Guerrilla War in the North

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Guerrilla War in the North

GUERRILLA WAR IN THE NORTH. 1775–1783. The term "guerrilla warfare" came into use after the American Revolution. In the eighteenth century, the term more commonly used was "partisan warfare." They both mean basically the same thing: a type of warfare where the emphasis is on the use of small parties of warriors, sometimes regular soldiers detached from the professional army and sometimes irregulars and only semi-trained fighters. These forces engage in hit-and-run tactics, ambushes, raids, skirmishes, scouting, and other activities, often around and between the larger regular armies, sometimes in conjunction with them, sometimes totally on their own. In the American Revolution, many different types of partisans existed: Whig and Loyalist militia; Native Americans; civilians unattached to any military unit; and detachments from the regular armies. In the northern states, this partisan warfare occurred in two main areas: in combination with the regular armies operating in the area, and on its own against partisans of the other side, be they militia, outlaws, or Native warriors.

Usually the goal of this kind of warfare is to engage the enemy in numerous small engagements in order to inflict casualties while avoiding a potentially war-ending, large-scale battle. By using tactics such as hit-and-run and ambushes, the partisan forces attempt to minimize their own losses while causing a slow but steady drain on the opposing forces. In addition, there is psychological and physical wear and tear as the opposing forces have to fight and stand guard constantly, allowing them little time to rest. In effect, a guerrilla strategy is based on the assumption that the guerrilla forces can outlast the enemy, either in terms of numbers or in terms of willpower. However, it is not entirely accurate to claim that the American rebels engaged in a partisan war with this attritional plan in mind. Much of the guerrilla activity in the war, especially in the northern states, occurred on its own, often with vital interests at stake in a particular region and no other forces available except the local irregular forces. On the other hand, generals such as George Washington also learned to employ guerrilla activities deliberately in an effort to wear down the British. Guerrilla warfare in the American Revolution was complex and varied over the course of the eight and one-half years of war.


The initial fighting of the Revolutionary War fit the description of guerrilla warfare. When the Massachusetts militia met the advancing British troops on the morning of 19 April 1775, they did not line up and fight it out with the British regulars in a European style of battle. Except for the opening actions in Lexington and Concord themselves, the combat that day degenerated into a running ambush and hit-and-run operation as small units of militia operated on their own, hiding in the woods and buildings and behind fences and targeting the British troops marching down the road. The Lexington militia got its revenge for the casualties taken in the early morning by ambushing the returning British troops just outside of Lexington.

When General George Washington arrived in Boston in July 1775 and took command of the assembled New England provincial regiments, the beginnings of the Continental Army, he made a deliberate decision not to rely solely on a guerrilla style of warfare, despite the urging of generals such as Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, both of whom were veterans of the British army and urged Washington to rely very heavily on the partisan qualities of the local militia. Washington, however, wanted to maintain some semblance of control during the war, and thus he worked at turning the fledgling Continental Army into a semi-regular force. Still, despite this decision, the northern states would be the center of an active guerrilla war for the next eight years, a type of war that sometimes occurred spontaneously and at other times was directed by Washington and his generals in coordination with the campaigns of the army itself.

The British made a decision that would add an element to the guerrilla warfare in the North early in the war. Agents out of their base at Niagara contacted the nations of the Iroquois Confederation for help in the war against the Americans. The Mohawks and their leader, Joseph Brant, would prove to be excellent guerrilla warriors throughout much of the war along the northwestern frontier of New York and Pennsylvania.


Partisan warfare started in the middle states after the British captured New York City in 1776. This guerrilla warfare took on several different characteristics. One aspect of the guerrilla activity was the warfare undertaken by the militia, often in conjunction with detachments from the Continental Army, to raid and harass the British and the Loyalists. These operations were normally not connected in any way with the main operations of the larger regular armies, except in a peripheral manner.

Long Island and Connecticut. One of the first efforts occurred between Long Island and Connecticut in what would be called the Whale Boat War. This conflict actually started in August 1776, even before the Continental Army retreated off the island. Washington ordered Lieutenant Colonel Henry Livingston to take his Continental regiment to the east of the American lines and try to prevent or slow any British advance toward the middle of the island. Soon afterward the Americans evacuated the island, and the British began to expand their control eastward; Livingston's men fell back slowly, skirmishing with the British advance. Once the British had secured most of the island, Livingston retreated across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut, but he continually sent raiding parties back onto the island to forage; to harass British, German, and Loyalist garrisons; and to help people escape from the island. Over the next seven years, this war of raids and counterraids raged on, with Long Island Sound serving as the path between the two sides.

