Revisited Myth #115: In the Revolutionary War, the Americans used guerrilla tactics to beat the British, who fought standing in straight lines.

March 26, 2017


The myth, which is reinforced in textbooks, at historic sites and battlefields claims that during the Revolutionary War, the American army 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, historian and former 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 for the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. I particularly like the opening where Geist reminds his readers of the Bill Cosby routine that I remember fondly (even though I no longer have fond thoughts of Bill Cosby himself). 

“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.

 

Previous Comments:

Grant says:
May 18, 2013 at 6:24 pm (Edit)
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/

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oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 7:30 am (Edit)
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.

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Grant says:
May 19, 2013 at 8:13 am (Edit)
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:
May 19, 2013 at 10:30 am (Edit)
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.

oldud says:
May 19, 2013 at 10:40 am (Edit)
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.

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Mary Miley says:
May 19, 2013 at 1:31 pm (Edit)
Good luck! Let us know the results.

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Sharon Ferguson says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:08 am (Edit)
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.

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Travis says:
May 19, 2013 at 11:14 pm (Edit)
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.

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mehh says:
December 1, 2013 at 5:57 pm (Edit)
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.

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Mary Miley says:
December 1, 2013 at 6:21 pm (Edit)
Very true. Sometimes we Yanks give ourselves too much credit . . .

picard578 says:
June 6, 2016 at 6:38 am (Edit)
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.

oldud says:
December 2, 2013 at 11:21 am (Edit)
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.

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Sean Corcoran says:
May 22, 2016 at 1:22 pm (Edit)
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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Revisited Myth #109: Laws allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb, and that’s where the phrase “rule of thumb” originated.

January 28, 2017

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There are actually two myths here: 1) that laws allowed men to beat their wives as long as the stick was small, and 2) that this is the origin of the phrase “rule of thumb.”

First par first. In the various American colonies, laws differed from place to place and year to year. In Maryland, at least in the 1600s, beating one’s dependents with a small stick was allowed. Dependents included indentured servants, slaves, children, and wives. “The community expected him [a husband and landowner] to keep good order and the law allowed him to correct any of his charges with physical punishment, provided that any stick used in beating was no thicker than a man’s finger at its thickest end. Beating even his wife was permissible.” Lois Green Carr, “From Servant to Freeholder” Maryland Historical Magazine (Fall 2004), p. 298. Legal reference not cited. No similar references have been found that refer to thumbs and beatings, only to fingers.

Beatings with this size stick could be severe, and several cases appear against masters who beat their slaves or servants excessively, “Whereuppon mr Ouerzee beate him wth some Peare Tree wands or twiggs to the bignes of a mans finger att the biggest end, wch hee held in his hand” and the slave died. (Maryland Provincial Court Proceedings 1658) but I found no mention of wives or children being beaten with sticks, perhaps because none sued in Court. Again, the reference to stick size is a man’s finger, not a thumb.

Now for Part 2) the origins of the phrase “Rule of Thumb.” Our old reliable friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, disputes this claim. The Rule of Thumb, it says, is “a method or procedure derived entirely from practice or experience without any basis in scientific knowledge; a roughly practical method.” The earliest known instance of the term is 1692: “What he doth, he doth by rule of Thumb, and not by Art.” More examples from later years follow, but nothing pertaining to beating one’s wife.

In her 1994 book, Who Stole Feminism?, Christina Hoff Sommers spends five entire pages discussing the origins, legal and journalistic, of the phrase, “rule of thumb.” It is too long for me to retype the entire section and the book is not available online to cut and paste, so I can’t post it. You’ll have to read pages 203-207 at your local library if you want more detail. Suffice to say that Sommers’s exhaustive research uncovered no link between the phrase and the law, other than misguided journalists quoting one another in magazine and newspaper articles. Which is how such myths are spread.

