British & American Strategies in the Revolutionary War

To get a better understanding of the events of the Revolutionary War, it is helpful to evaluate the strategies of the Americans and the British in the war and how they both planned to win.

The battles and events that took place were often strategically planned with the hopes of gaining more control over a region, getting access to supplies and outmaneuvering the enemy all while trying to avoid as many casualties and military defeats as possible.

These strategies were also influenced by the geography of the region, which often affected the outcome of the battles.

Both sides had their own ideas on how to accomplish these goals and the strategies they used have been widely studied, scrutinized and even recreated.

In fact, numerous Revolutionary War strategy games are based on these very strategies and some types of battle reenactments, such as tactical battles or tactical events, use these strategies to try to defeat their opponents in recreations of the battles.

The following is an overview of the strategies used in the Revolutionary War:

British Strategy:

British strategy changed throughout the course of the war as the British came up against more obstacles and challenges than they anticipated.

The British strategy at the beginning of the war was simply to contain the revolution in Massachusetts and prevent it from spreading.

This proved difficult though when the British suffered devastating casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775 during the Siege of Boston.

After the Americans captured Fort Ticonderoga in New York, they brought the fort’s cannons to Cambridge, where they arrived on January 24, 1776, and planned to fortify the hills overlooking Boston harbor in an attempt to break the siege.

When powder for the cannons finally arrived on March 2, the Americans began firing on Boston. On March 4,  they mounted the largest cannons on Dorchester Heights. When the British saw the cannons on Dorchester Heights, they made an attempt to attack the heights but were thwarted by a storm. The British then decided to abandon Boston altogether and flee for Nova Scotia, Canada on March 17, 1776.

The new British strategy at this point was to capture New York City and use it as a base of operations. The British successfully captured New York on September 15, 1776 and launched the next phase of the plan in 1777.

This plan was to isolate New England, which was the heart of the rebellion, from the rest of the colonies by marching three British armies simultaneously from New York City, Montreal and Fort Oswego to meet in Albany and take control of the Hudson River, which formed a natural barrier along the western edge of New England.

Map of the Hudson River

After doing so, the British would then move South and defeat the Southern colonies, according to an article by Tal Tovy in the Michigan War Studies Review journal:

“In practical terms, the British planned to seize control of the Hudson River and cordon off the New England colonies, and only then to move south and, with the help of settlers loyal to the Crown (the ‘Loyalists’), conquer the southern colonies. But the defeat at Saratoga and the entry of France into the war early in 1778 led to a changed strategy of increasing reliance on Crown supporters in the colonies.”

General William Howe was to lead the troops from New York City while General John Burgoyne led the troops south from Canada and General Barry St. Leger led troops down from the Mohawk Valley to upstate New York.

This idea failed though because it wasn’t executed according to plan. It all went awry when General Howe, for reasons unknown, decided to take a detour and led his troops to Philadelphia instead, where the seat of the Continental Congress was located, and captured the city.

Realizing that a battle was brewing, Washington sent troops north and called for the militia to join them, which resulted in a large contingent of American troops and militia in the Saratoga area.

This resulted in the Battle of Saratoga on September 19, 1777 which was a devastating loss for the British, who lost two soldiers for every one on the American side.

A second battle, the Battle of Bernis Heights, took place on October 7 when Burgoyne tried to break free from the colonial forces surrounding them but was defeated. The defeat forced Burgoyne to withdraw his troops and surrender on October 17, 1777.

Many historians consider these battles to be a major turning point in the Revolutionary War because these American military victories prompted France to join the war and support the patriot cause, which turned the conflict into a global war rather than a colonial rebellion.

Yet, an article by John Ferling, in Smithsonian Magazine, argues that Saratoga wasn’t the only defining moment in the Revolutionary War, stating that protracted wars “are seldom defined by a single decisive event” but was instead one of five important moments, which include: the American victories at Concord and Bunker Hill in 1775 and at Trenton in 1776, the establishment of the Continental Army in June of 1775 and the British failure in their Southern Campaign in 1778-1783.

