The myth, which is reinforced in textbooks, at historic sites and battlefields, and even by comedian Bill Cosby claims that during the Revolutionary War, the American army all used guerrilla tactics and hid behind rocks, trees, and walls and mowed down the British who stood in nice straight lines out in the open. Ben Swenson, former high school history teacher and reenactor, comments on this myth, as does John Hill, Supervisor of Military Programs for Colonial Williamsburg. Thank you, gentlemen.
“There were a couple battles where the colonial militia, not the regular American Army (an important distinction), used these tactics, but in most battles, both sides used the classic linear tactics,” says Swenson. “It was the way that armies met on the field of battle then, and General Washington wanted more than anything to be recognized as a legitimate commander of a respectable military, so he used the conventional tactics of the day.”
John Hill agrees. “First of all, I hate the term guerrilla warfare [in this context]. In 1775 the British 1764 manual of arms was approved for all Virginia troops. Virginia regulars in Williamsburg and elsewhere were trained using the British model. However, it is interesting to note that although conventional tactics were the focus, one day each week the troops were marched from their Williamsburg camps to places like Queen’s Creek in order to practice woods tactics or Indian tactics. What determined which tactics are to be used? The action’s intended objective, troop strength in relation to the enemy’s, type of terrain and positions of the armies, types of weapons and ammunition available, types of soldiers available (infantry, dragoons, artillery, naval), and weather conditions are all important factors.
Conventional linear tactics of the 18th century were accomplished using muskets, quick reloading by the use of paper cartridges, and if necessary sweeping the field with bayonets. Linear tactics made it possible for officers to deploy large numbers of soldiers into action in specific areas. Linear tactics allowed for good communication and control of the soldiers. This tactic was extremely effective in overwhelming a weaker force.
Woods or Indian tactics were usually dictated in situations where the force was significantly smaller in number and mostly armed with civilian weapons (rifles, fowling pieces, tomahawks) rather than military weapons (muskets, bayonets, cannon). Although rifles were much more accurate than smoothbore muskets, they took longer to reload. Therefore, civilian firearms lacked the fire power of military firearms. Small bodies of troops utilizing woods tactics could cause great harassment and embarrassment to an occupying army, but displacing or defeating of an army of greater size armed with muskets and bayonets would be impossible
There are a few accounts in the Southern Campaign where both sides were largely using woods tactics such at Kings Mountain. These involved mostly militia: Loyalist vs. Rebels. I am unaware of any major battle of the American Revolution where an army using conventional warfare was defeated by an army using woods tactics.”
A wonderful, detailed article on this topic, titled “Of Rocks, Trees, Rifles, and Militia” (click on the title) was written by Christopher Geist, professor emeritus at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. I particularly like the opening where Geist reminds his readers of the Bill Cosby routine that I remember fondly.
“Suppose way back in history if you had a referee before every war, and the guy called the toss. Let’s go to the Revolutionary War.”
[Referee speaking] “British call heads. It’s tails. What do you do, settlers? . . . Settlers say that during the war they will wear any color clothes that they want to, shoot from behind the rocks and trees and everywhere. Says your team must wear red and march in a straight line.”
We laugh because Cosby tapped one of the most tenacious and cherished myths of the Revolution: American colonists prevailed in the conflict against, arguably, the finest military force of the era by using frontier tactics.