Arms and Strategy
Arms figured prominently in the development of America from the earliest years. Guns were important for hunting, but indispensable for warfare. Warfare between European colonists and the native aborigine was simply a clash between the stone age weapons the Amerindians possessed and the products of modern technology that the colonists possessed. The colonials had brought over with them, and offered for sale, iron hammers, hatchets, knives, swords, lances and tomahawks. The impact of these superior weapons was overwhelming. But nothing had as great an impact as firearms. The impact of firearms and especially cannon was overwhelming beginning with the shock value of the noise these arms made.
The weapons of the colonists had changed remarkably in the two centuries which preceded the colonization of America. The pike which had been the standard infantry weapon of all of Christendom was replaced by the musket. The original European firearms were wheel-locks and match-locks. Some European armies in the mid-seventeenth century still used matchlocks, but wheel-locks had all but disappeared. The mechanisms of wheel-locks were much too complicated to be salable. These arms worked on the same principle as a watch. The mechanism was wound with a key. When discharged the wheel, in which iron pyrites were fastened, ground against an iron pan, releasing a shower of sparks which detonated the priming charge, eventually igniting the gunpower in the barrel. Wheel-locks were quite expensive and were usually highly decorated and were the hunting arms of the wealthy. They were largely the property of nobility. The majority of the original military firearms were matchlocks which were both cumbersome and unreliable. These arms used a burning match which was positioned away from the touch-hole in the barrel. To fire a match-lock one moved the burning match inward to the touch-hole. These arms were not especially satisfactory either. The arm was not useful unless the match was already ignited. The burning match was visible, especially at night, and gave off an odor which helped to reveal the user. One had to have flint and steel wherewith to ignite the matches which burned for only about twenty minutes before they had to be replaced. Ignition was especially difficult in damp or wet weather. The arm was difficult to reload. By 1675 the matchlocks, snaphaunces and wheel-locks were rapidly being replaced with the superior common flintlock and dog lock mechanism equipped firearms.ccxxiv Unlike the Amerindians the settlers could repair, and if necessary, manufacture firearms, ball and gunpowder.ccxxv The first reports of bayonets dates to 1687 and soon after nearly all the colonials' muskets and many fowling pieces and rifles were now equipped with the bayonet.ccxxvi
The invention of the flintlock, c. 1650, proved to be the turning point in arming infantry. By 1675 most colonies required that flintlocks, usually called fire-locks in period literature, replace the old matchlocks as the standard infantry weapon. Most flintlock muskets fired a round ball of .75 (3/4 inch) diameter. The flintlock was little changed in substance from its introduction through the American War with Mexico. Until well after the War of 1812 no enemy might be expected to have weapons of superior nature or firepower, at least in quantity.
These arms weighed about ten pounds. An experienced shooter could discharge the weapon three to four times a minute, although the speed rapidly diminished as the bore fouled with black powder residue. The musket was generally reliable, although there were a few drawbacks. The large bores used up individual supplies of gunpowder and lead rapidly. Flints had a useful life of about thirty shots before they required replacement. A broken, damaged or inferior flint might not produce the requisite spark. Touch-holes, holes drilled in the barrel near the flash-pan which allowed the spark to enter the chamber wherein the gunpowder laid, occasionally became clogged. Poor quality, wet or deteriorated gunpowder might not fire properly. Introduction of the waterproof pan improved reliability of the musket in bad weather. A misfire required that a shooter thread a pointed worm on the tip of his ramrod, screw the worm into the lead ball and then empty out the gunpowder.
By 1680 flintlock muskets were equipped with bayonets. No longer did the soldier equipped with a firearm have to carry a pike or other cutting or slashing weapon. By 1710 the bayonet-equipped musket had become the standard infantry weapon of all European armies. While regular troops nearly always had bayonets, and many times charged an enemy only with a bayonet attached to the an empty musket, colonial militia only rarely had bayonets, especially if they were armed with their own guns. Adaptability to the bayonet was a primary reason why states sought to equip as many militiamen as possible with muskets rather than rifles or other civilian arms.
Muskets were intended for mass fire and were highly inaccurate at distances greater than fifty yards. Most had no rear sights and were designed to be pointed in the general direction of one's enemy rather than aimed at an individual target. Training with muskets, or their civilian counterparts called fowling pieces, did not emphasize marksmanship. One might occasionally hit a man-size target at 100 yards, although effective range was perhaps 50 to 60 yards. In practice, those firing muskets held the muskets roughly parallel to the ground and discharged in mass in the general direction of an advancing, opposing force.
