The American Revolution gathers dust in the popular trends of military study. Battlefield studies, professional military education, casual reading, and our current Marine Corps Professional Reading Program are all disappointingly thin in regard to our country’s own struggle for independence. Disproportionately, the Civil War and World War II inevitably capture the attention of those who are personally interested in, or those who are obliged to study, warfare.
Regrettably, the current trend of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency study seldom allows the American Revolution more than a passing glance. By overlooking this era, we slight compelling lessons and tremendous leaders who are poignantly relevant to 21st century modern warfare. We have indeed proven Abigail Adams’ comment prophetic. The Revolutionary era had the most magnificent assemblage of brilliant minds—more so than any other time in American history. As military professionals and citizens we are obliged to blow the dust off this period and look at its lessons anew. We ignore them at our peril.
Perhaps the era is considered too distant a time? Perhaps it is because the style of warfare seems ancient? Maybe it is because the very term “Founding Fathers” conjures images of powdered wigs and stoic gentlemen more fitting of a pageant or profiles on currency than examples to the modern warrior. To quickly dispatch this misperception, it should come as a shock to those of about the same age, that Thomas Jefferson was 33 years old at the time he drafted the Declaration of Independence!
The brilliant Alexander Hamilton was in his 20s. George Washington was 43 when he took command and was, by his own (very un-Washington-like) admission, potentially not up to the task. Their struggle was intense. They were warriors. It was indeed a “long war” that tapped resources to the maximum. Washington left Mount Vernon in 1775 and returned home only once before the end of the war in 1783.
While the outcome to current generations seems rote, to them it was never foreordained. Remember, this was an insurgency before it was a revolution. They were taking up arms against an oppressor, the most powerful army in the world. It was unpopular with vast segments of the colonial population. To reinforce the magnitude, in 1776 Philadelphia’s residents numbered 30,000 souls; it was the most populous city in the colonies.
When the British landed their expeditionary army in New York in July 1776, their troops numbered 32,000. The size of their landing force was larger than our most populous city! This was certainly not a good omen for the near-simultaneous declaration of our independence. Our powdered wig Founding Fathers could easily have hung as traitors.
There are plenty of military events in our war for independence worthy of study. But, as is often the case with modern conflict (and particularly insurgencies), the larger, nontangible themes are those that turn the tide and are often more fascinating than tactics or battles. For these reasons the American Revolution is more broadly important by the examples provided in three particular areas—relevancy, leadership, and perspective.
First, the relevancy of their struggle and the issues with which they dealt closely mirror the challenges to today’s leaders. Some of the parallels may surprise a student. For example, from avian influenza to anthrax, our concern with epidemic disease as a weapon of mass destruction is not new. A smallpox epidemic raged throughout the colonies. Some scholars have suggested that the British employed the virus as a weapon during the siege of Boston.
GEN Washington’s most important decision during the war for independence may very well have been his handling of the smallpox virus threatening his already thin army. Coalition forces struggle in Iraq with the role of militias and the national army. This same issue also bedeviled Washington and the Continental Congress. Retention challenges were even more challenging than today.
Washington handled civilian control of the military with superior finesse, while not always patience. His example serves to this day as our model. Additionally, the nature of how to conduct the war resulted in regular discussions among Washington’s general staff as to whether or not their small, inexperienced army should employ guerrilla tactics. Washington eventually came to believe that the best way to win the war was not to lose it by preserving the center of gravity for the entire Revolution—the Continental Army. This is a classic insurgency strategy. The relevancy is obvious. It is compelling study.
The second element of our Revolution that demands attention is the innumerable leadership case studies, both positive and negative. History teaches us how to behave under adversity. The pressure under which our leaders suffered was immense. Through more than 8 long years they struggled with governance, unity, lack of resources, and a conflict against the most powerful nation on earth.
For example, bloody footprints, disease, and extreme cold are not myths of the 1777 Valley Forge encampment. They occurred. Washington dealt with treason and insubordination among his officer corps. Only two general officers remained with Washington throughout the entire war—Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene.
GEN Greene, despite his Quaker background and no military experience, is considered by most scholars to have been the most brilliant tactician of either army. Greene lost the battle at Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina yet managed to wound the British Army so severely that it was the beginning of the end for the Crown.
We learn that Washington grew in his role. A “zero defects” mentality would have ended his command early in the war, and it almost did. Washington’s tactical mistakes were, on more than one occasion, disastrous and ran contrary to his subordinate commanders’ counsel. The British would occupy Philadelphia. Yet, he endured. This is in no small way accountable to his perseverance and his character, both indisputable leadership traits.
Washington was fond of the popular play Cato by Joseph Addison. Within this work is the line that Washington would paraphrase at least once in his personal correspondence: “. . . tis not in mortals to command success, but we’ll do more . . .we’ll deserve it.” This statement is perhaps the most concise articulation of battlefield ethics suitable for the Nation or the Marine.
A third compelling reason for renewed study of the American Revolution is the perspective this era provides. We cannot get mired in our own sense of proportion. Our historical shortsightedness disallows us the past’s lessons. 11 September 2001 was tragic indeed, but the Revolutionary generation tells us that we’ve been through far worse and endured.
The American Revolution allows a lens into our own successes and failures and reinforces the very core of our existence as a country and its principles. Contrary to our Microsoft PowerPoint and e-mail obsessed culture, that generation wrote. They wrote letters, diaries, pamphlets, and memoirs—often not without humor, such as Adams’ thoughts on Hamilton: he “was an insolent coxcomb who rarely dined in good company where there was good wine without getting silly and vaporing about his administration, like a young girl about her brilliants and trinkets.”
There is an incredible trove of primary sources that reveals their trepidations and strength of resolve. Revisiting the Revolution reaffirms the value of dissension and debate. Unity was far from evident. A United States was not a forgone conclusion. The discussions and deliberations—not always civil—that occurred between civilian and military leaders regarding conflict and nation building are applicable today. The dividends of such debates—The Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence—deserve our attention given our Service oath. Fundamentally, this era allows for insight into the very nature of sacrifice and our citizenship.
The long list of characteristics that were central to the Revolutionary era seem ripped from current news—insurgency tactics, sectional strife, public opinion, disease, leadership, governance, and civil-military relations. The recent literary surge of popular history has produced any number of volumes suitable for recommended reading.
Some examples are 1776 (by David McCullough, Simon and Schuster, 2005), Washington’s Crossing (by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press, USA, 2004), and biographies of Alexander Hamilton (by Ron Chernow, Penguin Press, 2004) and His Excellency: George Washington (by Joseph J. Ellis, Faber and Faber Ltd., 2005) to name just a few. Studying this period casually, academically, or professionally matters. It matters because it provides perspective. It matters as an example in leadership, ethics, and character. And, it matters for the practical relevancy to today’s conflicts.
These Revolutionary patriots were not hung. They are examples for us today. As a result of their tenacity occurred perhaps the most symbolically charged scene in world history. In 1785 the rebellious traitor John Adams was presented to King George III of England as the first Ambassador to the Court of Saint James. . . .from the United States of America. This would change the tide of human events.
These were difficult times, far more difficult than our own. These were very, very brave men and women. John Page wrote to Thomas Jefferson in the critical year 1776:
We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm? So we go forward but not without example.