La Petite Guerre and American Indian Irregular Warfare: Siblings, But Not Twins

Conflict & War

December 3, 2020
by Brian Gerring Also by this Author


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When the major European powers began to use light troops in the mid-eighteenth century, they typically employed them in a manner of war that the French labeled as la petite guerre. Troops participating in la petite guerre operated separately from the main army, often using speed and maneuver for quick attacks and ambushes in support of an army’s goals. Concurrent with this European development was warfare between North American Indian tribes and American colonists, an ongoing clash beginning in the sixteenth century. In their conduct of war, American Indians typically operated using similar tactics to European light troops—maneuver and speed for sudden attacks and ambushes—while also utilizing the wooded North American terrain to their advantage. In a sermon concerning Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock’s defeat, William Vinal declared that “as to the General, he was an experienced warrior, in the Regular Way . . . But he had not opportunity to acquaint himself with the Irregular Manner of fighting in this country [italics in the original].”[1] Because of the similarities between European petite guerre and the North American Indian irregular manner of war, there is an assumption that the two forms of warfare were the same. From the primary sources, however, it is clear that, while similar in conduct, Europe’s petite guerre and the Indian’s irregular manner of war were two distinct forms of warfare for most of the eighteenth century.

“Gen. Braddock’s Defeat,” a mid-nineteenth century print. (New York Public Library)

There is no exact phrase for regular European warfare in the primary sources. After all, it was the regular way that armies conducted warfare, which consisted primarily of infantry-based armies, supported by cavalry and artillery, battling in open terrain or conducting well-ordered sieges. During regular warfare, European armies conducted battles using linear tactics, which involved lines of troops maneuvering in orderly fashion and firing in massed volleys. The purpose of this type of warfare was to bring an overwhelming amount of musket fire against an enemy, which only massed formations of soldiers could accomplish. Once these massed volleys sufficiently broke the enemy’s forces, the army would initiate a bayonet charge that would drive the enemy from the battlefield—the shock assault. The intent of both la petite guerre and the Indian irregular manner of war was not to engage and defeat massed armies on the traditional, or regular, battlefield. Instead, operations of la petite guerre were ancillary to regular operations in eighteenth century warfare, and the irregular manner of war was a way of war that was opposite of regular eighteenth century warfare.

The first treatises promoting the usefulness of la petite guerre were Armand François de La Croix’s Trait’e de la Petite Guerre pour les Compagnies Franches (1752), Turpin de Crissé’s Essai sur L’Art de la Guerre (1754), and Thomas Auguste le Roy de Grandmaison’s La Petite Guerre  (1756). These treatises originated from the French military experiences during the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), a conflict that shaped the European concept of the usefulness of la petite guerre during war. Although la petite guerre is a French term, it remained untranslated when used by English speakers; however, English speakers did translate the definite article la so that the standard use of the term was petite guerre. This is apparent in Maj. Lewis Nicola’s 1777 translation of Grandmaison’s work where he translates the entire text, except for the phrase petite guerre.[2] The French treatises are known to have been in possession of Continental Army officers, including Gen. George Washington who recommended the reading of these treatises.[3] The Continental Congress also advocated the study of these treatises; they authorized the establishment of a “military school for young gentlemen,” which would contain “a regimental library of the most approved authors on tactics and the petite guerre.”[4] From theory and practice, troops conducting operations in the petite guerre were separate or detached from the main army—the grand army—and they typically used quick strikes and harassment attacks against the enemy’s less protected areas. Due to the separated nature of units conducting the petite guerre, contemporary sources also referred to this type of warfare as a war of detachments. The intent of these limited and continual harassment-type attacks was to syphon military resources away from the enemy’s grand army. This understanding was made clear in Roger Stevenson’s Military Instructions for Officers Detached in the Field . . . Necessary in Carrying on the Petite Guerre (1775), where he wrote:

This corps is a light party . . . separated from the army, to secure the camp or a march; to reconnoitre the enemy or the country; to seize their posts, convoys, or escorts; to plant ambuscades, and put in practice every stratagem for surprising or disturbing the enemy: which is called carrying on the Petite Guerre.[5]

As stated, there is no exact phrase for regular European warfare in the primary sources. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the petite guerre was a component of regular warfare; thus, it was merely a subset within established eighteenth century European warfare. Stevenson detailed in Military Instructions that troops engaged in the petite guerre were operating against traditional military forces in support of the main army’s efforts.[6] Likewise, British Maj. Robert Donkin delivered an entire section on the petite guerre that focused on activities designed to support the grand army.[7] Like other contemporary Europeans, Americans understood that troops operating in the petite guerre were supporting the main war effort.

