NEWS | July 2, 2019

Cautionary Tales in History: 5 Lessons from Revolutionary War Missteps

By Courtesy Story U.S. Army Central

“The Battle of Cowpens” by Don Troiani is part of the National Guard Bureau Heritage Series. In upland South Carolina, January 17, 1781, at a place where local farmers penned their cows, an American force of 300 Continentals and 700 militia from North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, won a brilliant victory against the British.

The Continentals who fought at Cowpens are perpetuated today by the 175th Infantry, Maryland Army National Guard, and the 198th Signal Battalion, Delaware Army National Guard, and the Virginia militia by the 116th Infantry, Virginia Army National Guard. The heritage of the rest of the American troops who fought in this "greatest tactical victory ever won on American soil" is carried on today by the Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina Army National Guards. 

The National Guard Heritage Paintings are a series of original oil paintings commissioned by the National Guard Bureau to depict significant moments in the history of the National Guard and its ancestor units to inspire present-day National Guard Soldiers and Airmen.

(Photo Courtesy of the National Guard Bureau)
"The Battle of Cowpens" by Don Troiani | National Guard Bureau Heritage Series The National Guard Heritage Paintings are a series of original oil paintings commissioned by the National Guard Bureau to depict significant moments in the history of the National Guard and its ancestor units to inspire present-day National Guard Soldiers and Airmen.
“The Battle of Cowpens” by Don Troiani is part of the National Guard Bureau Heritage Series. In upland South Carolina, January 17, 1781, at a place where local farmers penned their cows, an American force of 300 Continentals and 700 militia from North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, won a brilliant victory against the British.

The Continentals who fought at Cowpens are perpetuated today by the 175th Infantry, Maryland Army National Guard, and the 198th Signal Battalion, Delaware Army National Guard, and the Virginia militia by the 116th Infantry, Virginia Army National Guard. The heritage of the rest of the American troops who fought in this "greatest tactical victory ever won on American soil" is carried on today by the Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina Army National Guards. 

The National Guard Heritage Paintings are a series of original oil paintings commissioned by the National Guard Bureau to depict significant moments in the history of the National Guard and its ancestor units to inspire present-day National Guard Soldiers and Airmen.

(Photo Courtesy of the National Guard Bureau)
"The Battle of Cowpens" by Don Troiani | National Guard Bureau Heritage Series
The National Guard Heritage Paintings are a series of original oil paintings commissioned by the National Guard Bureau to depict significant moments in the history of the National Guard and its ancestor units to inspire present-day National Guard Soldiers and Airmen.
Photo By: Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 190619-Z-ZZ999-0001

There are age-old sayings that any Army officer will invariably hear during their military career from the mouth of a historian or strategist about the importance of retracing the steps of doomed warriors. Perhaps none is more famously clichéd as the one that is attributed to so many historic figures - something along the lines of, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

With its headquarters in close proximity to Revolutionary War battlefields at Camden, Kings Mountain, and Cowpens, the strategic planners and security cooperation officers of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) set out to analyze the British campaign in the American South.

The Assistant Chief of Staff for Plans and Strategy, Col. David Williams, appointed Maj. Mark Askew, a former professor of history at West Point, the task of planning the excursion on Mar. 27, 2019. Williams wanted his staff to examine the effects that renewed great power competition have on military strategy; the challenges of operating in an economy of force theater; the need to rely on local partners with varying degrees of capability; the importance of the information domain; and the art and science of campaign planning.

At each of the battlefield sites, members of the G5 assessed the operational and strategic choices made by the British and how those decisions influenced the tactical outcome and psychological impact of each battle. Officers evaluated the British Army’s performance of vital warfighting functions, their campaign design, the influence of terrain on the campaign’s plan and execution, and how well their commanders understood and mitigated operational risk.

During group discussion, the participants debated the British “theory of victory” that underpinned the campaign and its viability. They also assessed whether the campaign was lost due to poor strategy or poor operational and tactical performance, how well the British targeted the American operational center of gravity, and how the British might have avoided culminating in different phases of their offensives.

When the G5 team concluded their tour, they came away with a greater appreciation for how poor decision-making and execution turned an economy-of-force theater into the primary engine of British defeat in the American Revolution.

So what can these battles of the Southern Campaign of the Revolutionary War teach us about campaign planning considerations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility? Here are five lessons our modern Army can take from our British ally’s early missteps:
 

 

1
Study history for context.


By the conclusion of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War in Europe), Britain achieved unparalleled dominance over their European peers. The Seven Years War left Britain's strategic competitors financially exhausted and with little appetite to confront British power. From the end of the Seven Years War until the French intervention in the American Revolution, Britain had a relatively free hand in managing its empire, making Britain, in essence, the lone super power of the era.

France's decision to back the U.S. changed the balance of power between Britain and its competitors. French military power challenged Britain in every theater of the globe: in the maritime domain, in the information domain, and mounted military challenges from North America to the Caribbean and India. After it became clear that an Anglo-French clash presented opportunities, eventually other European powers joined France and tried to capitalize on perceived British weakness.

Britain responded with a quickly-developed scheme of strategic priorities. Fortunately for the U.S., Britain's global priorities took priority over North America and enabled the U.S. to convince Britain of the futility of continued attempts at subduing their former colonies at the expense of the rest of the Empire.

