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  • James Houser

July 16, 1779 - The Battle of Stony Point & Revolutionary War Tactics

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 16, 1779. It’s all quiet on the Hudson – until suddenly it isn’t. A force of Continental Army troops under Brigadier General “Mad Anthony” Wayne launch a devastating surprise attack on the British position at Stony Point, achieving a marvelous success by capturing the whole garrison. The battle shows how far the Americans have come since the early days of the war. Today, let’s talk about the armies of the Revolution (or why I hate “The Patriot”.)

Some people have an *image* of the fighting in the Revolutionary War. It’s usually not the correct image. It typically goes something like “dumb British marched in lines like idiots across an open field, and the smart Americans hid behind trees and rocks to shoot at them with their good ol’ Murican marksmanship till the British ran away.” It’s a fun and simple image and makes Americans feel good about themselves.

This image of the war is played up very heavily in the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot.” Mel plays a character largely based on Southern partisan fighters like Thomas Sumter, Francis Pickens, or Francis Marion. In one of the movie’s early scenes, he and his two young sons ambush a British detachment. They hide behind trees and wipe out the entire detachment, taking careful aim, while the British stand straight up in the middle of the path and fire wildly. The rest of the movie is mostly about partisans running rings around the British, who are basically little better than Nazis in this depiction.

If I demolished everything “The Patriot” gets wrong about the war in the South, especially the guerrilla war, it would take all day. Suffice to say that the war in the Carolinas was almost as much of a civil war as anything else, with various pro-British and pro-Independence gangs of partisans chasing each other around and fighting each other without much help from the Redcoats or the Continental Army. That tosses almost the whole premise of the movie down the gutter, but I’ll save that for some other day. Today my focus is on tactics, armies, and how the Revolutionary War was fought.

The British Army in 1775 was a long-service professional force of locally recruited regiments drawn almost entirely from the British Isles. Discipline was harsh, the uniforms were bad, the food was almost always whatever could be found, and the enlisted personnel were not exactly Britannia’s best and brightest. The officers were almost all British nobility of some kind or another. Up until the rank of Colonel, an officer’s rank was purchased rather than earned – so you would slowly save up enough money to buy, say, a Captaincy. The purchase system was a bad system by modern standards, but for Georgian England it worked pretty well. It ensured that promotion was not just by birth, (see: France) and that a retiring officer could sell his rank for a hefty sum. Promotion by merit did occur when vacancies appeared, of course, so in a twisted sort of way there was something that looked like a merit-based system.

Your average British officer learned his trade by doing, not by reading. There were few military manuals, and lots of privates sitting around doing nothing, so the solution was drill. Drill and discipline were absolutely central to the 18th-Century army and its manner of fighting. The stress and noise of the battlefield, with random death and cannonballs flying all around, made these qualities vital to keeping the troops in hand in the middle of an engagement. The complicated maneuvers of the troop formations, to say nothing of the multi-step process of loading a musket, were very difficult to carry out in the heat of battle; only mind-numbing repetition and countless hours of drill made it somewhat possible.

The average British infantry regiment aimed for the goal of “three rounds a minute,” – that is, an entire line of Redcoats simultaneously loosing a massive volley every 20 seconds. This required practice, regimentation, constant correction, and immediate response to orders. The soldier of the 18th Century had to be something like a robot. The British Army wasn’t even the best at this; the legendary Prussian automatons of Frederick the Great were the most feared infantry in Europe because of their machine-like perfection, often capable of four or five volleys a minute.

This was also the reason the European soldier usually fought in densely packed formation: it gave the officers absolute control over the fire and movement of their forces. It also provided a tight formation protection from cavalry, since they could easily huddle up and fend off the charge with their bayonets. With the inaccuracy and short range of the standard musket, volley fire was commonly the most effective method of combat in the period. To some degree, this made European armies unprepared for service in America. There was less cavalry in America, and the tightness of the terrain precluded complicated maneuvers and open field battles in many cases.

