1754-1783: Military: Overview
1754-1783: Military: Overview
Background. By 1755 the ninety thousand French colonists along the St. Lawrence River in North America had fought several wars with the 1.5 million English colonists on the eastern seaboard. Most of these wars were the result of conflicts fought mainly in Europe, and a few were strictly local struggles. None of them settled the issues at stake in North America. The French wanted an empire extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, and to secure it they claimed all lands watered by streams flowing into the St. Lawrence River the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River. Meanwhile the English claimed all lands occupied by their allies, the Iroquois Indians, including the southern banks of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, as well as the northern part of the Mississippi River. Both sides resorted to arms in what became known in North America as the French and Indian War and spread worldwide as the Seven Years’ War. British and French armies, their colonial militias, and the Indian allies fought a wilderness war in which the methods of fighting were largely imported from Europe. The decisive victory of the English removed French Canada as a threat to the English colonists. Without that threat colonists could see no reason why they should pay taxes to support English armies in North America. Outrage at such taxes was one of the sparks that lit the American Revolution, and the military skills colonists had learned fighting the French were a major factor in their winning their freedom from England.
Infantry. The foot soldier was the core of any European army. A professional enlisted for a long period of time, and he was taught his trade by brutal discipline and constant drill. The main focus of the drill was loading and firing his musket. This weapon was heavy and awkward to use. It had to be stood on end, powder poured down its barrel, wadding and shot tamped in, then brought to the shoulder and fired, all while its user was under hostile fire. Pulling the trigger created a spark that ignited the pan of powder and fired the musket. Under ideal conditions a well-trained soldier could get off three shots per minute, but on the battlefield one shot was more realistic. The lead musket ball was three-quarters of an inch in diameter, large and heavy enough to knock a man flat even when it didn’t hit him in a vital spot. The musket was accurate up to 120 yards. In battle the infantry was drawn up in long parallel lines, shoulder to shoulder, and marched in lockstep toward the waiting enemy. Within musket range the lines halted, and the front line discharged their muskets at the enemy at an officer’s signal and then stepped to the rear to reload while the next rank stepped up to fire. Of course, the enemy was also firing. A bayonet or cavalry charge on a weakened enemy would decide the outcome. Rifles were far more accurate than muskets, but they took longer to load and so could be used only by snipers on the periphery of engagements. (The rifle was also more fragile and expensive than the musket). The colonials did not have long-service professional armies since those were ill suited for campaigns against Indians. Instead, the various colonies required that able-bodied men present themselves periodically, with their own weapons and provisions, for training as a militia. Though they practiced some European drills, the North American colonists were able to draw upon 150 years of campaigns against Indians in which they developed small-unit tactics emphasizing ambushes, raids, and careful use of cover.
Field Artillery. The artillery pieces that accompanied infantry were made of bronze and sometimes iron, weighed about a ton, were mounted on wooden carriages with iron wheels, and were pulled by a team of four or more horses. Aiming them was an art rather than a science, and since the force of their blast rolled them backward when they were fired, they had to be wrestled into position for every shot by a crew of five or more men. To fire the gun a noncommissioned officer first aimed it, and then a loader rammed in a bag of powder and a ball. Then the firer applied a slow match to the touchhole while the rest of the crew got out of the way of the recoil. A practiced crew could get off two shots a minute, but their efficiency could be decreased by fatigue and enemy fire. The size of a cannon was known by the size of its shot: for example, a three-pounder fired a three-pound cannonball. Larger guns were usually reserved for sieges.
Cavalry. Despite popular notions of gallant warfare, horsemen were not used for shock attacks in set-piece battles since horses would shy before massed and deter-mined infantry. In formal battles cavalry was used to harass the enemy’s flanks and disrupt his lines of communication to the rear or was saved for when infantry that had been weakened and demoralized by artillery and musketry could be panicked by a cavalry charge. Most of the time cavalry was used to disrupt infantry columns, to scout, and to raid. The nature of the North American terrain greatly favored light cavalry. Light cavalry could move about easily and quickly and live off the land rather than depend on supply trains.
Fortifications. Fortress-building reached its apogee in the eighteenth century. Building a fort was a master-work of engineering. The fort had to be sited in the best possible position, designed so that it took maximum advantage of the terrain. The best forts were star shaped so that one part of the fort could give covering fire to other parts. They were protected by moats and outerworks sculpted so as to put the enemy at the greatest disadvantage. To attack one of these forts required ingenuity and engineering skill. Usually it was a matter of digging parallel trenches closer and closer so as to get artillery into the best possible position to bombard the fort. North America had fortresses constructed on the European model, such as Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, and adaptations of that style to suit indigenous habits, such as Ticonderoga in upstate New York.
Terrain. Unlike western Europe, where the British and French armies were accustomed to campaigning in areas that had long been cleared for agricultural purposes and had many towns and roads, North America presented forbidding problems for transporting armies, weaponry, and supplies. If armies in Europe could count on “living off the land”—that is, foraging for foodstuffs from the local population—in North America the farms were much fewer and more scattered. They had to carry most of their own food, putting a heavy burden on their maneuverability. The road network in colonial America was also limited. As a result armies had to choose between struggling through large tracts of almost impenetrable wilderness or transporting men and supplies by a few strategically important waterways. Thus upstate New York, especially the region around the Mohawk and Hudson River valleys and Lake Champlain, was frequently the site of military activity. In the winter, when lakes and streams froze and roads were snow-covered or muddy, armies had to go into winter quarters and wait for the next campaigning season.
Colonial Victory. In the Seven Years’ War, Prime Minister William Pitt’s genius and the worldwide commitment of British resources brought an end to the French empire in North America. The experience was a military education for the English colonists. Prior to the war only the New Englanders had a tradition of military activity and training, due to their proximity to the French and the frequent hostilities between them. By the end of the war colonists of the Middle and Southern colonies had been exposed to systematic training, and their officers had gained command experience. The English colonists now knew how to fight in the European fashion as well as how to fight irregular actions. When the Revolutionary War came, their military performance was effective enough to encourage the French to settle old scores by joining the war on the side of the colonists. Putting down so extensive and persistent an insurrection was beyond the will and resources of the British empire.
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