The U.S. seems to be emerging into a similar era today. At the end of the Cold War, our old competitors lacked the resources and political will to significantly challenge U.S. preeminence in world affairs. With the invasion of Crimea and the militarization of areas around the South China Sea, it would appear that this is no longer the case. America's rivals are also challenging U.S. power in every domain. Although Britain did not win in North America, they did come out ahead nearly everywhere else. It is a historical precedent that contemporary U.S. planners should consider as they think about the range of solutions available to a global power in era of renewed Great Power Competition.

2
Untested assumptions are dangerous.


British military leaders made an assumption that the South contained multitudes of loyalists eager to flock to the King's standard and help reassert royal control. British military leaders made similar assumptions about the Northern and Mid-Atlantic colonies, and in almost all cases this never proved to be true. This untested assumption about the operating environment led to enormous strategic and operational problems for Britain.

3
Beware of mission creep.


Britain had designated the American South the equivalent of an "economy-of-force” theater. In their original conception of the campaign, British planners only intended to control the coastal and agricultural regions in the triangle between Augusta, Savannah, and Charleston. Catastrophic success tempted British leaders to expand their control into the back-country and eventually into North Carolina and Virginia without having regained full control over Georgia and South Carolina. British overreach contributed to their eventual failure and despite being an "economy-of-force" theater decisively altered the military and political trajectory of the war against British interests.

4
The leadership of local partners is crucial.


British military efforts in the Southern Campaign were continually frustrated by their inability to build loyalist militia leadership to match the skill and zeal of their patriot counterparts.
 
They were often dismissive of colonial leaders, both patriot and loyalist, and often dispatched loyalists on missions that were high risk/low payoff before those organizations were fully mature, resulting in disaster (see Kings Mountain). More respect for the patriot militia's capacity for mischief and more care in developing loyalist militia might have gone a long way in facilitating British tactical, operational, and strategic success.

5
Information operations can be decisive.


A final point, and one that was decisive in many respects, was British ineptitude at managing effective information operations (IO). Planners should recognize that information operations can be decisive in shaping the operating environment before the first shot is fired in a campaign.
 
Kings Mountain is an excellent example where British IO - threatened brutality and terror - had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of cowing the population, colonists saw British military efforts as an existential threat to their homes and families, forced them to set aside their differences, and mobilized on an unheard of scale to counter British power. The result was a catastrophic British defeat that breathed life back into the American Revolution after months of bitter defeat.

During the Revolution, Britain and the United States both had temporary moments of extraordinary freedom of action at the strategic level. Both Britain and the U.S. had to confront the re-emergence of previously defeated strategic rivals at inopportune moments. Both countries shared global interests and concerns. Both faced multi-domain threats. The parallels, while not exact, can provide today's military planners with some context on contemporary problems.

 

U.S. Army Maj. Jeff Mills briefs American General Horatio Gate's approach to the Battle of Camden at the historic battlefield site in Camden, S.C., March 27, 2019. 

The Battle of Camden, August 16, 1780, was a devastating defeat for the Americans during the Revolutionary War, but it ushered in changes in leadership that helped to turn the tide of the war in the Southern Campaigns.
U.S. Army Maj. Jeff Mills briefs American General Horatio Gate's approach to the Battle of Camden at the historic battlefield site in Camden, S.C., March 27, 2019.
U.S. Army Maj. Jeff Mills briefs American General Horatio Gate's approach to the Battle of Camden at the historic battlefield site in Camden, S.C., March 27, 2019. 

The Battle of Camden, August 16, 1780, was a devastating defeat for the Americans during the Revolutionary War, but it ushered in changes in leadership that helped to turn the tide of the war in the Southern Campaigns.
190327-A-ZZ999-0002
U.S. Army Maj. Jeff Mills briefs American General Horatio Gate's approach to the Battle of Camden at the historic battlefield site in Camden, S.C., March 27, 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 190327-A-ZZ999-0002
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) listen to the Park Rangers discuss the tactical value of the musket and rifle at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.

The battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, was an important American victory during the Revolutionary War, as the first major patriot victory to occur after the British invasion of Charleston, SC in May 1780.
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) listen to the Park Rangers discuss the tactical value of the musket and rifle at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) listen to the Park Rangers discuss the tactical value of the musket and rifle at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.

The battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, was an important American victory during the Revolutionary War, as the first major patriot victory to occur after the British invasion of Charleston, SC in May 1780.
190327-A-ZZ999-0001
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) listen to the Park Rangers discuss the tactical value of the musket and rifle at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 190327-A-ZZ999-0001
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) pose for a group photo at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.

The battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, was an important American victory during the Revolutionary War, as the first major patriot victory to occur after the British invasion of Charleston, SC in May 1780.
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) pose for a group photo at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) pose for a group photo at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.

The battle of Kings Mountain, October 7, 1780, was an important American victory during the Revolutionary War, as the first major patriot victory to occur after the British invasion of Charleston, SC in May 1780.
190327-A-ZZ999-0003
Members of U.S. Army Central’s Strategic Plans division (G5) pose for a group photo at Kings Mountain National Military Park, S.C., March 27, 2019.
Photo By: Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 190327-A-ZZ999-0003


Courtesy Story Contributors: 
Col. Angela Funaro, U.S. Army Central Public Affairs Office 
Maj. Mark Askew, U.S. Army Central Strategic Plans (G5)