Colonies vs. The Empire: Strategy in the American Revolution.

Michael G. Stroud

The colonial approach to warfare

The colonial approach to warfare in the American Revolution was one born of experience in the wilds of North America coupled with the bitterness of denigration from its parent state of Great Britain. American strategy and tactics had been born of the harsh environmental concerns of the continent early on, resulting in early adaptations of the soldiery equipment and gear that while brutally effective on the open fields of Europe, did not translate well in the dense woods and grasslands of North America. Americans for example quickly did away with pole arms, unnecessary armour, and other European hindrances in favour of mobility and more close-quarters weapons such as the hand-axe and long-knife. These evolutions combined with the vast experiences of fighting both incessant native tribes and colonial rivals such as the French and Spanish, created an uniquely American way of war for the time. American leadership, generally void of direct military experience and reliant upon the fickleness of local militia, soon learned and implemented measures to best maximise their fighting strengths. Such measures included using scouts to minimize ambushes, utilizing hit-and-run tactics to wear down the British, terror tactics that included torture of British soldiers, Tories, and British-allied native peoples (that included the Iroquois, Mohawk, Shawnee, Creek, and other tribes that made up the Iroquois Confederacy) and the destruction of enemy food stores and supply sources.
Colonies vs. The Empire: Strategy in the American Revolution.
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Colonies vs. The Empire: Strategy in the American Revolution.
American commanders such as George Washington (1732-1799) and Horatio Gates (1727-1806) implemented these approaches on both a tactical and strategic level, which stretched British resources and manpower. These American warfighting measures generally deprived the British of set-piece decisive battles that were so critically sought by the regular and top-tier armies of Europe. Early in the war however, traditional British tactics would, when faced by their American opposition in European fashion, would see them claim victories at such battles as Long Island and Fort Washington. Military intelligence and the implementation of spies were utilised by both sides of the American Revolution, but American commanders maximised them to their fullest. After the disaster of New York in 1776, Washington’s creation of the Culper Spy Ring and the employ of varied informants from Abraham Woodhull to the still unknown Agent 355 allowed for Washington to make strategic and tactical moves that would literally save his army and in turn, the hopes of the revolution itself. The British strategy, tactics, and in turn, its various commanders, was one born of supreme power and disdain for their American adversaries. Emerging victorious from the Seven Years’ War, the British Empire was at its zenith. British warships were its primary strategic weapon, that dominated the waterways from one end of the globe to the other, while its relatively small army of highly drilled and experienced ‘redcoats’ were the tip of the tactical British spear.
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Traditionally trained British commanders such as General Thomas Gage (1718-1787) and William Howe (1729-1814) would utilise this naval supremacy in conjunction with British regulars and their Hessian allies in their attempt to dictate the terms of battle at a time and place of their choosing to crush American resistance and forces as decisively as possible. This was evidenced in the herculean mobilisation efforts of the British in 1776 to transport over 1200 cannons, 32,000 soldiers (out of a total world-wide British army of around 45,000) and 12,000 German mercenaries aboard 400 ships to North America in a strategic ‘hammer approach’ to squash the American uprising. This linear strategic and subsequent tactical approach of applying British naval and army might that had been so successful in the battlefield, soon proved generally ineffective against their American adversaries and their near-guerrilla warfare tactics due to several fundamental strategic flaws. The gross misunderstanding of America motivations in general (though General Gage earlier on tried repeatedly to plead with the British government as to realities on the ground and that more men would be needed; he was roundly ignored) when coupled with a disjointed British government and no clear overall strategic plan, would prove to be the running thread of disappointment for all British commanders down to Lord Cornwallis and his surrender at Yorktown.
Colonies vs. The Empire: Strategy in the American Revolution.
Colonies vs. The Empire: Strategy in the American Revolution.

Michael G. Stroud

Michael G. Stroud is a U.S. based Military Historian that has published many military history articles in various mediums from print magazines to academic journals, and military history websites in both the UK and the U.S. He completed his undergrad degree from American Military University, Summa Cum Laude in Military History and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in Military History with a concentration on the American Civil War with the same university. Michael has been an invited guest on various history themed podcasts from the UK and the US and maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn where he can be reached and followed at www.linkedin.com/in/michaelgstroud.
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