In the 18th and 19th centuries, British soldiers—universally known as “redcoats,” after their distinctive jackets—employed these formations with devastating effect. Witnessing an oncoming British regiment marching relentlessly forward, seemingly oblivious to its own losses, proved positively terrifying to those unfortunate enough to be the target of the attack. Non-professional militia units could only rarely resist that kind of determination and firepower.

Successfully contesting the British efforts in North America during the War of Independence required the patriots to field their own army in the European mold. The patriots’ Continental Army, authorized by the Continental Congress in July 1775, enrolled more than 25,000 men over the course of the war. Though often supplemented by militia units—sometimes quite successfully—it was the Continental Army that provided the backbone of the military opposition to the British.

Major patriot victories like the Battle of Saratoga (which helped convince the French to support the patriot cause) and the siege of Yorktown (which secured the surrender of more than 7,000 British prisoners) occurred only because the patriots could meet the British in traditional European-style battle on something like equal terms.


John Trumbull, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, Oil on Canvas, 1820, Architect of the Capitol (accessed September 6, 2012).


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