Militia or Regular Army?
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1During the period from the end of the war with Britain until the confirmation of the Constitution (1783-1787), a fierce political struggle took place in the United States regarding the nature of the government in the new political entity that had just been formed. Besides the discussion about the political, economic, juridical and social powers of the government, there was also a discussion on the questions regarding the position, nature and perception of the army.1 When the Americans began dealing with the nature of the army in the post-revolutionary period, they already had a military past that was rife with wars, beginning with the early British colonies in North America and their battles with native American-Indians. At the end of the 17th century the American colonies took part in European power struggles, mainly those between Britain and France.2
2 While many argued for continuing the system of militias, which meant continuing the responsibility of the states, there were those who argued that a central government also needed to have a military force that would be based on a regular army, a navy, a system of forts, arsenals, a military industry and a military academy for professional officers.3 The most outstanding and important study on the debate concerning the post-war character of the army is that of Richard Kohn,4 who deals with the disagreements between the federalists and the anti-federalists. But the book positions this debate within the general discussions about the power and authority of the central government in relation to geo-strategic threats against the new republic. There is hardly any discussion of the assumption that those who wanted a regular army had argued for this because of their military experience in the revolution. The new military mechanism needed to be adapted to American liberalism, giving serious consideration to the traditional fears of a permanent standing army as a body that might injure the rights of the individual and society.
3 This article presents an additional point rarely covered in detail elsewhere: The decision to set up a regular army based on the eighteenth century European model (prior to the French Revolution) also came from the experience of military operations in the revolution, especially in the southern colonies.
4 In the historiography about the American Revolution there is a fascinating debate about the place occupied by the militia in winning the war.5 Therefore, an additional contribution of this article is the attempt to correlate the historiographical debate (on the degree of military efficiency of the militia and its contribution to winning the war) with the perception of George Washington regarding the military system that was necessary for the United States during the course of the war. One should ask the question: If the militia system was successful in the opinion of those who claim it had led to victory in the revolution, why was there a desire to set up a regular army both during the war and after it in a society that was apprehensive of this kind of army? Also, why was it necessary to make such a far-reaching reform in the structure of the militia?
5 The article will deal mainly with George Washington, who was the central figure in the attempt to set up a regular army during the revolution. The answers to the questions raised above will be based on an analysis of the extensive correspondence that Washington conducted with various personalities during the war, with an emphasis on the period in which the fighting took place in the south, as seen through the instructions and contacts that Washington had with the commander of the American forces in the southern arena, General Nathanael Green.6 From the analysis of these letters it will be possible to determine how Washington perceived the place and function of the militia during the American Revolution and how this perspective influenced his desire to set up a regular army.
6 Those in support of the establishment of a regular army in times of peace declared their position in a series of manifestos published in the New York press between September 1787 and August 1788. In The Federalist, No. 8, there is an insistent call for the establishment of a regular army. For Alexander Hamilton, its author, the presence of regular armies in Europe averted the possibility of surprise conquest, rapid destruction, and swift defeat. Although the colonialists valued their liberty, the absence of a regular army would lead to liberty being exchanged for violent destruction of life and property.7
7 These principles can also be found in the document that George Washington had written in May 1783 at the request of Hamilton for the Congress. This was “Sentiments on a Peace Establishment,” and it contained the recommendations of Washington for the future structure of an American military force. Washington argued that the colonies should maintain a standing army as the first line of defense in case of surprise attack by the European powers. He also asserted that far-reaching reforms should be made in the militia, and that in case of emergency it would be placed under the command of the regular army.8 The plans and proposals of Washington for the militia can be found in The Federalist, No. 29, also written by Hamilton.9
8 Washington’s document may be defined as one of the most important founding documents of the American army. Although it was not accepted in full until the reforms of Secretary of War Elihu Root in 1903, many of its requirements, especially the far-reaching reform in the structure and operation of the militia, were introduced.10
9 The logic behind the federalists’ wish for a regular army in peacetime is clear, in spite of the fact that the opposition to a regular army was one of the main reasons for protest by the colonialists in the days preceding the revolution. The reasons for the apprehensiveness about a regular army can be found in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the colonies, especially in the radical political ideology of the English Whig party that developed after the military dictatorship of Cromwell.11
10 The issue becomes sharper in view of the fact that the colonialists admired the Roman Republic, including its military system.12 This system is based on the citizen who is recruited during wartime and returns to his ordinary civilian life at the end of his period of service. Numerous comparisons were made in the colonies with the history of the Roman Republic. For example, George Mason, one of the important revolutionaries in Virginia, argued even before the outbreak of war with Britain that the colonialists should continue to adhere to the republican tradition of choosing militia commanders. Mason’s argument was that as long as the Romans preserved the republican nature of the army they succeeded in conquering an empire and in maintaining their political and social freedom. When this system was abandoned the Roman Republic fell.13
11The comparisons with the Roman Republic continued during the period of the revolution as well, when the senior commanders compared themselves to the esteemed figures of that republic. Nathanael Greene was Scipio Africanus, the destroyer of Carthage; Washington resembled the young Cato, the tribune who struggled against the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. After the revolution it was said about Washington that he gave up all his authority and military power exactly as Cincinnatus had done.14 The colonialists regarded America as a renewed realization of the Roman Republic and warned against political, social and economic trends that would lead to its fall.
