British Tactics and Conflicting Strategies in Executing the American Revolution
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By: Adam E. Zielinski
If we are to discuss the tactics used by the British government and its forces during the American Revolution, we must be aware of the various circumstances at play. Often, we tend to settle on a single element and use it to explain more than we should. By breaking down what factors went into decision-making, we can then begin to understand why events played out the way they did, and why British soldiers were often at a disadvantage during the war despite having the clear advantage of being the superior military power. We will discuss both tactics used by the army and navy while also showing how strategy played a major role in undermining how effective those tactics were.
When the war initially broke out in the spring of 1775, the area surrounding Boston was the epicenter of the rebellion. This was not unknown to the British government, whom had closed the port of Boston following several riots, the assault on the schooner Gaspee (moored near inland Rhode Island) and the infamous Tea Party of December 1773. Plans were to isolate the rebellion to the New England colonies, but how to achieve this was met with confusion and incoherence on the part of the King’s ministers. Lord North, the King’s chief minister to Parliament and disciple of British governance, was not a wartime leader, and often struggled to provide a clear and concise blueprint for action. On the other side of planning was George Germain, Secretary of State for the American Department. Germain, an overly confident former military officer, was less a military strategist as he was a personality to dislike. Germain did not take criticism lightly and found himself at odds with other MPs who questioned his planning. Nevertheless, King George III held his confidence in these men.
King George III
One of the main blunders the British government made was its inability to create a coherent plan for eliminating the rebellion before its provocations spread throughout the other colonies. This may have been a futile endeavor in hindsight; for the colonies, though clearly different in many regards, did share similar feelings regarding their loyalty as British subjects. Where they differed was with a desire to be recognized as autonomous participants within the British Empire. This perspective was lost on many of Parliament’s members, and especially on the King. Had a plan been implemented to settle initial hostilities in Massachusetts prior to April 1775, perhaps the colonies would have remained committed British subjects. But it seems both an indifferent – and at times snobbish view – of Americans by mainland Britons, and an uncorked sense of continental liberalism by Patriots, were increasingly at odds with how British North America had been managed and allowed to exist in the prior decades. The seemingly passive nature of Parliament’s interest in governing its North American colonies prior to 1763 created that autonomous spirit within the colonists. Only after the King came to power in 1760, and the immense debt accumulated from the Seven Years War with France, did foreign policy prioritize how to manage and ultimately tax North American interests.
What complicated matters further would play out in real-time once the British army was in North America. Command of the army was complex and divided in a way that made communicating orders difficult to the point of detrimental to achieving set-forth objectives. Sir William Howe took command in the fall of 1775 and was given his orders. But Howe, like most military officers of the time, exhibited a sense of leeway when making decisions in the field that were often counterproductive to the overall objectives of the British war machine. He was not alone. His successor, Sir Henry Clinton, did the same, as well as Gen. John Burgoyne. And we are assuming, incorrectly, that these commanders got along with one other. While they may have tolerated each other because of their duty, it’s evident that many of the leading commanders did not hold a very high opinion of the other. Appointments and elevated egos that challenged rivals within the army did lead to instances where orders were either changed, disobeyed or flatly ignored. And to complicate matters further, the British navy, perhaps more important to the war’s outcome than the army, reported and received orders from the Board of Trade, not from Germain. The army and navy might have received initial orders that paralleled each other, but if a commanding officer or admiral abruptly changed course, the other would often find himself waiting to receive orders from London to verify this change. And London had not made this decision; it was done by the commander in North America on his own. At a time where communication was only as fast as the wind could carry a ship, we can see how maddening this could be for trying to achieve a military objective.
British General William Howe.
