Now it’s your turn

The first week of the Spring semester, and as usual I’m behind already. I’m teaching the Historical Research and Writing course, a senior seminar on Late Stuart England, and my Religion, War and Peace in Early Modern Europe – tomorrow’s lesson: the Old Testament!

So I’ll just throw this out there until I have time to compose a real post:

A colleague wants to know what the latest consensus is (if one exists) about the old saw that British red coats in the American Revolution stood up proud and tall in nice straight linear formations while American militiamen fired at them behind trees and rocks with their rifles.

I’ve read Spring’s With Zeal and With Bayonets Only and Grenier’s First American Way of War and a couple of the recent works on Native American warfare, but since several skulkers focus on the American Revolutionary era and since I have enough trouble keeping up with works on Europe between 1650 and 1750 while doing my own research, I thought I’d check to see what the current status of the topic is. So for this post only, consider this EMEMH blog temporarily a EMAMH blog.

Comment away!

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10 responses to “Now it’s your turn”

  1. Wayne Lee says :

    oh dear. Short answer: no. Long answer: it’s complicated. Rarely did linear formations of British troops engage skulking militiamen. Even the march back from Concord was not a battle so much as a pursuit, and that’s the best example of such an occasion. Also, British tactics weren’t nearly as linear and inflexible as myth would have (see Spring).

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    While I have no doubt that there was some professional jealousy/conservatism amongst the officer corps, it would be a mistake to think that light infantry tactics were taboo in the British army. Both William Howe and Thomas Gage were light infantry advocates. Robert Rogers, the father of the U.S. Rangers, fought for the British in both the French and Indian War and the Revolution. Several of the Loyalist units were light infantry. There’s also the many jager formations present in the Hessian contingent.

    The flip side of the coin is that militia as well as Continentals frequently fought in linear formation. Even in North America, open formations lacked the firepower and stability of closed ranks (not to mention the C3 advantages of formed units). Militia did have a well-deserved reputation for mediocrity versus regulars in the open, but that could be turned to an advantage (a la Cowpens).

    Long story short – the old saw is a very shallow analysis of the differences between the two armies.

    PS to Wayne Lee – excellent point re: the retreat from Concord. Harrying troops on the move (particularly retrograde moves) is a classic use for light troops, both horse and foot.

  3. Björn Thegeby says :

    Just to confirm, Andreas Emmerich who led the Loyalist skirmishing against the Hudson lines was considered one of the finest theorists of the use of irregular infantry and justly feared by his opponents.

    I wonder if Roland E. is a descendant and what Andreas would have made of his awful movie 🙂

  4. Win Treese says :

    I’m not a historian, but my understanding is that a great deal of Massachusetts (at least) had been cleared of trees by the 1770s, and that the “rocks” part was the low stone walls you still see around today. At Minuteman National Park in Concord, MA, it’s hard now to imagine what that was like, since much of the forest has regrown. For the running battle of April 1775, it’s easy to imagine some crouching behind a low stone wall or behind the occasional tree, but (as has been pointed out), the British weren’t much in formation after they fled from the North Bridge confrontation.

    • jostwald says :

      Good point about changing terrain features.
      If anyone wants to visualize what all those low stone walls were like, just come to Connecticut! Though admittedly we do have lots of trees as well.

  5. jegrenier says :

    Pretty basic answer is no. But most people point to the development of light infantry (LI) in No. Am. to show how the British had broken the code of skirmishing and t/4 didn’t fall into the trap (trope) of rigid lines. Wayne is right … It’s WAAAY more complicated, especially when we consider LI was kind of a bust in the colonies. The general idea of light infantry in the 7YW was to make a kind of hybrid force of rangers (good for long-range recon and surveillance, and work as pathfinders, all to use today’s term) and regular line infantry. Tangent: imho the issue frankly had little to do with fighting Indians and more with intelligence-gathering functions. British commanders knew that if they could close with the Indians, or the French for that matter, they’d win. They real problem was not that they didn’t know how to fight the Indians (basic infantry tactics of massed firepower and fire discipline worked wonders, especially on the tactical defensive) but rather where they were. Dictating when and where you fight is key, right? Braddock, for example, did not lose b/c his troops did not know what to do (they stood for four hours before the ran out of powder and ball and only then tried to extract themselves) but because they found themselves in a terrible tactical position that even the most basic scouting and patrolling @may@ (or not) have prevented. Back on point, my understanding about LI in Europe is that they served mostly as skimishers, but very rarely in detached operations that you need for strategic and operational recon. Rangers very good at those kind of ops; LI not so much. Rangers were also pretty good (but not as good as Indians) at nabbing prisoners, and they were also good at carrying messages (orders) over the “trackless” (it wasn’t, but the British couldn’t see that) wilderness. So they fit nicely with what we’d call C2ISR. But Loudoun, Abercromby, and Amherst all had issues with the reliability of ranger intelligence–they wanted more from them than they could offer–so they assigned regulars to accompany them on their missions. That was the high point of the conversion of regulars to rangers. By late 59, the regulars were done with rangers and were looking for ways to be done with them. Context is important: Rangers played very small roles in the major battles of the war (Ti in ’58 and ’59, Quebec in ’59, Ste-Foy in ’60), and they lost the 3 battles they fought with the Indians (La Barbue Creek in ’57, Rogers’s Rock in ’58, and Ft. Anne in ’58). Not really all that impressive collection of battle honors.

