Contributions of Militia Tactics to the U.S. War of Independence, Coursework Example

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Coursework

Whereas the image of the militia possesses a significant status within the mythos of the American Revolution and therefore the popular imagination at large, historical questions concerning the deservedness of this reputation must clearly delineate the precise function of the militia concept within the conflict. Accordingly, when considering the question from the perspective of military history, in which a conceptual framework constituted by notions such as tactics and strategy is decisive, the importance of the militia may be carefully consigned to the tactical dimension. Namely, considering the precise context of the Revolution and a war against the geopolitical dominance of Great Britain, it could be argued that the militia was a necessary tactical approach for the Americans, since only partisan-guerilla or asymmetrical tactics could be mobilized against an enemy force that was superior on both qualitative and quantitative levels. At the same time, however, the militia, while crucial to the American war effort from a strategic perspective only denotes a particular aspect of strategy and one contributing factor to U.S. victory. As Brooks and Iohwald note, “The actual American military success during the War of Inepdenence presents a complex and multi-dimensional series of issues. Historians and military analysts have credited the patriot victory variously to innovative battle tactics, incompetent British leaders, the alliance with France and numerous other factors.”[1] To over-emphasize the importance of the militia vis-à-vis the War of Independence is to perform an over-simplification and reductionism, according to these aetiological reasons for victory. However, concomitantly, this is not to discount the clear importance of the militia in regards to the tactical dimension of the American strategy.

The militia phenomenon provided a unique tactical approach for U.S. strategists in conflict with a vastly superior opponent. Hence, Anthony Clayton suggests that the militia during of the war of independence can be viewed as the continuation of the “asymmetrical warfare that had earlier so confused the British in North America.”[2] The asymmetrical approach emphasized in the militia, however, was not only the product of disproportions in terms of military force and political hegemony. Rather, since it conformed to the nascent and undeveloped terrain of America, the asymmetrical style of war was, in this sense, symmetrical to the conditions on the ground in the U.S.  Taking the wildness of terrain as a beginning point, militia tactics imply that “pioneers and frontiersmen were grouped into militias, one day warrior, the next apparently peaceful farmers, using ground with local knowledge and the natural skill of the frontiersmen.”[3] In this regard, the militia functioned as a necessary asymmetrical appendage to the more symmetrical aspects of U.S. strategy, such as conventional warfare and traditional (geo)political alliance building against the British (i.e., the allegiance with France).

Yet this is not to suggest that the militia occupied a radically asymmetrical position, entirely detached from regular U.S. military operations. Often times, the militia served as the stand-in for standard forces, thus becoming a form of conventional army. Savas and Jameron note that “the men who fought at Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) were New England Militia, and not soldiers of the United States Army.”[4] Accordingly, the militia can be considered to be a form of radically asymmetrical unit in the Revolutionary War, insofar as they were not only embodiments of unconventional partisan tactics, but also could assume forms of  regular warfare. Furthermore, there is a greater underlying continuity between militia and conventional Army that develops in the War, as “the U.S. Army traces its inception to these militia units because they went on to form the nucleus of what would become the Continental Army.”[5] The role of the militia in the War of Independence is dynamic, since it was simultaneously both symmetrical and asymmetrical, while also becoming the foundation for the conventional military.

The importance of the militia in terms of both its tactical flexibility and its contribution to conventional military, however, did not necessarily endear the militia to U.S. military leaders. As Edling notes, “when Washington sought the opinion of his generals about using the militia in an attack on British positions outside Philadelphia in December 1777, they were overwhelmingly negative.”[6] Despite the clear contributions of such asymmetrical military forces, it can be suggested that traditional military thought nevertheless approached the militia with an uncertainty.

