Myth #115: In the Revolutionary War, the American’s use of guerrilla tactics beat the British, who fought standing in straight lines.

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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.”

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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. 

13 Responses to Myth #115: In the Revolutionary War, the American’s use of guerrilla tactics beat the British, who fought standing in straight lines.

  1. Grant says:

    It would be equally mythical to suggest that the British, who had fought a battle or two in broken terrain before, didn’t have quite capable light infantry.

    I enjoy a good debunk myself over at the Eagle Clawed Wolfe. Currently perceptions of old age in history are in my (Pattern 1776 Rifle) sights.

    http://eagleclawedwolfe.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/a-brief-history-of-old-men-and-women-part-one-steel-bonnets-on-grey-pates/

    • oldud says:

      I agree. Both sides employed light infantry and rifle units in the revolution. The drill and use of light infantry is quite different than line infantry. It concentrates on smaller units and individual maneuver, as well as the use of cover and concealment during skirmishing in support of line units. However, massed line infantry was the machine gun of the time and the bayonet was the infantry weapon of decision. And the only way the bayonet could be effectively deployed as a decisive force was by a disciplined, well drilled mass formation of infantry. As you point out, the British had developed and incorporated infantry tactics to combat the French and aboriginal forces in heavily wooded and broken terrain during the F&I War; not much chance hard learned lessons like those would be forgot by the time of the American Revolution. Not to mention that GW, as commander of the Continental Army, wanted a conventional army to match that of the British.

      • Grant says:

        All history is, of course, to a lessor or greater extent mythologised. The American Revolutionary War and War of 1812 probably more than most, as the cornerstone of of the American foundation narrative whilst it is almost ignored by British historians, which might give it balance. I think the British military was pretty functional in both wars- they were just wars which couldn’t be won and no tweaking of infantry tactics was going to change that.

        “The Wolfe” on a similar lopsided view of history:

        http://eagleclawedwolfe.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/carlisle-castle-border-reivers-and-awkward-questions/

      • oldud says:

        I agree. Growing expenses for both conflicts, the loss of trade and failing public support led a pragmatic British government to end it’s attempt to retain the American colonies and in the case of the War of 1812, declare victory and go home.

  2. oldud says:

    I have changed my mind on cartridges. Failing to find explicit orders to recruiting officers and sergeants to specifically look for opposing teeth in recruits, I can not say it is not a myth. Having all of my teeth and never having “gummed” a cartridge, I can not attest to whether or not it could be done. However, I am now very interested in this detail of musketry and intend to learn more about paper cartridges than I knew before.

  3. Sharon Ferguson says:

    One major point here: it is a truth that the American’s (colonials, what have you) DID prevail. They won. Period. The British surrendered. Ignoring that fact isnt going to change it. The British Parliament continued to shunt responsibility for the colonies to priorities that worked to their benefit, not for the empire, and the American colonies said theyd had enough of it. FACT.

    • Travis says:

      I don’t see where anyone called that into question, Sharon. No one is ignoring any facts here, just dispelling one of the most long-held misconceptions of how the war was fought – one that has been repeatedly reinforced by popular media and films like the Patriot but has little basis in reality. That’s fact.

    • mehh says:

      Actually, one of the primary reasons the British surrendered to the American Army was that they (the British) had another war going on with Napoleonic France at the time, and they prioritized that war over some uppity colonists.

      • Mary Miley says:

        Very true. Sometimes we Yanks give ourselves too much credit . . .

      • picard578 says:

        Actually, you are mistaken in one detail. British had a war with France going on, but it was a war with Royalist France – US War of Independence ended in 1776 IIRC, and Napoleon didn’t come into power until 1790s. There was a war between Britain and US during the Napoleonic wars, but that one was the War of 1812, in which Canadians with very little help from British kicked American butts when Americans decided to add Canada to the glorious USA.

  4. oldud says:

    The British never surrendered in the War of 1812. The strategic objectives of the British were:

    1. Retain Canada as a British colony by preventing a successful American invasion-successful.

    2. Create a buffer reservation for aboriginal nations in the Old Northwest (current states of Ohio, Indiana and Michigan)-failed.

    3. Split the US from it’s western territories obtained in the Louisiana Purchase by gaining and maintaining control of the Mississippi River from it’s headwaters to the Gulf of Mexico, thus preventing the western expansion of the US-failed.

    And a bonus point; possibly prying New England away from the US through succession.

    The war with the US had come on the heels of the Napoleonic wars and the British public had pretty well had enough of martial conflict. And since they only accomplished one of their three strategic objectives* in the war, they just declared victory, signed the treaty of Ghent and sent their army and navy home; except for a defense force in Canada.

    But the United States did manage to defend it’s self against the most powerful military in the world and survive. This meant our independence as a nation had been verified and our dependence on any other government was forever severed.

    *Failure to capture the upper Mississippi by the British occurred before the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the failure at New Orleans occurred afterward.

  5. Sean Corcoran says:

    What seldom gets mention why the British Government decided to negotiate a peace settlement is the fact that Spanish forces had taken three key British bases in the Gulf ,Baton Rouge, Natchez, Pensacola which gave them West Florida. There was a good chance that Britain could lose Jamicia as a result. In addition Britain had to keep land and naval forces close to home in the event of France and Spain attempting military actions in the Channel. As mentioned above the higher priority was in Europe.

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