We must also recall how at the outset of the war, British officers in North America were tasked with issuing pardons to colonists who swore allegiance to the King. Some, like Sir William Howe, were even allowed to initiate diplomatic talks with American representatives. But these were clearly one-sided; Howe had no real authority in brokering a peace treaty and was mainly there to show the American emissaries that London was not going to stand down. Short of them renouncing the rebellion and the Declaration of Independence, the Americans would not be afforded a meeting to negotiate terms for separation. However, the threat of branding colonists’ traitors did have the desired effect of seeing thousands of colonists declare their loyalties to the King. In other instances, colonists would swear allegiance to whoever’s army was present at the time. Another tactic used by British officials was to purposely stoke the fears of slave insurrections throughout the colonies. The best example of this was Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, declaring that any enslaved person who escaped and joined the British army would earn their freedom. It is not known how many former slaves left their plantations and came across British lines, but we do know that many were not allowed to fight (and were given manual labor jobs instead), and several thousand settled in Nova Scotia and in western Africa following the end of the war. On the western outskirts of the colonies, British detachments were put there to gain the trust of Native American groups – many of whom looked upon the English favorably and viewed the Americans as hostile invaders.
Let us acknowledge that British advantages in having the best trained and equipped military in the world were no match for realities on the ground. Weather played a huge factor in eighteenth-century military operations. It was unduly to expect a major engagement in the winter months because of the risk of exposure and the conditions of roads, which often were impassible with snow. Torrential thunderstorms and downpours could wreak havoc on flintlock muskets and powder stores. And the humid, intense summer heat could be more devastating to an army than a bayonet charge. The wool-coated, sixty-pound backpack wearing, ten-pound musket carrying soldier, on the march for miles before an engagement, was often the victim of the elements rather than enemy fire.
Other conditions required immediate attention. Firewood was often needed to keep soldiers warm in the winter months and to cook food daily. Both armies were guilty of clearing out thousands of trees over the duration of the war. In more desperate instances, fences, barns, and houses were torn down to retrieve whatever wood they could get. Disease, particularly smallpox, was rampant in both army camps. Inoculation provided some protection, but poor health and sanitation conditions were a common feature of encampments. Supply routes were the arterial veins of the army’s sustainability. Both sides tried through the course of the war to disrupt and destroy these precious cargo roads. For the British Army, however, the disruption came at an even greater cost. The sheer size of the Atlantic Ocean created a logistical nightmare for resupplying the troops. It could take months for a fully-loaded ship to arrive off the American coast, and several more for its contents to reach a British encampment embedded in the hostile countryside. The amount of food required to feed an army is staggering. Also note that armies had several hundreds, if not thousands, of horses and cattle at any given time for personnel and pulling supply wagons. These animals required hay, oats, and feed too. As a result, the British army turned to foraging, or seizing livestock and homespun supplies from the local citizenry. In some cases, this proved to be a useful commodity as loyalist Americans were grateful for the King’s army’s presence. But cases of vandalism and rape by British soldiers often undid these moments of charity. To complicate matters further, the Continental army foraged too. Citizens were being asked to contribute what they could to whoever the occupying force knocked on their door. As the economy worsened in the ensuing years before the war’s end, resentment between citizen and soldier, no matter the color of their standard, made matters worse. In the end, the British army had the disadvantage of being a foreign occupier. The loyalism that remained in the American country was too few and far between of what British expectations had been, and foraging only exacerbated their ability to rely on American support.