Rifled arms were much more accurate, but the rifling fouled much more rapidly than the loose fitting musket barrels. Only a few marksmen, usually hunters, could begin to gain any great advantage from the rifling. Most rifled barrels were of smaller calibre than muskets and were certainly not uniform. Each rifleman had to cast his own bullets to fit the diameter of his barrel, and weigh his own powder charge to fit his own gun's requirements. Prepared charges of powder, wadding or "patches," and bullets could only be prepared on an individual basis, rather than being issued by an arsenal. Most rifles were of more decorative design and far less sturdy than heavy muskets. Rifles were rarely made to mount, and only occasionally could be modified to accept, bayonets. The rifle was used most effectively as a sniper's, or skirmisher's, weapon. Its long distance shock value was great for riflemen generally chose their targets carefully, especially marking enemy officers as prime targets. They were slower to load for several reasons. Rifled bores were of value if the ball fitted tightly in the bore and so a patch of leather or cloth was used to assure a tight fit and to accept the rifle grooves. Tight fitting patched balls reacted to the slightest fouling of the bore, an inevitable result of the use of black powder. One of the perennial problems with firearms was their almost complete lack of uniformity. There was no standardization of caliber and most companies found that no more than a few men used the same size musket or rifle ball. Many militiamen carried fowling pieces, slim single barrel shotguns, used by civilians with shot to kill birds and with a patched ball to kill deer. Because of their light construction throughout they were especially unsuited for military application, and none was sufficiently heavy to use as a club or to mount a bayonet. None of the colonial militia laws had never required that men provide themselves with military arms. Each man had to provide his own ammunition, which was easily interpreted to mean that each man could supply whatever arm he wished so long as he had the proper ammunition. Lack of uniformity plagued the colonies throughout the various colonial wars. Most volunteers and draftees in the colonial period received standard military arms from the English or were equipped from the rather limited colonial stores of English weapons. Colonial gunsmiths manufactured very few militia muskets; their work on military arms seems to have been confined to the maintenance and repair of arms manufactured abroad.
During the Revolution the best equipped units, whether Continental Line or militia, used English Brown Bess or French Charleville pattern muskets. Since these two standard military arms of the great European powers used the same ball and load there was no problem presented here. As the war continued these standard military arms were supplemented with imported arms of many descriptions as European nations emptied their arsenals of obsolete and damaged equipment. Additionally, American gunsmiths offered some arms of local manufacture. The best equipment, naturally, went to the Continental Line and militia units lucky enough to have standard military weapons found that the Line took these weapons with draftees or simply confiscated them. Militia officers, in turn, bought or impressed civilian arms, adding to the variety of bores and ammunition.
While firearms, especially snaphaunces, matchlocks and other early "firelocks," were in general use, the pike was still a popular weapon. The simplified manual of arms in use in the third quarter of the seventeenth century gave instructions for the use of the pike. The pikeman was required to know only eleven positions in the manual whereas those armed with firearms were to know no less than 56 positions. Fathers with a large number of sons often chose the pike for their offspring. Men at the time were responsible for arms their sons between ages 16 and 21. In 1681 a Massachusetts militiaman named John Dunton discussed the reasons for the use of the pike among inexperienced militiamen.