In fact, Connecticut's Governor Jonathan Trumbull commissioned about one hundred men to use the whale boats and coordinate with the Connecticut militia along the Sound to raid whenever possible, and occasionally Continental units stationed in the area participated in such raids. The usual targets for these raids were the Loyalist settlements and forts in middle and eastern Long Island, as well as forage being collected for the British army in nearby New York City. The Whig militia focused on swift descents, a quick raid into the interior, and then a fast retreat off the island. Loyalist parties raided the Connecticut coast, mostly to steal horses and cattle and to capture Whigs to trade for Loyalist prisoners or to ransom for money. To counter these Loyalist attacks, Trumbull had to maintain militia garrisons in most of the seacoast towns throughout the war. Continental units often participated when they were stationed in the area. For example, General Samuel Parsons led two hundred militia and Continentals to Long Island in August 1777. After an unsuccessful siege of a Tory fort, they retreated back to the mainland. By 1778, Washington routinely kept Continental detachments stationed along Connecticut's coast to help defend the ports, and these detachments also participated in the raids, often against Washington's orders. In response, by 1778 the British maintained more and more regular forces on the island to stop these attacks. Throughout the winter of 1778–1779, the Queen's Rangers and a detachment of British grenadiers joined one thousand Loyalist militia to defend the island, and the next summer, the British Light Infantry and the Seventeenth Regiment were both stationed along Long Island Sound. Mainly, the British command was worried about the supplies and forage available in the area.

New York Governor George Clinton denounced the Whale Boat War because it often spilled over into New York, and Washington also urged against it. Finally, in 1781 Trumbull ordered the raids stopped, and by 1782 Sir Henry Clinton had ordered the Loyalists to stop as well. Ultimately, the roughly five thousand refugees from Long Island returned, only to find utter destruction. The Whale Boat War had ruined rich and poor.

Westchester County. Westchester County faced a particularly brutal internecine war for seven long years. In fact, the area was so devastated that it became known as the Neutral Ground, or the No-man's Land. Whig and Loyalist militia, detachments from the armies, and groups of robbers and outlaws attached to neither side plagued the area throughout the entire war. Most of the fighting had little to do with the campaigns of the larger armies; rather, it was for personal plunder and revenge. However, the forage of the area was critical to both armies, so skirmishes and clashes between the foraging parties of both armies were frequent and bloody.

Two of the most notorious units in the county were the Cowboys, Loyalists who ravaged the area for personal gain and to support the British army, and the Skinners, a group of Whig militia who hunted the Cowboys, looted the area, and occasionally brought in supplies for the Continental army. Since the Skinners could not contain and prevent the worst of the Cowboys' depredations, Washington often had to send in Continental units to help protect the area. He sent in the newly created Light Infantry Corps in 1778 and often positioned other units and detachments in the area, especially during the winter and spring months. The local Whig militiamen of Westchester County were not called to serve outside of the area since the danger to the county was so severe.

Southwestern Connecticut. Caught between the Whale Boat War along the Sound and the bitter partisan struggle in the Neutral Ground was southwestern Connecticut. Raids across the Sound often originated in, or targeted towns in, southwestern Connecticut. Frequently, a Continental unit would be positioned there, so as to be available to help along the Connecticut coast and still be close enough should the British emerge from New York City. In addition, Loyalist and British raiding parties moving through Westchester County often entered the southwestern corner of Connecticut to plunder and burn. William Tryon, the former royal governor of New York, targeted the area several times during the war, mainly to forage but also simply to ravage the area. As with the Noman's Land next door, southwestern Connecticut was virtually abandoned by war's end, despite the constant, valiant efforts of the local militia for seven long years.

New Jersey. New Jersey faced a similar dilemma, caught between the two main armies in the region. The partisan activity began in December 1776, after Washington had retreated through the state into Pennsylvania. British and German soldiers occupied most of the towns in northeastern and central New Jersey, and they treated the local population so brutally that the men of the area forgot their newly taken oaths of allegiance to the king and rose up spontaneously against the occupation army. They targeted lone enemy soldiers, Loyalists, and small patrols moving through the area. This started six years of vicious warfare along the coastal regions of New Jersey. During this time, General Philemon Dickinson rose to prominence as a key leader of the eastern New Jersey militia.

