American Revolutionary War: The Generals and Their Tactics

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The History Of The United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Princeton University

What were the main tactics of combat employed during the American Revolutionary War? And how were the opposing armies organized tactically and socially by the famous generals?

An illustration depicting General George Washington riding through a victory parade.
In the summer of 1775, at age 43, George Washington became the commander of the Continental army. He finally had the military command he had always dreamed of. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Tactics of Combat

The key to combat in the 1700s was timing and location. For that reason, the two basic tactical formations every soldier had to learn were the column—where the regiment would be stacked one company after another—and the line, where the regiment would be spread out along a broad front in three lines, one after the other. The Grenadier company and the light company, on the other hand, would be either drawn up on the right and left of the regiment’s line or deployed in the front as skirmishers.

On the attack, the column could deliver a deep punch at the enemy, while minimizing the overall target that the regiment offered. On the defense, the line could bring every musket in the regiment to bear along its front and rake an oncoming column.

That oncoming column would pile up casualties, and as they were piled up, the column would be unable to return fire. Thus, the battlefield of the 1700s actually resembled a kind of disciplined and elaborately choreographed ballet, more than a brawling free-for-all.

The importance and the difficulties of moving large bodies of soldiers under these conditions—and keeping them from degenerating into a useless mob—seemed to demand an unusual level of skill from the British officers. And this was particularly strange because the truth was that Britain had no school for officer training.

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The Social Order of British Troops during the American Revolutionary War

Contrarily, the British Army consciously recruited its officers from the aristocracy and the landed gentry, usually the unwanted sons of both, allowing them to take up officers’ commissions in the army by purchase. A well-born English gentleman who aspired to serve his king and country bought a position in a given regiment for a stipulated cash price.

Approximately two-thirds of officers’ commissions in the British Army were purchased from the previous holders of those commissions, with the purchase money that was paid acting as an unofficial pension system for retiring officers. The first thing this suggests is that any shivering nitwit with the right parents could buy his way into command, no matter how much risk his inexperience and his arrogance might mean for the poor sloggers he would take into combat.

To the British eye, however, the purchase system was logical, even admirable, and it stayed put in the British Army even after the American Revolutionary War, well into the 1800s. Its chief virtue, argued the Duke of Wellington, was that purchase brought men of the right class into command. Men, as Wellington put it, of independent means, men of fortune and character. After all, when fully one-sixth of the officers of the Grenadier Guards were blood relatives of the king, it did a good deal to ensure their reliability in an evil day, didn’t it?

By extension, if the ordinary soldier found himself taking orders in the army from precisely the same class he took orders from at home, he was more likely to be in awe of his officer, and more likely to obey than question it.

Considering the victories the British soldier racked up in the wars with France and the Great War for Empire, it was hard to argue that the purchase system was not working. Any Americans who underestimated the British Army—either because of the way it was trained or the way it was led—were going to pay as severely for their mistake as the British had already paid for underestimating the Americans.

Learn more about the Great Awakening.

The Generals of the American Revolutionary War

General Thomas Gage believed that the British garrison in Boston was practically corked into its bottle by the Americans. In August 1775, Gage urged the British government to use the Royal Navy’s command of the sea to evacuate his troops from Boston, and shift the basis of the army’s operations in North America to New York City. The government agreed, but not under Gage’s command.

Gage’s officers and men had lost confidence in him, and so had the government in London. The fact that Gage had an American wife also set tongues wagging that Gage had deliberately pulled his punches in dealing with the Americans.

A colored portrait of Sir William Howe.
Sir William Howe was adept at waging war in the American terrain. (Image: Richard Purcell aka Charles Corbutt (ca 1736-ca 1766)/Public domain)

Gage was replaced in October 1775 by Major General Sir William Howe. Howe had served under James Wolfe at Quebec in 1759. He knew more than a few things about how to wage war in America.

Howe held on to Boston through the winter of 1775, shrewdly training his men on Boston Common in field tactics better adapted to the American terrain. He re-equipped many of his units as light infantry who could move ahead as fast-marching columns and deliver quick and demoralizing punches at the Americans.

Learn more about the Great War for Empire.

American Revolutionary War: Continental Commander George Washington

Meanwhile, the New England militia was sworn into Continental service by their new Continental commander, George Washington. Standing at six feet, two inches, perhaps three inches, he was very tall indeed for the 1700s.

Washington impressed nearly everyone he met as a man of perfect self-control. Though he possessed a temper with real violence, he communicated to people a sense of great power, well reined in. He owned a great property on the Potomac River at Mount Vernon, which he inherited from his brother Lawrence in 1761. Still more wealth came his way through his wife, the widow Martha Dandridge Custis.

Washington himself was born into the minor gentry of Virginia. He had risen through a political alliance with the powerful Fairfax family and through outstanding service as an officer of the Virginia militia. In the years after the Great War for Empire, what George Washington wanted most was a commission in the British Army. How different the American Revolutionary War would have been if he had succeeded.

Washington lacked the key thing for getting a commission in the British Army, and that was the money for purchasing a commission. He learned firsthand how deeply the British stared down their noses at the American plantations, because it became clear for him that no royal appointment would be forthcoming for a mere provincial, under any circumstances.

In the summer of 1775, at age 43, Washington finally had the military command he had always dreamed of, although not quite on the terms that he had wanted. The new Continental Army was fresh, brand new, soon assembled, but it had no residue of equipment to call into service, no pool of officers to call from inactive status—no long-standing, already existing regiments in which new recruits could be toughened and accustomed to the service.

Those American officers, like Washington, who did have experience serving with the British, had no idea of how to wage war on any other terms than British ones. Americans had never needed to formulate tactical or strategic doctrine on their own. They did, however, have one great advantage: their morale and self-confidence easily exceeded the uneasy and demoralized British regulars whom they bottled up in Boston.

Common Questions about the American Revolutionary War: The Generals and Their Tactics

Q: What tactics did the American patriots use during the revolution?

Besides conventional warfare, American patriots also made full use of guerrilla warfare, which paid great dividends in the Continental Army’s success.

Q: What was the most powerful weapon used in the Revolutionary War?

The flintlock musket was the most powerful and prominent weapon in the American Revolutionary Wars.

Q: What country provided America with most of their weapons after 1777?

Spain, being an ally of France and a competitor of the British empire, provided necessary supplies and munitions to the Continental forces.

Q: Who was the famous patriot traitor who secretly changed sides?

Benedict Arnold was the famous patriot traitor who changed sides during the American Revolutionary War. He was considered a great confidante of General George Washington.

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