I thought a pike was best for a young soldier, and so I carried a pike, and between you and I reader, I knew not how to shoot off a musket. But t'was the first time I ever was in arms; which tho' I tell thee, Reader, I had no need to tell my fellow soldiers, for they knew it well enough by my awkward handling of them.ccxxvii
A few pikemen were outfitted in archaic helmets and corselets, but most wore buff colored padded coats. They carried knapsacks, utility belts and some edged weapon, such as swords or hatchets.ccxxviii In his diary, Samuel Sewall, Chief Justice of Massachusetts, recorded in his diary his observations on the instruction of young men in the use of the pike, the half-pike and halberds. A good pike, Sewall recorded, cost about 40 shillings, far less than a good gun. He described a pike carried by one officer, "headed and shod in silver" and inscribed "Agmen Massachusettense est in tutelam sponsae, Agni 1701."ccxxix As late as 1706 there are records of the purchase of new halberts for the foot militia.ccxxx King Philip's War in New England, 1675-1676, marked the end of the pike as a principal militia weapon. Amerindians were much more intimidated by the thunder and novelty of firearms than they were by pikes which resembled their own spears. Armor was little used after 1650.ccxxxi
Americans, accustomed to firearms since birth, realized the importance of good guns. As they developed their own arms, made by cottage industry gunsmiths, they disdained the poorly made, often obsolete or obsolescent weapons the Europeans dumped on the colonies from the backrooms of their arsenals. In 1747 an American militia wrote to the New York Gazette to complain of the poor quality of arms shipped to the New Jersey militia. "The Lords of Trade had sent "300 Guns, or Things in the Shape of Guns, which were condemned by the Gunsmiths at Albany as not the value of old Iron." There was a reason why the guns were so poor. The writer charged that "those very arms had been in Oliver Cromwell's Army." He added, tongue in cheek, that the Commissioners had sent the guns because they knew that, in Cromwell's day, these guns had killed the French and they were frightened by them, so the issuance of the guns in 1747 was designed expressly to frighten the French away rather than forcing the Americans to kill themccxxxii
Between 1688 and 1745 European military strategists developed new military formations and doctrine. By the time of the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14) European armies abandoned the tactics that had been useful when soldiers were armed with pikes and various cutting weapons and developed linear tactics more adapted to firearms. Common soldiers rarely carried swords in battle, as non-commissioned and minor commissioned officers carried halberds and officers were issued spontoons. All these weapons were essentially ceremonial symbols of little practical value in fighting.
Instead of massing their men, as in previous times, commanders spread them out in long lines across a substantial front. Instructors learned that lining infantry three deep was the optimum way to deploy soldiers armed with muskets. Each line fired in turn, and by the time the third line had discharged its muskets the first line was loaded and ready to shoot again. Because of the inaccuracy of their muskets, soldiers usually formed battle lines about one hundred yards apart. Field commanders thus marched their men to the clearly defined field of engagement and waged a war of attrition. Opposing armies continued to fire until one withdrew or was decimated or surrendered.ccxxxiii
Lord Loudoun introduced a number of innovations adapted to warfare in North America. One notable departure from the standard European practice was allowing militiamen, whether armed with rifle or musket, to fire from the prone position. Firing from that position was useful primarily to riflemen, but, before the Revolution, only a small number of rifles had been issued, or even permitted, among troops in the British service.
The last quarter of the eighteenth century also saw the introduction of mobile field artillery. The colonists generally used artillery to great advantage. They did not have a kill large numbers of Amerindians with it in order to make a point. There was nothing in their code of war which required them to stand against such overwhelming firepower. The sound and smell and awesome destructive power of cannon were in and of themselves often sufficient to cause the warriors to retreat from firepower which they could not begin to match. Older cast-iron artillery was used primarily to batter down enemy fortifications at distances of 200 yards or less. Artillery was massed close enough to the target to concentrate its fire. They were rarely very accurate, due in large to irregular casting of both barrels and balls and to wear from use. Of lighter construction and smaller bore than siege cannon, the new cannon often had brass or bronze barrels instead of iron. By the French and Indian War, the French had mastered new artillery strategy and had developed superior hardware. The new cannon had improved construction and design from barrels to carriages. By the Revolution, artillery could be used effectively against massed troops at ranges up to 1000 yards. Light artillery could be used somewhat effectively by militias, but the use of larger cannon was a highly developed specialty.ccxxxiv
The Dutch and Swedes had given the Amerindians cannon, but they had been rendered useless for lack of shot, cannon gunpowder and spare parts after these two nations withdrew from North America. Generally, the Amerindians chose merely to destroy cannon they captured because they really did not understand its use or deployment. But others began to supply the Amerindians with swivel guns which they mounted on the walls of their forts. These arms may be viewed as very large calibre rifles or small cannon, with bores about one to one and a half inches in diameter and loaded with multiple shot.
