A work acquaintance once described to me the means in which the American’s won the War of Independence. The Americans simply “hid behind trees and bushes while the British stood out in the open.”A myth? Yes. But like any myth there is a kernel of truth. Guerrilla tactics were certainly employed during the war but no tactical stroke of genius brought about victory in the War of Independence. We owed a great deal to the French. We also owed a great deal to a strategy that lost most of our battles but kept our army around long enough to win the war.George Washington was a conventional general and certainly no champion of guerrilla warfare. The weaponry of the time was not suited for a style of combat that allowed soldiers to ‘take the field’ by picking off enemies from behind cover. Besides, this type of fighting was dishonorable.

As strange as it seems to the modern eye, standing in concentrated groups in the open was the most effective way of maximizing firepower. The common musket employed at the time was the Brown Bess. This weapon packed quite a punch, but it was about as accurate as a drunk Dick Cheney shooting a low flying quail. Soldiers bunched together in tight formations to concentrate fire and thus increase the chance of hitting a similarly concentrated group of soldiers. While columns of tightly packed soldiers allowed for maximum firepower, it also simultaneously maximized the damage from a cannon ball.

Later during the war, the role of rifles became more significant. Painfully slow to load, the Kentucky rifle was remarkably accurate. The rifle became the primary tool of sharpshooters who’s favorite targets were Royal officers leading their troops into battle.

Many thought targeting specific individuals on the battlefield an act of murder. Not only was it ignoble, some thought it deliberately at odds with God’s plan. If you were unfortunate enough to be struck by a random ball from an inaccurate musket the thinking went, then surely providence intended for you to meet your maker. However, if you were picked off by a Kentucky Rifleman, then you were obviously the victim of a murderous redneck with good aim.

The American victory in the war involved many factors. Certainly, the American’s ability to use cover and selectively pick off enemy officers became more effective as tactics and technology evolved during the eight year struggle. But just like any war, rarely can one singular tactic be pointed to as a means for ultimate victory. I would  point to other less known factors as being more significant. For example, Horatio Gates’ and Benedict Arnold’s victory at Saratoga was essential to gaining the trust of a skittish French Aristocracy that up until that point was hesitant to agree to an alliance. Or just as significant was George Washington’s herculean effort to keep together and train a group of cold and starving soldiers during that dark winter at Valley Forge.

But the more I think about it, hiding behind a bush and shooting officers sure helped a hell of a lot too.

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