Washington learned here, as he did regarding New York and Connecticut, that the local militia simply could not offer enough protection on its own, so he stationed Continental detachments near the coast to support the militia whenever possible. In particular, as in the Neutral Ground, the forage of the area was vital to both sides. Washington saw the British need for locally gathered supplies as a key weakness in their war effort, and he took full advantage of the situation to force the British into a constantly escalating guerrilla war for food in eastern New Jersey. Parties of militia, Continentals, or both met each British or German or Loyalist foraging party throughout the next six years, at any time of the year, whether in the freezing winter or hot summer. As the skirmishes continued, casualties for both sides mounted, which was a drain that the British in particular found hard to absorb. At times, these foraging parties could be as large as from one thousand to five thousand men. British commanders between 1776 and 1782, Generals Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, both complained of the constant fighting, the inability to rest the troops during the winter, and the constant state of fatigue caused by this incessant warfare. Partisan leaders such as the Hessian Johann von Ewald and the British commander of the Queen's Rangers, John Simcoe, admitted that this constant fighting was always to the advantage of the Americans.

New Jersey also had its own Whale Boat War aimed at Staten Island and even western Long Island. In 1780 the Honorable Board of Associated Loyalists was created, and William Franklin, former royal governor of New Jersey, was its first director. The Associated Loyalists targeted New Jersey's coast, mostly to annoy and harass rebel shipping in the area. Since the Loyalists were not paid, they raided for plunder.

This Board of Associated Loyalists at one time had three groups under its command: the Loyalists on Long Island; the Cowboys; and the Loyalists based on Staten Island raiding into New Jersey. Included in the board's forces were numerous escaped slaves who had fled New Jersey.

Southern and southwestern New Jersey saw the emergence of numerous groups of robbers. Some were Loyalists and others were out for themselves. New Jersey militia and occasionally Continentals were sent into the area to stop the raids, with minimal success. In response, the Monmouth County Association for Retaliation was formed in 1780, partly to try to stop Loyalist raids along that county's coast and partly to scour the southern parts of the state. It achieved minimal success at both jobs.


Meanwhile, another brand of guerrilla warfare raged along the northwestern frontier of New York and Pennsylvania. This was a war as old as the English colonies, a war that would continue long after the end of the Revolutionary War. The British were able to convince parts of the Iroquois Confederation, including most of the Mohawk nation, to join them in their fight against the Americans. The frontier raids began in 1777, after the defeat of General Sir John Burgoyne's campaign in northern New York and the aborted siege of Fort Stanwix in western New York. Iroquois parties, often supported by Loyalist forces led usually by John Butler, launched brutal raids deep into New York and Pennsylvania. These attackers were swiftly moving, light parties that could not capture a defended fort but could devastate an area, burning the homes and killing or capturing the inhabitants and just as swiftly disappearing. One of the more successful raids occurred in June 1778 in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania. Roughly 110 Loyalist rangers and 400 Native warriors trapped 800 local militia in a fort. Disaster struck when half the garrison emerged to attack the raiding party and instead ran into an ambush, losing about 300 men killed. The fort subsequently surrendered and the entire settlement was burned. Similar raids up and down the Mohawk River valley were less successful because the inhabitants of the area learned quickly and stayed safe within their small forts and blockhouses. The people of Cherry Valley, New York, saved their lives in November 1778 by staying within the walls of their fort, but they had to watch as the 200 Loyalists and 300 Indians burned their homes.

The frontier war escalated as American parties struck back against the Iroquois. Militia forces burned the towns of Tioga and Unadilla in autumn 1778. In 1779 Washington detached General John Sullivan and over four thousand men from his army to march through the homelands of the Iroquois, while another six hundred men marched from Fort Pitt into the western Iroquois lands. The Native warriors and Loyalist militia avoided battle through most of the summer, but in late August about eight hundred men tried to spring an ambush on the Continentals at Newtown. The American soldiers, however, avoided the trap, and the resulting fighting led to just a few casualties for both sides before the Indians and Tories retreated. Sullivan's army ravaged the area, burning villages and crops, and then retired to the east. The Iroquois were forced to spend the winter near the British post at Niagara.