In a nutshell, Sommers debunks the oft-repeated statement that rule of thumb laws permitting wife-beating can be found in the famous legal commentaries of William Blackstone (1723-1780), which is the basis of much U.S. common law, and that these laws prevailed in state courts throughout the 19th century. Blackstone does state, “The husband, by the old law, might give his wife moderate correction . . . in the same moderation that a man is allowed to correct his apprentices or children . . . But with us, in the politer reign of Charles the Second, this power of correction began to be doubted; and a wife may now have security of the peace against her husband.” This conforms to the Maryland law, mentioned above. (Charles II ruled 1660-1685)

“In America,” Sommers says, “there have been laws against wife beating since before the Revolution. By 1870, it was illegal in almost every state, but even before then, wife-beaters were arrested and punished for assault and battery. . . . The Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited wife-beating as early as 1655. The edict states: No man shall strike his wife nor any woman her husband on penalty of such fine not exceeding ten pounds for one offense . . . “

But a couple of careless judges stated in their opinions the erroneous belief that this myth was true, and these men are often quoted as proof. In Mississippi in 1824 and in North Carolina in 1874, judges referred to an “ancient law” by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick provided it was no wider than his thumb. There is no ancient law. None. And even here, neither judge referred to the supposed law as the “rule of thumb.”

Even the much-maligned Wikipedia has got this right. But there are many online sites that cheerfully and wrongly explain the origin of this phrase.

 

COMMENTS:

Cassidy says:
March 23, 2013 at 10:33 am (Edit)
Interesting, but can I ask if English laws were examined and/or why they weren’t? Because what I’ve heard is that the supposed “rule of thumb” is from Sir Francis Buller, called “Judge Thumb“. I mean, I’ve also heard that Buller never actually said anything about sticks as wide as a man’s thumb, but there must be something (perhaps blown out of proportion and exaggerated for comic effect) that sparked Gillray’s cartoon.

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Mary Miley says:
March 25, 2013 at 12:57 pm (Edit)
I surmise from this cartoon that there was some British law about size of sticks, like the one mentioned above in Maryland about finger-size sticks. (And I’d be delighted if you wanted to look into the topic and report back!) But the origins of the phrase, Rule of Thumb, is explained by Oxford English Dictionary (above), and I always bow to their wisdom.

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nunya says:
November 19, 2014 at 4:51 pm (Edit)
https://www.law.umaryland.edu/marshall/usccr/documents/cr12w8410.pdf

And another article from Yale Law would disagree with this article (at least the feminist aspect of it). Just because something is illegal/legal on the books does NOT mean it didn’t happen.

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Lisa Denton says:
August 18, 2016 at 12:16 pm (Edit)
I recently watched some old BBC episodes of what I’d call experimental archaeology/reality show, Tudor Monastery Farm (2013). In the 3rd episode, one of the historians is visiting a miller (flour). The miller mentions rule of thumb. It’s 25m 45 sec into it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLyw6w-UH6U
Has anyone ever heard of this origin? Or is this another misguided historical interpreter? Or is there a difference between British and American usage?

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Mary Miley says:
August 20, 2016 at 9:23 am (Edit)
Frankly, this sounds like a possible origin of the phrase, but I can’t prove it.

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Myth # 142: During the Civil War, soldiers bit on bullets to combat pain.

January 17, 2016

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Rhonda Florian wrote: “I’m hoping you can help me with some information. I am a living historian. I keep running into what I believe is a history myth—that soldiers used to bite on a bullet during surgery. I always scoff at the idea. I ask the person, “What’s going to happen the first time you scream?” Besides, I ask, what would be the purpose of biting a bullet even if it were humanly possible? But then there’s always that person who says they’ve seen a Civil War bullet with teeth marks on it. Undeniable proof, they exclaim.”

I can only point to an excellent response to this question, written by George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, here. 


Revisited Myth #50: Lee offered his sword to Grant at Appomattox, but Grant refused it.

June 30, 2015

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This week’s myth comes to us courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where it was properly debunked. The story reported that Robert E. Lee’s French-made, ceremonial sword had been conserved and was being moved from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, to a newly constructed museum in Appomattox, where it is on display throughout 2015 (the 150th anniversary of the surrender) at the house where the surrender took place (below). The reporter repeated the enduring myth often heard at Civil War sites–that General Lee offered his ceremonial sword to General Ulysses S. Grant and that Grant gallantly refused it–saying that both claims were untrue.

