Revolutionary War Historical Article
Why Did They Do That?
18th Century Military Tactics
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the May 1997 Edition of the Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter
One of the most often heard questions about the American Revolution is "Why did the Revolutionary War soldiers stand in straight lines like so many targets?" The answer, like most answers is complicated. Battlefield tactics are governed by several factors. Among the more important ones are terrain, the number of troops available, and most importantly, the weaponry employed by said troops.
During the seventeenth century the European powers developed a whole new range of weapons which were introduced into their armies as fast as they could be produced. At the same time these same European powers were creating large, well trained, standing armies. The need for extensive training required to handle the new weapons made the concept of filling the armies' ranks with conscripts obsolete. A great deal of administrative time was expended to develop organizational structures that would
accommodate the new weapons.
During the sixteenth century the firearm replaced the pike (a spear like weapon) as the basic infantry weapon. The original firearms were extremely primitive. They were fired by touching a lit fuse, or match as it was called, to the weapon's firing pan. It required a great deal of time to load, hence it was necessary for pikemen to protect the "musketeers" while they reloaded. Their actual impact on the battlefield was questionable. Battles were still won or lost by the pikemen who did all of the close hand-to-hand fighting.
During the last half of the sixteenth century a major breakthrough was made. A firing mechanism was invented which relied on a spark produced by a flint striking a steel plate to fire the weapon. This weapon was much lighter, did not require the matchlock's holding stand and could fire twice as fast. This was the flintlock musket. But, here again, after being fired, the musket was useless when the soldiers were engaged in hand-to-hand combat.
In the year1642 we find the first mention of the Bayonet. The name comes from the French cutlery manufacturing center of Bayonne, whose daggers and knives were well known at that time as "bayonets". These were "plug" bayonets. They were, quite simply, nothing more than daggers whose handle was modified to be inserted down the barrel of the musket. Although primitive, they did resolve the vulnerability of musketeer in close quarter battle.
This weapon had several drawbacks. The musket could not be fired with the plug bayonet in place. And, frequently it would become detached during use, leaving the musketeer semi-defenseless again. In 1671 another Frenchmen invented the socket bayonet. This foot long spear like device employed a metal sleeve which slipped over the end of the barrel. This permitted the musket to perform its firing function as well as that of the traditional pike. It revolutionized warfare and relegated the pikemen to the pages of history. However much this improved the musket, equipped with a socket bayonet, it was still very cumbersome. The famed British "Brown Bess" musket was very inaccurate. At fifty yards a well aimed musketball would have an eighteen inch variance. The musket was heavy, weighing over ten pounds, had a barrel at least three feet long and was difficult to aim. A flint was good for about twenty firings and frequently had to be replaced on the battlefield. Furthermore, the invention of smokeless powder was still a century away. After the first volley, the battlefield was obscured by smoke. Soldiers had to be trained to fire at areas rather then individual targets. With ample training a soldier could, in the stress of battle, fire three rounds per minute.
Battlefield tactics had to be modified to accommodate this new weapon. Linear tactics were developed. Instead of the large squares of pikemen moving as a block, the musketmen were usually lined up in three ranks, bringing the maximum number of muskets to bear on the enemy. Firing rank-by-rank, the massed musketmen could fire a devastating nine volleys per minute!
Tactics of this era sought to simply blast their opponents off the battlefield with concentrated musket fire. Unfortunately for the soldiers, it became a tactical fact of life, that a regiment was rated not by how well it could deliver a volley of musket fire, but rather, how well they could stand after receiving a volley.
As regimental reputations were built on battlefield gallantry, they began to develop more colorful uniforms. This was psychological warfare. A distinctive uniform of a well known regiment would instill fear in their opponents, often causing them to retreat rather than stand and fight. Each of the European nations created their own styles and colors of uniforms. This system remained in place until World War I. Since then, some individual regiments still have "full dress" or ceremonial uniform in addition to the service or field uniform.
Our for bearers were rightfully concerned when facing some of the British Regiments sent here to put down the rebellion. Some of them had fierce reputations and were known throughout the western world!
The traditional enemy of the colonists was the Indian. The tactics used to fight the Indians were quite different from those of massed European armies. Our use of Indian tactics inflicted numerous casualties upon the British, but if did not win battles.
It wasn't until the Continental Army, and to a lesser degree, the militia, mastered the art of 18th century warfare - - - standing in ranks and trading volleys and finally capturing the battle field at bayonet point, did we start winning battles.
With the loss of one third of their men, the British never forgot the lessons learned at Bunker Hill. They were always cautious about attacking Americans when in fortified positions. But, by the later stages of the war, the lines of the blue clad, battle hardened, American Continentals also struck terror in their hearts.
Linear tactics remained the rule through out the nineteenth and the first part of the twentieth centuries. The mass carnage caused by the invention of the machine gun in World War I forced these time honored tactics to change.
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING:
"The Continental Army" by Robert K. Wright , Published by The Center of Military History, 1983
"The Army of Frederick the Great" by Christopher Duffy, Published by Hippocrene Books, 1974
"The Reform of the British Army 1795-1809" by Richard Glover, Published by Cambridge University Press, 1963
"Military Tactics of 18th Century France" by Rbt. Quimby, Published by: Columbia Press, 1957Back to Historical Archives