12 A paradox can therefore be found between the fears of a regular army and the desire to establish one in peacetime, something that is illustrated further in the letters of George Washington written during the years of the revolution. Washington often speaks in the revolutionary language of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or the Declaration of Independence, such as: “We fight for Life, Liberty, Property”.15 Yet in military matters there is a kind of reverence for the model that Washington saw as ideal – the regular British army.16 This paradox is resolved by the fact that the desire of Washington for a regular army and his lack of trust in the militia system are due to his military experience during the period of the revolution.
13 Two military models are at the heart of the debate. The first involved the militia as the institution that represents the power of the citizen and his liberty. The second was the standing army that represented the absolute power of the state over its citizens, to the point of tyranny.17 But the course of the revolution itself added another dimension to the debate. This is the practical military dimension that emerged from the conduct of the revolution and the assertion of Washington and some of his generals that the only way to overcome the British army was by establishing a similar military system – a regular army.
14The military history of the American Revolution can be divided roughly, both chronologically and regionally, into two main stages. The first period began with the aborted American attack on British strongholds in Canada at the end of 1775, and ended in October 1777 with the surrender of the British general Burgoyne at Saratoga.18 After this the war moved to the southern colonies until the capitulation of the British forces in Yorktown in October 1781.
15 The British regarded the American Revolution in the wider context of its colonial wars during the eighteenth century.19 The political and military confrontation was perceived as the revolt of British citizens against the Empire. Moreover, Britain identified the American Revolution as a danger to its standing as a superpower, especially vis-à-vis France, Holland and Spain. In practical terms, the British plan of war was to take control over the Hudson River and thus to detach the New England colonies from the rest, and only later on to move southwards, and with the help of those settlers who had remained loyal to the Crown (the ‘Loyalists’) to conquer the southern colonies. But the defeat at Saratoga and the entry of France into the war at the beginning of 1778 led Britain to change its strategy, depending increasingly on Crown supporters in the colonies.20
16 Washington understood, especially after the fall of New York (August 1776), that his small army was not capable of defending all the cities in America, but his strategic conclusion was that as long as a regular American army existed the revolution would also continue to exist.21 Already at this stage of the war it could be seen that Washington refused to regard the militia as a military force that could win the war, despite the fact that a myth began to be formulated in the colonies that the irregular forces – the militia – could face the British army. This perception developed after the battle of Breed’s Hill (June 17, 1775), better known (mistakenly) as Bunker Hill. Many Americans regarded this as a moral victory that strengthened the lessons learnt at Lexington and Concord, which meant that the soldiers of the militia who were motivated by revolutionary ideology could withstand a professional, well-trained, and well-equipped army.22 In contrast Washington claimed, even after the battle, that an army composed mainly of soldiers serving only temporarily could not win the war. He also claimed that the militia were merely an auxiliary force for a military system that must be based on a professional army of soldiers disciplined and trained, which would be committed to serve throughout the war.23
17 After the failure of the expedition to conquer Canada, Washington wrote to Congress that it was not possible to depend on the militia or on any irregular military force that did not function in the long term, and that it was necessary to build a standing army to achieve the aims of the revolution. He added that the militia could not protect the colonies for long, and therefore the establishment of a regular army was an immediate need.24 Washington also asserted in another letter that it was not possible to conduct a war or plan future operations because of the instability of the militia.25
18 Throughout the course of the war one can find letters to various people in which Washington argues that it was necessary to set up a standing army.26 Thus it may be seen that since the very beginning of the revolution Washington did not consider the militia to be a dependable military force. Several years before Washington had himself been appointed as the militia officer of Virginia, but for him this appointment had merely been a jumping board for a permanent position in the British army. For the British officer corps the militia was no more than an auxiliary force, mainly for security assignments, and not a military force for attack operations.27 During the course of the revolution Washington sent the militia to carry out defensive tasks, mainly at places of lesser strategic importance or along the frontier facing the Indians (a lesser enemy than the British army.