Lee never offered his sword. Grant never requested it. Here are Grant’s own words from his memoirs: “The much talked of surrendering of Lee’s sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance.” Seems it was a widespread myth even back then! 

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Revisited Myth # 39: During the Revolutionary War, people melted down their pewter mugs and plates to make bullets.

February 22, 2015

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Since we’re already on the subject of deadly pewter . . . what about pewter bullets?

Bullet molds were intended to make lead bullets, but “in a pinch,” says Colonial Williamsburg gunsmith Richard Sullivan, “you could use pewter even though it would be inferior to lead. But I know of no accounts of such a practice.” Neither did two other Williamsburg gunsmiths I asked. I’ve read a few secondary sources that mention this practice as having occurred during the Revolutionary War, but these have been old publications (like the book on Nathan Hale from 1915), where the statement isn’t documented, or family genealogies, where the author repeats family lore, again, without documentation. It’s easy to repeat stories,  harder to find one that points to proof in the form of a primary source.

With bullets, heavier is better. Pewter would work—heck, aluminum foil would work—but pewter is mostly tin with a small amount of another metal, sometimes lead but not always. Imagine the power of a tin bullet . . . it wouldn’t go as far as a lead one, would lose speed more quickly, and wouldn’t have the energy when it struck. In dire circumstances, melting down one’s pewter plates might have provided ammunition that was better than nothing, but the practice could hardly have been widespread. Even though it might have occurred on rare occasion, the statement makes it sound commonplace, and so should be judged a myth.  

However, one reader of this blog, John Simpson, pointed out some recent research that shows archaeologists have discovered examples of lead-tin alloy musket balls on the site of the Battle of Monmouth (NJ), at Rice’s Fort (PA), and at Fort Motte (SC). At Monmouth, musket balls of “lead hardened with tin” were uncovered. At Fort Motte (1781), Stacey Whitacre’s 2008 MA thesis studied “lead alloy (pewter?)” that are “probable rifle balls.” For those who want to delve further into the subject, Mr. Simpson kindly provided links to the thesis and details of the other finds in his comments below. 

 

 


Revisited Myth #32: Colonial-era guns were very heavy and awkward to fire.

November 1, 2014

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Not true. A standard British military gun of the eighteenth-century weighed about the same as the U.S. Army’s nine-and-a-half-pound World War II rifle, the M1 Garand. Colonial Williamsburg gunsmith Richard Sullivan says that they hear this a lot from visitors, but tell them that the weight of most colonial guns ranged from six to ten pounds.


Revisited Myth #10: A corner chair was designed to accommodate a man wearing a sword.

April 6, 2014

     Corner chairs, usually called roundabout chairs in their day, were occasional chairs often used in a corner or at a desk. They were not terribly rare—you can find antique examples at many decorative arts museums and in period houses where they are usually found in bed chambers, sitting rooms, dining rooms, or libraries. They were also called smoking chairs, barber’s chairs, writing chairs, and desk chairs, suggesting that men were the primary user. I found two portraits where the subject is sitting in a roundabout chair, and both are men. (See portrait of George Wyllis owned by the Connecticut Historical Society and the one pictured here of John Bours from the Worcester Art Museum.)

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If you come across a roundabout chair with a particularly deep seat rail, it was probably used as a commode chair (AKA night chair, necessary chair, or closestool) with a chamber pot fixed below the removable seat. The deep seat rail hides the chamber pot.

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Like so many fashions, roundabout chairs first became popular in England in the early years of the 18th century and spread to the American colonies. Most of these chairs were made during the period from about 1730 to the 1790s, after which their popularity diminished to the point that there are almost none in the Federal style. 

Several reenactors wrote to tell me that it was awkward sitting in a roundabout chair wearing a sword, which I can visualize, I think. The sword point (sheathed, of course) would hit the chair, where it would not do so in a traditional chair. Whatever, it’s irrelevant because men almost never wore swords indoors. During the 18th-c and afterward, the custom was to wear swords for battle or for parade, but not for social events like balls or dinner parties. So the roundabout chair was not invented to deal with this “problem.” 

 

 


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