The militia systems in most colonies were in full vigor by 1650. In Maryland, for example, the militia was divided, according to the European manner, into the general militia, including all free male inhabitants between ages 16 and 6O, and the Trained Bands, consisting of specially trained and fully armed citizen-soldiers. Each citizen bore the cost of bearing arms himself. There was a "clawse enjoyning every person to bring a good fixed Gunn . . . to the trayning . . . for the service of the Lord Propy [proprietor]."ccxxxv The public treasury bore the cost of both purchasing and maintaining the extra equipment used by the Trained Bands.ccxxxvi Maintenance and storage of these arms were the responsibility of the sheriffs of the Maryland counties. Despite having been founded as a haven for Roman Catholics, by 1670 Maryland was effectively disarming Catholics. In many other colonies, bearing arms was restricted to those who would deny the doctrine of transubstantiation.ccxxxvii
Connecticut provided for a muster-master in each county whose function it was to inspect the arms of the militia and Trained Bands, for the able-bodied free men "by lawe are required to provide armes and ammunition" for themselves. Clerks were empowered to maintain records of militia equipment for each inhabitant.ccxxxviii Trained Bands were "to be in readiness upon an bower's warning for a march; who are to have their armes well fixed and fitted for service."ccxxxix The law provided that smiths were to give priority to repairing arms of the militia over all other work. It also provided penalties for citizens who failed to pay the smiths for such work, as it was a primary obligation of citizenship.ccxl
Militia as a Reservoir
The militias of Colonial America worked best when they were given limited assignments of short duration within the province from which the men were drawn. In most cases, the legislative calls issued to the militias were specific as to unit (usually based in a town or district), number of men required, and duration of service. The greater the distance of the service from the town where the units originated the greater the probability that some men would be drafted from the unit for service; the closer the service to home, the greater the chance that all men would be mustered.
Legislative mandates assigned the various towns their quotas and allowed each governments to decide how to fill the quota. In most cases, the governments first allowed the militiamen to volunteer and filled any deficiencies by a general draft from the militia companies.
One of the problems which developed between the colonial militias and the British army lay in the British method of conscription of men from the militias. British recruiters often enlisted the men for life, in standard British practice. Few Americans, especially illiterate backwoodsmen, seemed to have understood that they had signed for such a term of service. In 1755 Lieutenant John Winslow protested when a British recruiting officer attempted to enlist a group of New England volunteers serving in Nova Scotia without telling them that they would be signing on for life. He argued that the provincial political authorities must step in and stop the practice and force the release of those already enlisted. Winslow argued that lifelong enlistment would have a deleterious effect on the development of the colony. To allow this enlistment practice to remain,
will be a most impolitical step, as these men are sons of some of the best yeomen in New England, who encouraged them to understand this expedition . . . and on like occasions the men have been returned at the end of the time limited, and [it] was expected by the governor and people [that this] would have been the case [in this instance again]. And if [they are] disappointed and their children [are] kept, there will be an end put to any future assistance, let the extremity be what it will.ccxli
The central governmental authorities occasionally laid specific assessments for manpower upon the provincial and state governments. In each of England's several wars with France the home government assigned quotas to be filled within each colony.
The rather standard practice was to recruit as many as might be enlisted by paying small bonuses. The provinces and towns often offered bonuses that were paid in addition to those which the home government offered. If enough men were not forthcoming, the towns and provinces offered even greater bonuses. The authorities could offered bonuses in land (usually in French Canada) as well as in money. Other leaders offered clothing, blankets, equipment, or firearms. Bonuses varied greatly from time to and place to place, with governments attempting to recruit as cheaply as possible while the men were trying to obtain as much as possible for their services. Considering that governments rarely paid veterans bonuses or death benefits to families which had lost wage earners and the sources of support, one certainly cannot blame the men for getting all they could as enlistment bonuses.
Volunteers were often recruited from among the lowest echelons of society, including free-booters, Amerindian traders, runaway apprentices and servants, criminals on the lam, and derelicts. In harsh economic times, many poorer men enlisted because there was no other work to be had.
If there were still insufficient men then the provincial legislatures might authorize a draft. The militias served as the reservoirs from which the legislatures might draw for men. Most of the real work of drafting men was left to the towns and militia districts. The lucky men drafted into service might serve home or fortress guard duty, maintaining some static fortification of strategic location. Boredom was the great enemy here.
The unlucky draftees might be sent to the West Indies for long service. Many fell to enemy fire and many more died of diseases and injuries. Others were recruited into service in Canada against the French. I have not found any instance in which the home government assigned quotas to the American provinces for service on the European continent.
The towns and districts had no choice but to comply with a legislative or executive call for manpower. They could not refuse to respond. If the towns failed to fill their assigned quotas, the selectmen or other local political authorities could be held responsible, fined, and even imprisoned for failure to perform. The towns themselves might be assessed fines or penalties, to be paid out of local taxes. Towns often appointed local committees to secure the necessary volunteers, using the militias as the reservoir from which to draw volunteers. Later, during the Revolution especially, the towns were free to set bounties which might be much larger than those offered by the Continental Congress or the states.
