Tactics and Maneuvers

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Tactics and Maneuvers

TACTICS AND MANEUVERS. Revolutionary-era battle tactics depended largely on disciplined troops maneuvering in compact formations that were able to deploy quickly from column into line and deliver massed volleys of musketry or execute a bayonet charge. Artillery supported infantry formations, occasionally delivering a massed cannonade in field battles or serving in its classic siege role of destroying enemy fortifications and the will to resist. Cavalry operated only in small bodies, occasionally as shock troops but more often in reconnaissance and the pursuit of a demoralized enemy.

Building on experiences in the Seven Years' War in Europe and America, light troops and innovative battle formations were increasingly used, and commanders gained invaluable experience with both. The early British adoption in 1776 of a two-rank, open-order line of battle for all infantry units was in response to the broken, wooded North American terrain and was made possible by British troop discipline, small numbers of opposing cavalry, and American inexperience. Later in the war, notably at Cowpens, the drawbacks of such loose formations were made apparent when faced and occasionally overthrown by veteran Continental regiments.

On 21 September 1777, Brigadier General Thomas Conway described problems poorly trained Continental troops experienced at the Battle of Brandywine that year: "Troops of this Army … Appear to Manoeuvre upon false principles … I Could not Discover … the Least notion of displaying Columns & forming [line] briskly upon all Emergencies" (Continental Congress, Papers, reel 178, p. 71). These deficiencies were rectified with the armywide adoption in the spring of 1778 of Major General Friedrich Wilhelm de Steuben's uniform system of maneuver. Steuben's system introduced standard marching rates and methods of changing formation, simplifying command and control, and improving army cohesion. These innovations were set within a closely monitored training program that ensured minimum variation in interpreting the new instructions. The first real combat test came at the Battle of Monmouth on 28 June 1778, where the newly trained troops performed well. The fact that much of the burden was successfully borne by provisional battalions of picked men from different regiments, sometimes operating under unfamiliar officers, is a tribute to the efficacy of Steuben's work.

Both armies' tactical systems were based on the latest European military practice, including theories concerning the primacy of columns over lines (or vice versa) when attacking. Both formations were used in line of battle during the war, with linear formations preferred for forward regiments, while supporting units remained in easily maneuvered columns ready to deploy when needed.

Irregular warfare played a part, too. Early on, General George Washington's forces often relied on hit-and-run tactics. A French volunteer said of the American army in 1777, "The maneuver that it executes best … A regiment places itself behind some … bushes and waits, well hidden, for the enemy. They stick their muskets through the bushes, take careful aim, fire, and fall back … a quarter of a league…. If the enemy appears, they repeat the same maneuver several times" (Idzerda, ed., Lafayette, 1, p. 81). The practice continued into 1778, when Brigadier General William Maxwell noted on 19 June, "The Enemy … is coming on the Road to EvesHam. They got a full fire from Captain Ross [Third New Jersey] this morning with 50 men which threw them into a great confusion. He came off some distance & Post[ed] them to give them More in a nother place" (Presidential Papers Microfilm, series 4, reel 50).

Militia units fought in line of battle, but they were better known for less formal warfare. Hessian Captain Johann Ewald asked,

What can you do to those small bands who have learned to fight separate, who know how to use any molehill for their protection, and who, when attacked, run back as fast as they will approach you again …? Never have I seen these maneuvers carried out better than by the American militia, especially that … of Jersey. If you were forced to retreat through these people you could be certain of having them constantly around you. (Treatise, p. 115)

SEE ALSO Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von.


Continental Congress. Papers of the Continental Congress. Washington, D.C.: National Archives Microfilm, 1958.

Ewald, Johann. A Treatise on Partisan Warfare by Johann von Ewald. Translated by Robert A. Selig and David Curtis Skaggs. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Gruber, Ira D. "The Education of Sir Henry Clinton." Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 72, no. 11 (Spring 1990): 131-153.

Idzerda, Stanley J., ed. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776–1790. Vol. 1. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Presidential Papers Microfilm. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1961.