Warfare tactics from British, not those of tribes, helped Americans win War of Independence, historian says

Thursday, June 29, 2006

As a junior officer under Major General William Braddock - Britain's commander-in-chief of all regular and provincial forces in colonial America - 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 their enemies and thus surprise them. This guerilla warfare later helped colonists win the American War of Independence.

A University of North Texas historian says this idea about warfare tactics by American colonists makes for interesting learning in history class and interesting movie plots, such as that in 2000's "The Patriot," but it's a myth.

Dr. Guy Chet, assistant professor of history, says that 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, Chet says.

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 Braddock's confrontation with Washington after Braddock received orders in 1755 to drive the French from Fort Duquesne at the start of the French and Indian War. According to legend, Washington pleaded with Braddock to allow him to head the army's provincial troops in a guerilla attack on the French. According to legend, 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 gain 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.

During the War of Independence, 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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