The British Army Adapts to American Warfare

Violent confrontation at Bunker Hill

In America the evasion of the sugar tax was so successful that Parliament lowered the tax, in hope of undercutting smugglers’ profits, but squandered the goodwill by vigorous efforts to collect the lower tax. Colonial consumers recognised that the ultimate aim was to establish a precedent for more taxes later on. A national boycott made everyone aware that the colonies had to stand together, as they later did against the Stamp Tax; and the symbolic protest against the Tea Tax led to Americans becoming a nation of coffee drinkers.

At what became known as the Boston Tea Party, men disguised as Indians boarded ships with cheap tea belonging to the East India Company and dumped it into the harbour. Parliament was so outraged that it sent regulars to occupy Boston and then closed the harbour, effectively shutting the economy down. American militia units began to drill, and threats were made against anyone speaking on behalf of the crown.

This led eventually to a sortie from Boston to seize American weapons and gunpowder, then to a violent confrontation at Bunker Hill. Sending redcoats straight at the crude colonial fortification overlooking Boston was a mistake, but General William Howe (1729-1814) had assumed that Americans would never stand against regulars; he sent British regulars to chase them away.

Howe learned from the engagement not to attack American earthworks head on again—Americans lacked the training and self-confidence to take on British formations in the field, but they knew how to dig, and once in their trenches, they knew how to hold them.

The common assumption that the British army stubbornly held to traditional line tactics while fighting in America—and therefore lost key battles such as Saratoga—has been challenged by Matthew Spring in With Zeal and Bayonets Only, the British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-83. General Howe’s means of countering American earthworks was to manoeuvre so that when his men came in on the flank, the defenders had to come out and fight, or run away, or be slaughtered. Running was the usual choice. Militiamen’s reluctance to stand firm against redcoats left George Washington in such fury that several times he threw his hat to the ground, yelling at the fleeing men, and courting death in their place.

Washington’s response to the British flanking attacks was to build longer and more elaborate defensive lines, to replace his militia units with Continentals as much as he could, and to withdraw when he saw his men wavering. If he could get the British units to stop and exchange fire, his Continentals could inflict almost as many casualties as they took, and American riflemen could pick off the officers. This was something Howe could not afford—his men were both difficult to recruit and expensive to replace. America, in contrast, had a ‘bottomless’ supply of manpower, and at the war went on more and more men enlisted in the ranks of the Continental Army or state militias. Howe had expected loyalists to join him in large numbers. That did not happen.

Eventually, the British developed an effective response to the American strategy of entrenchment. This was to emphasise light infantry tactics that were rarely used in the European wars. Each regiment (roughly 400 men) was divided into ten companies, two being flank companies which served as light infantry; as the war went, more and more companies were trained to fight a more open order in ranks only two deep, to take shelter behind trees when necessary, and to move swiftly through woods. The critical moment came when the redcoats were forty yards away, when they would fire a quick volley and charge at a run with their bayonets. This almost always flushed the Americans out of even well-designed trench works. The speed and daring were intimidating, and the redcoats’ practice of bayoneting the wounded and those who tried to surrender made them greatly feared. The redcoats were especially brutal toward riflemen, whose marksmanship killed so many of their comrades.

One problem, not mentioned by Spring, was that men in trenches knew they would be slaughtered once redcoats began thrusting bayonets down at them. Forty years before, Maurice de Saxe, the foremost French marshal, had his men build walls of logs or stone to avoid this fate. A fence of logs wasn’t always practical in America, but every man knew how to use a shovel. (For more on this, read my Bayonets and Scimitars.)

The redcoats were not uniformly veterans, but they had an experienced core that brought recruits along quickly, and since recruits in America could not leave the army to tend crops or care for their families, within months they knew their business. As a result, they were much better trained than the Americans, and their belief in their invincibility made them confident.

This is important because although the redcoats won almost every pitched battle with the Americans, the war was lost from the beginning. Politicians and generals misread the depth of American dissatisfaction, and every effort they made to coerce the colonials antagonised them more. General Howe had rejected advice to make war on the American people because that would have turned the whole seaboard into a gigantic Ireland, where one-third of the army was usually stationed to keep the populace from rising. America was too big for that; the government could not afford it.

Since Howe and his successors could not afford to lose men, they preferred manoeuvre to frontal assaults. This frustrated junior officers and his Hessian allies, who yearned for a chance to finish off the Yankees in one great battle; all too often they watched Howe manoeuvre into a position to attack at dawn, only to find the well-constructed fortifications abandoned when morning came.

The redcoats adapted to the challenges of the American woodlands, the lack of roads, and insufficient local foodstuffs, but they were never able to finish off the American armies, which kept coming back at them until finally they were able to meet them on more equal terms.

Spring’s account puts yet another end to the myth of the Minuteman being equal to a trained professional. ‘Another end’ is the way to say it because the myth keeps coming back again and again. Washington had proved that an effective army had to be trained and equipped in much the same way that European armies were organised, because there had to be a final battlefield victory. With French help he achieved this in 1781 at Yorktown. An America without an army would be at the mercy of foreign invasion and Indian attack forever. And foreign troops exposed to guerrilla tactics can become angry and vengeful in a hurry, much as the Indians already were.

