An American Way of War — Warfare and the New Republic (Part 1)

“The modern practice of Europe, with respect to the employment of standing armies, has created such a mass of opinion in their favor, that even philosophers, and the advocates for liberty, have frequently confessed their use and necessity, in certain cases. But whoever seriously and Candidly estimates the power of discipline and the tendency of military habits, will be Constrained to Confess, that whatever may be the efficacy of a standing army in war, it cannot in peace be considered as friendly to the rights of human nature.” [1]

Continental Army, by Charles M. Lefferts (PD-US)

On 18 January 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted to President George Washington a plan for the establishment of American militia to safeguard the nation. Echoing Alexander Hamilton’s warnings of standing armies made almost three years prior, Knox reasoned that “an energetic national militia” was more in harmony with American ideals.[2] Standing armies (as evidenced by his words that began this article) represented a looming threat to national liberty. Three days after receiving Knox’s recommendation, Washington forwarded it to Congress for consideration, and thus codified a distinctive American suspicion of the military that would largely endure until the 20th Century.[3]

This mistrust of large, standing armies was only one factor that has helped shape what can arguably be called an American way of war. Another distinction is the manner in which warfare was executed (more on that in a moment). But if there was a distinctive way of American war, what were its roots, and when did it emerge? And how has it changed?

Certainly from the initial establishment of European colonies, the British, French, Spanish, and other Europeans would have brought with them their styles of waging war. In the struggle over Nova Scotia in the autumn of 1710, for instance, historian John Grenier describes the clash between the British and French at Port Royal as falling within the “context of Europe’s emerging “age of limited warfare,” and so fought for glory and honor to a point, but both sides made certain to restrain themselves so as to not “radically [upset] the status quo…”[4] Jon Latimer, in 1812 War with America, notes that leading up to that conflict “the Americans’ drill was largely modeled on continental patterns,” although in practice they used a “variety of extemporized manuals.”[5] And yet both the Americans and the British recognized the existence of certain styles of combat that was common to the frontier, before and after 1776, that was particular to the New World. The “skulking” way war, the guerilla-style combat associated with native Indians and tough frontiersmen, was something both scoffed at and admired by Europeans, who strove to emulate it as much as possible when engaged in combat in America. It was a way of warfare that gave the European populations of North America extreme resiliency, but also possessed notable weaknesses.

This American way of war was shaped by the specific threats faced by European settlers, as well as by the limited resources and manpower available to meet those threats. This warfare, from a traditional European perspective, was brutal. In 1745, the French settlers living under British dominion in Nova Scotia, the Acadians, became alarmed when the British Governor for the region brought in American Rangers to build blockhouses throughout the region. The Acadians evidently drew a distinction between the European military forces and the Yankees, as Grenier cites correspondence sent to the Earl of Newcastle indicating that they thought the Americans “far more terrible than European soldiers.”[6] Surrounded by often hostile native Indians as well as by competing Old World rivals, the Americans took up a manner of warfare that was, in Grenier’s words, “of unrestrained violence, shocking brutality, and devastating effectiveness.”[7] British General James Wolfe, who overall looked upon North American provincials with little regard, nonetheless argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers.[8]

By the time of the War of Independence, both the Americans and the British were quite cognizant of fighting in an “American” style of war. In the earliest days of the conflict, the performance of the British soldiers trained as light infantry, organized into “flank battalions,” was somewhat lackluster.[9] Relatively quickly, however, they seemed to grow in confidence. Letters from Royal soldiers record “fighting in the thick wood, in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior to regular troops.”[10] However, the rebel militia fighters of the deep frontier continued to hold a reputation of ferocity and ability that even the British commanders respected. After one engagement where the British were particularly battered, one solider observed that “European discipline” was of little use in the heavily wooded areas, and that the rebels were “by much our superiors at wood fighting, being habituated to the woods from their infancy.”[11] The important point here is that both those British soldiers who boasted of their own skirmishing skills, and those who thought the Americans superior in that way of combat, seemed to consider “bushfighting” as something particularly American. Matthew Spring, in With Zeal and Bayonets Only, cites a number of such letters which contrast how the Americans fought, and compared British capability to adapt to it (both favorably and unfavorably).[12]

Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781, by H. Charles McBarron

The American way of war held a preference of militia over regular soldiers, and guerilla-style combat over large-scale, head-on confrontations. It was a style of warfare born from the military requirements of the frontier. From the founding of the colonies, European settlers struggled against native Indians and each other, and the potential for warfare was ever-present. As such, all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty were expected to participate in the militia in some fashion, which included at a minimum an annual muster for training or militia-related tasks.[13]

This is not to say that European-style warfare was totally abandoned. Population centers had to be defended, and fortifications had to be built and manned. General Washington, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, did attempt to lead American forces into decisive engagements against the British army. But after a number of defeats suffered throughout the period 1776–1780, the Americans increasingly relied on guerilla-style tactics, to which they were much better suited. Spring notes that the militia were most effective when they fought in “broken terrain” and employed this “’skulking’ method of fighting…”[14] With self-governance being regionally fragmented in the New World, both before and after the American Revolution, the North Americans developed a way of warfare that usually leveraged the unique environment in which they lived to deal with local as well as foreign threats. The result was typically small standing armies. At the turn of the century in 1802, for example, the United States boasted an army of just 2,500 soldiers.[15]

To be continued.

[1] “To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0009 [last update: 2014–12–01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790–30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 10–15.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist #8,” in te Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York, Mentor, 1961), 66–71.

[3] From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 21 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0020 [last update: 2014–12–01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790–30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 32.

[4] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710–1760 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 15.

[5] Jon Latimer, 1812 War with America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 10.

[6] Ibid, 132.

[7] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire, 173

[8] Ibid, 202–203.

[9] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775–1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 253.

[10] Ensign Thomas Hughes, as cited by Matthew H. Spring, ibid, 253.

[11] Ibid, 256.

[12] Ibid, 252–262.

[13] Ibid, 37.

[14] Ibid, 15

[15] Ibid.

Business analyst, former military intelligence officer, amateur historian, blogger/writer at DamperThree.com, satirist at times as a Duffel Blog contributor.

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