Lord Charles Cornwallis
As for field tactics used during battles, British commanders relied on what they were taught and what they knew of eighteenth-century combat. The traditional mode of battle called for a large body of troops to assemble into columns on a field and march, perhaps three to four soldiers deep, forward. The reason for this mainly had to do with the technology of the musket. For one, the musket could only fire one ball shot at a time. Then a soldier had to reload it with powder, ball, a paper wad, and pack it down in the barrel before being able to deliver a discharge. An expert could possibly pull off three shots inside a minute, but under duress of immediate combat conditions, this was likely not the case. To compensate, commanders created columns of troops in order for a soldier standing behind one who had just fired his weapon to now take his place. This effectively allowed for rapid-fire onto the enemy’s forces. The other reason to consider is accuracy. Muskets were highly inaccurate, particularly the Brown Bess that many British regulars carried. Standing at a close distance from the opposing force and having multiple rows of soldiers firing while the others reloaded was the best way to engage with maximum firepower. In response, because the muskets were inaccurate when aimed, most soldiers simply pointed in the direction of the opposing column of troops. Because of the close-proximity of men, this was how many were struck with musket balls. Other modes of offensive tactics were the use of cavalry to overrun a folding or routed column of soldiers, and a bombardment of shelling from the artillery, which would have been positioned in the rear of each army’s place on the battlefield. Artillery was usually meant to keep the position of the opposing army’s bulk of soldiers from advancing. Without it, an army was at risk of relying entirely on its infantry and cavalry to disrupt and repel the other’s advancements. Lastly, the main thrust of the British army’s ground tactics was the infamous bayonet charge. Following the forward progress of a column, and usually after having fired multiple musket shots; equipped with an iron dirk some 18 inches long, the bayonet charge is often what won battles in the eighteenth-century. For the British, it was a tried and trusted remedy for lingering opponents on the field. At the start of the war, the Continental Army virtually had no bayonets in its possession. Neither did American militia. As a result, they often fled the field when staring down a British charge. It wasn’t until 1778 that most Americans were finally equipped with them and trained how to use them to defend and attack the enemy.
The Royal Navy had to fight a different war too. Even before the arrival of the French Navy in 1779, the British warships blockading the American coastline were doing battle with various American privateers and pirates, some hired by Benjamin Franklin to plunder British merchant ships. Largely, the naval fleet were used to transport troops to various points across the continent. In other instances, detachments of the Navy were sent to the Caribbean. This increased after French naval forces began attacking British posts there. Parliament valued its economic holdings in the Caribbean more than it did suppressing a rebellion in British America. With focus redirected there, the Navy was not in a position of dominance along the east coast of America as it had been. This proved problematic when trying to reinforce the army, at times with disastrous consequences.
We must remember that often a strategy is what dictates what tactics are used to achieve its objectives. Though strategy was to isolate New England from the remainder of the colonies by way of seizing the Hudson River valley, perhaps the greatest tactical mistake of the war was made by Sir William Howe’s decision to not aggressively pursue General Washington after his defeats in the New York region during the late summer and fall of 1776. It wouldn’t be his last, nor of his successors fatally undermining the resilience of Washington’s army. The expectations of meeting him in a general engagement as the times called for (though this did happen), often left British commanders seeking ways of fanning their free time instead of trying to destroy the Continental forces. Their overconfidence in relying on what had won them battles in the past were not effectively winning them the current war. Despite calls for the two armies to meet in columns on an open field, conditions and circumstances often prevented this from happening. And as a result, the British military was regularly placed at a disadvantage, even if they maintained superior numbers and training because it refused to adapt to the conditions present.
Sir Henry Clinton
In some capacities, the American Revolution was a guerilla war, unlike anything the British Empire had faced up until that point. We must remember that the American forces had the tactical advantage of knowing the country better than their British counterparts. The Fabian strategy of deception and poking and prodding the enemy was accepted by Washington, and guerilla tactics were used to harass British posts and baggage trains wherever possible. An overwhelming majority of the British forces during the war had no prior experience in North America. We can begin to see how this put them at a disadvantage of not knowing the country and having to rely on others; sometimes, local citizens or Native American parties would assist, while other times reports were made from defectors and deserters. Regardless, the British had limited means of accessing the country. Despite seizing much of the existing surveys and maps of the continent, they found themselves having to create many more as they discovered the terrain in real time. This uncertainty also helps explain how tactics used to turn civilians into steadfast loyalists most likely undermined their cause. Because of a combination of hostile conditions, and being viewed as an occupying force, we often overlook the anxiety many within the British ranks felt as they resented the reception they received by portions of the American population.
We must then conclude that both strategy and the tactics used to enforce it were at odds with the realities on the ground. However, we choose to judge the events in the modern-day, these actions did little to convince colonists that the Declaration of Independence was treason or that the British government cared one bit for restoring their liberties. They most certainly did not destroy Washington’s army and win the war.
VIDEO | Chris Kolakowski explains British strategy during the Revolutionary War, putting the American conflict in context along with the other major conflicts that were shaking the world in the late 1700s.
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