Insight into how guerrilla warfare can affect the outcome of large scale wars, tipping the scales in favor of the “underdog”. This type of warfare has been used for thousands of years, from the Habiru of ancient Africa and the Middle East, to the more recent fighters who are actively engaged in conflicts around the world. A term used to today describe such fighters is ‘Insurgent’.
In the ancient past, smaller and inferior Jewish forces fought against the renowned and professional Roman army in 66 A.D. Like the military units in South Carolina lead by Francis Marion, the Jewish forces used their knowledge of the terrain along with guerrillas fighting tactics. The Romans were indeed a superior force, but in the right circumstances Jewish fighters could inflict damage on the Roman legionnaires, creating a battlefield the Romans were unaccustomed to.
“With its superior training, discipline, and cohesion, the Roman army was the most formidable military force in the ancient world- but only if it meet its enemies in open battle. Roman infantrymen advanced into battle silently and slowly in a checkerboard formation, their polished armor and helmets gleaming in the sun” (1).
Guerrilla warfare has been a factor for thousands of years in the uprisings and revolutions of countless peoples. So to would it play a significant role in the history of the United States of America. First there would be a build up that caused Americans to want independence from the British monarchy and its occupying army. For decades colonist had come to resent the British whose king ruled from across an ocean. After many discussions Congress would eventually reach a point that involved including a violent uprising, written laws, and new policy ideals unique to America at the time.
Europeans traditionally waged what became known as “gentleman’s wars”, (a term that can be considered laughable today considering there wasn’t much gentlemen type stuff going on). This would drastically change when the colonist and their inferior forces adopted the war tactics of the Native Americans which included using cover, camouflage, and concealed fighting positions; this is known as guerrilla warfare. The shift from conventional combat tactics was one of the many turning points in the Revolutionary War in the favor of the American colonist. Early recorded history of battles involve guerilla like tactics that changed entire war situations. The British was using its army as a way to quell a rebellion in the Colonies using a historically successful strategy. While the colonist slowly formed the Continental army, guerilla tactics where used by the inferior forces to make great strides in their strategy, which was to stop the invasion of the British army (2).
Fighting carried out by an irregular military force usually organized into small, highly mobile groups. Guerilla combat was common in the Vietnam War and during the American Revolution. Guerilla warfare is often effective against opponents who have greater material resources (2).
“Guerilla,” for example, in its most widely accepted usage, is taken to refer to a numerically larger group of armed individuals, who operate as a military unit, attack enemy military forces, and seize and hold territory (even if only ephemerally during daylight hours), while also exercising some form of sovereignty or control over a defined geographical area and its population (5).
Both definition point out the main idea of what guerilla warfare is, its basic foundation and ultimate goals. In the case of the American Revolutionary War, American forces implemented “guerilla” tactics, usually after British forces overtook their town or city. Other situations would include militias working directly with the Continental army to attack the British Loyalist and other British contingencies involved in the war.
The American colonies in the 18th century were growing resentful of the British monarchy that was taxing from afar away country. Events “such as the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when radical dumped a load of English tea into Boston Bay to protest a tea tax, made that clear enough”. The British parliament had decided at that point that they would stop the rebellions early to prevent a revolution in the future. Directives were sent to the commander in chief of British North America to end any revolts.After the Boston Tea Party, one of the most celebrated events in American history from that period was quickly followed by “preemptive strikes” against any further potential perpetrators of any kind of violence. On September 1, 1774 General Thomas Gage followed through on orders “to preserve order” (1).
More than two hundred British soldiers were sent to march towards Boston. Just six miles outside of Boston the British soldiers confiscated 250 half barrels of gunpowder from American colonist. British General Thomas Gage’s men completed this successful raid without firing one shot. General Thomas Gage would continue these types of raids using British troops to confiscate any munitions that were stored. The British army would also often times arrest many American colonists who were considered agitators or leaders of the rebellion. This in turn caused the American colonist to enlist in the Continental army or join local militias formed to defend against the British army (3).
Early in the conflict when the British considered the American colonist rebel farmers and country people. But in the spring of 1775 British forces would learn that these “country people” had a unique skill to converge on areas very quickly. Some earned the moniker of “minutemen”, because of their ability to confront the British troops with astonishing speed.
The British did not think much of the fighting qualities of these “country people” –people ‘the most absolute cowards on the face of the earth’… but they were about to acquire newfound respect for these lightly regarded foes. Although not professional soldiers, many of the Massachusetts militiamen were veterans of frontier fighting against Indians, and this day showed what they had learned. The underlying factors that fueled the American Revolutionary war in the background played a significant role in how the war progressed and eventually ended. In the first month of 1776 a pamphlet titled Common Sense was being circulated around Philadelphia. The pamphlet argued what many Americans thought and talked about amongst each other, which was the call for independence from the British monarchy (1).
