Skip to main content

Combat, Changing Experience of

Combat, Changing Experience of. The English settlers of North America twice made principled attempts to detach themselves from the world of war altogether. Many of the Puritans who arrived in the early seventeenth century hoped to lead a peaceful life in the New World. The founding fathers of the eighteenth‐century republic, George Washington foremost among them, wanted to create a society in which war as Europe knew it would have no place. Indeed, the United States tried at the outset to dispense with an army as an instrument of government, even though it was through a successful war that its independence from European rule had been won.

Both efforts to create an America liberated from the imperatives of combat failed. The Puritans, who had first sought peace with the Native Americans, quickly fell into conflict with them. The young United States found it could not govern its territory without an instrument of force. Two military institutions were the outcome of these disappointments. The first was the militia of the original colonies. The second, which had its origins in the colonies' militias, was the U.S. Army.

Americans, when called upon to perform military duty, proved adept at its discharge. The early colonists created an effective military frontier against the Indians, and despite some setbacks, successfully protected their settlements against raiding. Their successors in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries contributed importantly to the defense of the colonies against French power in North America. Using techniques learned from the Indians in forest fighting, they played a major part in King William's War, King George's War, and the French and Indian War, the conflicts in which the British eventually triumphed over the French in the New World.

The colonial militias were transplants from England, modeled on the home defense forces successively raised and reformed under the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanoverians. They were not a regular force and the crown raised none in the colonies for their defense. The Royal Americans, formed during the French and Indian War, was a unit of the British army (it survives today as part of the Royal Greenjackets, having in the interim been known as the 60th Regiment and the King's Royal Rifle Corps), while Roger's Rangers, a truly local formation, was an irregular body, albeit the precursor of the U.S. Army Rangers. Both the Royal Americans and the Rangers, nevertheless, were a valuable leaven in the crown's forces during the French‐Indian War, bringing to its conduct a skill in “Indian” or “American” warfare the redcoats shipped across the Atlantic did not possess. The redcoats further benefited from the local knowledge and expertise of militia officers, George Washington prominent among them, in forest and backcountry operations.

“Indian” or “American” warfare was a bloody business, if only because the Europeans who fought it—French and British alike—did so hand‐in‐glove with their Indian allies. Its central techniques were those of the raid and the ambush, in which there were no formal tactics and little quarter was given. “American” tactics subsequently made their way back into European warfare, through the raising by both the British and French of irregular units modeled on those that had proved so successful in the American forests.

“American” warfare also contributed greatly to the eventual victory of the colonists over the crown in the Revolutionary War. At the outset, the colonial militias, which provided the Revolution with its first military force, attempted to overcome the redcoats on their own terms, fighting in fixed lines on open battlefields. They were not up to the task and were beaten at the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of New York. When Washington, appointed commander of the Continental army, withdrew his force to more distant regions in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, his army achieved greater success by appearing when not expected on small battlefields, such as Trenton and Princeton, close to its sanctuaries, and often in bad weather. Nevertheless, Washington was eventually reduced to withdrawing his army into a secure sanctuary near the frontier in the hope of waiting out a better turn of events.

The better turn came when the British despaired of bringing Washington's army to battle on conventional terms and transferred their main force into the southern colonies, where they expected wider loyalist support. In that roadless, heavily forested, and sometimes swampy terrain, it was their enemies who in practice achieved superiority, by reverting to a form of American warfare. Their guerrilla tactics overcame the superior force the British deployed, obliging the redcoats to abandon their southern strongholds and retreat northward to the shores of Chesapeake Bay in the hope finding support from the British Fleet. They did not, and at the battle of Yorktown they lost a final conventional battle in defense of formal fortifications.

Having won a war of independence in part by unconventional tactics, which they had also exported to the Old World, the Americans found themselves in their own civil war obliged to relearn contemporary tactics from Europe. This was largely because the conditions that had made so‐called “American” warfare so effective against George III's army no longer prevailed in most of the theater of op erations between 1861 and 1865. The forest east of the Appalachians had largely gone, to be replaced by pasture and plowland, and had been severely reduced between the mountains and the Mississippi. In open country, both North and South had to fight European‐style, in closed formations, supported by artillery.

