The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: Special Operations during the American Revolution

Paul Robinson reviews this unusual title for The Wargamer

Published on 1 OCT 2013 6:21am by Paul Robinson
  1. american war of independence, north america, tactical, 18th century, english

Robert Tonsetic brings us another fascinating work on the Revolutionary War.  We have reviewed his earlier work “1781: the Decisive Year of the Revolutionary War” previously on this website; does this book live up to his previously excellent work.  In a word yes!

Mr Tonsetic reviews a series of what we would now term Special Operations over the period of the War for the United States’ independence from Great Britain; these range from the operations of a number of the Ranger units formed during the war, through to the actions of the partisans and also naval operations around the New York/Long Island theatre.  He does this as a straightforward re-telling of each mission or series of missions during a campaign but also provides some analysis examining these eighteenth century examples through the lens of modern day US military doctrine.  This latter aspect is not done in a heavy handed manner but is quite thought provoking in showing that certain principles of military strategy and tactics, particularly those pertaining to Special Ops, do not change despite upgrades in technology.  It is a lesson that military chiefs seem to have to re-learn the hard way!

The author starts us off with a prologue that summarises warfare on the North American continent in the 160 plus years before the American Revolution; i.e. from the large scale settlement of Europeans.    Mainly focussing on the North Eastern colonies this reminds the reader how much the terrain, geography and method of warfare of the Native Americans influenced how warfare was ultimately fought by Americans of European descent.  Of particular interest is Benjamin Church who used Native Americans to train his colonial militia in forest warfare tactics.  As Mr Tonsetic says the notes that Church made before his death in 1718 “provided the foundation for an evolving Ranger tactical doctrine for irregular and special operations”.  Finally it is worth quoting in full the final sentence of the prologue as it really sets the scene for the rest of the book: “Americans who fought in the French and Indian War and other conflicts along the frontier, including George Washington, did not forget their experiences in irregular warfare, and it is not surprising that special operations would play an important role during the American Revolutionary War”!

We then move straight into the meat of the book and Chapter One describes the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in May 1775.  One of the fascinating things to come of this chapter is the way what we would regard as modern special operations tactical phenomena were being actively identified by those planning this attack - speed, security and up-to-date intelligence. It is also interesting to note that despite the planning and courage of the attackers their success was due in no small part to the strategic torpor of the British and also the lack of alertness by the Fort’s garrison.  The attack on the fort itself has an element of a comedy of manners about it.  Once the attacking force got into the fort they lined up on the parade ground and gave three rousing huzzahs (by this stage all they had done was overpowered the gate sentry)!  You then have one of the British officers going to the top of a flight of stairs asking the attackers who they were and what were they doing in the His Majesty’s fort!

The next operation is the naval raid on New Providence in 1776.  This episode has plenty of high drama and in some ways would make a Hollywood epic - a naval commander disobeying his orders to make a grab for much needed gunpowder to support the Revolution and finally brought down later by enemies at home. The British in this epic would come cross in the best tradition of the Hollywood film, well meaning and slightly bumbling.  And there is more of the somewhat mannered approach to warfare that apparently typifies some episodes of the early part of the war - a sort of strange disbelief that the two parties have actually and eventually come to blows!  This British book reviewer would like to report in this case that whilst both forts protecting the settlement of New Providence, the settlement itself and the Governor were all captured, the British managed to get nearly all the gunpowder away (except for the few barrels that were deliberately left to avoid the raiders taking the loss out on the civilians left behind). One of the main things to note whatever the view on the success of the raid was the experience gained by the officers of the fledging Continental Navy and Continental Marines; in particular one John Paul Jones played a part in the attack on New Providence and his more famous actions feature later in the book.

Chapters Three and Four cover the actions of Knowlton’s Rangers and Whitcomb’s Rangers respectively.  What is interesting about Knowlton’s rangers is it is an early example, in modern warfare, of the Commander in Chief retaining a small unit of “Special Forces” as a strategic asset to be deployed at his direct behest; in the author’s words “Washington stipulated that Knowlton would take his orders from the Commander in Chief signifying the importance he placed on the rangers”.  Whilst Knowlton’s Rangers operated at the level of what we might refer today as 2nd tier Special Forces, Whitcomb’s Rangers were 1st tier carrying out deep penetration raiding and reconnaissance behind British lines.  Whitcomb and his men operated alone or in small teams relying on their skills as woodsmen and basic stamina to achieve their goals.

Chapter Five covers John Paul Jones’ raids on the British coast.  Whilst I am aware of the name and his fame I have to admit reading this chapter was the first time I’d ever given his exploits any close attention.  It is a fascinating story as I am sure many readers of this will be aware.   His success was amazing particularly given his lack of support both strategically and from within his own ship’s crew! 

We then move back on land and look at Partisan Warfare in the Northern Theater.  Here the author allows himself more of a digression on the nature and definition of partisan warfare using the prism of current US tactical doctrine.  The main conclusion he comes up with is that what took place during the Revolutionary War was what we night term irregular or guerrilla warfare, but fought by a different type of force than today - the embodied citizen militia!

The author then covers the rise of Partisan warfare in the Southern Theater. The major set piece covered being the action at King’s Mountain by way of the action by Tarleton at Waxhaws, and the defeat of Buford’s Virginians and the activities of Francis Marion-the Swamp Fox.  In this Chapter, as he does in many of the others, the author gives us a brief pen picture of one of the main protagonists, in this case it is Major Patrick Ferguson appointed as Inspector of (loyalist) Militia and who then met his death at King’s Mountain.  What is interesting about this battle is the way the patriot forces use what we would regard as a very modern tactic of fire and manoeuvre (pepper potting) to fight their way up the eponymous mountain.  Also for an exponent of light infantry tactics Ferguson fought the battle in using very linear tactics and got himself fixed to a particular piece of ground that played to his opponent’s strengths.

Chapter Eight brings us to a fascinating aspect of these special operations - the Whaleboat Wars.  Basically this is a series of hit and run raids carried out by patriot forces based in Connecticut against the British forces and their supply systems on and around Long Island.  This has wargames mini campaign written all over it.  There are kidnappings, supply burning, cutting out of boats, raids on HQs etc.  And as the title of the Chapter suggests the majority of these actions were launched using the Whaleboat.  It all has a very SEAL team or Special Boat Service feel to it, despite the operations concerned happening not quite 250 years ago!

The final Chapter covers a single campaign; George Rogers Clark’s March to Vincennes in 1779; an epic of endurance and leadership through waterlogged terrain with minimal support from elsewhere in the patriot cause.  The book rounds off with an Epilogue which highlights the lessons a modern military audience might learn from.  These are the importance of security, speed, simplicity and surprise.  And in order to exploit these principles you need troops with “extraordinary stamina, courage, commitment and specialized skills”.

The book is supported by a series of black and white maps and has the usual combination of black and white photos of some of the places referred to in the text plus classic artwork showing some of the action.

So overall a really excellent book.  It really screams out as an excellent source for wargames scenarios as well as just a good read about the extraordinary actions of ordinary men during wartime.  The book will appeal to those interested in the Revolutionary War and also to those interested in the history of Special Forces operations.  So a real winner all round!

Available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price £20.00/$32.95 (ISBN 9781612001654)


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