The majority of Americans in the late 1760’s and early 1770’s wanted independence from the British and that eventually lead to the Declaration of Independence. During this time many military leaders were growing in power and influence in leading men. Two of the American leaders of note were Thomas “the Gamecock” Sumter and Francis “the Swamp Fox” Marion. Many men like Marion and Sumter gained battlefield knowledge and experience war first hand in the Cherokee War that lasted from 1759-1761. While Marion was a member of the South Carolina militia he learned how to be a solider in the traditional style. He also noticed “the more freewheeling style employed by the Indians” and would apply those tactics in future encounters with the more formidable British army (1). This style was used throughout the American ranks and militias, as many of the colonists had faced other Native American tribes in battle in the past. Along with past experience guerilla warfare was influenced by how effective the British army was when engaging in battles or invading to take over and hold territory.
In 1775 Francis Marion was no longer in a militia and was working as a planter. This changed when he joined the Continental regiments and quickly rose through the ranks eventually making commander and Colonel of his forces. During this period rebellion was no longer talk but action was being taken in the form of congressional policy and action against the British army units stationed in throughout colonies. One of those British units invaded and captured Charleston South Carolina in a decisive victory. Marion’s unit was destroyed but he was spared because he was on medical leave taking care of an injury at home. Marion was able to escape and eventually “organized a band of partisans to prey on British communications between Charleston and Camden” (1).
Francis Marion’s guerilla force would use tactics that included avoiding fighting the British redcoats who were expert soldiers with superior numbers, training, and firepower. The adopted many tactics used by Native Americans known as “lightning raids on Loyalist and British detachments” at late hours of the night and made sure to never get into direct contact with superior British forces like the redcoats. The tactics that Marion employed also made it difficult for the British to develop good intelligence, which is a large factor in affecting the outcome of the war. While this fighting force could be damaging to the British army it was not sufficient enough to actually win a war against the superior forces. The leader of the Continental army George Washington was not convinced that continuing to use nonconventional tactics to fight the British could never win the war.
In the summer of 1776 members of the congress were appointed along with the notable Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence. It was then that the British took the rebellion of the American colonies more seriously. While the British continued to win most of the battles in the conflict, and held large portions of territory the Americans continued to fight for independence from the British (2).
Because the British army was dependent upon how well the British economy was doing, the British monarchy began to require new taxes from the colonies. This was also the case for the Americans and the Continental army. Money could be printed to pay for the war in America but because there was not much gold or silver the printed money gradually lost value. The Revolutionary war had an immense effect on how the American economy developed in the late 18th century and early 19th century. By 1778, communities in various parts of the colonies came together an attempt to create stability. The local committees put ideas to use like putting essential goods like flour at a constant price
The Revolutionary War caused a serious depreciation of currency in America because of so much blood and treasure were being lost. Both the British and American economies suffered and the use of guerilla warfare would eventually change the war and ultimately change public opinion. This was also the case in Britain where “initially the British people had supported the effort to suppress the American Revolution” (Boot, p. 75). After years of men dying on the battlefield entire communities initial support waned. Ten of thousands of soldiers had died near the end of the war. Along with the mounting distrust of governments and leaders like the British monarch, American colonist also had the issue of slavery to deal with. Before the American Revolutionary War slavery was in discussion but was still legal in most colonies. The British army would use the laws of slavery to their advantage when the war was underway. When word got to slaves that the British army was allowing Black men to fight against the very people who were enslaving them, many would escape to join forces with the British.
The American Revolution was a way for slaves to gain freedom and the war was a major point in American history for slavery in the country. One of the principle reasons American colonist were fighting the war against the British was for what they considered was liberty from the British monarchy. This brought the enslavement of Africans to the forefront and triggered a public debate. The war also had a direct effect on the North and its attitudes toward slavery eventually leading to emancipation in that region (4).
With the persistent argument about slavery in America, a mounting death toll, and the failing economy, the Revolutionary war loss favor in public in the British. A major factor in the progression of any conflict is the moral of both those fighting and the public opinion. By 1777 after the defeat at Saratoga the British army was still fully capable of fighting the war. Both conventional forces and the guerillas on the American side had won battles but were by no means dominating the war. In fact the British army and had not been defeated. “On February 28, 1882, Parliament voted by a narrow margin, 234 to 215, to discontinue offensive operations… The war finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris”. So many factors affected the outcome of the American Revolutionary War; from slavery to guerilla warfare each played some role in war situations. Guerilla warfare proved to be effective, but was just one part of how the Americans gained liberty from the British by winning the Revolutionary War (1).
(1) Boot, M. (2013) Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation
(2) Roark, J.L., Johnson, M.P., Cohen, P.C., Stage, S., & Hartmann, S.M. (2012) The American Promise. Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s
(3) Joes, A.J. (2000) America and Guerilla Warfare Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky
(4)Hillyer, R. (2004) The Effects of the American Revolution on Slavery Retrieved from
(5) Hoffman, B. (2006) Inside Terrorism New York, NY: Columbia University Press