THE COLONIAL MILITARY

Warfare in the Eighteenth Century

The Continental Army was the product of European military science, but like all institutions developed by the American colonists, its European origins had been modified by the particular conditions of American experience. A proper appreciation of that Army in the context of its own times thus requires an understanding not only of the general developments in the military art of western civilization during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also of the particular martial traditions and experiences of the English colonists in North America.

In the seventeenth century Europeans developed a new range of weapons and gradually introduced them into their armies. At the same time a wave of dynastic wars in western Europe led to the creation of increasingly larger forces serving nation-states. Commanders and leading military theoreticians spent most of the eighteenth century developing organizational structures and tactical doctrines to exploit the potential of the new weapons and armies. The full impact of these changes came at the end of that century.

During the seventeenth century, the firearm replaced the pike as the basic infantry weapon. The original firearm, a heavy matchlock musket, suffered from several serious defects as a military weapon: it was cumbersome; reloading was long and complicated; the chance of misfire was extremely high, particularly in damp weather; and the lit match required to ignite the gunpowder charge betrayed positions in the dark. These defects, particularly at close quarters, required a proportion of each unit to carry pikes for defense against an attack by enemy cavalry or pikemen.

A technological breakthrough occurred in the second half of the century with the introduction of a new firing mechanism. It relied on the spark produced by a piece of flint striking a steel plate to touch off the propellant charge. Although still susceptible to moisture, the flintlock musket was lighter and more wieldy than its predecessor, had a higher rate of fire, and was easier to maintain. Late in the century, development of the socket bayonet complemented the flintlock musket. The bayonet, a foorlong triangular blade which slipped around the muzzle of the musket without blocking it, transformed the firearm into a pole weapon. The transition to the musket and bayonet combination gradually eliminated the need for defensive pikemen, who disappeared from most western European armies by the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century. Standardized flintlocks appeared shortly thereafter.

Whether produced at government arsenals or by private contractors, all eighteenth century muskets were inaccurate. Weighing over ten pounds and with a barrel over a yard long, they were difficult to aim. Flints tended to wear out after only twenty rounds, and even under ideal conditions the effective range of these smoothbore weapons, which fired one-ounce balls (two- thirds to three-quarters of an inch in diameter), was only about one hundred yards. An average soldier under the stress of combat could fire three rounds a minute for short periods, but he required considerable training to accomplish this feat. Since care in reloading was a major factor influencing accuracy, only the first round loaded before combat began was completely reliable.

New tactical formations and doctrine between 1688 and 1745 took advantage of these new weapons. The emergence of the infantry as a major factor on the battlefield gained momentum from the growing importance of firepower. Beginning with the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14), generals sought literally to blast the enemy off the field with concentrated fire delivered at close range. They moved away from the massed formations which had characterized the era of the pike and adopted a deployment in long lines (linear tactics); by mid-century infantrymen in nearly every army stood three-deep to bring a maximum number of muskets into play. The critical firefight took place at ranges of between fifty and one hundred yards.

These weapons and tactics required adjustments in organization. Since the sixteenth century the regiment had formed the basic component of an army, providing administrative and tactical control over a group of companies. The need for better fire control in battle led to many complicated experiments. Ultimately, every army turned to a more manageable subelement, the platoon. whose fire could be controlled by a handful of officers and noncommissioned officers. Coordinating the actions of a number of these basic elements of fire (normally eight) produced the battalion, the basic element of maneuver. Most regiments were composed of two or more battalions, except in the British Army, where the regiment and battalion were normally synonymous. The relationship between the company (an administrative entity) and the platoon varied, but by the end of the century most armies were making them interchangeable.

Filled with rank and file trained to fire in unison at areas rather than individual targets, these units constituted the latest advances in organization at the time of the Seven Years' War (1756-63).

A second development during the eighteenth century was improved handling of armies on the battlefield. At the beginning of the century, armies marched overland in massed formation and took hours to deploy into line of battle. A commander who felt at a disadvantage refused battle and marched away or took refuge in fortifications. Engagements normally occurred when both generals wanted to fight. Several reforms were introduced to force battle on an unwilling opponent. The cadenced march step and standardized drill maneuvers sought to reduce the time needed to deploy and the confusion associated with forming a line of battle. These changes also allowed a commander to adjust his formations to the changing flow of a battle without asking total disruption of his ranks. Brigades and divisions controlled the movements of several battalions and increasingly became semi-permanent.

Mobile field artillery also emerged in the eighteenth century. While heavy cannon continued to be important for fortresses and sieges, lighter guns were introduced to give direct support to the infantry. Standardized calibers eased administrative and logistical problems. Ballistics experts and metallurgists reduced the weight of the tubes, while others improved carriages, the French emerged with the best of the new artillery after reforms in 1764 by General Jean Baptiste de Gribeauval, an experienced combat officer and able theoretician. The new mobility enabled tacticians to consider artillery as a supporting arm whose function was firing at enemy personnel instead of engaging in artillery duels. In nearly every European army the artillery became a separate armed service, legally distinct from the infantry and cavalry.

The army which naturally exercised the greatest influence on the American colonies was the British. Great Britain enjoyed a unique status among the great powers during this period because its strong navy gave it security from attack by its neighbors. One consequence was that the British Army at first lagged behind the other European armies in adopting the reforms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but by the time of the Seven Years' War, it had adopted the major ones. In fact, it had led the way in introducing many techniques of infantry fire control. Its slow and ad hoc growth as an institution, however, had produced an inefficient and extremely complex administrative and logistical superstructure. Authority and responsibility were divided between two major Army commands (the British and Irish Establishments), between the Army proper and the Ordnance Department (controlling artillery, engineers, and munitions), and between the civilian Secretary at War and the military Commander in Chief (when that office was filled). Strategic direction was shared by two or three civilian Secretaries of State. At times the various individuals responsible for these chains of command cooperated, and the system functioned well. However, when breakdowns occurred, the British Army appeared leaderless and inept.

- - - - - -Robert K.Wright Jr.

Colonial Military Links

Colonial Military Bibliography