    A few guys, like the ever-ambitious Thos. Gage, thought they could leverage the CINCs’ distrust of the rangers for their advancement. B/c there wasn’t an open rgt/cc billet for Gage, he volunteered to create a rgt on his on. Only near the end of his manuverings on the staff did he suggest that it be a LI regiment (80th) that could REPLACE the rangers. Everyone knew it was a joke … Lord Howe, John Forbes, Ralph Burton, each and all very good soldiers, told Loudoun not to devote resources to the rgt, and if he did, appoint John Bradstreet (an excellant “irregular” leader) its major. Bradstreet refused to serve under Gage (who he thought was an idiot, and perhaps a coward). The result was Gage scrapped the bottom of the barrel for his senior CGOs, and most of them (16 of the first 20) came from the regular line and had no ranger experience. In the end, the LI could not do much to support the rangers, and compared to the Highlander BNs or grenadiers, they were not very good skirmishers or assault troops. They army t/4 left the war convinced that neither rangers nor regulars offered much value, and it was a waste of resources to spend good soldiers on those kind of units.

    But irregular service offered opportunities for advancement if you were willing to stick with it. If we look at Tarleton, Simcoe, and even Rogers in the AWI, the main reason they turned to the “irregular” service was because they had reached a glass ceiling in the regular service, and if they wanted to make a name for themselves, they needed to make themselves useful. Today, we look at them like we look at SOF… Sexy and daring and romantic. Another old saw. No SOF ever won a war, and they just as often cause problems as deliver results. The Americans did not win the AWI because they hid behind walls and trees and shot redcoats who presented in rigid lines, but because of a whole range of geo-political, stategic, and operational reasons. Both the Americans and British used essentially the same tactics and techniques on the battlefield. Sorry for the typos … Pecking away at the iPad.

    • jostwald says :

      Thanks for the thoughts. I admire your dedication typing on an iPad.
      Hervé Drévillon (in a late 17C French context) also mentions the possibility of individual officers gaining recognition with daring exploits in parties in small war, whereas it was more difficult to gain such individual recognition in a large battle (ditto for sieges). Yet an English treatise from the period spends a fair amount of time emphasizing that there was little honor to be won in small war, because you were always expected to come back with lots of prisoners, and with blood on your hands.

  6. Mark Danley says :

    What Wayne, John and the others said. Thank you.

    Yes, I confess I tire a little of the continued re-telling of unjustified and oversimplified claims of neat rows of redcoats inflexibly marching along until mowed down by wily American militiamen. (Jamel, I realize your colleague was just asking an honest question though.) May I raise an issue about a kind of corollary over-simplification/misrepresentation to this question that specialists in eighteenth-century warfare often encounter? Sometimes I hear the “explanation” that, you see, in Europe linear tactics worked because the terrain was all flat and open, but not so in wooded, wilderness America!. No, not completely. A careful look at, for example, Hesse-Cassel and the Electorate of Hanover – an area in which conventional European armies of large size (including the British) marched and fought over repeatedly during the era of the Seven Years’ War – shows that a lot of that terrain was still forested and also not exactly flat!

    Where the North American theater differed was in the *population density* and what some military theorists call “the force-to-space ratio”. But even on the population density issue one can’t go overboard. Most of Hesse-Cassel’s population was nucleated in Cassel and the Electorate of Hanover had, I believe, less than three-quarters of a million people. Denser than America, sure, but not the exemplar of the well-roaded, civilized, flat and open opposite to “America” that these popular military history tropes lead one to believe.

    As far as the evidence that I’ve seen suggests, John G. is right about the use of light troops in mid-eighteenth-century European warfare. There was plenty of use of detached forces but it was often regular line infantry (and dragoons, too, to be fair.).

    • jostwald says :

      Terrain is really important, and doesn’t get enough attention – a function (I think) of historians focusing on theoretical tactical treatises rather than looking at lots of specific campaigns. Even in the Low Countries, there were plenty of woods and broken terrain (looking at contemporary maps are useful in this regard); northern Italy was crisscrossed with rivers and canals. I don’t think I’m the first to suggest that it’s not accidental that there were certain locales where battles were fought again and again – they may have been among those few strategic places where you could actually line up a large field army in battle array. Louis XIV would warn his Flanders commanders not to fight a field battle where there wasn’t enough open space for his cavalry to act – it’d be interesting to map that out.
      Plus, all of those woods and copses offered plenty of hiding places for small parties to skulk and set ambushes – even in 1711 (i.e. after the Allied “front line” was well into northern France and after five years of Allied occupation), Allied sources were still complaining about all the French parties skulking in northern Brabant. Though I suppose some of these could have been Spanish locals.

      Population density has received a bit more attention in the historiography – I tend to see Parker’s heartland theory of the Military Revolution (and all the talk about fortification density) as a consequence of population, adding in terrain (rivers, valleys, transportation networks)…

      The higher the population density, the greater the deforestation over time I’d guess.

  7. Jegrenier says :

    Danley … Please shoot me email. I lost your address in an epic iphone crash …

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