Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hiding Behind Rocks and Trees

One of the enduring legends/myths of the American Revolution is that the British lost the war because they insisted on marching in "straight lines" and wearing red coats. Whereas we crafty colonials could wear whatever we liked and fire from cover (behind rocks and trees as it were).

One of my favorite Bill Cosby bits from my youth covered this very topic, in Mr. Cosby's wonderful way...

(H/T to CG-23 Sailor for reminding me of that!)

While this old story is not without some truth, there is (as there often is) more to the story than that.

The British Army of the 18th Century was designed to fight on the continent of Europe, which is noted for its open landscapes and lack of forestation. Especially in Northern France, the North German plain and in Poland. There are lots of places to fight a "European-style" battle.

The Battle of Fontenoy - 11 May 1745
(Felix Philippoteaux)

Fighting on the heavily wooded and rugged terrain of the eastern side of the North American continent was another proposition indeed. Which the British learned to their misfortune ten years after Fontenoy at the Battle of the Monongahela in July of 1755. This battle is also known as Braddock's Defeat.

This was a meeting engagement between British forces under Edward Braddock and French and Indian forces under Daniel Liénard de Beaujeu. The British were marching to seize the French Fort Duquesne (on the site of modern day Pittsburgh). Though Beaujeu was killed early in the action, the French recovered quickly from their surprise at meeting a British force and effectively deployed their forces and commenced a withering fire into the British ranks.

Following Braddock's example, the (British) officers kept trying to reform units into regular show order within the confines of the road, mostly in vain and simply providing targets for their concealed enemy. Cannon were used, but in such confines of the forest road, they were ineffective. The colonial militia accompanying the British took cover and returned fire. In the confusion, some of the militiamen who were fighting from the woods were mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by the British regulars.
Of the approximately 1,300 men Braddock had led into battle, 456 were killed and 422 wounded. Commissioned officers were prime targets and suffered greatly: out of 86 officers, 26 were killed and 37 wounded. Of the 50 or so women that accompanied the British column as maids and cooks, only 4 survived. The French and Canadians reported 8 killed and 4 wounded; their Indian allies lost 15 killed and 12 wounded. - Wikipedia

Braddock himself was mortally wounded and died four days after the battle. There were also a number of future "Americans" on this campaign: Daniel Boone, Daniel Morgan, Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, and George Washington. (Charles Lee, though born in England, cast his lot with the Americans and became a general under Washington. Later disgraced, he fades from American history shortly after the Battle of Monmouth.)

So, the British against guys hiding behind rocks and trees are, at this point, 0 - 1.

Then trouble began to brew in King George's North American possessions. Those Massachusetts men were agitating against the Crown and collecting weapons, powder and shot. So to seize said weaponry, the British set forth to march on Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. Initially confronted by a weak militia force on Lexington Green, the British brushed these men aside then advanced on towards Concord. However, the countryside was aroused and the militia were starting to coalesce in larger and larger numbers.

At the North Bridge the British were repulsed by the militia. Having failed to discover any appreciable amount of powder and shot, muskets or cannon, the British elected to fall back on Boston. No doubt a wise decision, but it came too late to salve British pride. (Or save British lives!)

Action at the North Bridge, outside Concord

The Retreat to Boston begins

The British column is being badly hurt.

Eventually the British forces regain the relative safety of Boston. They suffered casualties of 73 killed, 174 wounded and 53 missing out of 1500 engaged throughout the day. Twenty percent casualties. The British versus those guys hiding behind rocks and trees are now 0 - 2.

They now find themselves surrounded in Boston by the aroused colonial militia, who seem content to stay in place and make life difficult for the lobsterbacks. Determined to break this stalemate, General William Howe moves a substantial force across the Back Bay onto Charlestown Neck to teach these "bloody rebels" a lesson and hopefully break the back of the rebellion.

Battle of Bunker Hill - 17 June 1775
(E. Percy Moran)

The attack on Breed's Hill, while a British victory, is sorely won. The British suffer 226 killed, (including 19 officers) 828 soldiers wounded, (including 62 officers) for a total of 1,054 casualties out of somewhat over 3,000 men engaged. Thirty-three percent casualties!

While the British are now 1 - 2 against the guys hiding behind rocks and trees, a few more victories like this will destroy the British forces in North America. Eventually the British sail away from Boston, leaving the city to the colonial forces. Who, for the most part, disperse and go home. They are not full time soldiers, they have done their job. Though some, hearkening to the appeals of their officers, stay on. The Continental Army is born. The scene of the action shifts to New York City and Long Island.

The colonists begin to suffer troubling defeats at the hands of the redcoats, who have learned not to assault fortified positions head on but use smarter tactics. The Americans are driven away from New York City, driven almost completely out of New Jersey. The small Continental Army is unable to stand against those well drilled redcoats. The guys hiding behind rocks and trees? They've gone home to tend to their farms and families. Let the professionals do the fighting!