Why Independence was Necessary

Too often historians think the American Revolution was about taxes. In reality it was because Americans refused to be reduced to second class subjects. Anthony Scotti, Jr’s powerful short book, Brutal Virtue, the Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton, demonstrated this while trying to prove the opposite. The name Tarleton probably means little to readers outside of South Carolina, but few citizens of that southern state would fail to recognise it.

Movie-goers of 2000 might have seen The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, in which the hero tried to remain neutral in the conflict, but was inevitably drawn in by Tarleton’s misdeeds. This reflected Scotti’s argument that patriotic propagandists used him to illustrate why Americans had to join the fight, but that Tarleton was really no worse than anyone else. This perhaps credits patriot propagandists too much. Those who knew Tarleton best either loved him or hated him; he was lucky not to have been hanged.

Another movie, Sweet Liberty (1986), made an additional point. A comedy written and directed by Alan Alda (who also had the lead role except when being upstaged by Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer), the story centred on a small-college historian who had written a scholarly study of Tarleton’s famous meeting with Mrs. Mary Slocomb, and who was frustrated by the director’s efforts to turn that into a love story. When Tarleton came to Mrs. Slocomb’s farm to burn it, he asked where her husband was and whether he was a rebel. She retorted, ‘He is in the army of his country, and fighting against our invaders, and therefore not a rebel.’

The banter apparently lasted for most of the several days that Tarleton rested his men at her farm. She cooperated to the extent of feeding and housing his men, but probably not by sharing her bed. He responded to her courtesy by not burning her house and barns.

Every observer of the colonial scene agreed that South Carolina and Georgia were more loyalist than the other colonies. This was partly because the plantation owners with numerous slaves and the commercial class selling tobacco, rice and indigo saw themselves much like English nobility and merchant capitalists. However, without British armed assistance, the loyalists could not challenge patriot control of politics.

This changed when Cornwallis was sent to Charles Towne (as it was known then) with 14,000 redcoats and Hessians; after a long siege he forced General Benjamin Lincoln to surrender the city and his 5,000 men. It was the greatest defeat the Americans had suffered yet—the loss of an entire army.

Cornwallis set out to occupy the countryside, but he found it difficult to locate guerilla forces such as those of the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion. His answer to this problem was to recruit loyalists for a mixed light cavalry and mounted infantry body that he called the British Legion; he named as commander the brightest cavalry officer in the army, young Banastre Tarleton.

The British Legion became famed (or infamous) for its long, swift marches and deadly attacks. It would fall on patriot forces at dawn, slaughtering the sleepy men, or charge unsteady units so suddenly that the men would fly for their lives. Not that many got away. No man on foot can outrun a horse. Tarleton would demand that patriot regiments surrender, and if they did not, his men would kill everyone they caught. In short, like the French suppressing Algerian rebels between 1954 and 1962, his operations were a model of tactical efficiency, but a strategic blunder.

The green uniforms that the British Legion wore were a symbol of pride, but also of what was wrong with British policy. Britons chose to believe that all Americans were dirty, lazy and cowardly. Therefore, they were not worthy of holding government posts or being allowed to buy commissions in the army. They were not even allowed to wear red coats.

A far-sighted government would have made George Washington into a professional officer and rich Americans into aristocrats. But no, the government saw Americans as the equivalent of the Irish, the Scots, and South Asian Indians, that is, as a lower class of human being. When Americans complained that taxation policies and changing the royal charters were reducing them to slaves (something they knew something about), more than a few Britons thought that would be a good thing.

Benjamin Franklin had gone to London as a lobbyist for the government of the Pennsylvania Colony. World-renowned scientist, philosopher and humourist, honoured by British universities, he was nevertheless repeatedly humiliated by the government ministers. Before he returned to America he wrote a satirical tract, ‘Rules by Which a Great Empire May Be Reduced to a Small One.’

The lesson is a hard one, easily understood but hard to apply when one sees the rudeness of frontier conditions and the seeming incompetence of the people there, but it is a manner of common courtesy—treat people with respect. This is especially difficult for those who consider themselves aristocrats, far above the common people.

Machiavelli warned princes not to make themselves hated. Cruelty is well used if applied decisively for a short period, then stopped. Secure your position and use your power to benefit your subjects. In that way your subject will be doubly thankful—first for having ended the violence, then for the benefits of peace and a few royal favours. The British lacked an army equipped to follow this path, so they began mildly and become more ruthless as the years passed. George III would have been better off if he had followed the advice of his Whig critics, to leave the Americans alone.

Military victories cannot win a peace alone. Without either a large occupation army or a sizeable number of loyalists who can take over the governance of the region, no outside army can hold a people down forever. There is always some other outside army and navy that will come to the aid of the rebels that inevitably arise.


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