Even though the petite guerre revolved around regular warfare, armies sometimes employed irregular troops so that military commanders could focus their regular troops on traditional military operations, such as battles and sieges. By the eighteenth century definition, irregulars were any soldiers that were not part of a structured, state-recognized and funded, full-time army.[8] In his Universal Military Dictionary (1779), George Smith noted that militia—who were part-time troops—were not “regular or stated troops.”[9] Simply put, in the eighteenth century mindset, if troops were not in the regular army, they were irregular. While the eighteenth century contains many examples of irregular troops engaged in the petite guerre, notable examples occurred during the War of the Austrian Succession with such units as the hussars and pandours. These organizations were irregular light troops that operated using their mobility to conduct attacks against vulnerable military targets, ambushes, reconnaissance, and scouting for the main army. Some irregular light troops, particularly the pandours, could be brutal in their operations because of their penchant for killing captives, mutilating the dead, and targeting non-combatants, traits indicative of savage or uncivilized warfare. The barbarity of these actions proved objectionable to the civilized notion of warfare held by most Europeans. Therefore, after the War of the Austrian Succession, European militaries began a process of normalizing irregular light troops into authorized regular light troops who were more controllable to military leaders to curtail these atrocities. Simultaneously, the French military treatises appeared promoting the usefulness of la petite guerre  as a way to bring the conduct of that form of warfare under the umbrella of “civilized” warfare.

Warfare on the frontiers of North America between colonists and Indians during the eighteenth century often involved similarly brutal, if not identical, tactics of the pandours. This type of warfare typically involved attacking and burning villages and homes, destroying crops, and killing or capturing non-combatants. This type of warfare usually impacted the whole of society, not just dedicated military forces. Modern parlance calls this unlimited or total war because anyone, combatants or non-combatants, could be a target. A Jesuit priest recorded this type of warfare in 1649 as attacking Iroquois completely destroyed structures and killed or captured everyone in Huron villages.[10] This type of warfare was in direct contrast to European warfare, which, in theory, stressed “humanity . . . even in war.”[11] Political theorist Emmerich de Vattel wrote in 1758 that when a nation conducts war

let us not divest ourselves of that charity which connects us with all mankind. Thus shall we courageously defend our country’s rights without violating those of human nature. Let our valour preserve itself from every stain of cruelty, and the lustre of victory will not be tarnished by inhuman and brutal actions.[12]

Commenting on humane conduct of war, political philosopher Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui wrote in 1747:

In general, even the laws of war require that we should abstain from slaughter as much as possible, and not shed human blood without necessity. We ought not, therefore, directly and deliberately to kill prisoners of war, nor those who ask quarter, or surrender themselves, much less old men, women and children.[13]

Contrasting these European ideas, Thomas Jefferson described the common understanding of North American warfare as:

The known rule of warfare with the Indian savages is an indiscriminate butchery of men women and children. These savages . . .  [fight] not against our forts, or armies in the field, but the farming settlements on our frontiers.[14]

Jefferson’s quote reflects the stereotypical colonial American understanding of the Indian’s conduct of war, while seemingly ignoring the fact that the Americans freely practiced the same type of warfare against Indians, such as the Conestoga massacre in 1763.[15] Americans took to this manner of warfare, particularly on the frontier, as they clashed with Indian tribes during their settlement expansions to the west. James Smith, who spent the entirety of the French and Indian War in Indian captivity and intimately understood the Indian manner of war, wrote in the early nineteenth century that “Kentucky would not have been settled at the time is was, had the Virginians been altogether ignorant of this method of war.”[16] This manner of war was the opposite of the regular European way of war; thus, eighteenth century sources called it an irregular manner of war. Because of this opposition, Americans and Europeans habitually characterized the Indian irregular manner of war as “uncivilized.”