Conversely, towns might be credited with volunteers, especially those in excess of the assigned levy, and receive bonuses from the provincial or home government. So hard was it to recruit men during the Revolution that state legislatures assigned bonuses even for fulfillment of their legal quotas. This practice occurred primarily after the long war for independence had exhausted patriotic sentiments and the states were having great problems with recruitment of men to fill the quotas assigned to them by the Continental Congress for men to serve in the Continental Line.
In reality, none of the wars between France and England had made exhausting demands upon the New England militia. Men were rarely away from their homes and farms (or other occupations) for extended periods of time. Militiamen rarely missed both planting and harvesting seasons and it was truly a rarity when a farmer missed planting and harvesting in two consecutive years.
Military actions during the struggle between France and England for supremacy in North America were largely of two types. There were the sporadic raids, conducted by French courriers de bois, a handful of French military and bands of Amerindians. The second type of actions were those involving larger numbers of men, including regular French troops, and directed at some important outpost or strategic fort.
In the first case, raiding parties sought to harrass the frontier settlements and isolated cabins. Here the French had no permanent objective in mind although they did take captives who were held in virtual slavery or were used as hostages to be exchanged for French captives held by the English or Americans. The raids were designed to strike terror in the hearts of those inhabitants who were so bold as to bring civilization into the wilderness. Perhaps certain trade temporary trade prerogatives were at stake. These incursions were perfectly suited to militia action. The ranging units might pursue the Amerindians back into Canada, even to follow the raiders into their villages, in an attempt to rescue captives and perhaps to win a war of attrition. No regular military unit was nearly as well adapted to the war in the deep woods as the rangers who had been drawn from among the frontiersmen.
In the second case the French sought to capture and hold some point of strategic significance. Among the important sites were: Ticonderoga, which controlled the Hudson River Valley and Lake Champlain; Niagara, gateway to the west and the Great Lakes; Port Royal and Louisbourg, which commanded the eastern seaboard and the St. Lawrence River; and DuQuesne which controlled the three rivers and was the link between the great western plains and the east via the Ohio River complex.
In actions at strategic points the method of warfare was generally quite simple. The warring party enlisted sufficient manpower to drag heavy cannon and mortars sufficient in firepower to breach the walls of the fort. Regular miliary sappers were augmented by various tradesmen, often including ships' carpenters, carpenters and wood cutters. They cut a road through the forest while the colonial militia, teamsters, and wagoners dragged artillery pieces, gunpowder, and shot to the outer perimeter of the fort. It all became very simple thereafter. If a relief force appeared, or the number of troops within the fort were sufficient to sortie out and destroy the siege force, those in the fort won. If the number of soldiers holding the fort was insufficiently large to engage the enemy, and if no relief force appeared, the force besieging the stronghold won by battering down the walls, or by inflicting damage sufficient to compel the fort's surrender. American warfare was thus a throw-back to the siege warfare that ended the reign of castles in Europe in late feudal, and early modern, times. Unlike European warfare of the same period, armies rarely engaged on an open field. The militia had more physical exertion in these engagements in bringing up the supplies than in actual combat. Artillery was a specialization of the regular army, although a few militia companies had mastered artillery.ccxlii
The regular British army units from England fought in nearly all battles of the colonial period. These well-trained and equipped units provided most of the shock troops, with volunteers, conscripts and militia largely acting as back-up and auxiliary units. The outcome of the major engagements were largely in the hands of the army, not the militia. Casualties, especially among the New England militias and volunteers, were relatively light. Most authorities agree that the professional army suffered far more casualties than the provincial militias and volunteers, but the Americans suffered their share also. In the abortive campaign against Ticonderoga in 1758 the forty-second and forty-sixth British regiments were slaughtered by French gunners, while the militia, being held in reserve, suffered few casualties. In some cases the regulars were fully protected while in siege whereas the militia were held in unprotected close reserve. At Ticonderoga in 1759 and during some other actions the French defensive cannon fire inflicted more casualties among the provincials being held in reserve than the actual assault inflicted upon the British attacking army.
The New England militia could muster large numbers of men if necessary. A French observer in Canada reported in 1756 that the English had gathered a large army at Fort Lydius [Fort Edward] and Fort George [Fort William Henry], consisting of ten thousand to twelve thousand men, of whom six thousand to eight thousand were New England militiamen under General Winslow.ccxliii