The British had learned, though, from their previous experiences in America – such as Braddock’s Defeat in 1755. Every infantry regiment now had a Light Company, a formation made up of the smaller and quicker men in the unit. In contrast to the marching steamroller that was the line formation, the Light Companies fought in the open, operating in pairs. A light infantryman had to have some degree of individual initiative and intelligence, so the Light Companies also became the scouting and recon forces for the British in North America.

The Light Companies were not just hiding behind trees and taking accurate fire, they were *better* at it than the Americans thanks to their discipline, unit cohesion, and training.

The result was that whenever the British had a straight-up fight with Washington and his Continentals on the battlefield throughout 1776 and 1777, the Americans just got hammered. The colonial militia that had flocked to the colors had no taste for military discipline, hard training, or drill and ceremony. Their officers were not professionals or men with an air of “born to command” like the British nobility, but next-door neighbors and childhood friends. The most humiliating evidence was in the New York Campaign of 1776, where Washington made several fatal errors and his army usually disintegrated and ran away after a few exchanges of musket fire. Only bad weather enabled his escape from Manhattan Island.

Washington believed firmly in the need to make a European-style army out of the Continentals, but had no good way to do that. In contrast to modern militaries, where every person is carefully tracked and taken account of, there was very little keeping a Continental from deserting when he felt like he’d done enough. The men of Washington’s Continental Army were there when they wanted to be, and no one could really make them stay. This made enforcing real discipline nearly impossible; certainly no American was going to take the stocks or the lash like a British regular. The very individualism and obsession with liberty and rights that had made Americans want freedom seemed to make them singularly ill-suited to fighting for it. They just would not be told what to do – which is a good thing for a thinking society but a bad thing for an army.

The next question, of course, is – why didn’t Washington just disband the army in the field and start a guerrilla war? The simple answer is that the United States of America would not survive if it became a guerrilla contest. If they were unable to stand up to the British Army in the field, the Americans would never achieve legitimacy or regain control of their own country. If America wanted European recognition (which was necessary to win in the end), in addition to achieving legitimacy with their own citizens they had to behave like a “real” country, waging battles on the open field – even if they didn’t win them. The guerrillas, especially in the South, could make life difficult for the British but couldn’t win the war; it took Continental Army troops to win Saratoga, reconquer the Carolinas, and force Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. None of this could have been done by guerrilla war.

Washington had to recognize the limitations of his own army, as well as its strengths. He was never going to turn his men into the equivalent of British regulars. The solution, then, was to avoid fighting when possible, fight when necessary or the odds were in your favor, but always to preserve the army at all costs – even if it meant throwing away a chance of victory. At the very least, though, this meant forming an army that could SOMEWHAT stand up to the British redcoats. This meant bringing in outside help.

In 1778, the Continental Army was spending a terrible winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania when Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived with a recommendation from the Continental Congress. Von Steuben was a strange figure, a Prussian officer who had gotten on Frederick the Great’s bad list and turned mercenary. Von Steuben had never held a higher rank than Captain and had…um…SIGNIFICANTLY exaggerated his credentials. It was also a not-so-secret fact that he was gay.

Von Steuben and Washington came to the conclusion that European methods had to be adapted to the American fighting man. Though Von Steuben introduced tighter regulations and discipline, this did not come with the threat of punishment or abuse. His eccentric personality, foreign uniform, and excessive use of German profanity (he knew very little English, and had translators for his first few months) should have made him a comical figure, but they made him a source of affection and admiration for the Continental soldiers. Von Steuben wasn’t just training the men. He was training Washington and his ranking staff officers, Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene, in army administration and organization – his own job for Frederick the Great.

Von Steuben’s training was progressive and personal, rather than the cold and brutal machinery of the British. He formed a model squad of men to train personally, who would then go on and train their units. This practice exploited the close community ties of most American units, so that the new information would come from men respected and trusted. Instead of the British policies of stern discipline enforced by harsh punishment and social separation, Von Steuben’s policies were unusually progressive and personal. Despite the dour reputation of the Prussian Army, this was the method employed by Frederick the Great’s machine-like regiments. (Frederick was an asshole, but a progressive asshole, banning many medieval punishments and being the first European monarch to outlaw capital punishment.)

