Military Literature of the Revolutionary War by Harry Schenawolf

Scene of Battle in the Revolutionary War
Scene of Battle in the Revolutionary War

Military literature was of little or no value to the early colonists. There were no vast spreads of farmlands and meadows where massive armies could deploy. The terrain was wilderness and their forces small. Militias of farmers and merchants, properly armed to protect themselves from the “savages,” adopted the same methods of fighting as their native opponents.

As the country became more settled, and the militias became better organized, properly trained and disciplined in the arts of war, the colonists’ interest in tactics and organization was spiked. Their purpose then was to aid the British, who had sent over numerous troops to counter French aggression. This interest was felt most intensely by young militiamen who were given leadership roles over their units and who began to seek books of technical military literature.

A Treatise of Military Disciplines, by Humphrey Bland was considered the most popular book in the British army in the mid-eighteenth century.  Washington first came across discussions of or was introduced to an edition in the summer of 1755 while serving as Lt. Colonel of Virginian militia under British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian War. Washington ordered a copy from England and in 1755, he received the 1727 edition. The author had served as an officer under John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough. Soon after receiving the book, Washington recommended it to his Virginia officers and it was ordered and read by many militia officers throughout the south.

Another military work, Essai sur L’Art de la Guerre, by Count Tupin de Crisse, published in Paris in 1754, was made known to Washington. He first came across this text while accompanying British General John Forbes during his campaign in the summer of 1758 to capture the French outpost Fort Duquesne in western Pennsylvania. General Forbes was so impressed with this book that he based the campaign upon its teachings. An English translation was made in London by Captain Joseph Otway in 1761 and Washington immediately obtained a copy.

Meanwhile, a text was co-written in 1759 by William Windham, Sr. and Field Marshal George (Lord) Townshend entitled A Plan of Discipline, Composed for the use of the Militia of the County of Norfolk. It was in use by the militia of Norfolk County, England and was made known to the militia of Rhode Island who introduced it throughout New England, becoming the basis for most of the region’s militia training. Of interest is that this work was later used by Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts as a guide for his text An Easy Plan of Discipline for a Militia, published in 1775. Pickering applied his treatises with his local militia and impressed Washington, who first took notice of the Harvard grad/lawyer when he lead a well-drilled militia from Essex county to New York in 1776. In 1777, when Washington recommended him to Congress for the office of Adjutant General, he had Pickering’s writings in mind when he wrote, “He is a great military genius cultivated by an industrious attention to the study of war.”

In 1771, twelve years after his Norfolk Discipline was written, William Windham, adopted the work for the Massachusetts Colony entitling it, A Plan of Exercise for the Militia of the Province of Massachusetts. It too was widely read throughout New England and followed by many Colonels, not only of militia, but also when they were given regiments within the Continental Line.

Mes Reveries, by the famed General Count Maurice de Saxein, was published posthumously in 1757, the author having died seven years earlier. It appeared in an English translation in 1761. Considered a classic to this day on the art of war, it was widely read in America. General Wolfe recommended the text to General Lee who referred it to Washington in a letter. General Henry Knox quoted it to Adams and to many other officers throughout the army. As Secretary of War, Knox submitted a plan of organizing the army based upon Saxe’s book to Congress in 1790.

Regulations for the Prussian Infantry, written by Frederick William (The Great), King of Prussia, published in London in 1759. It was advertised in the Pennsylvania Magazine in December, 1775 and retitled Prussian Evolutions by Thomas Handon, publisher of the English translation. Among the names of subscribers to the transcripts was General George Washington, who ordered eight copies.

Major General James P. Wolfe successfully lead the British forces against Quebec and the French in 1759 and perished in doing so. His notes and thoughts on military affairs were compiled and published posthumously in 1760 in England in a book entitled, General Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers.” It too was widely read by eager officers of local militias throughout the colonies. William Young’s essays called Maneuvers, or Practical Observations on the Art of War, published in 1771 in two volumes, was marketed in the colony bookstores and rapidly purchased by many militia leaders.

Interestingly, British publishers began to notice the increase of colonists’ keen interest and demand in anything military. To increase sales, they began reprinting older treatises, no matter how limited their value and outdated the technology or tactics might be.  This was the case with Military Discipline or The Young Artillery-Man, by Willaim Barrisse, published in London in 1635. The author had served as major in Colonel Hampden’s regiment and the writing represents the military tactics at the time of the English Revolution. The Puritans had brought over copies to aid in their use of imported cannon within their fortifications. It was widly read right through the Revolution and was referred to by General Henry Knox, commander of Artillery for the Continental Army. Another example of near useless publications being shipped to and read in the colonies was the Art of War, by the Chevalier de la Valliere, which first appearred in Philadelphia in 1776 as a reprint. It was written in the early 1600’s and assumed infantry were armed largely with pikes, a weapon which, outside of ornamental usage, had disappeared on the battle field by the end of the 17th century.

There was a very useful text published as a reprint in Philadelphia in 1776. It was written and compiled by Thomas Simes entitled, The Military Guide for Young Officers. The work was in two volumes, the second volume sort of a military dictionary, the first a collected assortment of excerpts from some of the more modern and useful military essays by Bland and Saxe. It became very popular in America. Alexander Hamilton is quoted that he saw General Washington reading the book cover to cover many times. When Von Steuben arrived at Valley Forge, he found only two military books in use at the camp; that of Bland (previously mentioned) and Simes.

A complete list of the more available publications during the American Revolutionary War is far beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that officers regularly exchanged recommended reading with each other, and in many cases, the results were quite rapid and incredible. On November 10th, 1775, during the seize of Boston, General Washington wrote to his friend William Woodford, recommending many of the texts already mentioned that were readily available in Williamsburg bookstores. The fellow planter had recently received his commission as colonel of his Virginian county’s militia. He had previously asked the General for advice on military reading as he feared he would soon be put to the test against the Royal Governor Lord Dunmore’s assembled forces. A month later, facing the British at the Battle of Great Bridge, Colonel Woodford held his men in check until the very last second when they stood and engulfed the attacking British in a devastating volley. They killed and wounded dozens, thereby destroying the Royal Governor’s efforts to obtain command over Virginia while suffering only one soldier wounded.

RESOURCES:

 Guide to the Writing of American Military History.  Military Affairs, vol. 14, No. 1 (Summer 1950)  pp 7-52.

Windham, William.  A Plan of Exercise for the Militia of the Province of Massachusetts Bay.  1771   Published by Richard Draper, London.

Wolfe, James P.  General Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers.  1768  Printed for J. Millan and the Admiralty, Whitehall, England

Wood, William J.  Battles of the Revolutionary War, 1775-1781.  1990,  Chapel Hill Press, NC 2003 reprint by Da Capo Press.

Wright, John W., “Notes on the Continental Army,”  The William and Mary Quarterly, Second Series, Vol 12, No 2 (April 1932) pp 79-103.

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