With the exception of the Battle of Trenton in December of 1776, American fortunes were ebbing. Washington could not feed, pay or clothe his army. The men were going home when their enlistments expired, they were disheartened at their inability to stand up to the British regulars in open battle. And the British were refusing to march into the woods where they could be sniped at! (I exaggerate there, but only a little. The King's forces were calling the tune!)

Battle of Trenton - 26 December 1776
(Charles McBarron)

Washington somehow managed to keep the American army "in being" though it was singularly unable to defeat the Crown's soldiers in open battle.

Then in February of 1778, a Prussian soldier with the long name of Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben came to America. Looking for a job with Washington. This man, who has come down to us as simply Baron von Steuben, set out (with Washington's backing) to teach the unruly Americans how to stand and fight like a European army.

Baron von Steuben Drilling Troops at Valley Forge
(Edwin Austin Abbey)

First he trained a "model company" who then trained others. Eventually the army began to look and act like an army. They were ready to take to the field in the spring of 1778. Though defeated at the Battle of Monmouth in June of 1778, that was due more to the incredible blunders of Charles Lee than it was to the fighting abilities of the Continental Army. They gave as good as they got. The British sensed that this war was changing. They abandoned the northern colonies (though they held onto New York City) and moved south.

Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth
(Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze)

The French were entering the war in strength now. Their navy was helping to somewhat negate British sea power and their army was ready to land and support those pesky colonials. Things in the Southern Theater were not going well at all for the British.

Battle of the Cowpens - 17 January 1781
The beginning of the end and a decisive American victory.
Slowly Lord Cornwallis, after chasing Nathaniel Greene all over the Carolinas, pulls back north to Virginia. To resupply and consolidate his army, which has been run ragged by Greene's pesky Continentals. Eventually, Cornwallis sets up shop around Yorktown. on the Virginia Peninsula. A position which can be supported and resupplied by the Royal Navy and give his army time to recuperate behind fortifications.

But where is the Royal Navy? On the watch for the French Navy, and not wanting to be bottled up in Chesapeake Bay, thank you very much!

Oh, they did find the French Navy, but that did not turn out well!

The Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes or simply the Battle of the Capes, was a crucial naval battle in the American War of Independence that took place near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on 5 September 1781, between a British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and a French fleet led by Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse. The battle was tactically inconclusive but strategically a major defeat for the British, since it prevented the Royal Navy from reinforcing or evacuating the blockaded forces of Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. When the French were able to achieve temporary control of the sea lanes against the British, the result was the reinforcement of the Continental Army with siege artillery and French troops—all of which proved decisive in the Siege of Yorktown, effectively securing independence for the Thirteen Colonies. - Wikipedia
The storming of Redoubt #10 - 14 October 1781
(Eugene Lami)
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis - 19 October 1781
(John Trumbull)

Eventually, at Yorktown, a traditional and very European-style siege, the British under Lord Cornwallis surrendered. The world truly had turned upside down*.

"But Sarge," you protest, "what about that whole 'hiding behind rocks and trees' thing?" That had to do more with the primitive weaponry of the day and the need to mass fire while keeping one's troops under control using the human voice. Which necessitated the troops staying grouped tightly together in those nice, neat lines and columns.

And that, Dear Reader, is a story for another time!

*According to legend the British drummers and fifers played the tune "The World Turn'd Upside Down" - actually a popular British marching tune of the time, and in line with custom, but curiously appropriate under the circumstances.


  1. And THAT.... Is the rest of the story.
    I'm Paul Harvey....

    Good day.

  2. Interesting post, to put an interesting twist on the point, look into the Battle of Gilford Courthouse in NC. The colonial command placed the part time forces, the militia on the front row and backed them up by Regulars. It was a "given" the militia would fire a few rounds and then want to retreat from the expected onslaught of RedCoats. So rather than force them to stand, they were told to fire and fall back. The RedCoats figured the "rag tag" colonial line was breaking and were caught by surprise when they ran into American regulars who stood the ground....(I used to work for Colonial Williamsburg in the Powder Magazine so the subject is close to home for me!, thanks)

    1. And that was a brilliant tactic!

    2. Those were probably my folks up front. Their discretion could be the reason I'm here today.

    3. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor. Especially for future generations!

  3. Excellent post Sarge. French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War in Cliff note. Selection of graphics were spot on.

  4. Don't forget Francis Marion in the south against Cornwallis after Camden...

    1. Good point Cajun. Heck, I remember a Disney show on TV about the Swamp Fox when I was a kid. We loved that show! Heh, starred Leslie Nielsen as Francis Marion. I note that there are some clips (maybe full episodes?) on the Tube of You. I'll have to check that out!

  5. One should learn to stalk Mule Deer, Whitetail Deer and North American Pronghorn on the rolling plains of North Central Montana...............................Sagebrush is the best cover and then it is stubble in the harvested wheat strips..............................

    1. And I think that's how the original folks learned to do it too.

  6. Hadn't heard Cosby in ages. Thanks.

    1. No problem Cap'n. I think my brothers and I (none of us named Russell) had all of Mr Cosby's albums. I even did one of his bits at a HS talent show. Loved his stuff!

  7. GREAT distillation of history. I was truly enthralled (even though I knew the ending...) Fine job!


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