By 1778, Washington’s regiments were already performing better than before. At the Battles of Barren Hill and Monmouth that year, the British were surprised by how far the colonials had come from their first few encounters. The real test, though, would come at Stony Point.

By 1779, the British had stopped trying to conquer New York and Pennsylvania after multiple failures, and Sir Henry Clinton’s only real strategy was to try and draw out Washington’s force in an open battle where he could smash it. Washington had no intention of throwing the dice in a battle with the British, but that didn’t stop Clinton from trying to provoke him. In May 1779, Clinton led a flotilla up the Hudson River to threaten the key fortress of West Point. He dropped off a small force to occupy a defensive location known as Stony Point that the Continentals had abandoned. This garrison consisted of 750 men of the 17th and 71st Regiments under Colonel Henry Johnson, and given several pieces of artillery and a pair of gunboats.

Washington observed Stony Point through a telescope from a nearby mountain, and decided that he wanted to bag the whole British garrison. He gathered intelligence from local merchants and farmers and decided to plan an attack. He selected as its commander Brigadier General “Mad Anthony” Wayne from Pennsylvania, his best combat leader after he had sent Greene to take command in the south.

Wayne decided on a surprise night attack with the bayonet, and was so confident in the element of surprise that he ordered his men to attack with unloaded muskets. He was confident in the Continentals’ skill with the bayonet thanks, again, to Von Steuben. Before the Prussian, the Continentals had thought of bayonets as something to scratch their backs or cook their meat with; his intense and innovative bayonet drills had produced much more lethal methods. Wayne’s force was also composed of Washington’s own innovation – like the British, he had introduced Light Infantry units, made of men smaller, quicker, and brighter than the average infantryman.

On July 15, Wayne set out with his Light Infantry Corps of 1350 men. His plan was for 200 of his North Carolina men to attack the outer rim of the fortification as a distraction, while the bulk of his force crept around the left and right sides. They would have to wade through the water on either edge of the promontory to get around the thick barricades, and launch a sudden charge that could penetrate the British lines before anyone knew what was happening. It was the kind of attack the Continentals could never have undertaken in 1776 – discipline would have been lax, bayonet drill would have been nonexistent, and the officers would have very little training. But the Continental Army had graduated, and now it was time to show their foes what they had learned.

Wayne’s men formed up by 10pm and after a final ration of rum pinned white paper to their hats, to differentiate themselves from the British in the darkness and confusion of battle. At midnight, they were in position to begin the attack. The attacking columns were led by “forlorn hopes” of 20 men who hacked a path through the enemy barricades with axes and picks. Under the cloud cover, they approached within a stone’s throw of the enemy defenses before the first British sentry spotted them.

Wayne’s column charged like furies, immediately breaking the first line of defense. Wayne was winged by a spent musket ball and suffered a slight wound that put him out of action, but his officers had rehearsed and planned the mission so thoroughly that this did not stop them. The first man inside the British lines was French Colonel Francois de Fleury. Because of the stealth in approaching the position, the British artillery was unloaded and had no opportunity to fire on the attackers. The action lasted 25 minutes and was over by 1am.

Wayne lost 15 killed and 83 wounded in the brief attack, but bagged almost 546 prisoners and counted 83 British dead. Washington arrived the next morning to congratulate the men, Wayne was awarded a medal by Congress, and the British had lost a key point on the river.

The Stony Point fight didn’t change much in the war, but it was a huge morale victory for the Continental Army. It demonstrated that the Continentals didn’t have to fight the British way to win the war; they also didn’t have to resort to destructive and defeatist guerrilla tactics. They didn’t have to imitate their enemy OR hide behind trees to win their war. They could win it the American way.

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