By Tom Flounders
Author’s Note: This article is not intended to be an expansive exploration of the entirety of the Revolutionary War, merely a highlight on the relationships between tactical/operational wins and strategic victory in multiple domains using an historical example.
Everything was stacked against the ill-equipped, poorly trained, poorly organized Continental Army. Facing an enemy with absolute supremacy at sea, General George Washington faced many dilemmas as he considered the defense of New York City in 1776. The Lords Howe could land their quantitatively and qualitatively superior land forces at any place of their choosing supported by the guns of the British Navy. While in the southern colonies, the British could easily move from American ports to attack the coastal population centers. In fact, the British did this very well, seizing New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and other major American cities. But with British mastery of the two predominant domains of 18th century warfare, how did Washington win? In today’s parlance, George Washington’s objective was achieving victory in the human domain, and it proved to be the decisive factor for strategic victory.
The British took a traditional European approach to American War of Independence. The initial British strategy focused on controlling cities and vital places that dominated American commerce and revolutionary spirit. Seizing New York, Charleston, and Philadelphia and attempting to control the Hudson River Valley all worked toward these goals. However, the American colonies did not function in the same manner as a European country. American cities were less populated, controlled less of the economy, and there was no true capital city in the European sense. Taking any particular location would not cripple the American economy or psyche. To beat the Americans, the British would have to occupy the entirety of the insurrectionist areas of the thirteen colonies, something they realized later in the war, but lacked the means to do. (author’s note: somewhat ironically, this disaggregation of the Thirteen Colonies and therefore the difficulties the British had in affecting the rebellion as a whole has recently resurfaced as a goal of US military operations today.)
In opposition, Washington took a different tack. Initially buoyed by an over inflated sense of the ability of his army, there was the understanding that Washington, the regulars, and the militia were true peers of the British. Washington and, just as importantly, his chief advisors were not quite as confident. The Continental Congress, however, felt that a defense of New York City was not only possible, but that success was likely. As the battle for New York unfolded, Washington saw that the combination of British sea and land power outclassed the American army, and Washington escaped only after an admirable withdrawal from Manhattan across the Hudson River to New Jersey. This experience solidified his belief that a series of small victories would accumulate the moral weight necessary to undermine the British will to wage war in North America, in a very similar sense to Clausewitz’ description of a defensive campaign fought with offensive battles. He quickly understood that his Continental Army’s existence was the most important objective, thus he fought a defensive war to expel the British from the Colonies. This defensive strategy was not intended to entirely defeat the British fielded forces, but instead to force the British leadership to make a decision: to accede that the American Revolution was an unwinnable war. By understanding the need to keep the Continental Army intact, Washington displayed an understanding of the Army as the symbol that most affected the human domain.
The British did not appreciably change their approach throughout the six years of the Revolution. Lord Germain and King George realized they could not occupy the entirety of the American possessions while war was raging in Europe. Instead, they kept their focus on occupation of key coastal areas to interdict commerce and splinter the colonies. British commanders continued to leverage their strengths by using naval forces to dominate coastal and tidewater areas and ports and using the army to control major population areas. The British seized New York in August of 1776, attempted to seize the Hudson River corridor in 1777, seized Philadelphia in September of 1777, and did much of the same in the southern colonies. Up until the very last days of the war, General Cornwallis’ army moved into Virginia seeking to raid and destroy economic and military targets in order to undermine the American’s ability to sustain their armies.
Where the British were unwavering in their strategy, Washington adapted his approach. His defensive war became a war of “not losing.” With the British less active and relatively sated by their occupation of the several major cities, Washington had fewer opportunities to attack isolated British forces in piecemeal like he did at Trenton and Princeton. Therefore, inaction suited Washington’s objectives in the northern theater. However, this was not the case in the southern colonies. Nathanael Greene took a different approach. He fought an unconventional campaign, leveraging his militia forces. Greene even went so far as to split his army, an idea that was anathema to Washington. Dividing combat power was a major faux pas in conventional 18th century warfare. While there were many reasons for his decision, significant influence was the ability to force Lord Cornwallis into one of several decisions, all of which benefitted Greene in a way. Understanding Cornwallis’ decision making processes allowed Greene to manipulate the British and aid in the overall American victory.
Each domain provided a military benefit to the combatants, but the human domain proved decisive in the Revolutionary War. Tactically (such as the Battle of Cowpens,) operationally (Greene’s conduct in the southern theater,) and strategically (Washington’s overall defensive war) the Americans’ greatest successes came when the human dimension was directly targeted and affected. Conversely, British dominance in traditional land and naval power proved to be invaluable for the British operationally and tactically, but nearly ineffective strategically. Firepower was not equitable to victory. In fact, British reliance on firepower in and of itself to dominate two domains as the way to victory proved of very little value in achieving strategic objectives.
Today’s battlefields look eerily similar to the British situation regarding 18th century North America. Currently, the United States, with absolute advantages in training, technology, and overwhelming firepower, attempts to project power across the globe while managing worldwide interests and forces. Though exponentially more complex and lethal, the wars of today remain grounded in many of the same basic principles of maneuver. However, the ability to access new maneuver spaces within the electromagnetic spectrum, air, space, cyberspace, and maritime (subsurface) domains has changed which alters the strategic, operational, and mission variables in the environment. Tactical and operational victories can be achieved with pure military might in some of these domains, as objectives are normally well defined. But strategically, winning is always important, and today, just like in the late 1700s, that victory is always achieved in the minds of an adversary. Instead of the individual mind of King George, entire tribes, cities, regions, cultures, nations, and international coalitions must be convinced that any victory or defeat is legitimate. As such, the human domain remains the only decisive strategic domain.
Tom Flounders is an armor officer in the United States Army. He is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the Air Force Command and Staff College and a Senior Editor of Over the Horizon.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.