Despite this setback, the Iroquois and Loyalists continued to raid for the next couple of years. They destroyed several towns along the frontier, and they also turned their anger against another member of the confederation, the Oneidas, who were supporting the Americans in the war. These raids were complemented by similar raids conducted by Canadian warriors along the Lake Champlain valley. In 1780 alone, over three hundred people died, six forts fell, and hundreds of other buildings were burned in northern New York. Local militia proved ineffective against these raids. Brant even led Mohawks into the Ohio territory in 1782. By then, the frontier war had slackened and finally, by the end of 1782, it came to an end for the moment. For the Iroquois, their wars against the Americans were over. However, the frontier war in Ohio was just heating up.


The other aspect of the guerrilla war in the northern states was its coordination with the campaigns of the regular armies. American generals such as Washington and Horatio Gates became very adept at using partisan warfare to harass and slow the enemy in northern New York, around New York City, and in Pennsylvania. In fact, it is the coordination of guerrilla and regular styles of warfare that truly made this a revolutionary war.

In northern New York, partisan activity clearly had a direct impact on the outcome of General Burgoyne's campaign in 1777. Initially, local militia responded to Burgoyne's threats to unleash his Indian warriors along the northern frontier by mustering and flocking to the American army in the vicinity. Generals Philip Schuyler and his successor, Horatio Gates, used the militia in a similar way, sending out parties to harass and slow the British advance, to threaten and ultimately cut the British line of supply back to Canada, and to neutralize the threat of the Native American forces. Arriving on 30 August, Daniel Morgan's riflemen in particular were useful in facing the Indian threat. It took Burgoyne's forces two months to move from Fort Ticonderoga to the Hudson River, partially due to the delaying tactics of ambushes, the cutting down of trees, and hit-and-run raids. Militiamen also inflicted stinging losses on the German troops near Bennington in August 1777. In addition, raids against the supply wagons helped keep the British low on supplies even as the climactic battles near Saratoga were fought in September and October 1777. At the same time, militiamen joined with the main American army, so when those battles were fought, Gates commanded close to thirteen thousand soldiers against the seven thousand men remaining with Burgoyne.

In Pennsylvania, during the campaign for Philadelphia in 1777, Washington used detachments and advanced forces to engage in running skirmishes with the British to slow their movements and inflict casualties. After the British landing, Pennsylvania and Delaware militia kept in front of the advance British forces, scouting, removing livestock, and occasionally skirmishing with British detachments. Since the rifle corps was in northern New York with Gates, Washington created a Light Infantry Corps of about seven thousand men, the best marksmen from each regiment, and then put General William Maxwell in command. This corps took post in front of the British, harassing their march, supporting the militia, and in general slowing the British movements. On 3 September 1777, the Light Infantry and militiamen fought the British advance at Cooch's Bridge and Iron Hill, inflicting several casualties and delaying the British for about seven hours. After the Battle of Brandywine in mid-September, Washington used the Light Infantry and the dragoons as a screen to skirmish with the enemy as he withdrew. Once the British had secured Philadelphia, Washington sent Maxwell and about one thousand Continentals to join the local militia southwest of Philadelphia to interrupt the enemy supply line, scout, stop enemy patrols, and protect American commerce in the area.

Washington develops the strategy. Combined guerrilla and regular warfare became most pronounced in the campaigns around New York City. Here, Washington developed this strategy, perfected it, and helped train General Nathanael Greene in its use; Greene would then employ it to perfection in the southern states in 1780–1781. Washington had to overcome his initial bias against irregular forces, but once he did, he learned how best to coordinate their specialties with the army's campaigns. Militia forces in particular were good for scouting and gathering intelligence and for local defense, and they served further as a shield for the army. Once Washington learned how best to employ the militia forces to perform these functions, he was able to maximize his resources to get the best use out of his understrength regular army and the numerous but less reliable local militia.

Perhaps the most innovative use of the militia by Washington was as a shield for the army, what in modern times is called a forward defense. He positioned militia units near the British lines, occasionally supported by Continental detachments nearby that were placed behind the militia. Then, if the British advanced, the militia could skirmish with the enemy, slow its advance even as more militia mustered, with the Continental detachments acting in reserve. This would give Washington time to assess the situation and decide if he wanted to advance the main army to fight or withdraw it to safety. Thus, whereas other aspects of the guerrilla war occurred spontaneously, this type of partisan warfare was employed deliberately by Washington to make full use of the two very different types of forces on which he had to rely. His strategy emerged in 1776–1777, when he began using this guerrilla activity to weaken, wear down, and disrupt British operations and to create an opportunity for the Continental Army to engage the British on better terms in a conventional-style battle.