19 As long as Washington did not have a regular kind of army, he avoided a decisive battle confrontation against the professional British forces. Washington therefore adopted a strategy of attrition and went into battle only when he knew that the chances of victory were clearly in his favor.28 Washington also understood that the British army was dependent upon its navy for supplies and for transport from one place to another, and therefore, in order to neutralize this tactic, Washington tried to lure the British into conducting battles far inland.29 The attrition strategy of Washington had two other purposes. The first was an attempt to gain time in order to enlarge his forces, equip it, and more importantly to train it. The second was to induce the involvement of the European powers, especially France, and perhaps also Spain and Holland, in support of the colonies.
20 The defeat at Saratoga transferred the strategic focus of Britain to the colonies south of the Potomac River. The British Minister of the Colonies, Lord Germain, estimated that there were more loyalists in the south than in the north and therefore a smaller British force would be required. The intention of Germain was to ‘Americanize’ the war, in so doing to cause civil war among the American settlers: loyalists against patriots. After control was restored in the south, the British army could return and carry out military operations in the northern colonies. The change in British strategy was also due to the participation of France, Holland, and Spain in the war, which constituted an immediate and more serious threat to the British Empire.30
21 At the end of 1778 the settled area of Georgia was conquered and this colony came back under British control. The American-French attempts to regain it ended in painful defeat. The British then went on to conquer South Carolina with the general aim of gradually advancing northwards, establishing an operational base in the mouth of Chesapeake Bay (Maryland), and reconquering the northern colonies. In May 1780 Charleston (South Carolina) was taken, and Washington tried to send his army, which was encamped around the city of New York, southwards in an attempt to strengthen the militia forces. But the situation of the Americans became worse after the defeat of General Gates at the battle of Camden in August 1780. In fact, after this battle, there was no organized American army in the south, and even the militias had ceased to function. It should be noted that during this period there were various guerrilla groups operating in the south, but British control over the settled areas of the colonies denied the guerrilla fighters freedom of movement and support. However, the British failure to control the border areas of the southern colonies allowed the guerrilla groups to re-organize and return to operational activities.
22 In the autumn of 1780, Washington received another blow. Benedict Arnold, one of the most gifted generals of the revolution, deserted to the British side. Arnold was the commander of the system of fortifications at West Point, and the fear was that his desertion would lead to the fall of the Hudson River into British hands.31 It also constituted a moral and psychological blow to American recruitment, since the desertion of such an esteemed commander indicated a lack of confidence in the ability of the American army to win the war. These crises led Washington to focus once again upon the situation in the north. He therefore issued a series of severe orders to transfer reinforcements to the fortification system at West Point and also to increase the state of alert in Maryland and Virginia.32 From the series of letters that Washington sent to his generals it appears that he intended to rely only on his regular forces and that he did not count on the militia to provide the defense along the Hudson River. Although Britain did not take advantage of the opportunity to control the Hudson River, the very presence of a large and well-trained British army supported by the navy in New York (the southern egress of the Hudson River), can explain the fears and the measures taken by Washington.33
23In order to understand Washington’s military approach it is necessary to deal firstly with two subjects. The first is the change that occurred in European armies in the years following the Thirty Years War, in particular the development of standing armies in France and Prussia in the years extending from the end of the Thirty Years War (1648) up to the Seven Years War.34 The second subject is the type of military thinking at the end of the eighteenth century prior to the French Revolution. These two processes intersected in a series of wars conducted in Europe, beginning with the wars of Louis XIV and reaching its peak in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), continuing through the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and ending in the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The last two wars were marked by the remarkable victories of Frederick the Great against the armies of France, Austria and Russia, and the Prussian Emperor was considered as the most important military authority in the Western world at that time.35 The development of the Prussian army under the command of Frederick the Great is therefore crucial. Moreover, from the end of the seventeenth century the American colonies were involved in European conflicts, mainly between Britain and France.36 Thus, the colonial settlers found themselves fighting side by side with British regular forces, winning appointments as officers, and being exposed to the fighting methods of a regular army. One of these officers was George Washington. This could explain the actions of Washington during the American Revolution and his desire to establish standing army acting in accordance with contemporary principles of military thinking, especially those of the Prussian army.37
