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Guerrilla Warfare in the Revolutionary War

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  • 0:03 American Revolutionary…
  • 1:19 Guerrilla Tactics in…
  • 2:15 Mixed Warfare
  • 3:37 War in the South
  • 4:36 Privateering
  • 6:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

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.

American Revolutionary Guerrillas

Imagine that you are in charge of leading a small army of volunteer soldiers against the largest and most powerful professional army in the world. Are you going to march straight into battle? Not if you expect it to be a very long one!

For centuries, small armies have relied on guerrilla warfare to help even the odds. This includes non-traditional wartime tactics like ambushing, sabotage, and raids rather than direct engagements. Guerrilla warfare is not meant to really defeat an opponent; instead, the idea is to make the war drag on and become so expensive that your adversary gives up. It's the different between fighting a professional boxer versus a swarm of mosquitoes - the mosquitoes won't kill you, but they just may drive you away.

Amongst the many armies to try out these tactics were the American colonists fighting for their independence. The American Revolution was a conflict between a group of volunteers and a massive professional army. Did they think they could defeat Britain, the heavyweight champion of European colonialism? Maybe not, but while Britain prepared to defend its title, it was the colonists who learned how to 'float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.'

Guerrilla Tactics in the Revolution

There's a popular belief that Americans fought and won the entire revolution with nothing but guerrilla warfare. That's not true, and the myth largely stems from how the war began. The very first military engagement between British and American forces occurred on April 19 of 1775. American militia men had been covertly transporting weapons and colonial government leaders from town to town, hiding them from the British army. The British heard about these stockpiles in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord and went to seize them. The American volunteers of these town gathered together to oppose the British, resulting in a brief skirmish. As the British beat a hasty retreat back towards Boston, American militia units basically popped out of the bushes along the entire road, shot a few volleys, and disappeared. It wasn't enough to decimate the British, but the British weren't prepared for it, and it drove them back.

Mixed Warfare

The battles of Lexington and Concord resulted in the first shots of the Revolution, as well as the first uses of guerrilla tactics. This would occur throughout the Revolution, but it wasn't quite as widespread as many people think, especially in the northern states. Most of these battles were fought by the Continental army, which behaved more like a traditional military and less like the local militias. Still, Washington was certainly not above guerrilla tactics, and he used them to his advantage.

When we're talking about guerrilla warfare in the North, we're actually generally looking at a mixed system of war. Guerrilla tactics were used to aggravate or funnel the British into a larger military encounter. One of the best examples of this is the Battle of Saratoga in New York. Militia units from across New York and New England picked at British forces. Individually, each of these little militias seemed unlikely to defeat the British army. However, at Saratoga, the small rag-tag groups suddenly converged into a sizable Army, which the British never saw coming. The Battle of Saratoga was one of America's most important victories. It was here that France was convinced to join the war and became the first nation to recognize American independence.

War in the South

Where we see more traditional examples of guerrilla warfare was in the South. Nearly all of the big-name battles of the American Revolution happened in the North. However, about 80% of the total Revolution was fought in the South, where the Continental army was less active. Down here, local militias carried the brunt of the fighting, and they did so using guerrilla tactics. This is why there aren't many major battles to talk about from 1780 to 1782 in the American Revolution. The British decided to concentrate their efforts on the South and work their way north. Southern militias used the dense foliage, marshes, and uneven terrain of the South to their advantage. Did they strike any major blows to the British this way? No, but they did extend the war by years. The British march through the South turned out to be expensive and exhaustive, which is exactly what guerrilla warfare is meant to do.

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