When historians and enthusiasts look back on the American Revolution, very few would describe the war as an example of a conflict dominated by guerrilla tactics. To be sure, these tactics (much of which were borrowed from the Native Americans), were used effectively during the American Revolution. But at its core, the American Revolution was an 18th century war using tactics common to the European theater.
Despite modern misconceptions, 18th century tactics were flexible enough to adapt to the conditions of the battlefield. At no point did the British stubbornly hold on to antiquated ideas of warfare while Americans decimated their ranks with skirmish techniques and asymmetrical warfare. The British won most of their battles during the Revolution, and they did this by adapting to the environment like any elite army would be expected to do. British defeat would not lay at the hands of Patriot guerrilla irregulars, rather, it would lay at the feet of poor campaign strategy, French intervention, and a collection of British Generals that seemingly couldn’t coordinate a game of stick and hoop between a group of 5 year olds.
George Washington and Nathaniel Greene certainly did not discourage attempts by militia to harass the enemy at every turn. During the Southern Campaign, Green must of realized the importance of local Patriot irregulars who harassed Cornwallis’ troops and worked to effectively stifle local support for the British cause. Patriot and Loyalist militia fought critical battles outside the view of British troops, and both sides brought to bear guerrilla tactics as they struggled for supremacy. Eventually the Patriots would come out on top (Thanks in large part to the Overmountain men and backcountry militia) and Cornwallis would be forced to see the writing on the wall—there would be no groundswell of British support substantial enough to hold conquered southern territories. He shifted his focus to chasing down Nathaniel Green’s army. This fateful decision would eventually led him to Yorktown.
As I studied tactics during the American Revolution, my opinion on guerrilla warfare gradually migrated from one of “almost nonexistent” to “somewhat helpful.” It is important to note the critical influence that Native American’s had on this military method. The ‘Indian style’ involved quick and deadly strikes by loosely grouped soldiers who disappeared into the wilderness as quickly as they came.
Hardened by these battles with Native Americans during frontier skirmishes and the French Indian war, men like the Overmountain men and other war hardened settlers took the lessons to heart and used these tactics to some effectiveness against the British.
Yet at its core the American Revolution was an 18th century war in which the critical battles employed tactics common for the day.
As we look back from our 21st century perspective, we see no equivalent to the Tet offensive or any series of ambushes that totally annihilated British armies. The British would not expose themselves to defeats similar to those suffered during Braddock’s campaign during the French Indian war.
Indeed, when we look back we see a a war fought similarly to the war of 1812 than it was to Vietnam, Napoleons Peninsular campaign or the Russians in Afghanistan. The British were eventually brought to the peace table by larger engagements fought on relatively equal terms using conventional 18th century tactics— not by irregular warfare and guerrilla tactics.
Mike Schellhammer said:
Great post! I think that many historians would say that the Revolution saw a mix of conventional and unconventional tactics, by both sides. I think its important to give leaders of both sides credit for their intelligence and adaptability; British commanders were professionals who were too smart to cling to European tactics (in most cases) that clearly didn’t fit the American theater, neither were American commanders tied to using guerilla tactics that would not have, on a large scale, achieved the big victories needed to win the war. Leaders on both sides were flexible enough to adapt tactics as they learned lessons.
I wish I could of summarized it that well Mike…
Jimmy Dick said:
This was a hot topic in my American History to 1865 course. I had a few students that posted far more information based on heritage than what the actual facts were. One of the points they brought up was that guerrilla warfare was why the Americans won. It was a wonderful teaching moment.
Mike Schellhammer said:
Way to teach’em Jimmy!