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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The American Revolutionary War was not won by using guerilla tactics

There is a popular notion that the American colonists strictly used guerilla tactics and acted as snipers from the forest, hiding behind trees and rocks, picking off British Redcoats in ambush. This is a myth of the American Revolution.

Most people imagine that the British soldiers were the only ones marching in formation out in the open and following the rules of European warfare. Even though guerilla tactics are not how the Americans won the Revolution, this myth is based on reality to a certain extent. In fact, according to Anthony J. Joes, the guerillas' contribution was extremely important to American independence.

There were certainly instances of the Americans using guerilla tactics, particularly following Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts and later in the South by such partisan leaders as Francis Marion. These guerilla bands managed to wear down Cornwallis' force with hit-and-run tactics and the destruction of supplies, making his army more vulnerable when they finally confronted the main Continental Army at Yorktown. Furthermore, American riflemen, or rangers, when led by officers who knew how to utilize them correctly such as Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene, were extremely effective.

But for the most part, it is untrue that the Americans won the war by using cover, while the hapless British stood in the open in ranks to be shot by the hidden Americans. In fact, the British already had 75 years of experience with this type of guerilla warfare in North America, especially during the French and Indian War.

Both sides fought primarily in the open, in formation. The military gains made by the colonists increased after the Continental Army was trained in the traditional and more formal methods of European warfare. Baron Frederick von Steuben, with experience in the Prussian War, was engaged by General Washington for this purpose. When von Stueben took over training at Valley Forge, he put a single standard and methodology into the American army, so they could work better together. Through his influence and discipline in creating a regular army matching the British in tactics, the Americans were then able to defeat the British on the battlefield. They then became a match for the British on the open ground in every respect. The Americans had been hampered by various methods and commands of maneuver, with few large-scale training drills. Von Stueben changed that, setting a single standard and training the army to use it, and then the Americans proved their ability to use these techniques at the Battle of Monmouth.

Some of the confusion may be because Generals George Washington and Nathanael Greene successfully used a strategy of harassment and progressively grinding down British forces instead of seeking a decisive battle, in a classic example of asymmetric warfare. Nevertheless the theater tactics used by most of the American forces were those of conventional warfare. One of the exceptions was in the South, where the brunt of the war was upon militia forces who fought the enemy British troops and their Loyalist supporters, but used concealment, surprise, and other guerrilla tactics to much advantage. General Francis Marion of South Carolina, who often attacked the British at unexpected places and then faded into the swamps by the time the British were able to organize return fire, was named by them "The Swamp Fox." However, even in the South, most of the major engagements were battles of conventional warfare. However the guerrilla tactics in the South were a key factor in the prevention of British reinforcement to the North, and that was a decisive factor in the outcome of the war.

Certainly on occasion the Americans used cover, hiding behind trees and rock walls. The start of the war at Lexington and Concord is a prime example, and the New Jersey Militia, used it well also. Most battles were fought using some form of linear tactics—they would fire volleys, and often stood in lines. Both sides used cover when they could. The slow rate of fire made maneuvering important, so units fought and moved in lines, even in the woods, so they could protect against bayonet charges.

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Most historians estimate that only about 30-40 percent of the colonists were Patriots. Approximately 30-40 percent were loyal to the British ("Loyalists" or "Tories"). And the rest, about 30-35 percent did not really care who won ("Neutrals").

Redcoats (British Regulars)
As regimental reputations were built on battlefield gallantry, armies began to develop more colorful uniforms. This was psychological warfare. A distinctive uniform of a well known regiment would instill fear in their opponents, often causing them to retreat rather than stand and fight. Each of the European nations created their own styles and colors of uniforms. This system remained in place until World War I. Since then, some individual regiments still have "full dress" or a ceremonial uniform in addition to the service or field uniform.

The traditional enemy of the colonists was the Indian. The tactics used to fight the Indians were quite different from those of massed European armies. The Patriots' use of Indian tactics inflicted numerous casualties upon the British, but it did not win battles.

It wasn't until the Continental Army, and to a lesser degree, the militia, mastered the art of 18th century warfare—standing in ranks and trading volleys and finally capturing the battle field at bayonet point, did the American colonists start winning battles.

Linear tactics remained the rule through­out the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century. The mass carnage caused by the invention of the machine gun in World War I forced these time honored tactics to change.


Some of this information was originally published in Myth Information by J. Allen Varasdi, Ballantine Books, 1989.