Monday, April 6, 2009

Redcoat Tactics: With Zeal and Bayonets Only

With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008) is Matthew Spring’s reassessment of British tactics during the American Revolution. The book provides a good starting place to begin to better understand the actual tactics used by the British during the war. Along with Fusiliers by Mark Urban, the book provides a much clearer picture of the role and practices of the British Army in the Revolution.

The book, originally Spring’s dissertation for the University of Leeds, uses examples from period-British accounts of combat and inspections to analyze the origins and evolution of British tactical thinking as they met the challenges presented by American rebellion, North American terrain and their own fiscal and manpower limitations.

Spring provides ample evidence that the British were not tactically inflexible and tradition bound, rather they were flexible and forward thinking and changed their tactical thinking based on previous experience, including what they learned in North America in the French and Indian War (1754-1763). This, in spite of basing their thinking on the assumption of their own military superiority and an underestimation of the strength of the rebellion and the rebels.

To set the stage Spring begins with a discussion of what British commanders saw as the key factors for winning the war. First among these, simply enough, was to engage and effectively destroy the fighting capacity of the Continental Army. At that point British commanders pictured dispersing their forces in garrisons to re-assert royal authority over the country. It was expected that rebel defeats would encourage popular loyalist support. When, as British leaders envisioned, military action was no longer tenable, rebel leaders were expected to break ranks and sue for peace. It was not often possible for the British to achieve the kind of decisive victories they wanted, as American commanders often evaded them, or escaped defeat to fight another day.

Spring then goes on to outline what he calls the operational constraints that faced the British. British commanders were aware that, just as rebel defeats would help them, if they were to be defeated by the rebels it would do much damage to their cause, discouraging loyalists and fueling the rebellion. This realization helped make British commanders very cautions about where and when they engaged the enemy in battle. Because their manpower was limited, British commanders also attempted to conserve soldiers and not put them at undue risk. Logistics was another problem, the American terrain making it difficult to move the food, ammunition and other supplies needed by the army. Cumbersome supply trains also made it harder to pursue rebel forces. The terrain also generally favored the defender, and Americans exploited this whenever possible inflicting lopsided damage on British forces. As the war progressed British commanders tried to lighten the army’s load by cutting down uniforms and reducing the amount of supplies carried to a minimum, but even these measures failed to increase mobility enough to gain a decisive advantage in most cases.

(Left: example of cut down redcoat uniform)

In his chapter titled “Grand Tactics” Spring asserts the British commanders were not tactically unimaginative or bound by the drill manual, but that they relied on certain assumptions and techniques, like the bayonet charge that worked less and less well as Continentals gained more experience and training. As British commanders sought to engage the enemy, they tried to concentrate their best troops for attacks, the specialized light infantry and grenadier companies. These units were often removed from their parent regiments and grouped together in new composite battalions. With rebel reliance on defensive positions the British looked for ways to turn the enemy’s flank with speedy, aggressive assaults. When these tactics did not immediately work the British could become bogged down in costly, lopsided firefights. Reliance on quick bayonet assaults in America marked a break from the noted British tradition of fire discipline and firepower.

Next Time: With Zeal and Bayonets Only, Part 2, “March and Deployment” and “Motivation”.