24 During the course of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) various European countries, including France, Holland and Sweden, began developing professional standing armies. These armies were trained, equipped, and mobilized with the assistance of an efficient taxation system, and were controlled by a centralized bureaucracy.38 The Thirty Years War proved that one could not depend on unreliable mercenary armies. Regular soldiers loyal to the crown could crush any internal opposition to central government, lay down the law, and assist in the collection of taxes. The relatively long period of peace after 1648, together with improvements in tax collection systems, contributed to the increasing size of armies. These trends created military forces that, in the French and later the Prussian case, became effective instruments in the hands of those monarchs aspiring to absolutism and European hegemony.39
25 France came out of the Thirty Years War as the strongest military power, and Louis XIV took advantage of this to press for achieving political superiority on the European continent. 40 In order to conquer, fortify and hold the enormous territories extending from the Low Countries (Netherlands) to the west, the Pyrenees to the south, and the Rhine in the east, as well as to support dynastic claims (such as those in the Polish and Spanish wars of succession), Louis XIV needed a large land army, especially infantry, that was capable of protecting the border fortresses.41 We therefore find a gradual increase in the size of the French army over the period of five decades during which Louis XIV ruled, at the end of which the French army had about 390,000 soldiers.42
26 The other kingdoms of Europe did not have the material, human resources or aspirations of the France of Louis XIV, but they needed regular standing armies to withstand the French threat. By 1710 the Austrian army possessed 100,000 soldiers in a standing army, making it the main component in the military coalition against Louis XIV. The ability of the Austrians to cope with both French and Turkish aggression turned Austria into a central power in Europe.43 England, in spite of its apprehensions regarding a regular army, also increased its armed forces in this period, fighting with the Dutch army both in the War of the Augsburg League and in the War of the Spanish Succession.44 Savoy and other German states set up small standing armies that joined Austria in the wars against the French and the Turks. Similar trends also occurred in Sweden and Russia.45 But the most impressive development was that of the Principality of Brandenburg-Prussia.
27 The Prussian army also began to adopt the model of a professional army after the Thirty Years War since it had not succeeded in defending its territories. The most significant developments were made during the reign of the Prussian emperor Frederick William I (1713-1740), nicknamed “the soldier king” (Der Soldatenkönig). Under his rule Prussia developed the fourth largest army in Europe and the strongest one on the continent.46 This was achieved despite the limited material and human resources of Prussia in comparison with the other European powers.47 The Prussian army then achieved fame during the reign of Frederick II ‘the Great’ (1740-1786). The Prussian rulers managed to set up an efficient bureaucratic system and invested many resources despite demographical and economic limitations. Walter Dorn asserts that: “… it was not Prussia that made the army but the army that made modern Prussia”.48
28 The geo-strategic situation of Prussia was somewhat similar to that of the colonies in North America. Prussia was strategically weak because it did not have natural borders and because it was surrounded by European powers that were stronger and more aggressive. Prussia also consisted of a group of territories without territorial contiguity. The colonies in North America were surrounded by powerful enemies, with no natural borders either in the north or the south that could bar against European invasion, whether British, French or Spanish. Although there was physical contiguity of territory among the colonies, each of them conducted its affairs independently with hardly any coordination with neighboring colonies, and military cooperation against various strategic threats was rarely to be found.
29Frederick the Great held full military and political powers in his hands and his army was based on an officer corps of Junker aristocrats. This was the poor but proud and tough landed aristocracy considered as the most superior and consolidated social class in Europe, devoting its life to the service of country and emperor, unlike the French officer corps that purchased rank with money, and many of whom were not qualified to be officers at all. Prussian soldiers were mostly native born recruits called up to join the army, often by compulsion, on a territorial basis. Every district was divided into cantons, each being obliged to provide a regiment.49 The stringent and rigorous training system gave the Prussian soldier an advantage in mobility and speed, something that was demonstrated in the wars conducted by Frederick the Great during the 1740s and 1750s.
30The Prussian army under the command of Frederick the Great succeeded in winning two important wars in Europe: the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War.50 In both wars, the army confronted enemies that were stronger and bigger than itself.51 Should we wish to find the turning point in history at which the rise of the Prussian army parallels a decline of the French army, this could be the battle of Rossbach (November 5, 1757), when Frederick skillfully combined artillery and cavalry to defeat a French-Austrian force twice as large. Rossbach demonstrated the military philosophy of Frederick the Great.52 He understood that if a military commander wished to be victorious in war he must conduct offensive battles. Thus the army of the enemy became the main military target and not the supply lines or logistic stores.
