Comparing British & American battle strategies

The popular image of military tactics during the American Revolutionary War is that the crafty colonists wore their buckskins and other camouflage, hid behind trees, and sniped at British soldiers marching in columns and wearing red coats with white crosses on the chest. The British, apparently, thought their military tactics were the envy of the world and more than a match for a bunch of amateur backwoods guerilla fighters.

Re-enactors do it, and it’s been shown in almost every Revolutionary War movie from Henry Fonda leading the colonials in “Drums Along the Mohawk” in 1939 to Mel Gibson doing the same in “The Patriot” in 2000. According to popular history, that’s how a rag-tag bunch of rebels in scattered militias defeated the finest army in the world!

Mel Gibson defending freedom in "The Patriot." Photo courtesy of digital history.uh.edu

Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin defending freedom in “The Patriot.” Photo courtesy of digital history.uh.edu

And, you guessed it, Buzzkillers, it’s more less completely a myth. That story’s far too simplistic. The Colonials used standard European-style battle formations when they needed to, and the British used guerilla tactics whenever those fit the battle goal.

The myth has at least one truth; the Battle of Lexington and Concord had a lot of these tactical elements to it, and since it was the first battle — and one of the most famous — the way it happened stuck in folk memory.

April 19, 1775: The British moved inland from Boston harbor to try and capture stores of colonial arms and gunpowder, especially in Concord. Some rebels had heard about the British plans and were waiting along the road to Concord to harry the redcoats, as well as move most of their own munitions out of Concord to other places. The British were able to press on to Concord, but when their search turned out fruitless they retreated back towards Boston. Colonial militiamen did indeed use guerilla tactics to fight the British as they retreated. Official battle reports, as well as some contemporary engravings, show this clearly. By sniping from behind fences, trees, and rocks, the militiamen inflicted greater damage on the British forces than they suffered themselves.

But Lexington and Concord was really the only time this happened. The vast majority of Revolutionary battles were fought in the European style of the time and, indeed, as had been used in the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years’ War, from 1754-1763. Regular pitched battles, fought by British and colonial forces in linear formation out in the open, were the norm. The battles of Monmouth, Long Island, Brandywine, White Plains, Germantown, Camden, Cowpens, and on and on were fought this way.

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Minutemen at the Battle of Lexington. Photo courtesy of sonofthesouth.net

Here’s what they did. Two armies faced each other across 100 yards or so of open ground, in tight formation, sometimes three ranks deep, and fired musket volleys at each other. With each volley, they moved a little closer to each other, trying to increase the damage they were inflicting. Of course, some of these battles descended into chaos and one side retreated in disarray — but not usually.  Once one side was more damaged than the other, it commonly retreated rather hastily, but generally in an orderly fashion and the victorious army gained that ground or territory.

I know what you’re thinking, Buzzkillers. This seems stupid. Both sides were just sitting ducks. Apart from the fact that all the commanders on both sides had been schooled in this battle fashion, why did they do it?

Well, it turns out there was a logical reason behind it and it has to do with the type of arms in use at the time.

Rifles and pistols were common, of course, but the real weapon of war for the soldier (and infantry as a whole) was the musket. To those of you who know a little bit about the history of military technology, this might sound nutty. Muskets were smoothbore and not nearly as accurate as rifles. They seem crude, but here’s an example of where it’s easy to make assumptions (and that’s how myths often start). As unsophisticated as muskets may have seemed, they accomplished what military commanders wanted – to kill as many soldiers as possible in the other army and as quickly as possible.

That’s where the musket was better than the rifle. It could be loaded and fired very quickly (up to four times per minute). This was partly because of the smooth bore of the barrel, but also because the musket ball and the powder for the charge were made ahead of time and encased in a paper cartridge. It was relatively simple and quick to ram the cartridge down the muzzle, pick up the musket and fire.

Muskets didn’t need to be super accurate if thick volleys of their bullets could be sent flying towards the enemy, and musket men didn’t bother aiming much. Muskets weren’t that accurate, but they didn’t need to be. Imagine rows of 50 or 60 muskets firing three or four times per minute. That’s more frightening than scattered rifle shots coming from behind trees.

Loading a rifle was much slower. The bullet and powder needed to be tightly packed and rammed through the internal grooves (“rifling”) of the barrel. An expert rifleman took about a minute and a half to re-load and fire. By that time, a musketeer could have blasted off almost six rounds.

Riflemen were used by both sides in the Revolutionary War, but not as the main force. They were used as skirmishers, light infantry, and, basically, snipers.

Pity the poor musketeer. He did all the heavy lifting, almost all the killing during these early modern wars, yet the dashing cavalry and the backwoodsmen get all the glory in popular books and movies. It’s just like the historians at the Buzzkill Institute. We work with real history, yet Stephen Spielberg gets all the glory.