Despite the prevalence of attacks on non-combatants, Indians did perform operations against military targets. Typically, when Indians conducted operations against military forces, these attacks occurred in the enclosed wooded terrain of North America, which was very different from the regular, open European battlefields. Writing shortly after the Revolutionary War, British Lt. Thomas Anburey noted that “the Indian’s idea of war consists in never fighting in an open field.”[17] Donkin’s perception of the early years of the Revolutionary War was that the Americans fought contrary to the customary rules of war—the ruses de guerre. He wrote that because of “the nature of the country, and cowardliness of the rebels . . . [they] delight more in murdering from the woods, walls and houses, than in shewing any genius or science in the art military.”[18] Donkin echoed the prevailing thought of the time that denoted two different forms of courage in war. Scottish philosopher Henry Home Kames summed up this concept in 1774 as passive courage compared to active courage. Kames theorized that passive courage was attributable to “North-American savages” because they practiced a form of warfare that relied on “stratagem and surprise” to avoid fighting in open areas; conversely, Europeans had active courage because they willingly conducted warfare in open areas.[19] In a letter written in 1775, shortly after the British retreat from Concord, a British soldier noted this difference. He wrote that the American militia “did not fight us like a regular army, only like savages, behind trees and stone walls.”[20] While these quotes do not reflect the American reliance on traditional European tactics throughout the war—and the victories brought by such tactics—they do demonstrate a difference in the perception between civilized and uncivilized conduct in warfare.

The enclosed and shrouded forest environment of North America necessitated a closer type of warfare between combatants. The tactics for operating in this constricting terrain involved a loose order or extended way of fighting, instead of the traditional linear European tactics. During the Revolutionary War, both the American and British armies adopted extended formations while also maintaining, practicing, and performing traditional European linear tactics. Warfare in the woods typically involved sudden ambush attacks from concealed positions, a type of warfare described as “skulking.”[21] Anburey concluded that the Indian way of war derived from their hunting practices. He wrote: “Every Indian is a hunter, and their manner of making war is of the same nature, only changing the object, by skulking, surprising and killing those of their own species.”[22]

Virginia Lt. Gov. Robert Dinwiddie summed up Indian warfare to Maj. Gen. James Abercrombie in 1756 this way:

Dear Sir, You are come into a Country cover’d with woods and sometimes unaccessible Mountains, &c. The European Method of Waring not practic’d here. The Indian Method is bush fighting and watching every Opp’ty to destroy their Enemys.[23]

Engraving depicting the death of British Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection)

The tactics used by Indians were contrary to the traditional and regular European warfare tactics; thus, contemporaries labeled those tactics as irregular. A British officer recorded that during Braddock’s Defeat, the Indians fought in an “irregular method” by firing and moving quickly, using the trees for cover, while another British participant noted that the Indians used the terrain to their advantage by fighting “either on their bellies or behind trees or running from one tree to another.”[24] However, contemporaries labeled any tactic contrary to regular tactics as irregular. The Americans defeated Col. Patrick Ferguson’s forces at King’s Mountain using irregular tactics; a British officer present during the battle noted that the attacking Americans used trees for cover and “poured in an irregular destructive fire.”[25] Likewise, an American soldier noted that some British troops operated with “irregularity” during the New York Campaign.[26] Despite the distinction between the civilized—la petite guerre—and uncivilized—irregular—manners of war, the conduct for both forms of warfare frequently involved similar tactics. Because of this tactical similarity, there is a present-day perception that both forms of warfare are interchangeable. Eighteenth century sources do not reflect that interchangeability.

Did Revolutionary War-era Americans include the Indian irregular manner of war a part of the European sanctioned petite guerre? Primary sources suggest that they did not; both forms of warfare were distinct. The difference was in the perception of what constituted civilized and uncivilized warfare. Washington’s writings give a clear representation of the eighteenth century American mindset that differentiated between the irregular manner of war and the petite guerre. Knowing both the European and Indian styles of warfare, Washington considered the Indian tactical mode of fighting as irregular. He remarked that because of the army’s “apprehension of the Indian Mode of fighting,” he dispatched Col. Daniel Morgan and his rifle-armed regiment to the Northern Department in 1777 because those soldiers were capable of engaging and restraining the Indian allies of Burgoyne.[27] In 1779, he requested the states of Pennsylvania and New York to enlist rangers who were “accustomed to the irregular kind of wood-fighting practiced by the Indians.”[28] In 1779, Washington ordered Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to conduct an expedition against the Six Nation Indians in western New York. Washington considered this entire expedition as an irregular operation, an operation that was separate from the Continental Army’s regular operations against the British army. In gauging military allocations for Sullivan’s requests, Washington wrote: “If the operations he is to be concerned in were the regular ones of the field, his calculation would be better founded; but in the loose irregular war he is to carry on, it will naturally lead to error and misconception.”[29]

Although Sullivan’s Expedition was separate from the main army, it was not warfare in the realm of the petite guerre because it was a large military operation against irregular enemies in western New York, mostly Indians and Tories, not British regulars. The intent of Sullivan’s Expedition was to devastate whole British-allied Indian tribes in western New York. Washington issued the following orders to Sullivan, which demonstrate a manner of war contrary to the regular European conduct of war:

The expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the six nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.[30]

This order reflects the irregular manner of war that Sullivan was to carry out. Conversely, from his experience and education, Washington understood to whom the petite guerre applied; namely, troops involved in the main war effort. When Washington departed New York for Virginia in 1781, he used the term to describe the permissible activities for the remaining troops under the command of Maj. Gen. William Heath. Washington instructed:

Altho your general Rule of Conduct will be to act on the defensive only, yet it is not meant to prohibit you from striking a Blow at the Enemys Posts or Detatchments, should a fair Opportunity present itself . . . [including] annoying the Enemy, & covering the Country, as for the Security & repose of your own Troops . . . to hold the Enemy in Check, & carry on the Petit Guerre with them.[31]

This quote reflects a nearly textbook description for the petite guerre. The 1783 Encyclopedia Britannica defines the petite guerre as involving the tactics of “secret marches, occupying, defending, or attacking posts, reconnoitering countries or the enemy, placing of ambuscades, &c.,” which is similar to Stevenson’s Military Instructions quoted above.[32]

After the Revolutionary War, Americans, at times, began to use the term petite guerre to describe the Indian way of war, as Jefferson did in 1787 when he remarked that “the petite guerre always waged by the Indians” did not dissuade Americans from settling Kentucky.[33] John Connolly, a Loyalist during the war, writing about his time as a provincial soldier during Pontiac’s Rebellion several decades later, noted that he “had an opportunity of observing the great difference between the petite guerre of the Indians, and the military system of the Europeans.”[34] This change reflects the changing perception of war in the post-Revolutionary War era, where civilized and uncivilized warfare began to intertwine. Events in Europe further blurred any distinction between civilized and uncivilized warfare, notably from France. Concerning the ongoing French Revolution, Edmund Burke wrote:

The hell-hounds of war, on all sides, will be uncoupled and unmuzzled. The new school of murder and barbarism, set up in Paris, having destroyed (so far as in it lies) all the other manners and principles which have hitherto civilized Europe, will destroy also the mode of civilized war.[35]

Subsequent events throughout the nineteenth century would continue to transform the meaning of the petite guerre as the traditional perception of civilized warfare changed. As the meaning of the phrase morphed, it began to encompass any small or limited conflict, whether that conflict was part of a larger war strategy. While the petite guerre is no longer a modern-day expression, such terms as police action, insurgency and counter-insurgency, minor operations, dirty wars, little wars, and guerrilla and irregular warfare all have roots in the eighteenth century phrase.

In Washington’s writings, it is evident that military forces involved in carrying out the petite guerre were conducting limited yet continual operations—typically skirmishing, harassment attacks, and reconnaissance—only against British Army forces.[36] Troops conducting the petite guerre could use the same tactics that Indians utilized in their manner of war—such as maneuverability for surprise attacks, firing from concealed positions, and attacks on isolated posts. Despite the later views, there was a differentiation between an irregular manner of war and the petite guerre throughout most of the eighteenth century, even though both types of warfare involved similar and, at times, identical tactics. This distinction between the two forms of warfare originated from how troops engaged a targeted enemy. This was a result of the perception of the “civilized” European conduct of warfare, which involved la petite guerre, and the “uncivilized” conduct of warfare of the North American Indians, a type of warfare that colonial Americans also practiced, which involved irregular methods.


[1]William Vinal, A Sermon on the Accursed Thing that Hinders Success and Victory in War (Newport, RI: James Franklin, 1755), 14.

[2]Thomas Auguste le Roy de Grandmaison, La Petite Guerre, trans. Lewis Nicola (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1777), 5.

[3]Johann Ewald, Diary of the American War: A Hessian Journal Captain Johann Ewald Field Jäger Corps, trans. Joseph P. Tustin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 108; George Washington to William Woodford, November 10, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,

[4]Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, vol. 8, 1777 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907), 485.

[5]Roger Stevenson, Military Instructions for Officers Detached in the Field[. . .] Necessary in Carrying on the Petite Guerre  (Philadelphia: R. Aitken, 1775), 35.

[6]Ibid., i-ii, 35-36.

[7]Robert Donkin, Military Collections and Remarks (New York: H. Gaine, 1777), 240.

[8]“Essay on Regular and Irregular Forces,” Gentleman’s Magazine 16 (1746): 30–32.

[9]George Smith, Universal Military Dictionary (London: J. Millan, 1779), s. v. “militia.”

