This is my second paper for the Naval War College in which I attempt to analyze the American War for Independence through the three phases of revolutionary warfare theorized by Mao Tse-Tung in his book On Guerrilla Warfare. While I do not adhere to Mao’s political views in any way, shape, form, or fashion, his insight into guerrilla warfare is invaluable, as USMC Capt. Samuel B. Griffith II said in his forward to the translation: “it remained for Mao Tse-Tung to produce the first systematic study of the subject…. His study…will continue to have a decisive effect in societies ready for a change.” Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard, the Naval War College, or the US Government.
Beginning in 1764, protest spread across thirteen British colonies in America. These colonies, seemingly the beneficiaries of British protection and largesse, despised the taxes that Parliament levied on them. Specifically, they questioned the legality of a legislative body – in which they had no say – imposing those taxes. Protests grew into riots, riots grew into rebellion, and rebellion grew into a Declaration of Independence.
The likelihood that the American colonies could win their struggle against Great Britain was limited in 1776. A primary factor contributing to this limited likelihood was a lack of a cohesive military organization. At the outset the colonies relied entirely upon the militia system, and on Mao’s continuum, the colonies were better prepared for a guerilla war than the conventional war they fought. However, the colonies understood their need for recognition as an independent nation, and sought recognition and an alliance with the French. To demonstrate to the French that an alliance would be beneficial to them, the colonies needed to be able to show conventional military victories.
Even with this valid need, the colonies should not have rushed into conventional warfare. The French were longtime enemies of the British, and their support would more than likely have still been available later. This long-standing enmity could have allowed the colonies to spend more time in the guerilla stage before proceeding to conventional war.
For the purposes of this paper, the terms guerilla or unconventional war will refer to warfare conducted outside the standard of seizing and holding territory or attempting to do so. The term conventional war will refer to siege warfare or other warfare intended to seize or hold territory.
Mao, Revolution, and the Colonies
Many years after the American Revolution, a Chinese Communist named Mao Tse-Tung theorized on the idea of revolutionary warfare. According to Samuel Griffith in his introduction to Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare, Mao organized revolutions into three fluid phases. Phase I is the organizing phase, where “volunteers are trained and indoctrinated, and from here, agitators and propagandists set forth, individually or in groups of two or three, to ‘persuade’ and ‘convince’ the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside and to enlist their support.” (Griffith II, 1961) Phase II, the “progressive expansion” phase, sees “Acts of sabotage and terrorism multiply; collaborationists and ‘reactionary elements’ are liquidated…The primary purpose of these operations is to procure arms, ammunition, and other essential material….” (Griffith II, 1961) Finally comes Phase III: “It is during this period that a significant percentage of the active guerilla force completes its transformation into an orthodox establishment capable of engaging the enemy in conventional battle.” (Griffith II, 1961)
In the case of the American Revolution, Phases I & II occurred intermittently from approximately 1764 to 1775. During this period, various Parliamentary acts, such as the Stamp Act, Declaratory Act, and Coercive Acts inflamed colonial sentiment, and violence flared. Colonists and British authority clashed in places such as the “Boston Massacre,” the “Boston Tea Party,” Lexington, Concord, and Fort Ticonderoga. July 3, 1775 marked the beginning of Phase III, when General George Washington road to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to assume command of the newly formed Continental Army. (Allison, 2011)
The colonists spent significant amounts of time organizing themselves politically. Starting with Boston’s Committee of Correspondence in 1772, the colonies gradually formed a network to keep each other informed of events. By 1774, every colony participated, and British actions in one colony rapidly traveled through the network to unaffected colonies. These committees served to keep the flame of indignation alive and well from Rhode Island to Georgia. (Allison, 2011) Other citizens’ groups, such as the famous Sons of Liberty in Boston, stirred civil unrest and attacked tax collectors and other symbols of authority, but typically did not engage in battles with British troops. The Continental Congress met and adjourned multiple times between 1774 and 1776. (Allison, 2011)
The Continental Army at its Inception
The colonies also organized militarily, relying on the traditional militia system. Each state raised at least one militia, some raised many. These militias tended to represent a town or region. Their officers were typically elected, and had various backgrounds ranging from sea captains to wealthy merchants to farmers. (Fischer, 2004) Militias were not professional military organizations for the most part; they formed to address a specific threat, then disbanded once the threat had passed. Despite the recent conflicts in the colonies, the majority of colonial militia leaders (including George Washington, who served as the Colonel of the Virginia militia) possessed little to no experience in the large-scale employment of professional soldiers. (Ferling, 2010) No one would question their determination and valor (except perhaps the British), but they simply did not possess the experience of their British counterparts. Many viewed militia as unreliable and undisciplined, including General Washington. (Fischer, 2004) The prevailing opinions on both sides gave the colonists little chance in a pitched battle against British regulars. A British parliamentarian is reported to have said that the colonists “were neither soldiers, nor could be made so; being naturally of a pusillanimous disposition, and utterly incapable of any sort of order or discipline.” (O’Shaughnessy, 2013)
Despite the fact that Congress named Washington the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, it retained much control until December 27, 1776. At the urging of General Nathanael Greene, who implored that “Time will not admit nor Circumstance allow of a reference to Congress. The Fate of War is so uncertain, dependant on so many Contingencies…that it would be folly to wait for Relief from the deliberative Councils of Legislative Bodies,” Congress granted Washington full powers of management of the war effort for six months. (Fischer, 2004) The reliance on the militia system, the micromanagement of the army, and the relative inexperience of the army’s commanders combine to portray a steep learning curve for the Continental Army.
Allison, R. J. (2011). The American Revolution: A Concise History. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Clausewitz, C. v. (1976). On War. (M. Howard, P. Paret, Eds., M. Howard, & P. Paret, Trans.) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Ferling, J. (2010, January). Myths of the American Revolution. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from Smithsonian.com: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/myths-of-the-american-revolution-10941835/?no-ist
Fischer, D. H. (2004). Washington’s Crossing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Griffith II, S. B. (1961). Strategy, Tactics, and Logistics in Revolutionary War. In M. Tse-Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare (S. B. Griffith II, Trans., pp. 20-26). Champaign, IL: University of Chicago Press.
O’Shaughnessy, A. J. (2013). The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the British Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Pritchard, J. (1994, Autumn). French Strategy and the American Revolution: A Reappraisal. Naval War College Review, 83-108.
State Department. (n.d.). French Alliance, French Assistance, and European Diplomacy during the American Revolution, 1778–1782. Retrieved October 22, 2016, from Department of State, Office of the Historian: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1776-1783/french-alliance
Tse-Tung, M. (1961). On Guerilla Warfare. (S. B. Griffith II, Trans.) Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Tzu, S. (1963). The Art of War. (S. B. Griffith II, Trans.) New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
About the author
Joel is a 12 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.