As a result of their military losses and the French joining the conflict, the British decided to revisit the plan they had proposed earlier in the war, which was to focus their efforts on the loyalists in the Southern colonies in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

After turning their attention to the South, the British soon had a number of military successes, such as their occupation of Savannah, Georgia in late 1778 and Charleston, South Carolina in May of 1779 and their victory at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina in 1780.

But despite their modest success there, the British greatly overestimated loyalist sentiment in the South and their military presence there prompted many southern colonists who had been on the fence about the war to side with the patriots.

The British also struggled with getting access to their supply ships when they were fighting further inland. The patriots had easy access to their supplies and could also blend in among the general population.

An article by Major John A. Tokar, on the Army Logistics University website, states the British army’s lack of supplies and failure to gain and use support and aid from Loyalists ultimately doomed the British cause and forced the British to fight a type of war that the Americans excelled at:

“An analysis of how Britain supplied its army, both from home and in the colonies, demonstrates how the presence, or absence, of critical commodities affects military operations. Ultimately, the lack of sufficient reserve supplies, combined with cautious generalship, insufficient transportation, widespread corruption, and the lack of a coherent strategy to maximize the potential support of British loyalists in the colonies, ensured British failure. These factors forced the British Army to fight a guerilla war—the only kind of war that the upstart United States could hope to win.”

After the British lost the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia and British General Charles Cornwallis was forced to surrender more than 8,000 troops on October 19, 1781, British Prime Minister Lord North reportedly reacted to the news by exclaiming “O God! It is all over!”

These military failures coupled with the high cost of the war, a mounting national debt and a possible global war, proved to be too much for the British and prompted Parliament to vote to end the war in 1782, according to Francis D. Cogliano in his book Revolutionary America, 1763-1815: A Political History:

“Yorktown need not have spelled the end of the British war effort in America. Britain still had considerable resource to bring to bear in America, and British forces still occupied Savannah, Charleston, and New York. Nonetheless, six years of war in America had yielded few benefits to the British. Although the British had won most of the major battles in the conflict, they had been unable to reassert parliamentary authority over the rebellious Americans…Faced with the war against the Americans, French, Spanish and Dutch, as well as mounting national debt to pay for the conflict, there was little enthusiasm for pursuing the American conflict in the wake of Cornwalli’s surrender. On February 27, 1782, Parliament voted to discontinue offensive operations in America.”

American Strategy:

The Americans didn’t develop a real strategy in the Revolutionary War until George Washington took control of the Continental Army on July 3, 1775, although many historians are divided on exactly how strategic of a military leader Washington actually was.

George Washington accepting command of the Continental Army, lithograph by Currier & Ives. circa 1876

Many 20th century historians praised Washington as a brilliant military leader who followed the Fabian strategy of avoiding decisive battles in order wear the enemy out, according to Dave Richard Palmer in the introduction of the 2012 edition of his book George Washington’s Military Genius:

“John Alden, writing in the late 1960s: ‘The Americans had only to keep the field until Britain should tire of the struggle.’ Douglas Southall Freeman: ‘Washington’s strategy had to be patiently defensive.’ From an edited volume published in 1965: ‘The plan of the Americans was the simple defensive – to oppose the British as best they could at every point, and to hold fast the line of the Hudson.’ North Carolina, in 1972: Americans ‘did not really win the war but Britain lost it mainly to circumstances rather the American enemy.’ James Thomas Flexner credited the patriots with creating an effective hit-and-run capability, but supported the typical view that their success sprang primarily from perseverance. Russell Weigley saw the American strategy as one of attrition of enemy forces, or, at best, erosion. Thomas Frothingham believed the necessary object of the Continental army was merely to conduct operations designed to bolster partisan fighters and to ‘hold in check the superior main forces of the British. In short, the mainstream of historical writing in the latter half of the twentieth century reflected the view that American strategy in the Revolutionary War was essentially one-dimensional-defensive.”

Yet, other historians, such as Marcus Cunliffe, Richard Ketchum, Russell Weigley, Douglas Southall Freeman and David McCullough, believed Washington was no great strategist and was instead merely lucky, persistent and opportunistic.