31There is no doubt that Washington did not want to build a centralized military system like Prussia, and certainly not a system based on forced recruiting and a cruel system of training and discipline that included physical punishment and executions for disciplinary faults (even though there is evidence that his army did impose such punishments). But he did aspire to build a national army acting in accordance with the principles of warfare that were designed by Frederick the Great. Washington saw the essential need to oblige the governors of the colonies to recruit soldiers and place them under the authority of the Continental Army under his direct command. During the American Revolution, especially in the southern colonies, Washington sought the decisive battle that would end the war. Already in September 1777 Washington wrote that: “One Bold Stroke will free the land from rapine, devastations and burnings”.53
32In order to understand the military perceptions of Washington, it is also necessary to briefly discuss military thinking in the eighteenth century prior to the French Revolution. The theoretical and practical approach of Frederick the Great reflected the ideas of the Enlightenment in showing that the arts of war should be taught like all the other arts and that it demanded professional training and extensive knowledge in various fields. The conclusion of Frederick the Great, as expressed in his Principes Généraux de la Guerre, is that the arts of war can be based on a theoretical system of rules and principles derived from the lessons of history.
33 Military success, in the period from the end of the Thirty Years War to the outbreak of the French Revolution, was achieved through tactical means such as separating the enemy from his supply bases. Contemporary writers defined the importance of the link between the army in the battlefield and its bases of supply, something that military analyst Henry Lloyd referred to as the core principle.54
34 These lines of communication have important implications for the conduct of war. It is necessary to select the shortest and most convenient line in order not to be exposed to counterattack from the sides. If the line is too long the attacking army will be vulnerable to losing supplies and reinforcements from counter-attacks. Therefore the attacker must bring his supply bases forward and the defender must maneuver to threaten the lines of communication and force the attacker to retreat.
35 This tactical approach was used in the operations conducted by the British as well as by Washington’s Continental army.55 Although Washington was not a military analyst, there is no doubt that he knew the military thinking of his period.56 Washington’s desire for a standing army was shared by many of his staff officers.57 It is an interesting fact that the senior officers of Washington who supported the establishment of a regular army were those like Greene and Knox who had served earlier in the militias. On the other hand, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, who had served in the past as officers in the British army, supported militia operations and were opposed to setting up a regular army. Some claim that their opposition to the strategic perceptions of Washington led in the end to their dismissal.58
36 Military thinking of the eighteenth century included an appreciation of the value of irregular warfare and its place within the framework of regular warfare.59 It should also not be forgotten that the British army accumulated much experience in war against this type of warfare during the colonial wars in North America, and that the first commanders that George III appointed for war in the colonies were the veterans of the French and Indian War.60 It may be that Washington was afraid that the British would succeed in eventually overcoming the irregular forces in the south. It should also be remembered that in spite of the fact the French army used such methods in the French and Indian War, the war was finally decided in a series of regular battles, with victory for the British. As Washington’s letters make clear, the way to obtain victory over the regular British forces (on land and on sea) would be with the help of a regular army trained and equipped for regular warfare.
37 Throughout the duration of the war Washington did not have sufficient soldiers or arms. This was the reason why the American army was not capable, during most of the war, to cope successfully with the British army in the orthodox warfare methods of the time. These two basic facts led to a strategic paradox on the American side. In order for the revolution to succeed and the colonies to achieve independence, it was necessary for Washington to defeat the British army. But the operational and logistic weakness of his own army led to an inability to initiate a wide-scale attack. The weakness of the American army was demonstrated clearly in the battle of New York in the summer of 1776. After this battle Washington refrained from direct confrontation with the British army on the battlefield. It may therefore be said that the failure in New York represented a watershed in Washington’s strategic thinking.
38After the battle of New York, Washington had to deal with the fact that the war would not end quickly in one decisive military action, although he never gave up his aspiration for such a battle. Three options presented themselves. The first option was to lead the Continental army westward in order to avoid direct clashes and to use guerrilla tactics. The second option was to conduct a series of clashes and tactical retreats with the aim of causing losses to the British army without endangering his army in a regular battle. The third option was to stand with all his army face to face with the British army and to risk the outcome of a pitched battle.
