Textbooks sometimes suggest that the practice of massing soldiers into lines and marching them slowly and deliberately in the open was a preposterous, suicidal, and foolish way to fight. Often, descriptions of the War of Independence carry the implication that the colonists’ use of guerrilla tactics (hiding behind rocks and trees, for example, and refusing to fight in the open against the British forces) proved the decisive element in the war’s outcome.

The reality was far different. Though certain colonial units, particularly the famed quick-response militia units, did employ those tactics, they did so with decidedly uneven results. Precisely because they lacked the stern discipline of well-drilled European-style troops, non-professional militiamen often broke under fire and retreated from battle when confronted with professional British formations.

Washington himself complained bitterly about the unreliability of the militia throughout the war, referring to them as “worse than useless” on one occasion, and suggesting another time that depending on the militia was akin to leaning on a rotten crutch.


“Battle of Long Island,” engraving, 1874, from painting by Alonzo Chappel, Pictures of the Revolutionary War, The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (accessed September 6, 2012).


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