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Guerrilla Warfare in the Revolutionary War

Instructor: Julia Maypole

Julia has a master's degree in world history and has taught college history and other humanities courses.

There are many ways to fight a war, but are they all equally effective? In this lesson, we'll talk about guerrilla tactics and see how they were used in the American Revolution.

The Fight for Freedom

Guerrilla warfare is a type of combat that does not rely on standard engagement strategies. By using the landscape as cover to subversively attack the enemy, a disadvantaged army that is not as well supplied, with lower numbers, and limited weaponry can build an advantage against their enemy. Certainly the American Revolutionaries were at a disadvantage when they declared independence from the strongest military power in the world, Great Britain. The guerrilla tactics they employed helped them level out the battle field.

A common misconception regarding the American Revolution is that the Patriots used guerrilla warfare exclusively to defeat the British. Certainly guerrilla warfare contributed to their success, but standard European battle strategies were also important methods of fighting. Guerrilla warfare, sniping, and other less traditional fighting had an impact on the outcome of the war, but guerrilla tactics alone could not have won the war. That being said, let's examine ways in which guerrilla warfare did help the Patriot's secure their independence, shall we?

Tensions Mount

The French and Indian War lasted from 1754 through 1763, but unfortunately, many of the British troops did not go home when it ended. The elevated British military presence in the American Colonies over the course of the next decade was a continuing aggravation to the Americans, as was the raising of taxes without any representation with the British Parliament. Despite the unpopularity of taxes and the military presence of the Red Coats, the majority of American Colonists hoped to heal the rift between the countries peacefully. It was openly understood that the British Empire had one of the most powerful and well-organized militaries in the world, so common sense told Americans to tread carefully despite mounting tensions.

First Test and Employment of Guerrilla Tactics

In April of 1775, British General Thomas Gage heard that the Colonists had a stockpile of munitions in Concord, Massachusetts, a small town northwest of Boston. He thought it wise to capture the weapons before they could be used in a rebellion that seemed imminent, so he ordered his troops to go and capture the arms. To get to Concord, the British had to pass through a small town called Lexington. Seven hundred British Red Coats were met by about 70 of Lexington's town militia, also known as the Minutemen. Neither the British nor the Minutemen intended to shoot each other; however, a shot rang out. No one knows who shot first, but the British opened fire on the militia leaving eight of them dead.

Engraving of the Battle of Lexington
Battle of Lexington

The news of this first skirmish spread like wildfire. The Red Coats arrived in Concord followed closely after that by 400 local militiamen. The Americans had hidden most of their arms prior to the arrival of the British, but the British destroyed any weapons they could find. To return to Boston, the British had to retrace their steps on the same route leading back to Lexington. From earliest American Colonial history, the Americans fought Native Americans for control of the land. Since the Native Americans used guerrilla warfare, the colonists had to adapt and learned to use these tactics as well, which they quickly put to use against the British. The militia was waiting along the road for the British, and using guerrilla tactics, opened fire on them as they hid behind trees, rocks, and houses. The British lost 273 men and the Americans lost 95 men. The war had not officially begun, casualties were mounting, and the American's guerrilla tactics won the day at Lexington and Concord.

In May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met to discuss a response. They were not yet ready to declare their independence or war, but they were ready to defend themselves. They raised an army, selected George Washington as their leader, issued paper money, and purchased war materiel. At the same time the Second Continental Congress was meeting, another battle occurred on Bunker and Breed's Hills near Boston. Fifteen hundred untrained American troops dug into the hill and built breastworks (dirt walls and trenches built during combat to protect soldiers) to take and hold Breed's Hill. The British showered the Americans with artillery from the ships in the harbor. British General Gage remembered the guerrilla attacks from Americans at Lexington, so he burned the nearby town of Charlestown to prevent his troops from being shot in a similar manner.

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