During the protracted conflict, nations, colonies, committees and individuals had several opportunities to learn from their mistakes. In your opinion, what is the best example of a person or people learning from a mistake early in the Revolution, and applying the lesson learned later on?
Gen. George Washington spent over two years of the Revolutionary War trying to engineer a big battle that would wipe out a big chunk of the British army, bring the fighting to a sudden end, and cover him in glory. He got his big battles at Brooklyn and Brandywine, and he got whipped. Only during the Valley Forge winter did Washington accept the value of a “Fabian” strategy of outlasting the Crown forces in the field while besieging New York. By that time he had also realized that the New England troops he had deemed “an exceeding dirty & nasty people” when he first saw them around Boston were the core of his army.
Not to defend defenseless positions. Charles Lee warned those who would listen that trying to defend the area in and around New York City was an impossible martial task, based on the limited military resources available to the rebels at that time. Congress didn’t listen. During the summer of 1776 the delegates implored Washington to prevent the British from seizing this area to use as a primary base of operations. Washington divided his army between Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights., but the British failed to take control of the East River, thereby missing a golden opportunity to vanquish Washington’s vulnerable forces in detail. “His Excellency” understood his error. After finally getting clear of the New York City area in the autumn of 1776, he worked assiduously to keep his army alive as a viable fighting force. Yes, he lost more battles, as at Brandywine in 1777, but he now operated with the understanding that his army, however limited in size and support, was proof that the Revolution remained a viable movement in overcoming perceived tyranny and achieving independence.
-James Kirby Martin
A very inexperienced Nathanial Greene gave very bad advice to General Washington when posed the question about defending Fort Washington, in the New York campaign. But Greene learned from that huge mistake. It was Greene who then later advised the commander-in-chief, who may have wanted his own Saratoga-like victory, from attacking Philadelphia in 1777 – a potentially fatal move.
However, more than anything, after the failures of generals (Robert) Howe, Lincoln and Gates, it was Greene’s singular performance commanding the Southern army in 1780-1781 that best displayed Greene’s lessons learned. His intrepid Fabian campaign against Cornwallis kept the British general frustrated and off balance. That set the scene for Yorktown and the beginning of the end.
George Washington’s contempt for militiamen is legion. He complained about them often, from the time he inherited a ragtag array of amateurs surrounding Boston, which in his eyes was no more than a composite of militia, to the flight of routed greenhorns in Manhattan, to the failure of Philadelphia militia to respond early in December 1776. But later that month, when local militia units asked the commander-in-chief to create a diversion while they attacked British forces on the east side of the Delaware River, he realized that militia had their uses. Shortly thereafter, he included them in a three-pronged crossing of the Delaware, and a week later local militia facilitated his nighttime escape from a large British force ready to attack the next day. While he continued to push Congress for professional soldiers, he learned to incorporate militia into his strategic planning.
It is hard to top George Washington’s decision to unilaterally change Congress’s strategy, to win the war in one big battle — “a general action.” After getting beaten twice by a bigger and better trained British army, he informed Congress that henceforth they would “protract the war.” It took another seven years but it proved to be the formula for victory.
During his first year as commander of the Continental army, General Washington convinced himself that through his “new modeling” of the Continental army, he had fashioned a military force capable of standing up to British regulars. He put his idea to the test in the New York campaign of 1776. The result was that the war was nearly lost and the American Revolution destroyed. But Washington learned from his mistake and thereafter more or less employed a Fabian strategy, with far better results for the fate of the Revolution.
Watching the maturation of the Continental Congress from 1774 through the war is most interesting. At its onset, the Congress possessed unquestioned authority and power in virtually all aspects of daily and military life and, even in the absence of a formalized government, the highly legalistic rebels recognized their subservience to it.
Unfortunately, this early centralized power did not equate with the efficient delegation of authority, thereby stifling timely action and suppressing initiative in the field where commanders and civilians repeatedly delayed making important decisions for fear of running afoul of their particular mandates. This resulted in their repeatedly petitioning for permission to do things that they should have been able to take care of themselves (i.e., logistical issues relating to the feeding, clothing, and health-related needs of the army and navy). However, as the war progressed and various officers and departments began to display some degree of competence and trustworthiness, one can see the Congress loosening its grip in overseeing everyday necessities and allowing others to step in.
While most Patriot commanders improved their military performance during the course of the war, Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne stands out for learning from his mistakes. On September 20, 1777, British Gen. Charles Grey ordered his troops to remove their flints and storm Wayne’s camp at night using only bayonets. What ensued was a disastrous Patriot loss subsequently named as the Paoli massacre.
Less than two years later, Wayne turned the tables by executing a bayonet only assault on the British fortifications at Stony Point, New York. Wayne’s bold attack was a lopsided victory for which he was awarded a Congressional medal. Hence Wayne went from an unprepared loser to assume the moniker of “Mad Anthony” as a highly proficient battlefield commander.
Daniel Morgan’s brilliant tactical innovation at the Battle of Cowpens on January 17, 1781, was a lesson that had important consequences for the war’s outcome. The erratic performance of militia units during the war had been a vexing problem for American commanders. Morgan originated the idea of deploying militiamen in the front line, with orders to fire only one or two volleys before making an orderly withdraw. At Cowpens, the tactic helped defeat the enemy force under Banastre Tarleton, checking British momentum in the South.
Ill health forced Morgan to withdraw from the war soon after his great victory. But he passed the lesson of Cowpens on to Nathaniel Greene, to whom Washington had given the unenviable assignment of holding off the British in the South with too few troops and a minimum of supplies. Morgan wrote to Greene before the critical battle at Guilford Courthouse, advising him of the importance of the militia. “If they stand,” he wrote, “you’l beat Cornwallis if not, he will beat you.” Greene took the advice, arranging his troops on the larger field very much as Morgan had at Cowpens. Greene’s militia fired and pulled back.
The battle knocked the wind out of the British forces. General Cornwallis retreated and soon moved his troops to Virginia, where they would be surrounded and besieged at Yorktown. Nathaniel Greene, always an adept learner, had heeded good advice and used it to excellent purpose.
“[o]n our Side the War should be defensive. It has even been called a War of Posts. That we should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn.” So stated Washington’s letter to the Continental Congress dated September 8, 1776 following Washington’s disastrous loss of the Battle of Brooklyn (Long Island). Though he still fought two smaller pitched battles, Harlem Heights and White Plains, before retreating though New Jersey, Washington began to use his forces and resources more effectively by employing a ‘Fabian’ strategy of harassment, skirmishes and attacking British supply lines. All this would serve to prolong the War and adversely affect the enemy’s morale. Nathanael Greene’s ‘guerilla war’ in the South contributed to Cornwallis’ strategy to invade Virginia using Yorktown as a supply base.