Historian debunks myths about American colonial troops' warfare tactics

Friday, August 15, 2003

As Texas students return to the classrooms this month, many will study George Washington in history class. They will probably learn how George Washington rejected the traditional British warfare method of marching in formation to engage an opponent. Instead, he trained members of Virginia's militia to fight as the Native Americans did, ducking behind trees and bushes to fire at the enemy and thus surprising them.

Many children continue believing this as adults, as evidenced in movies such as 2000's "The Patriot."

Contrary to popular belief, however, Washington didn't train the provincial troops to fight Indian style, so the colonists didn't use guerilla war tactics during the Seven Years' War, or French and Indian War -- the last of the conflicts between Britain and France for control of North America. Nor was guerilla warfare used during the American War of Independence a decade later.

In fact, the American settlers had performed so badly during earlier conflicts against France that, in the War of Independence, Washington drilled them in professional tactics -- the time-tested tactics that the British used, says Dr. Guy Chet, assistant professor of history at the University of North Texas.

Chet is the author of Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast, which debunks several myths of military tactics and strategy during the years before the War of Independence.

He points to the legend of Major General William Braddock's confrontation with Washington after Braddock -- Britain's commander-in-chief of all regular and provincial forces in colonial America -- received orders in 1755 to drive the French from Fort Duquesne at the start of the French and Indian War.

According to legend, Washington, then a junior officer, pleaded with Braddock to allow him to head the army's provincial troops in a guerilla attack on the French. But Braddock refused.

The general was killed when his troops were surprised by the French and their Native American allies, seven miles away from the fort. Washington was then appointed commander-in-chief of all of the colony's troops. He helped the British recover Fort Duquesne and achieve victory over France while commanding a Virginia regiment under British General John Forbes.

Chet says the story of Braddock's refusal to Washington "has been used as a bit of a morality tale."

"Braddock's defeat and death was supposedly a warning shot for the British. They served not only as Braddock's personal punishments for his rejection of progress and the American way, but also as a warning to the British empire and a sign of things to come," he says.

In reality, he says, Washington was reluctant to rely only on the American colonists' militia, and looked to the British Army for guidance.

"He constantly strove to put the Continental Army on a professional footing," Chet says.

A native of Israel and graduate of Haifa University and Yale University, Chet says Conquering the American Wilderness was influenced by his doctoral dissertation on degeneration and regeneration of European warfare in Colonial New England.

"I came to graduate school at Yale to write a detailed account of the way that Englishmen in the military were transformed into Americans. The idea is that the American Indians' guerilla-like style of war influenced the English settlers, and they began to unlearn the English military tactics," he says. "It's part of the Americanization thesis of historians -- that unique conditions in America transformed English society into what became American society."

However, after extensive research, Chet says he found no evidence of any colonial or British commanders adopting guerilla warfare from the Indians.

"There are isolated instances of English officials -- most notably, Benjamin Church and Robert Rogers -- incorporating Indians into their units and relying on Indian tactics," he says. "However, neither the colonists nor the British or Continental armies ever followed these men's leads and never adopted similar methods. Throughout the colonial era, the English did seek Indian alliances, but the primary benefit these alliances offered was not Indian warriors to fight alongside the English. Rather, it was peaceful neighbors, helpful scouts and intelligence."

The British ultimately triumphed over France for control of North America not because of tactical brilliance, but by establishing effective communications between units and strong defense deployment, Chet says.

"They secured their positions by providing the means for effective supply and relief -- constructing roads through the wilderness, securing them with strong garrisons and clearing forest along these routes," he says. "Britain exploited the enemy's relative poverty and brought its logistical superiority to bear against the French and their Indian allies. The guerilla forces proved inept against the fortifications."

Guerilla warfare also was not responsible for America's victory in the War of Independence. Instead, colonial troops "had everything to gain" by following British warfare tactics, Chet says.

"Most historians point to the naval war and economics to explain Britain's loss of the American colonies," he says. "Despite the American victory, the military leadership of the United States did not formulate a uniquely American military doctrine for the republic's armed forces. Even when the military was fighting Indians in the 19th century, the emphasis was on fortifications and relying on mass fire."

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