He first employed this coordination of militia and the army in New Jersey in late 1776, when the local militia rose up against the British occupation of the state. With the British and German garrisons in New Jersey off balance and dealing with the partisan strikes of the local militia and even a detachment of Continentals near Morristown, Washington saw his opportunity and struck first Trenton and then Princeton. About five thousand Continentals and perhaps ten thousand militia struck at the British from New Jersey to Connecticut, forcing the British to contract their lines and abandon much of New Jersey by the end of January 1777.

When Sir William Howe led his army into New Jersey in the spring of 1777, Washington deliberately relied on this combination of regular and irregular operations. The New Jersey militia engaged in a running skirmish with the British and German advance forces, while Washington slowly fed in Continental units, all the while keeping the main army concentrated and available should an opportunity to strike the harassed British army arise. It did not arise, and he kept his army out of reach behind this moving shield. Ultimately, the British retreated back into their lines after sustaining hundreds of casualties.

General Wilhelm Knyphausen launched a similar offensive in 1780 into New Jersey, with an almost identical result. Militia and Continentals slowed the advance while Washington edged the army ever closer to the front lines. Knyphausen finally decided against engaging Washington on his chosen field and retreated to Staten Island.

Perhaps the most striking use of this combined partisan and regular warfare occurred again in New Jersey, during the Monmouth campaign of 1778. When the British evacuated Philadelphia, Washington first sent Maxwell with the New Jersey Continentals, then Morgan with the Light Infantry, to cooperate with the New Jersey militia in slowing and harassing the British march. Washington then shadowed the British with the main army. By 24 June, five different Continental detachments of totaling thirty-six hundred men were hovering around the British, supported by parties of local militiamen. Washington kept sending more Continentals, so that by 26 June, five thousand Continentals and twenty-five hundred militia had surrounded the British in a moving ring. At that point Washington saw an opportunity and moved the army swiftly to intercept the British, the result being the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse. At the same time, the detachments were ordered to strike at the British supply trains. Thus, partisan strokes distracted the British army and allowed Washington to attack, and the army's attack then distracted the British army and opened the door for more guerrilla attacks. The British commander, Sir Henry Clinton, even admitted after the battle that he had accepted battle partially to try to force Washington to call in his numerous detachments. The Hessian Johann von Ewald saw the march across New Jersey as one in which "each step cost human blood."

Thus, Washington developed a sophisticated strategy that combined guerrilla actions with the campaigns of the regular army. In effect, he combined what could loosely be termed a European style of warfare with a North American style of warfare. Its effectiveness can be seen by the British attempt to emulate this strategy in the northern states. They made use of the Hessian jägers while creating the Queen's Rangers. These Rangers and jägers were often the advance corps or the rearguard during British operations. However, the British never mastered this combination of guerrilla and regular strategy. Their raids tended to be more isolated, seeking to destroy supplies or demoralize the rebels. The British did not coordinate them well with the main army. Washington's ability to fit the irregular aspects of the war into the regular campaigns was a key to his success.

Whether on their own or in conjunction with the regular armies, militia and guerrilla corps had a dramatic impact on the war in the northern states. Scouting, gathering supplies, skirmishing with the enemy, reinforcing the main army, raiding supply lines, hunting people who supported the opposing side—all of these activities made the war as much a guerrilla war as a conventional one. The final success of the United States is largely due to the Americans' greater success at coordinating the regular and partisan forces in a revolutionary way to defeat the armed might of the enemy.

SEE ALSO Associated Loyalists; Brant, Joseph; Burgoyne's Offensive; Butler, John; Cherry Valley Massacre, New York; Cooch's Bridge; Cowboys and Skinners; Dickinson, Philemon; Ewald, Johann von; Jägers; Lexington and Concord; Long Island Sound; Long Island, New York (August 1777); Loyalists in the American Revolution; Militia in the North; Monmouth, New Jersey; Morgan, Daniel; Neutral Ground of New York; New Jersey Campaign; Newtown, New York; Noman's Land around New York City; Queen's Rangers; Philadelphia Campaign; Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois; Unadilla, New York; Whaleboat Warfare; Wyoming Valley Massacre, Pennsylvania.


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