[10]Reuben Gold Thwaites, The Jesuit and Allied Documents, vol. 34, Lower Canada: The Hurons, 1649 (Cleveland: Burrow Brothers, 1898), 123-134.

[11]Henry Home Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Edinburgh: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1778), 386.

[12]Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations, ed. Béla Kapossy and Richard Whitmore (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008), 369.

[13]Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Politic Law: Being a Sequel to the Principles of Natural Law, trans. Mr. Nugent (London: J. Nourse, 1752), 282.

[14]Thomas Jefferson to William Phillips, July 22, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives,

[15]A Narrative of the Late Massacres (Philadelphia: 1764), 5-6.

[16]James Smith, A Treatise on the Mode and Manner of Indian War (Paris, KY: Joel R. Lyle, 1812), 10.

[17]Thomas Anburey, Travels Through the Interior Parts of North America in a Series of Letters by an Officer (London: William Lane, 1789), 294.

[18]Donkin, Military Collections, 223.

[19]Kames, History of Man, 45, 47.

[20]“Extracts From Several Intercepted Letters of the Soldiery in Boston,” Boston, April 28, 1775, in Peter Force, American Archive: Fourth Series, vol. 2 (Washington D.C.: M. St. Clair Clark and Peter Force, 1839), 440.

[21]Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, March 20, 1751, Founders Online, National Archives,; Washington to Lord Loudon, January 1757, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washingtonfrom the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799, vol. 2, 1757-1769 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1931), 10.

[22]Anburey, Travels, 297.

[23]Robert Dinwiddie to James Abercrombie, May 28, 1756, Williamsburg, in R. A. Brock, ed., The Official Records of Robert Dinwiddie, Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1751-1758, vol. 2 (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1884), 425-426.

[24]Charles Hamilton, ed., Braddock’s Defeat: The Journal of Captain Robert Cholmley’s Batman; The Journal of a British Officer; Halkett’s Orderly Book (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959), 29, 50.

[25]Quoted in W. H. Wilkin, Some British Soldiers in America (London: Hugh Rees, 1914), 167.

[26]Quoted in Frank Moore, Diary of the American Revolution, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner, 1860), 326.

[27]Washington to Horatio Gates, August 20, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives,

[28]Washington to Joseph Reed, March 3, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives,; Washington to George Clinton, March 4, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives,

[29]Washington to John Jay, August 15, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives,

[30]Washington to John Sullivan, May 31, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives,

[31]Washington to William Heath, August 19, 1781, Founders Online, National Archives,

[32]Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: J. Balfour, 1783), 8840.

[33]Jefferson to William Carmichael, December 11, 1787, Paris, in Albert Ellery Bergh, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 5 (Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1905), 382.

[34]John Connolly, “A Narrative of the Transactions, Imprisonment, and Sufferings of John Connolly, an American Loyalist and Lieut. Col. in His Majesty’s Service,” in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 12 (Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1888), 311.

[35]Edmund Burke, “A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, May 1791,” in Edmund Burke, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. D.E. Ritchie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), 55-56.

[36]Washington to Philip Schuyler, February 23, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives,; Washington to Heath, January 22, 1782, Founders Online, National Archives,


  • Salut – may I suggest to Mr. Gerring to also take a look at “Light Infantry Lessons from America? Johann von Ewald’s Experiences in the War for Independence.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 23 (1993), pp. 111-129 and “A Treatise on Partisan Warfare by Johann von Ewald.” Introduction and Annotation by Robert A. Selig and David Curtis Skaggs (Westport, 1991). The “Treatise” has a lengthy (40 page) essay on the European background and development of the concept of partisan warfare while the “Treatise” itself has numerous examples from the American war.

  • Some really interesting primary source work here. I’ll take the opportunity to recommend John Grenier’s The First Way of War: American Warmaking on the Frontier to your readers as well. He gets into differing American, British, and Continental European perspectives on petite guerre, with some interesting observations on “change over time” as well, by taking a broad view of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. I have found it readable enough to assign to undergraduates. You are taking on a somewhat different question than he did, of course, but I thought I’d recommend the book anyway.

    1. Grenier provides a decent introduction for early American warfare. However, it was in his book where I started to see how some historians stretch the (or sometimes change) original meanings of words or phrases to fit their conclusions. From my perspective, Grenier uses irregular warfare and petite guerre interchangeably. When I was digging into the primary sources, it seemed clear to me that that was not the case, especially prior to and during the Revolutionary War, as my article suggests. That was the stimulus for me to write this article. That being said, I still find Grenier’s work useful. Just trying to get into the primary sources and flesh out the nuances of the past. Cheers!

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