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. This is part two of two. Part one can be found here. 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.
The British Regulars and their German Allies
In stark contrast to their colonial opponents, the British fielded one of the largest and most professional armies in the world at the time. In 1776, “this was a modern, professional army with much experience of war. Its fifteen generals were on the average forty-eight years old in 1776, with thirty years of military experience. By comparison, the twenty-one American generals who opposed them in New York were forty-three years old, with two years of military service. In British infantry regiments, even privates had an average of nine years’ service in 1776…From 1755 to 1764, the British army fought on five continents and defeated every power that stood against it.” (Fischer, 2004) Twenty-three thousand of these highly experienced troops landed in New York in July and August of 1776.
In addition to the twenty-three thousand British Regulars, ten thousand professional German troops, commonly called Hessians (though not all were actually from Hesse-Cassel), landed in New York. More soon followed. These soldiers hailed from a long tradition of professional soldiering. In fact, their officers “were highly educated in their profession….They were expert at military cartography, tactics, and logistics, more so than British or American officers.” (Fischer, 2004) The enlisted troops fell subject to harsh discipline, but that discipline inculcated in them a legendary fearlessness and adherence to orders.
The Argument for Guerilla Warfare
Clearly, as the War of Independence began, the British and Colonial forces were seriously mismatched. The Colonial militia demonstrated a proficiency in unconventional warfare, and successfully conducted multiple Phase II-style engagements. Examples include the ambushes employed during the British retreat from Lexington and Concord and the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga by the Green Mountain Boys. (Allison, 2011) General Nathanael Greene also distinguished himself through his unconventional tactics in the South later in the war. In late 1780 and early 1781, Greene employed hit and run tactics, losing many battles, but constantly drawing the British away from their sources of supply.
He summarized this method of attrition warfare in a letter: “we fight, get beat, rise, and fight again.” (Allison, 2011) In this manner, he embodied what Mao later wrote: “When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary; pursue him when he withdraws.” (Tse-Tung, 1961) Throughout the colonies, this pattern repeated itself: Colonial forces regularly beat back the British in small irregular/guerilla engagements, and in some cases, legends were born. Guerilla leaders such as Francis Marion, Thomas Sumter, and Charles Pickens kept the British on the defensive in South Carolina, and possessed a more distinguished battle record than the Continental Army at that time. (Allison, 2011) Conventional battles, however, continued to produce losses; at one point in 1776, between battlefield losses, desertions, and enlistment expirations, the Continental Army had fallen to less than 3,000 men.
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.