The 10 Commandments of American Victory

Techniques & Tech

April 9, 2013
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

patriotcommandmentsWhile recently watching “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charlton Heston, I pondered a few thoughts.  First, they don’t make flicks like that anymore.  Secondly, wouldn’t the Patriots have benefited from having a set of rules like the Ten Commandments to guide their struggle for independence?  Lastly, that the editors of this Journal were waiting for me to submit an article, which was not going to write itself.  So what follows are ten possible “Commandments” that contributed to American victory in the Revolution.  Some are insurgency tenets from the great Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu.  Some are from Mao Zedong, who literally wrote the book on insurgencies.  Others are lessons learned from later conflicts and recognized in current military theory.  All are proven by history.

1 //  Thou Shalt Foster Popular Support: 

Without the broad support of the population, an armed resistance to government is only a mere rebellion undertaken by a few radicals.  Britain could have defeated a limited American rebellion but crushing a mass popular revolution was much more difficult.  It was the people of the United States that provided the stuff of which the Revolution was made – the will, philosophy, manpower, materials, and their lives.  The Congress and General Washington understood this, and carefully followed policies to maintain the support of the population, which paid off.  A conservative estimate is that the majority of free, adult Americans – out of a total population of about 2.5 million people – supported the Patriot cause.

2 //  Thou Shalt Obtain Allies: 

Through the alliances with France and Spain, the United States gained vital funding, arms, equipment, military expertise, and international legitimacy.  The involvement of the European powers also caused Britain to draw military assets away from the American theater to defend worldwide colonial interests.  Though defeating a united American population was a tough task for Britain, winning independence from the mighty British Empire was a daunting goal for the United States without the support of allies.

3 //  Thou Shalt Know Your Allies As Well As Yourself: 

The French and the Americans sometimes confused the brie out of each other.  At Newport, Rhode Island in August 1778, the first Franco-American military effort failed miserably, partly because of friction between the two allies.  Intra-allied confusion contributed to another failure at Savannah in October 1779.  But we learned to cooperate over time.  So in 1781, Washington and the new French commanders Admiral de Grasse and Gen. Rochambeau were able to orchestrate the masterful campaign that defeated Gen. Cornwallis’s British forces at Yorktown; the final blow to the Crown war effort.

4 // Thou Shalt Win Psychological Victories: 

These strike powerful chords in the hearts of soldiers and civilians and Gen. Washington had an innate sense of how to grab the right victory at the right time.  At the end of 1776 the rebellion seemed all but dead after the Americans lost the New York Campaign, but Washington brilliantly struck back at Trenton and Princeton.  Daring Continental raids at Stony Point and Paulus Hook bucked up morale when Americans were tiring of the war in 1779.  Stirring victories like these were essential to maintaining the public faith in the Revolution.

5 //  Thou Shalt Have Proper Funding and Supply Systems:

Everything about a war, from muskets to manpower, costs money.  American financiers such as Robert Morris heroically exhausted every possible funding source – and sometimes their own money – to finance the Revolution.  France also loaned the United States about $6,000,000 over the course of the war.  And since soldiers fight better when they’re not starving, the Continental Army needed efficient systems to buy and distribute supplies.  Poor supply practices contributed significantly to the Army’s famous suffering at Valley Forge, which Washington remedied by assigning Gen. Nathaniel Greene, one of his most able field commanders, as the Quartermaster General.  Without financing and efficient logistics the Continental Army and America’s hopes for independence would have withered away.

6 // Thy Army Shalt Steadily Improve:

As the Revolution changed, so did the Continental Army.  Beginning with its inception as a collection of infantry companies, Gen. Washington and the Continental Congress expanded, modified, improved and professionalized the Continental Army every year based on the lessons learned from each campaign.  The combat prowess of the ever-maturing Continentals confounded British commanders at Monmouth, Stony Point, Paulus Hook, Cowpens, Guilford Court House, Yorktown, and other battles.  This constantly raised the bar for British battlefield success.

7 //  Thou Shalt Fight on the Seas:

Though too small to contest command of the sea lanes against Britain’s Royal Navy, the Continental Navy still fought valiantly and scored some important psychological victories.  The French naval victory over the British at the battle of the Virginia Capes in September 1781 was a major factor in trapping Cornwallis at Yorktown.  American ports also sent to sea over 1,000 privateers – essentially legalized pirates – that raided British merchant shipping.  Yankee sailors found privateering a great way to fight for the cause and get rich in the process.  Their seizure of over 600 British ships inhibited Crown supply lines, drove up maritime insurance costs, and chipped away at British resolve to continue to war.

8 //  Thou Shalt Make Regulars and Militia Work Together, Whether They Like It or Not:

American local militias were often a source of manpower that was both valorous and vital, but Gen. Washington considered them too undisciplined to face the tough British regulars.  Some professionalized Continentals also disdained the militia, and vice versa.  But the proper motivation and integration of militiamen into his battle plan helped Gen. Daniel Morgan win the battle of Cowpens in January 1781.  Gen. Nathaniel Greene successfully repeated the techniques two months later at the battle of Guilford Court House.  Militia units also controlled huge stretches of countryside that were beyond the reach of the Continental Army, which freed the regulars for larger battles.  The Continentals and militias were excellent complementary forces when properly integrated and commanded.

9 //  Thou Shalt Maintain Political Unification:

The unity of the 13 colonies brought the Patriots tremendous resources and the combined military and political talents of a nation.  The sheer size of the rebellious areas, when united, was too vast for Britain to control.  Without American political unity the British would have divided the 13 colonies and conquered them one by one.  As Benjamin Franklin said when signing the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

10 // Thou Shalt Choose the Best Leaders:

We sometimes forget that the odds were strongly against the Americans achieving their independence from the strongest empire in the western world at the time.  Defeating an empire is not a job for lousy leaders.  The American leaders certainly had their individual strengths and weaknesses but collectively, they were an exceptionally gifted group.  America was lucky to have leaders with the educations, philosophies, political talents, communication skills, and sheer forceful wills that were perfectly suited to the struggle for independence.  Those that had the most influence in fighting the American cause, especially Washington, understood the nature of the Revolution better than their British counterparts.  That’s one reason their efforts still make fascinating study today.

And if there could be an Eleventh Commandment, it would be to get Charlton Heston on your side.

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