39 Washington rejected the first option because it was based mainly on the fighting abilities of the militia forces, something he did not trust. The second option was perceived by Washington as avoiding the challenge posed by the British army and as a cowardly strategy that would eventually lead to the conquest of the central cities. The third option was the preferred one for Washington, but this required building up a regular army that was well equipped and trained according to the European theories of warfare. Therefore, until his army was ready for this enormous task, Washington designed a strategy composed of the first two options, which were now merely tactical means to achieve his strategic goal, the buying of time needed for building up a regular army. This was the strategy based on attrition, or the “Fabian strategy”.61
40 The forays against Trenton and Princeton at the end of 1776 were evidence of the new strategic line of action that Washington adopted, involving raids upon British strongholds followed by retreat. Washington also designed this Fabian strategy in an attempt to put political pressure upon Britain to abandon the war and the colonies.62 But Washington never gave up the third option, and we know this from the series of letters he wrote during the years 1779 and 1780. In these letters Washington claims that Britain would not give up its empire in North America until it suffered another decisive defeat as it had in Saratoga. However, in his view, this defeat would take place only if his forces, together with the French navy, could re-conquer New York. The decisive defeat eventually came at Yorktown, justifying Washington’s overall strategy (even if the location was somewhere else).63
41 For Washington, the most important principle of war was that of the massing or concentration of forces. Frederick the Great wrote: “There is an ancient rule of war that cannot be repeated often enough: hold your forces together, make no detachment, and when you want to fight the enemy, reassemble all your forces and seize every advantage to make sure of your success”.64 As long as the Continental army did not reach this goal Washington refrained from a regular form of battle with the British army. The entry of France would solve this problem. Washington’s traditional way of thinking is also evident in the winter encampment of the American army in Valley Forge. During this time French and Prussian officers arrived to train the army in European tactics. Military engineers also arrived who fortified key points on the Hudson River (including West Point), according to the method of the famous French engineer Vauban.65
42 After this period of training, Washington felt that his army was prepared for war, and in June 1778 the first regular battle between the Continental army and the British army took place at Monmouth Court House, ending in victory for the Americans.66 This battle had two implications. The first was that it was the last battle in the northern colonies. Washington managed to station a line of defense around New York, enclosing the British stronghold. The center of this line of defense was West Point. The commander of the British forces in the north, General Clinton, did not try to break through this line of defense, which led to the transfer of the British war effort to the south. The second implication was the strengthening of Washington’s perception that the Continental army was capable of confronting the regular British army.67 Therefore only a regular army trained according to the European model could win the war.
43 With the war’s center of gravity transferred to the south and the successes of the British, Washington’s descriptions about the disposition of the American military system became gloomier, especially after the defeat of Gates at Camden in 1780. The main criticism of Washington was the continued dependence on the militia system. Although the militia forces had defeated the British army at the battle of Saratoga, Washington claimed that the basic assumption of reliance on a militia force was erroneous. This was because “regular troops alone are equal to the exigencies of modern war …the Militia will never acquire the habits necessary to resist a regular force”.68 Washington argued that the militia should be under the command of officers of the Continental army in order to obtain maximum operational effectiveness.69 This point was emphasized in the ‘Sentiments’ document.
44 In a letter that he wrote after the defeat of Gates, Washington tried to persuade the recipient that his strategy of attrition was indeed working. He claimed that in spite of the victories of Britain in the south, it was having difficulty financing the war and there were signs of rebellion in Britain, especially by the Irish. Its international situation was also difficult following the entry of France, Spain and Holland into the war. The conversion of the American Revolution into a war in which the European powers were involved proved the success of the attrition strategy adopted by Washington.70 Britain was forced to withdraw troops for the defense of Britain against French invasion and also to protect its sugar plantations in the West Indies. In his view, Britain was close to the point at which she could no longer continue to fight in North America. But Washington continues to assert that the establishment of a large standing army based on general recruitment for three years was essential to win the war. The United States would never win its independence so long as it did not have a regular army.71
45 Washington wrote to Congress that even though the British had not taken advantage of their successes in the south to transfer the war back to the north, the defeat of Gates demonstrated the weakness of the regular army when it depended upon the militia forces. In his opinion, the militia could never confront a regular army, and in order to save the revolution it was necessary to recruit several thousand soldiers from the states of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, and to set up an army that would also include cavalry and artillery units. The militia, within the framework of a regular army, would constitute an auxiliary force that would be engaged in patrolling, securing border crossings, and skirmishes.72
46On October 14, 1780 Washington appointed General Nathanael Greene as commander of the American forces in the south, and authorized him to determine the appropriate strategy for rehabilitating the army and carrying out military operations against the British.73 In Washington’s opinion, Greene was the man best suited to command the southern arena.74 His appointment stabilized the situation in the south and led eventually to the final surrender of the British at Yorktown. Greene’s non-conventional thinking is often praised, yet his thinking was not unlike that of Washington. Both generals conducted a strategy of attrition, but executed it in different tactical ways. Greene always acted under the command of Washington and never tried to undermine his authority as the Supreme Commander of the American forces. Greene was the commander of an arena, and in this capacity he had a fair amount of independence to decide on strategy.
