This essay originally appeared in the Welcomat dated April 19, 1987. A Welcomat staffer told me the editor, Dan Rottenberg, tried to find an alternative to my longwinded title and finally decided he couldn't.
WHY THE BRITISH DIDN’T HIDE BEHIND TREES
AND OTHER THOUGHTS SUITABLE FOR APRIL 19
The one thing everybody knows about the events of April 19, 1775 is that the Americans won the battles of Lexington and Concord because they were clever fellows who hid behind trees while the silly British stuck to some kind of weird tradition and stood out in the open in dense, tightly packed formations. The image of the cunning Yank hiding behind a tree is one of the six historical ideas our schools manage to impress on our minds.
The truth, of course, is that we didn’t win the American War of Independence (as they tend to call it Over There) until we, too, produced an army that fought in well-drilled parade ground formations. There were three good practical reasons why eighteenth century European armies fought like that and the first was the simple fact that it wasn’t as suicidal as it looks to people who are used to modern rifles and machine guns.
A World War II rifleman could easily fire ten to fifteen shots per minute and aim at targets several hundred yards away with some confidence he could actually hit them. An eighteenth century soldier armed with a muzzle loading musket could fire three shots per minute (five at best) and his weapon was so inaccurate it was usually only fired at men who were fifty to one hundred yards away-- and then some authorities claim most of his shots probably missed. Add in the effects of clouds of white smoke and you can see why there wasn’t much point in wearing camouflage fatigues.
The second influence on eighteenth century tactics was something that is even more remote from our experience-- cavalry. A cavalry charge could normally break right through a volley from infantry equipped with muzzle loaders. Infantry stopped cavalry with bayonets, not bullets. Cavalry couldn’t ride through a hedge of steel points. The horses wouldn’t do it.
But the men wielding the bayonets had to stand shoulder to shoulder. If you spread them out, the cavalry would gallop through the openings and come at the infantry from all sides, swords hacking and slashing.
Cavalry were an important factor in Europe and a minor factor in North America but the British didn’t stick to their standard procedures merely because they were too hidebound to make adjustments. The British generals couldn’t have spread out their men if they had found themselves facing commandos armed with submachine guns.
The biggest difference between eighteen-century armies and modern armies was the nature of the men who filled the ranks. The British government-- like most of the other European states-- filled its regimental rosters by signing up “volunteers” whose alternatives tended to be starvation or the gallows. The troops were kept in compact formations so they could be tightly supervised by their superiors. If you let them spread out and bury themselves in the underbrush, most of them would probably have looked for a quiet place to hide and many of them would have deserted. Desertion was such a serious problem, in fact, that most generals wouldn’t make night marches because they knew a big part of their army would drift away before dawn.
Eighteenth century governments fielded such armies because the European wars of that period were essentially conflicts between governments and dynasties. The middle classes and the upper classes might light bonfires and giver a cheer when their country won a decision-- in the same way you and I feel good when our local NFL team wins an important game-- but they didn’t care enough about the whole business to feel they or their sons should die for king and country.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europeans had been killing each other over religious matters, large numbers of people had cared passionately about the rights and wrongs of Protestantism and Catholicism. In the years between 1789 and 1815-- the decades dominated by the French Revolution and the adventures of Napoleon Bonaparte-- they would care just as passionately about liberty, fraternity, equality, and the glory of their nation.
Throughout most of the eighteenth century, one historian has noted, they were so cool about national rivalries that there was one major war in which British insurance companies sometimes insured the very ships their navy was trying to sink.
The British parliament couldn’t mobilize the total resources of the state the way a modern government can. It couldn’t tax beyond a certain point. It couldn’t draft. It couldn’t stir up patriotic feelings and raise a hundred thousand volunteers.
In the American colonies, on the other hand, large numbers of people did care about the issues that had brought on the war. The British army couldn’t bring things to a satisfactory conclusion by defeating an army or capturing a capital. If it defeated George Washington in a battle (as it often did), he simply retreated and came back with another army. If it occupied Philadelphia, the Congress moved somewhere else. The British could only have won the war if they had occupied the entire Atlantic seaboard in the same way Hitler occupied France. No eighteenth century government could have raised an army that could have done that.
Is that important? Does it matter if anyone understands that?
Personally, I think it does. Today, 212 years after Lexington and Concord, we are all of us, each and every one, the citizens of a democratic nation which controls the largest and most destructive military establishment in the history of the world. One of the major results of that historic act of violence is the existence of a powerful nation whose military policies are heavily influenced by the attitudes of its ordinary citizens.
So what should we tell the children who are the future voters of that nation? Should we teach them that wars are won by clever good guys who hide behind trees and beat armies led by clownish bad guys who think such behavior is “ungentlemanly”? Is there a small possibility the history of the last thirty years would have been significantly different if we had all learned in our childhood that the decisive factor in the American revolution was the feelings of the people the British redcoats had been ordered to fight?
Copyright (c) 1987 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Philadelphia Welcomat.
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