18th Cen Linear formation and tactics

Discussion in 'Revolutionary War' started by Uncle Ben, Sep 4, 2007.

  1. Uncle Ben

    Uncle Ben Member

    The standard weapon of the 17th,18th, and early 19th Centuries was the smoothbore musket. The British version was the famous "Brown Bess" which fired a ball almost 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Being a smoothbore and requiring a platoon to fire three volleys a minute, the accuracy was poor to horrible as the ball didn't fit very tightly in the barrel. In order to create a lot of firepower, troops were massed in a tight, shoulder to shoulder, formation of three and later two ranks. At less than 100 yards, a proper volley was very effective and three volleys in a minute was devistating to an enemy. Also, the musket had a bayonet attached to the end and the side which ended with a proper charge was usually the winner. Ex; Plains of Abraham, F&I War.
    As to tactics. The most successful generals used terrain and movement to help them win a battle or campaign. Just to march up to the enemy and blast away against a well trained and or well positioned enemy usually resulted in excessive casualties and defeat. Fire and maneuver was just as important then as it is now. Turning a flank, going around one end, while fixing the enemy's front with a faint was simple and effective. Ex; Brooklyn Heights.
    It is a total misconception that the Doodles won the war by hiding behind trees while the British marched down roads in ranks. Washington's goal from the start was to create an army which could fight in the accepted style. In the end he achieved that goal.
    YMH & OS, Uncle Ben
  2. markpeters

    markpeters New Member


    Washington's goal from the start was to create an army which could fight in the accepted style. In the end he achieved that goal. :eek:

    Just for the sake of argument, can you name a successfully prosecuted 'stand up' battle by the Continental Army? In my opinion, Saratoga comes closest, and we could argue all day about the constituent parts of that as most was New England Militia. In addition, Saratoga was really three actions, and we had Burgoyne.

    So, the question really remains. In what battle did Washington's Continental Army achieve his goal? ??? Over to you Ben!!! ;)

    Best wishes,

  3. mvkwasny

    mvkwasny New Member

    Washington did want to create an army that could fight along the same lines as the British, and I would say he partly achieved that goal. Certainly the Continental Army got better as the years went by, especially after Steuben's training in 1777-1778. Perhaps the closest the army came to standing face to face with the British army and holding its own was Monmouth, June 28, 1778. They held their ground, and at nightfall, the British withdrew from the field.

    However, i would say that Washington and other American leaders also relied deliberately on the partisan warfare (or as we now say it, guerrilla warfare) that relied more on ambush, hit and run, and raids. In these clashes, standing in line was only occasionally the preferred tactic. Continental detachments would operate with militia fores on their own, where small scale engagements occurred. In these firefights, tactics would be much more fluid. The british got pretty good at these fights, with jagers, light infantry, and rangers of their own. Tory partisans also were very good at these small unit acions.

    So it seems to me that tactics in the war were varied, evolved and in the end were a combination of traditional European tactics, emerging European light infantry tactics, as well as North American forest warfare.


  4. Rifleman

    Rifleman New Member

    Might I jump into this discussion and offer The Battle of Cowpens as an example of a successfully prosecuted 'stand up' battle by the Continental Army.

    True, there were many militia and state troops on the Patriot side. But, Continental Brig. Gen. Morgan was firmly in charge, and it was the Continental Infantry that comprised the backbone of Morgan's "defense in depth" and the Continental Dragoons that were the mobile reserve. The key part of the battle was the near point-blank volley and subsequent bayonet charge by the Continentals against the 71st Highlanders that broke the British attack. The reformed militia (with many ex-Continentals in their ranks) and the Continental Dragoons were then able to execute a double envelopment of the enemy.

    It was not a good day for Banastre Tarleton.

    Rob T
  5. Uncle Ben

    Uncle Ben Member

    Mark, Mark, Rob T
    Huzzah!! All these comments are great. Morgan was a true "seat of the pants" leader. Of all the Doodle generals, he, Greene, and Knox are my top choices.
    Tarleton was a good cav leader but didn't fare well as a "combined arms" commander. Apparently he had two Grasshoppers. There is no record of his using them at all. YMH & OS, Uncle Ben
  6. mvkwasny

    mvkwasny New Member

    Of course, it might be fun to discuss what late 18th century tactics really were, even for the regular soldiers. Tactics by then, it seems were really in flux, as more fluidity and maneuverability were introduced. Yet the need for that solid, linear line, was still there as well. I have always felt that the tactics of the American Revolution helped push along the tactical evolutions that would continue in the French and Napoleonic wars. Many French officers who served in America also served in the Revolutionary armies in the 1790's. In some ways Washington himself was a bit of a pioneer along these lines, as were Greene and Morgan, and British officers such as John Simcoe, Tarleton, Cornwallis, William Howe, and others.
  7. Rifleman

    Rifleman New Member

    As Uncle Ben has indicated, would not the need for a solid linear line be dictated by the major weapon of the infantry - the smoothbore musket? Both sides experimented with that amazing, whiggish contraption called a "rifle", but it was still too new, too impractical, to have a major, doctrine-changing impact yet.

    I suspect though, that the limited effectiveness of the rifle in American hands (and their own Ferguson's rifle experimentation) were remembered by the British and perhaps became some of the impetus for the development of the Baker rifle and the unit that carried it - the 95th Rifles of the Napoleonic Wars. It was the 95th that pioneered for the British the non-linear tactics often associated with modern infantry.

    In my (admittedly modest) studies of the Napoleonic Wars, I can find no evidence that the French used anything other than muskets in that time period. So, if that is true, what lessons did the French carried from the American Revolutionary War?

    Rob T
  8. markpeters

    markpeters New Member


    Cowpens!!! :eek: A good example, and one that I completely overlooked. A good example of why Wellington never allowed cavalry commanders, however successful, to exercise any authority. Perhaps, an example that Napoleon should have followed, when entrusting his army to Ney.

    You are correct in that the French limited themselves to the musket, including the 'voltigeurs'. I know that Belgians used the rifle at Waterloo, but my memory is rusty on this. I might look that one up ...

    Back to Cowpens; the tactics were classic. The weak centre; drawing in the opposition to a restricted area a la Julius Caesar at Pharsalus. Wellington drew the opening artillery barrage, at Waterloo, on his weaker troops (exposed in the centre), knowing that they would break. They were truly expendable, as were the militia at Cowpens. So, full marks to Morgan ... :'(

    Best wishes,

  9. mvkwasny

    mvkwasny New Member

    I agree, the French and British and other armies still used the same basic musket used during the 1770's-1780's. And yes, tactics are partially dictated by weaponry. But tactics are also dictated by quality of troops, numbers, motivation, and terrain. Plus, there are strategic ideas. I can't prove any direct connection between the American Revolution and later French tactics, because I haven't researched that connection yet. But men like Berthier (later Napoleon's chief of staff) and Lafayette, who was biefly in charge of France during the early Revolutionary period, both served in America. Many other French officers also served in America, and some at least were serving during the French Revolution. The French also found themselves relying on troops similar in quality and motivation to the American rebels. They also used looser formations, more skirmishers, and less emphasis on individual discipline, as did the American rebels. Yes, the basic idea of forming a line for maximum firepower still was the basis of tactics, but these other changes, all seen in growing use during the American war, perhaps were remembered by the French veterans of the American war. Lafayette tried to direct the French Revolution along the lines he thought Washington would approve of. Napoleon even said once that he would have loved to control France like Washington did the US, but that unlike America, France was surrounded by enemies. So, by circumstancial evidence, it seems possible that the tactical and even strategic and management lessons of the American Revolution played a part in the French Revolution as well.

Share This Page