47 The first task for Greene was to reconstruct the military system: the regular, militia and guerrilla forces in the southern colonies. Even before Greene had reached the south, patriot guerrilla units conducted an attack on a British-loyalist force at King Mountain (October 7, 1780).75 This may be considered as a turning point in the south since it led the British to set aside for the time being their planned advance northwards and to direct their resources against the patriot guerrilla forces in South Carolina.76
48 Greene claimed that the dismal situation of the regular army did not allow him to carry out offensive operations without causing further catastrophe.77 He therefore relinquished the regular method of warfare and engaged in irregular warfare. Washington and Greene present us with two methods for conducting war, one conventional (Washington) and the other unorthodox (Greene). Greene agreed with Washington’s strategy of attrition but carried it out in a different way, waging attrition and buying time for the rehabilitation of the regular army. The army was then reinforced by French forces preparing for the decisive battle of the revolution at Yorktown. Guerrilla warfare was the means and the establishment of a regular army was the end. It is also possible that the aim of the attrition strategy conducted by Greene was to damage the financial abilities of Britain to continue with the war, and thus to induce Britain to end the war through negotiations.
49 Greene’s unconventional approach also violated the principle of the concentration of forces. He split his small army into three groups. One of these was under the command of Daniel Morgan, whose task was to attack the British on the border between Georgia and South Carolina.78 The second group was commanded by Henry Lee, who set up a mobile task force that linked up with the guerrilla group of Frances Marion along the shoreline of South Carolina. The rest of the army under Greene’s command moved around in the internal areas of the southern colonies in a Fabian-like strategy.
50 This approach even led the British to disperse their forces in response, which weakened the British army and made it yet more vulnerable to guerrilla attacks. The commander of the British forces in the south, General Cornwallis, split his army in order to keep track of Greene and to try and eliminate Morgan’s army.79 In January 1781 Morgan’s units encountered the British units at Cowpens on the border between the two Carolinas. Morgan’s army was composed of regular soldiers and militiamen, but he did not depend on the militiamen at all and estimated that they would flee from the battlefield when the cavalry of Cornwallis arrived. Morgan told the militiamen to fire only three rounds of ammunition and then to retreat. In fact, at the very beginning of the British attack the militia units retreated.80 It may therefore be said that Morgan’s victory in this battle was in fact the first victory in the south in which a regular American army confronted British forces in conventional battlefield formation.81 What is more important is that the victory infused a new fighting spirit in the southern colonies and in the supporters of the revolution. Greene’s split-force strategy led to a situation in which the two armies that met at Cowpens each had an equal number of soldiers. When Greene arrived in the south, the ratio between the American and British forces had been 1:10 in favor of the British.
51 Greene’s approach, based on the assumption that a series of defeats would eventually lead to the total retreat of Britain from the colonies, combined a defensive strategy with tactical offensive operations. The unconventional thinking of Greene found expression in the splitting of his forces and the subordination of the guerrilla forces to his authority.82 Greene tempted the army of Cornwallis across the colonies of the south and distanced it from its operational bases (in the southern cities), lengthening its lines of communication and refraining from confronting the British in regular battle. Although this did not lead to a significant victory between February and August 1781, the attrition of the British caused them to abandon areas in Carolina and Georgia and to withdraw into the cities of Savannah (Georgia), Charleston (South Carolina), Wilmington (North Carolina) and Yorktown (Virginia).
