampmen" fought valiantly at the Battle of Eutaw Springs which forced the British to retreat into the nearby colony of North Carolina. 9

Another example of the rank by rank formation used so successfully by Nathanael Greene relates to Colonel Daniel Morgan and his Virginia riflemen. At the battle at Freeman's Farm, Morgan and his men via the rank by rank formation "cut up an entire regiment of British troops and rendered their artillery corps useless by picking off the crew one by one." Later on, Morgan "at Bemis Heights...led a flanking movement to the British right that... wrapped up the entire army and forced" the British to surrender. 10 Thus, for the American forces and the Virginia sharpshooters, this turned out to be a very important victory and proved beyond any doubt that the rank by rank formation tactic worked beautifully when utilized properly and under strict regimental control.

Thus, the military tactics utilized by the Continental Army, the members of the colonial militias and encouraged by the various military leaders of the war, such as Washington, Greene, Marion and Morgan, helped to shape to a great extent all of the military tactics and strategies which would follow in the decades to come after the culmination of the Revolutionary War, particularly in 1812 when America once again faced its bitter enemy the British Empire which invaded America and began what came to be known as the War of 1812. In effect, the military lessons of the Revolutionary War made it abundantly clear to men like Washington and Nathanael Greene that tactics were extremely important when it comes to winning decisively over the enemy, especially regarding "the employment of light troops as skirmishers in conjunction with traditional linear formations." 11

Also, the guerrilla tactics utilized particularly by Marion the "Swamp Fox" "were not the product of the design of Washington or his leading subordinates but of circumstances over which they had little control" and in the end, proved to be "of great value in wooded areas, as at Saratoga and King's Mountain." 12 as for Commander George Washington who went on to become the first President of the United States, one of the most basic hard lessons which he learned from the war was that "the militia should be well-regulated, trained and organized under uniform national system" and subject to "the call into national service in war or emergency," a reference to the draft. 13

As to American society and its political structure and ideals, the lessons learned from the Revolutionary War, fought during a time in history when ground warfare in the colonies was a completely new military stratagem, created "two diametrically opposed schools of thought on American military policy," being the insistence upon a large regular army as opposed to "reliance on the militia as the bulwark of national defense." Therefore, Washington and his generals in the field fully understood that a true standing army was a national necessity. 14

In addition, the tactics employed by Washington, Greene, Marion and Morgan, four men with brilliant military minds despite their lack of experience in the field and with long-proven military tactics, had learned the hard way that the future of the American Republic depended to a great extent upon what had been accomplished in battle. In essence, these tactics and lessons "balanced the rights of freedom and equality" as written in the Declaration of Independence "with a corresponding obligation of all American citizens for military service" to the newly-founded nation. 15

Militarily speaking, the Revolutionary War and its lessons "portended the end of 18th century limited war fought by professional armies officered by an aristocratic class" as found in France, Germany and other European nations and thus created an entirely new system of defense known as the U.S. military. In a sense then, the Revolutionary War was responsible for the democratization of war, a process that was eventually to lead to national conscription and a new concept of total war for total victory." 16

ENDNOTES

Moran, Donald N. "Why Did They Do That? 18th Century Military Tactics."

Sons of Liberty Chapter. 1997. Internet. Retrieved March 14, 2009 at http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/tactics.html.

Ibid, Internet.

Norris, Thomas J. "Warfare Tactics in the American Revolutionary War." American

History Magazine. October 2001. New York University, pg. 59.

Patrick, James R. The Revolutionary War and Military Strategies. New… [END OF PREVIEW]

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