Another strategy the Americans used to their advantage was the use of guerrilla warfare, which many of them had learned as soldiers during the French and Indian War in the 1750s-60s, according to an NPR interview by Steve Inskeep with author Max Boot:

“INSKEEP: Now, the American revolutionaries eventually did form a regular army. But guerrilla tactics played a huge role in securing their independence. Max Boot sees modern lessons in that story, as told in ‘Invisible Armies,’ his new history of guerrilla warfare.
What were the strategies that the American rebels used when they were rebels?
BOOT: Well, it first of all, comes down to not coming out into the open where you could be annihilated by the superior firepower of the enemy. The British got a taste of how the Americans would fight on the very first day of the Revolution, with the shot heard around the world, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, where the British regulars marched through the Massachusetts countryside.
And the Americans did not mass in front of them but instead chose to slither on their bellies – these Yankees scoundrels, as the British called them – and fired from behind trees and stone walls. And not come out until the kind of open gentleman’s fight that the British expected, and instead, took a devastating toll on the British regiment.”

Boot also stated that the Americans used propaganda, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlet, to pressure British citizens not to support a war against their American brothers, which was greatly effective in undermining support in Britain for the long and costly war.

These tactics were highly effective and eventually achieved exactly what they were intended to do when the British decided to discontinue military offenses in America in 1782, although fighting didn’t formally end until 1783.

Sources:
Tovy, Tal. “George Washington’s Military Genius by Dave R. Palmer.” Michigan War Studies Review, 3 Dec. 2012, www.miwsr.com/2012-070.aspx
Cogliano, Francis D. Revolutionary America 1763-1815: A Political History. Routledge, 2017.
O’Shaughnessy, Andrew. The Men Who Lost America: British Command During the Revolutionary War and the Preservation of the Empire. One World Publications, 2013.
Palmer, Dave R. George Washington’s Military Genius. Regnery Publishing, Inc, 2012.
“The Pamphlet War and the Boston Massacre.” The British Library, n.d., www.bl.uk/the-american-revolution/articles/the-pamphlet-war-and-the-boston-massacre
“American Revolution Reinvents Guerrilla Warfare.” National Public Radio, 15 January. 2013, www.npr.org/2013/01/15/169388719/guerrilla-warfare-turningpoint-america-revolution
Tokar, John A., Major, “Logistics and the British Defeat in the Revolutionary War.” Army Logistics University, n.d., www.almc.army.mil/alog/issues/SepOct99/MS409.htm
“Teacher’s Guide: Factors that Handicapped the British.” PBS. Twin Cities Public Television, 2004, www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/tguide_4.html
“Southern Strategy.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, n.d., www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/southern-strategy/
Ferling, John. “Myths of the American Revolution.” Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Institute, Jan. 2010, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/myths-of-the-american-revolution-10941835/
“The Battle of Saratoga – A Major Turning Point of the Revolutionary War.”  Saratoga, n.d., www.saratoga.com/aboutsaratoga/battle-of-saratoga/
Wagoner, Scott. “George Washington: Using Reasoning as a Winning Strategy.” Connection Newspapers. Ellington, 30 Jan. 2013, connectionnewspapers.com/news/2013/jan/30/george-washington-using-reasoning-winning-strategy/
“Revolutionary War: Northern Front, 1775-1777.” Library of Congress, n.d., www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/north/
“Revolutionary War: The Turning Point, 1777-1778.” Library of Congress, n.d., www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/turning/
“Revolutionary War: Southern Phase, 1778-1781.” Library of Congress, n.d., www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/south/
“The American Revolution.” National Parks Service, n.d., nps.gov/revwar/about_the_revolution/capsule_history.html
“British Strategy in the Revolutionary War.” Civil War Trust, n.d., www.civilwar.org/learn/videos/british-strategy-revolutionary-war
Stockwell, Mary. “Grand Strategy.” Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, n.d., www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/grand-strategy/

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the owner and operator of this website and all the articles are written and researched by her. Rebecca is a freelance writer and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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