52 The revolution ended with siege warfare according to the European model, involving the integration of the French expeditionary force and navy. The last act of the revolution, the conquest of the city of Yorktown, was a conventional one. Therefore, from the strategic viewpoint, there was no difference between the two generals. Greene was unconventional in his military thinking, but from his letters it appears that he believed only a standing army, based on the eighteenth century European model, could win the revolution. In a letter that he wrote to Washington, Greene says that the outcome of the battle at King Mountain proved that one could depend on the irregular units for local operations so that the British would be forced to direct military resources to the internal areas of the southern colonies, thereby preventing their advance northwards towards Virginia.83 Thus we find that there is a subordination of partisan warfare to his authority for the sake of coordinating overall operations. As soon as Greene arrived in the south, he wrote to Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter that he was aware of their important operations that denied the British any achievements after the defeat of Gates at Camden, but that their main task at present was to gather intelligence about the strength and intentions of the British.84
53 Greene’s perception that only a regular army could confront the British and win the war, in line with Washington’s thinking,, can be found in a series of letters that he wrote to various governors of the colonies. Greene wrote that although the fighting spirit of the militia was high, it should constitute an auxiliary force and that the main war effort should be carried out by the regular army.85 In a letter to the North Carolina Board of War, Greene writes that the war in the south would continue to be a partisan war “… until we have a more permanent force to appear before the enemy …”.86 Two conclusions may be deduced from this letter. The first is proof that Green used the irregular units to rehabilitate the army. The second, which is derived from the first, is once again the inability of the irregular units to win the war. Greene was fully aware of the fact that the governors of the colonies had reservations against any threat to their authority, especially their control over the militia forces.87
54 But in the letters to his colleagues in Washington’s headquarters one can find his real opinion about the militia. No control over the militia was possible because the commanders obeyed the authority of the governor and not the authority of the Continental Congress (in effect, that of Washington), and they could not be subordinated to any political or military authority higher than the level of the colony. Moreover, the officers were not suited to their positions of command and “… everybody is a General …” as Greene complained to Knox.88
55 So, in spite of the continued partisan activity in the south, Greene never expected that the war would be won by irregular units. In a letter that was sent to Greene after the victory at Cowpens, Washington claims that the victory of Morgan was achieved through his adherence to the traditional principles of warfare.89 In a letter to Congress, Washington announced that the victory of Morgan would enable Greene to continue his rehabilitation of the regular army.90
56 From the letters that Washington wrote to Greene after Cowpens, we find once again the desire of Washington to conduct a war based on the guiding principle of the concentration of forces. Washington instructs Greene to refrain from large operations against the British since his forces were still small and dependent on militia forces.91 Washington’s views of the militia were also shared by French officers.92
57As this article has tried to show, based on the letters of Washington and Greene, neither of them relied on irregular forces as the main fighting force of the revolution and instead aspired, during the entire course of the war, to set up a permanent army. The strategy of these two men was that of a war of attrition. Washington sent the militias on hit-and-run operations and to collect intelligence, and at the same time to build a system of fortifications on the Hudson River based on European models introduced by Vauban, relying on European officers to train the regular army in European methods of warfare. His intentions were to induce the British to focus on militia operations and thus to buy extra time for the regular army to rehabilitate and train. Military literature prior to the French Revolution also did not provide an independent function for irregular units except within the framework of close cooperation with the regular armed forces, and this is exactly what Washington and Greene did. Thus the military thinking of these two generals was in accordance with the conventional European thinking of the eighteenth century.
58 The greatness of Washington was in his creation of a strategy that suited the military realities he confronted, while the greatness of Greene was in finding a balance between conventional warfare (European) and unconventional warfare (American). From the strategic viewpoint, both generals shared the same perceptions, which were that only a regular army, organized and trained in the modern methods of warfare, was capable of winning the war. This strategic thinking greatly influenced those who, after the revolution, supported the establishment of a regular army in peacetime. The clearest expression of this thinking can be found in the ‘Sentiments’ document in which Washington asserted that it was necessary to set up a regular army, and that in times of emergency the militias must be subordinated to a central political authority.
59 Greene rehabilitated his army while continuing to conduct irregular warfare against the British in order to prevent them from establishing themselves in the south. If 1780 was the most difficult year of the revolution, and if we accept the claim that the activities of Greene saved the revolution in the south, and thus the revolution as a whole, it may be claimed that the appointment of Greene, and even more so, the liberty given to him to conduct the fighting with hardly any interference by Washington, were probably the most important and decisive decisions that Washington made during the war. Paradoxically, it was only after they had adopted the very institutions for which they went to war against the British Empire that the Americans were able to achieve victory in war to gain their independence.
Tal Tovy, « Militia or Regular Army? », European journal of American studies [Online], 5-1 | 2010, document 4, Online since 02 March 2010, connection on 30 April 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/7814 ; DOI : 10.4000/ejas.7814Top of page