Revolutionary and Civil War Tactics


  • Revolutionary War    – The Revolutionary war was a unique style of warfare looking back compared to how wars are fought now a days.  What stands out the most to people is the fashion in which it was fought, soldiers standing in straight lines. Among the most obvious answers about why these techniques were employed would be that it is affected by the terrain, size of the army, and the weaponry available at the time. We must also not look past those responsible for employing these strategies and tactics, like the great leaders Von Steuben and George Washington
In this picture you get a sense of what fighting would have been like behind lines



The formation relied heavily upon the bayonet. The line of battle would advance, with bayonets fixed, to about 50 – 100 yards from the enemy and would fire a volley (each man firing at the same time) into the enemy’s ranks. In some scenarios they wouldn’t even reload and began to just charge the enemy with bayonets

Reenactment of line infantry



These tactics were the building blocks for today’s warfare. This is important to know because it’s a step in the right direction in our nation’s history of dominant warfare. “One percent of the American population died during the American Revolution. If the United States were to lose one percent of its population today, the toll would be two-and-a-half million dead” (‘Why Did They Do That? 18th Century Military Tactics’ 1-2). This goes to show that war back then is just as deadly if not more than modern warfare, the tactics used were very effective so we should not think of it as a simple warfare. We are as a proud nation where we are today because of the ability to learn and improvise on the battlefield. The specific type of “linear” strategy (where troops are lined up shoulder to shoulder, one in front of another) is one of great pride and showcases strength and coordination in one’s army. This tactic essentially tries to weed out the cowards or weaker links in the opposing force because you are almost defenseless against incoming artillery rounds and bullets. But for the simple fact that they stand in straight lines and have no type of protection or shields, they get hit very often. These tactics however eventually got phased out buy the advancement in the gun. As Author Donald Moran of Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter writes, “Soldiers standing in ranks and trading volleys (rounds of gunfire) and finally capturing the battle field at bayonet point is how most battles were won.”(Moran) This goes to show that both sides would exchange fire simultaneously during a given battle. An unexpected “strategy” if you would call it that, is the fact that the colonies were so large that the opposing forces couldn’t simply cover all the ground. Spreading out their men would make them extremely weak and vulnerable in many areas. Some of the most prominent figures behind these strategies and tactics are common household names like George Washington and Friedrich von Steuben.

Major General


Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben

Von Steuben, the son of Prussian Lieutenant Wilhelm Von Steuben who was a military engineer, already had the military blood running in his veins. As he traveled to america he was accepted as a volunteer and congress directed him to join General George Washington’s Continental Army at Valley Forge. Von Steuben used his previous knowledge from the Prussian army, and created a “model company” that consisted of 100 men who he instructed in drills and use of arms. Washington was impressed and permanently appointed him Inspector General. He essentially created a systematic training program where soldiers had to progress through various regiments to achieve a certain level in fighting the battles. Previously soldiers did not know how to effectively use the bayonets on their weapons, Von Steuben turned this around by showing them how to use it in unison. This is most apparent in the “battle of stony point” where they won mainly because of their newly gained knowledge of charging with bayonets out. Von Steuben later composed a “blue book” on the basis of training he had put together at Valley Forge, comprised of essential drills and tactics that were used by the United States Army until 1814 showing just how effective it was.



George Washington

George Washington was higher in command than Von Steuben however that does not mean he was more advanced in military strategy because he was in fact not. Washington was a wealthy land owner who came from a well off family and got his high rank in the military as a result of his wealth and connections throughout the country. Although he was a very wealthy and powerful man he didn’t want that to play a factor in his ability to be a great leader, his strengths were in the political and economic aspect of warfare. Even though he lacked tactical knowledge in the grand scheme he must be noted for what he did and his ability to unite the troops.

A sample of what war might have looked like

Napoleonic Tactics in the Civil War.jpg

With the advancement of weapons, the tactics followed suit. Instead of the large squares of pikemen moving as a block, the musketmen were usually lined up in three ranks, bringing the maximum number of muskets to bear on the enemy. Firing rank-by-rank, the massed musketmen could fire a devastating nine volleys per minute. Tactics of this era tried to basically blast their opponents off the battlefield with concentrated musket fire. And for the soldiers, it became a tactical fact of life, that a regiment was rated not by how well it could deliver a volley of musket fire, but rather, how well they could stand after receiving a volley. It almost has an aspect of kamikaze style fighting. A type of psychological warfare was a part of strategy as well, knowingly or not. The better and more successful a regiment was they developed more colorful uniforms. This would instill fear in the enemys minds knowing what they were going up against and often times causing them to retreat before the battle even began.

This is a video illustrating pre-Napoleonic linear tactics


  • Civil War
Font lines of war



The Civil War was very similar to the revolutionary war in many ways. The linear formations were used just as before, weaponry had slightly improved but in terms of strategy it didn’t effect the battlefield much. The biggest change was the range of the rifles so instead of 50-100 yards, battles were fought 200+yards away. In fact the tactics and strategies had been improved upon and fine tuned even more. This is apparent in the piece The american civil war: a political, social, and military history, “The first official military mission from France was sent in 1864…both Colonel and Captain were charged with studying american military technique. They inspected arsenals, hospitals and military installations in New York, Philly”(Edward Harcourt , 3) This goes to show the high regard our military had on a worldwide scale. The fact that a country that has a longer military history would come to us for help and tips on how to improve upon their tactics and strategies. This is proof of what ingenious military strategies we devised.

Birds eye view of strategic placement of troops, all linear



More detailed map of attacking strategy



War is much like a game of chess, more so during the revolutionary war than today,and just like in chess one sides strategy is essentially the most important aspect. Assuming both sides are evenly equipped and numbered, without brains behind the operation your weapons and numbers won’t mean much. It is such figures like George Washington and Von Steuben that mastermind the behind the scenes work that got the troops organized and in unison to achieve tactical victory. This influenced the next major wars to come, Without this stepping stone in our history the country and world wouldn’t be the same as we know it.


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