Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Debunking Some Military Myths about the American Revolution


The heroes and events of our war for freedom can be seen in one of two ways: the people as they were and the events as they happened, or as romantically embroidered images of them.
Unless we see the past honestly and appreciate what it can teach us about the present and the future, the painful sacrifices endured in the cause of liberty will all have been for naught.
Great Britain, with a population of eight million, was bested by a group of colonies on this side of the Atlantic with a population less than one-third its size (2,256,000).
How did the colonies manage this?
Although 300,000 Englishmen had entered the military in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), by 1776 military service had become so unpopular in Britain only 20,000 soldiers were available to put down the American rebellion.
Soldier pay was a miserly eight pence a day, and most of this was deducted for expenses. Brutal noncoms, miserable living conditions and the discomforts of life aboard transports kept all but the desperately poor from enlisting. After releasing debtors and criminals from jail, impressing paupers and vagrants, and offering bounties, the British had to resort to hiring German mercenaries.
In 1775, the British Navy had a total of 270 ships. By 1783, this number had swelled to 480, of which about 100, mostly frigates and smaller vessels, were committed to America.
Theoretically, the British should have been able to crush the Revolution with the Royal Navy and a few marines. In quality, however the British Navy was in bad shape—reduced by neglect to floating coffins. Officers and men were substandard, and the Admiralty was headed by Lord Sandwich, an evil and incompetent politician.
Privateering—the operation of private men of war—was developed by the colonists. Between 1775 and 1783, American privateers took about 600 British vessels, including 16 warships. Prize money reached $18 million.

The Myth of the Omnipresent Riflemen
Popular myth has it that the Revolution was fought between American troops who fired rifles from behind trees and stone walls against British troops who advanced in stiff formations and were armed with muskets.
This notion cries out for debunking. In only a few engagements did rifles play a decisive role.
In military histories, credit is given to the Americans for raising companies of expert riflemen from among frontiersmen who had become expert in the use of these weapons.
The truth is the debt is owed to Frederick the Great. After being harassed by guerrillas during the Seven Years' War, the Prussian king formed his own body of light infantry, recruiting them from foresters and game keepers. He called them "Jaegers" (hunters).
Two Jaeger companies were sent to America in 1776 with other German mercenaries, but the British made the mistake of only occasionally using them as separate units. Instead, they were detached for special missions such as scouting, headquarters security and sniping.
Because of the characteristic green color of their uniforms, the Jaegers quickly earned the nickname of "Greencoats." Interestingly, olive drab, a shade of green is now the characteristic color of the battle dress of most modern armies.

Misconceptions About Battle Tactics
Before the invention of firearms, phalanx tactics involving compact bodies of men had been employed on the battlefield. A phalanx was a formation carrying overlapping shields and long lances, developed by Philip II of Macedon and used with great success by Alexander the Great.  These tactics were successful because the principal weapons were the spear and the sword.
The advent of firearms brought linear tactics to the battlefield. The line of battle at the time of the Revolution consisted of two or three close ranks standing shoulder to shoulder, with another rank of "file closers" about six paces behind to replace casualties.
Thanks to the training of German drillmaster Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm Augustus von Steuben, American troops were eventually able to hold their own in the accepted European fashion in engagements using linear tactics.
Most shoulder weapons used during the Revolution were smoothbore muskets, although both sides had special units of riflemen. Much has been made of the musket's inherent lack of accuracy, but the linear tactics of the period took its inaccuracy into account.
Maintaining alignment and with bayonets fixed, the attackers would move forward, secure in the knowledge that they were comparatively safe from enemy musket fire until about a hundred yards from the opposing force—about the length of a modern football field. Officers tried to maintain enough discipline to get their men hold their fire until they were within 50 yards of the enemy.
The famous order at Bunker Hill, "Don't one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes," was not intended to win a place in books of quotations. It was an admonition that could only have been intended for men armed with muskets.

Loading a Musket
To load a musket, each soldier had to bite off the twisted end of a paper cartridge containing black powder and a lead ball, exposing himself in a standing position while pushing it down the barrel with a long ramrod. Next, the firing pan had to be primed by shaking in loose powder, taking care that the wind did not blow it away. Finally, the shooter had to make certain that the flint was firmly in position to strike a good spark when a pull of the trigger brought it into contact with the steel jaws of the pan.
The lead ball, an awesome three-quarters of an inch in diameter, could tear gaping holes in flesh and break bones. With the primitive quality of military medicine and in the absence of battlefield nursing care, almost any wound from a musket ball would have a fatal outcome.
Volley firing, in which all troops discharged their weapons simultaneously, was the common practice. On average, troops could reload and fire every 20 to 30 seconds. At the distances involved, this would assure at least two volleys directed at a charging enemy.
All loading and firing was done on command. Modern soldiers would call it "by the numbers." The first volley was always the most effective because it would have been properly loaded in leisurely fashion before bayonets were fixed.
After about two volleys had been exchanged, both sides resorted to bayonets--if they had them. Precision aiming was unknown. Rapidity of fire was more desirable than accuracy.
Each opposing force was a continuous linear body of men--perfect targets for volley fire. Under the circumstances, training in marksmanship was unnecessary. American marksmanship was bad and British marksmanship was almost nonexistent.
At Lexington and Concord, it is recorded that "only one American bullet out of 300 found its mark and only one man out of 15 hit anybody."
Speed was the objective: speed for the defenders to get off as many rounds as possible; speed for the attackers to close with their adversaries and use their bayonets before they took too many casualties.
The practice was to advance in parade formation and withstand the first volley, taking losses unflinchingly. Next, with the thinned ranks closed up and before the enemy could reload, the response was a volley fired from a closer distance. Finally came the charge with bayonets and hand-to-hand combat.
No wonder so many acts of heroism are recorded. It took men of great courage and fortitude to stand up to this kind of fighting. With most of the troops on both sides equipped with smooth-bore muskets and employing linear battle tactics, a low level of marksmanship was probably adequate. Had America indeed been "a nation of riflemen," the war would have been over much sooner.

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