This not to say that there was not something distinctively American about the way the Civil War was fought. Indeed, there was, and its Americanness would eventually be transmitted to Europe, though with little acknowledgment by European armies of who had pioneered the new developments. The most important innovation was the dismissal of cavalry from the line of battle. North and South learned early on that horsed formations could not charge ranks of infantry armed with the new rifled musket, and they relegated cavalry to scouting and raiding roles. They also learned the importance of massing artillery forward in direct support of the infantry. They further learned the importance of leadership by example by senior officers—a practice that produced the exceptionally high level of casualties suffered by generals on both sides. Finally, they demonstrated that infantry, if strongly motivated and well led, could carry positions or sustain attack even at the cost of unprecedently high casualties inflicted by long‐range, accurate rifle fire. The Americans were the first soldiers to undergo the experience of the attrition battle and to overcome the ordeal.

Because the armies of the Civil War were largely amateur, their achievements were not noted in Europe, or, if noted, were dismissed as irrelevant to the demands of warfare between professional forces. This lack of appreciation of the significance of Civil War combat obliged the European armies, during World War I, to relearn its lessons at terrible cost. In that war, the American Expeditionary Force, when it began to deploy in strength on French battlefields, also suffered grievously. By attacking in Civil War style, however, it achieved a moral superiority over the German Army, dispirited by four years of attrition, that contributed greatly to the Allied victory.

World War II compelled the U.S. Army once again to adapt its tactics to a new form of combat, as it had had to do in 1861. Mechanized warfare in Europe, amphibious warfare in the Pacific required novel responses, all the more difficult to make because of the parsimony with which the armed forces had been funded in the interwar years. The earliest success was achieved in amphibious operations, thanks chiefly to the prescience of the leadership of the U.S. Marine Corps, which during the 1920s had worked out the fundamental principles of cross‐beach attack and designed the essential equipment, in particular, the first practicable landing craft, the Higgins boat. The principles and the equipment were to underlie Allied success in the amphibious operations of the Mediterranean, European, and Pacific campaigns. Without the Marine Corps experiments the D‐Day landing would not have worked.

American forces lagged behind those of Europe, particularly the German, in mechanized operations and in the ancillary field of airborne operations. They proved, thankfully, quick learners. After an uncertain start in the North African campaign, the American expeditionary armies developed in the invasion and conquest of Italy a formidable expertise in airborne and conventional ground operations. But their greatest success came in Northwest Europe, the theater in which they first deployed a large mass of armor. Profiting in part from a stalemate in the invasion of Normandy that drew German armor into a battle of attrition with the British and Canadian forces, the Americans were able eventually to achieve an enormous superiority in numbers of tanks over the Germans at their section of the bridgehead, and to stage a breakout at St. Lô into open country that culminated first in the encirclement of the enemy and then in a headlong advance to the frontiers of Germany.

By the time of the coming of victory in May 1945, the American soldier had unarguably established his distinctive combat style. Flexible and adaptive, particularly to varied conditions of combat, it was characterized above all by a ruthlessly decision‐oriented ethos and, as long as victory promised, a hardheaded disregard for casualties. Americans fought to win—and to win as quickly as possible—even at heavy cost to their own side.

Little in U.S. military history since the victory of 1945 vitiates that judgment of American military style. The Korean War continued the tradition. Even at the gloomiest periods of the Vietnam War, many front‐line units continued to soldier with courage and dedication, however ill‐supported by domestic opinion. In the Persian Gulf War of 1991, American combat expertise was seen at its best. The outcome established the American armed forces as without peer in the contemporary world, and that reputation is likely to be preserved for the foreseeable future.
[See also Militia and National Guard; Native American Wars; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]

John Keegan

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Combat, Changing Experience of." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. 10 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Combat, Changing Experience of." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 10, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/combat-changing-experience

"Combat, Changing Experience of." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved December 10, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/combat-changing-experience

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.