THE REVOLUTIONARY PERIOD - Part 2
It has long seemed safe to decide that American victory was due to foreign intervention. France, after the Americans won the important battle of Saratoga in 1777, assisted America directly with loans of money, sales upon credit of munitions of war, and with French troops upon American soil. France, Spain, and the Netherlands, combining, threatened Great Britain in Europe. Hence Great Britain, after losing the army which surrendered at Yorktown, being weakened in America and also feeling that peace with America was the price of safety at home, gave up the struggle; renounced her rights to govern two and a half million Colonists; presented them, so to speak, with the immense territory which they occupied, with all its agricultural, mineral, and commercial wealth, present and future. It was a tremendous present; not a gladly given one but an enforced one. In spite of France, Spain, and the Netherlands, Great Britain would not have given up America, if America, disorganized and poverty-stricken, could have been conquered by force of arms.
But, in the fighting that had occurred between 1775 and 1781, Great Britain had noted that her loss of life in battle had been as five British soldiers to three American soldiers. Also, France had refused open aid until America won Saratoga. Hence another aspect to American success, and the questions — why or how was the Battle of Saratoga won, and why was British loss of life in battle so much greater than American that the people of England besought Parliament to end the war?
It is not sufficient to make a general statement that at Saratoga and before there were fewer mistakes in American strategy, and that during the war the American soldiers showed themselves superior with the gun or the bayonet. In the first place, strategy, great as is its power of influence, is only one element of the many that affect the outcome of a battle or a war. In the second place, given two Revolutionary soldiers armed with muskets, marksmanship counted little, as the inaccuracy of the weapons beyond very short range negatived the human element of marksmanship; while prowess with the bayonet at close quarters would be a British asset, not an American, for there was never a time when one half the American soldiers were equipped with bayonets.
So the vital question of why the Americans won needs a more detailed answer. And since all other causes influencing the outcome have been minutely examined and passed upon, the weapons in use by the opposing armies, which have so far been neglected, merit examination. Was the war fought with muskets?
Unquestionably the two engagements which opened the Revolution were fought at the muzzles of muskets and fowling-pieces — smoothbores of equal efficiency at the muzzle and equal inefficiency at long range. In the same opening movements of the war were the expedition to Canada, occupying the fall and winter of 1775, the skirmish at Great Bridge, December 9,1775, the skirmish at Moore's Creek, February 27, 1776; and the siege of Boston which resulted in its evacuation by the British March 17, 1776. In each case the statistics indicate light American loss, heavy British loss (the most excessive ratio was at Great Bridge, Americans nothing, British 61), while the conditions in each case were not such as, at the running fight from Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, favored the American militia. Here are indications of precision of fire, and there comes to mind the remarkable weapon evolved by the mid-Colonials and used in small numbers to great effect in the French wars — the rifle; it was used in those early fights. And, further, all that could be had were used on every occasion throughout the war. To the limited number available is due, in a sense, the prolongation of the war, and there is abundant evidence that had the Colonists been a nation of riflemen the war would have been quickly over. Washington and the Continental Congress strained every nerve to increase the number, but the gunsmiths who knew how to make them and the men who were skilled to use them were confined to a limited area and were a small minority. The first considerable mention of riflemen in the American army occurs in connection with the siege of Boston. When the news of Concord and Bunker Hill was spread throughout the Colonies by post riders, and the Continental Congress realized that war had really begun and that the British stronghold of Boston was to be a seat of war, messengers on horseback were despatched into the sparsely settled western borders urging the pioneers to assemble and help in the fight against oppression. Congress could not offer them a reward, nor even guarantee them pay, for it had no funds, and no power to raise money by loan or by taxes. But the mid-Colonial pioneers were born and bred to fighting and, self-equipped, they responded with alacrity in numbers greater than were called for. In several divisions they were started on the long journey afoot to Boston. As they reached the large towns on their way they stopped a little while to give exhibitions of their skill to hearten the inhabitants and develop enthusiasm for enlisting. Accounts of some of these exhibitions written by eye witnesses found their way into the newspapers. The Virginia Gazette of 1775 said: "On Friday last there arrived at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Captain Crescap's company of riflemen consisting of 130 active and brave young fellows, many of whom were in the late expedition under Lord Dunmore against the Indians. These men have been bred in the woods to hardships and danger from their infancy. With their rifles in their hands they assume a kind of omnipotence over their enemies. Two brothers in the company " (probably the Shain boys who were celebrated as marksmen and for recklessness) "took a piece of board 5 inches by 7 inches with a bit of white paper the size of a dollar nailed in the center, and while one held the board upright gripped between his knees, the other at 60 yards without any kind of rest shot 8 balls through it successively and spared his brother's thighs. Another of the company held a barrel stave close against his body perpendicularly while one of his comrades at the same distance shot several bullets through it. The spectators were told that there were upwards of 50 persons in the company who could do the same."
There is also contemporary mention that three of Captain Crescap's men fired simultaneously at a buzzard flying high overhead. The bird fell, and each man claimed that he had killed it. Examination proved that all three bullets had hit their mark. On the 18th of July the first company (Nagel's, of Berks County, Pennsylvania) arrived at Boston, and by the middle of August 1430 instead of the 810 required reported there for duty. They were placed under the command of Col. Wm. Thompson of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, organized as light infantry, and assigned to duty in the besieging army. Shortly after Washington took command of the army he arranged a spectacular review of his riflemen, that the fifteen or sixteen thousand New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut militia who had assembled to shut the British up in Boston might see the novelty of accurate shooting at what to them was extraordinary distance, and be encouraged and stimulated thereby. It is probable that to New Englanders (with the possible exception of some of the Green Mountain Boys and a very few veterans of the French wars who had served with mid-Colonials) the rifle was then unknown. In the presence of the army, drawn up in parallel lines each side of the range and an immense crowd of spectators, in which a number of British spies were welcome visitors, a pole 7 inches in diameter was set up, and a marksman stepped off 250 spaces. At the place where he stopped a company of riflemen was lined up to show what they could do. The mark was about equal to that a man would present standing sideways, and the range about 200 yards. No New England fanner would waste powder and ball firing at such a mark and distance with his musket or fowling-piece — only luck could account for a hit. But the riflemen, firing singly or at command, so riddled the pole that it was apparent that no enemy could survive an instant. General Howe, cooped up in Boston, was fully as much impressed as the spectators, and wrote home about the "terrible guns of the rebels." In the army around Boston the riflemen were employedas sharpshooters to pick off any British soldiers or officers who were incautious in exposing themselves. This they did to perfection. There is mention of a British soldier shot at 250 yards when only half his head was visible; of ten men, three of whom were officers, killed one day while reconnoitering; of a rifleman who, seeing some British on a scow at a distance of fully half a mile, found a good resting place on a hill and bombarded them until he potted the lot.
Sawyer, Charles. Firearms in American History. Boston: The Author,
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