The reasons for the negativity towards the use of militia were primarily advanced in terms of their unreliability. Nathaniel Greene underscored the essential ambiguity of the militia concept: “the uncertain success of the (militia’s) most Spirited exertions, the impatience they discover to be gone, and the trouble of managing them when here.”[7] Furthermore, Wooford doubted that “militia can be brought to stand in line of Battle”,[8] and that, according to Knox “militia went against ‘reason, or common Military knowledge.”[9]  Insofar as “common military knowledge” aims to introduce (to whatever degree possible) certainty within the “fog of war”, top U.S. military commanders viewed the militia concept as antithetical according to its very uncertain and amorphous essence, which seems to contradict this aim.

In this regard, questions of how the militia could have been more effectively used in the U.S. Revolutionary War perhaps do not rest entirely upon the militia themselves (i.e., the extent of their training, their commitment to the cause), but rather upon a hesitation endemic to U.S. strategy to effectively use these asymmetrical tactics, to the extent that they conflict with what Knox terms “common military knowledge.” In this regard, limitations to militia took the form of a failure of American military imagination. Obviously, this failure was not total since militias were employed effectively during the war. However, the novelty of the asymmetrical concept, as evidenced by the aforecited objections to the militia, demonstrates that effectiveness of militia was directly tied to a failure in regards to how to tactically utilize militia.

Certainly, however, this is not to discount the contributions of the militia. Their ability to not only perform as unconventional military units, but also as conventional units, demonstrate a new sophistication of the irregular-regular warfare distinction, as this distinction essentially becomes muted during the U.S. Revolutionary war. In conjunction with a traditional military strategy and the diplomatic strategy of political alliance, the militia provided a valuable tactical capability to the wild terrain of the Americas, while also giving U.S. military thinkers greater tactical flexibility and thus (according to the close relationship between tactics and strategy in war) strategic flexibility.

The positive contribution of the militia lies in this very contribution to an expansion of U.S. military and political options, while taking advantage of the cursory U.S. infrastructure that was more suited to asymmetrical war. Moreover, it provided a tactical necessity in light of British superiority. If a negativity is to be ascribed to militia forces, it is, as Greene and Knox noted above, the sense in which they do not contribute to the drive towards certainty amidst the fog of war. However, if they do not contribute to this aim in a controlled fashion, as military thinkers would wish under ideal conditions, they nevertheless contribute to this aim in a diffuse and chaotic manner, wholly appropriate to the context of this particular conflict. Whereas it is difficult to fully delineate the extent to which the militia were decisive to the war since the war itself was constituted not only by a tactical plane also defined by militia vs. conventional forces (i.e., political and conventional strategies were crucial to the Revolution), the militia, according to its very asymmetry and the appropriateness of this asymmetry to the particular conflict, were obviously beneficial to the war effort.

The disappearance of the militia as an institution in U.S. warfare can largely be traced to the fact that militia or partisan type tactics are successful in the case of invasion of home territory, and not in the case of invasion of foreign territory. That is, militia is fundamentally based upon dissolving into the crowd, familiarity with terrain, etc. To the extent that U.S. military has been occupied with wars abroad historically, the militia tactic becomes inconsequential to wars of aggression on foreign soil.

Works Cited

Brooks, Victor  and Hohwald. How America Fought Its Wars: Military Strategy from the American Revolution. New York: De Capo Press, 1999.

Collins, Anthony. The British Officer: Leading the Army from 1660 to the Present. New York: Pearson Education, 2006.

Edling, Max M. A Revolution in Favor of Government. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Savas, Theodore P. and Dameron, J. David. A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution. New York: Casemate Publishers, 2010.

[1] Victor Brooks & Robert Hohwald. How America Fought Its Wars: Military Strategy from the American Revolution. (New York: De Capo Press, 1999), p. 144.

[2] Anthony Collins, The British Officer: Leading the Army from 1660 to the Present. (New York: Pearson Education, 2006), p. 49.

[3] Ibid., p. 49.

[4] Theodore P. Savas & J. David Dameron, A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution (New York: Casemate Publishers, 2010), p. xxiv

[5] Ibid., pp. xxiv-xxv.

[6] Max M. Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 261.

[7] Ibid., p. 261.

[8] Ibid., p. 261.

[9] Ibid., p. 261.

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