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. Part two 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.
Politics and Alliances
If pitched battles produced losses, and even Continental generals such as Horatio Gates and Charles Lee recommended irregular or guerilla warfare tactics (Fischer, 2004), why then did the Continental Army continue to pursue a strategy of attempting to take and hold large cities, such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston?
Simply put, politics (both internal and external) drove the decision. The Continental Congress realized that losing large cities painted a picture of a failing rebellion. Congress had begun alliance negotiations with France within a month of declaring independence. France demonstrated a willingness at first, especially after the British evacuated Boston; however, when Washington lost New York, their eagerness cooled. While the French provided surreptitious support in the form of arms and financing, a full and public alliance remained out of reach. (State Department, n.d.)
The Congress hoped this alliance would fill critical needs for the colonies. At the time, no large-scale arms manufacturing existed in the colonies. The Continental Navy made a name for itself with its daring, but remained outmatched by the power of the British fleet. The French army also brought experience to the table that the Continental Army lacked. France saw a vested interest in helping the colonies – they lost significant power as a result of their defeat by the British in the Seven Year’s War, and this rebellion offered a chance for retribution. (State Department, n.d.) France, however, wished to avoid entangling itself in another costly war unless a benefit could be realized. The American approach of small guerilla skirmishes and a war of attrition proved tactically sound, but failed to convince the French that the colonials could win the war.
Not until the Colonial victory at the Battle(s) of Saratoga did the French fully commit to a public alliance. This alliance opened the door for French troops and ships to flow into the American colonies, as well as Britain’s Caribbean colonies. (Allison, 2011) While this influx did not result in a surge of decisive battles, it did force Britain to adapt its war strategy, distracting both their naval and land forces from the American colonies. (Pritchard, 1994) Forces under the French General Rochambeau strengthened the weakened Colonial forces and played a critical role in the victory at Yorktown. (Allison, 2011)
An Unnecessary Rush
Clearly, Phase III presented opportunities for the colonies. But was it really necessary to move into Phase III so early, especially with such an unprepared force? The rivalry between Britain and France that the colonies relied on would certainly have remained alive. The most influential trainer in the Continental Army hailed from Prussia, not from France, and he worked without pay. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben served as a staff officer under Frederick the Great, though he never saw combat in Europe. He demonstrated a remarkable knack for training: “Washington gave him a hundred men to train; he was so impressed with the results after two weeks that he let him train another hundred…. The men were already veterans; Steuben’s training made them a disciplined and effective army.” (Allison, 2011) As previously noted, the French military contributions were well-known and significant in replacing lost numbers, but their finances and arms contributions are easy to overlook. As Griffith notes: “such factors as…the presence or absence of material help, technical aid, advisers, or ‘volunteers’ from outside sources…are naturally relevant to the ability of a movement to survive and expand.” (Griffith II, 1961) The colonies received supplies, training assistance, and money, and they successfully engaged in unconventional warfare against the British forces – all Phase II activities. Instead of attempting to seize or defend towns, the individual generals – under the direction of General Washington – should have been given free rein to harry the British in their areas. While they harassed and wore down the various British units, General Washington would have focused on training up the solid core of the Continental Army. The British suffered from an inability to properly re-supply and replenish their forces (O’Shaughnessy, 2013), a fact that a guerilla war of attrition funded by the French would have exacerbated. As Sun Tzu said: “There has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.” (Tzu, 1963) When the Continental Army was capable of standing on its own, General Washington would then be able to face off against a British army that was a shell of its former self.
Arguably, the Continental Army did eventually flow back into Phase II, especially throughout the South. This shift led to the over-extension of General Cornwallis, and eventually to his establishment of a base at Yorktown, Virginia. There, the now-well-trained Continental Army, along with their French allies, delivered the fatal blow to the British army. But prior to this well-executed combination of unconventional and conventional warfare, Washington and his generals obsessed with Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. This obsession cost the army dearly in lives, resources, and morale.
The pursuit of the French alliance was a key political aim, and military decisions were made in support of that aim. As Clausewitz said: “The political object…will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.” (Clausewitz, 1976) It was only after much effort had been expended that a better strategy was devised. Much of that effort could have been saved had the urgency of a formal alliance been re-evaluated and more emphasis placed on unconventional tactics coupled with a rigorous conventional training regime. When the colonies declared independence, their chances of winning were limited. A well-planned guerilla war would have thrown the British army off their guard, and shifted the chances toward the upstart colonies and their revolutionary way of thinking.
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.