An American Way of War (Prior to the US Civil War)


“The modern practice of Europe, with respect to the employment of standing armies, has created such a mass of opinion in their favor, that even philosophers, and the advocates for liberty, have frequently confessed their use and necessity, in certain cases. But whoever seriously and Candidly estimates the power of discipline and the tendency of military habits, will be Constrained to Confess, that whatever may be the efficacy of a standing army in war, it cannot in peace be considered as friendly to the rights of human nature.” [1]

On 18 Jan 1790, Secretary of War Henry Knox submitted to President George Washington a plan for the establishment of American militia to safeguard the nation. Echoing Alexander Hamilton’s warnings of standing armies made almost three years prior, Knox reasoned that “an energetic national militia” was more in harmony with American ideals.[2] Standing armies (as evidenced by his words that began this article) represented a looming threat to national liberty. Three days after receiving Knox’s recommendation, Washington forwarded it to Congress for consideration, and thus codified a distinctive American suspicion of the military that would largely endure until the 20th Century.[3]

This mistrust of large, standing armies was only one factor that has helped shape what can arguably be called an American way of war. Another distinction is the manner in which warfare was executed (more on that in a moment). But if there is a distinctive way of American war, what are its roots, and when did it emerge?

Certainly from the initial establishment of European colonies, the Anglo, French, Spanish, and other Europeans would have brought with them their styles of waging war. In the struggle over Nova Scotia in the autumn of 1710, for instance, John Grenier describes the clash between the British and French at Port Royal as falling within the “context of Europe’s emerging “age of limited warfare,” and so fought for glory and honor to a point, but both sides made certain to restrain themselves so as to not “radically [upset] the status quo…”[4] Jon Latimer, in 1812 War with America, notes that leading up to the conflict that “the Americans’ drill was largely modelled on continental patterns,” although in practice they used a “variety of extemporized manuals.”[5] And yet both the Americans and the British recognized the existence of certain styles of combat that was common to the frontier, before and after 1776, that was particular to the New World. The “skulking” way war, the guerrilla-style combat associated with native Indians and tough frontiersmen, was something both scoffed at and admired by Europeans, who strove to emulate it as much as possible when engaged in combat in America. It was a way of warfare that gave the European populations of North America extreme resiliency, but also possessed notable weaknesses.

This American way of war was shaped by the specific threats faced by European settlers, as well as by the limited resources

James Wolfe argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers
James Wolfe argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers

and manpower available to meet those threats. This warfare, from a traditional European perspective, was brutal. In 1745, the French settlers living under British dominion in Nova Scotia, the Acadians, became alarmed when the British Governor for the region brought in American Rangers to build blockhouses throughout the region. The Acadians evidently drew a distinction between the European military forces and the Yankees, as Grenier cites correspondence sent to the Earl of Newcastle indicating that they thought the Americans “far more terrible than European soldiers.”[6] Surrounded by often hostile native Indians as well as by competing Old World rivals, the Americans took up a manner of warfare that was, in Grenier’s words, “of unrestrained violence, shocking brutality, and devastating effectiveness.”[7] The particular character of American-style combat was recognized by the British even at this point in time. James Wolfe, who overall looked upon North American provincials with little regard, nonetheless argued for the need to train British soldiers in similar fashion to American rangers.[8]

By the time of the War of Independence, both the Americans and the British were quite cognizant of fighting in an “American” style of war. In the earliest days of the conflict, the performance of the British soldiers trained as light infantry, organized into “flank battalions,” was somewhat lackluster.[9] Relatively quickly, however, they seemed to grow in confidence. Letters from royal soldiers record “fighting in the thick wood, in the very style that the Americans think themselves superior to regular troops.”[10] However, the rebel militia fighters of the deep frontier continued to hold a reputation of ferocity and ability that even the British commanders respected. After one engagement where the British were particularly battered, one solider observed that “European discipline” was of little use in the heavily wooded areas, and that the rebels were “by much our superiors at wood fighting, being habituated to the woods from their infancy.”[11] The important point here is that both those British soldiers who boasted of their own skirmishing skills, and those who thought the Americans superior in that way of combat, seemed to consider “bushfighting” as something particularly American. Matthew Spring, in With Zeal and Bayonets Only, cites a number of such letters which contrast how the Americans fought, and compared British capability to adapt to it (both favorably and unfavorably).[12]

The American way of war held a preference of militia over regular soldiers, and guerrilla-style combat over large-scale, head-on confrontations. It was a style of warfare born from the military requirements of the frontier. From the founding of the colonies, European settlers struggled against native Indians and each other, and the potential for warfare was ever-present. As such, all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen to sixty were expected to participate in the militia in some fashion, which included at a minimum an annual muster for training or militia-related tasks.[13] This is not to say that European-style warfare was totally abandoned. Population centers had to be defended, and fortifications had to be built and manned. General Washington, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, did attempt to lead American forces into decisive engagements against the British army. But after a number of defeats suffered throughout the period 1776 – 1780, the Americans increasingly relied on guerrilla-style tactics, to which they were much better suited. Spring notes that the militia were most effective when they fought in “broken terrain” and employed this “’skulking’ method of fighting…”[14] With self-governance being regionally fragmented in the New World, both before and after the American Revolution, the North Americans developed a way of warfare that usually leveraged the unique environment in which they lived to deal with local as well as foreign threats. The result was typically small standing armies. At the turn of the century in 1802, for example, the United States boasted an army of just 2,500 soldiers.[15]

Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781
Battle of Guiliford Courthouse 15 March 1781

Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences in how Americans waged war compared with their European cousins was rooted in how the individual soldier viewed his relationship to his government. While historians debate the extent to which such a distinction truly applied, in general the peoples of British North America developed the view that service to a government was formed by a contract, wherein each side was obliged to uphold the agreement. Abrogation of the contract meant the other side (in particular, the individual) was no longer under obligation to adhere to the arraignment. This contrasts with the royal army, whose soldiers were bound by the traditional European ruler-subject relationship. The resulting impact of relying on contract-savvy militia was that the government, whether colonial, Federal, or state, had to induce citizens to not only enlist, but to stay committed should a prolonged conflict ensue. To illustrate how this impacted the execution of warfare, John Grenier details an incident in 1755 when Anglo-American militia sought to join British regular troops as they prepared for operations against French forces in Nova Scotia. Rumor reached the American troops that the British army intended to extend their service contracts beyond the 12-months they had originally volunteered for. Apparently deciding that this was a breach of the contract to which they had signed, the American forces took it upon themselves to depart from the area regardless of the plans the British had for them. Grenier speculated that the British regulars watched this with “some sense of envy if not disgust…”[16]

George Washington used short contracts that, while continuously saddling the Revolutionary leaders with new, green troops, did help to ensure the militia did not become fatigued by long-term military commitments. As many as half of the eligible adult male population in the American colonies may have served as either militia or army regulars during the war. Most of the service periods for these men were measured mostly in months, and sometimes only weeks.[17] While this method certainly had some obvious weaknesses, it did offer Washington the ability to rapidly call up and field troops. This created a formidable manpower pool for the Americans, and was something the British – restricted by an inability to quickly replace combat losses – simply could not compete with.

This militia, while often denigrated by the British regulars, offered a resiliency not only with manning but also in the area of logistical support. While logistic concerns for rebel armies were of course greatly simplified by the nature of fighting on their home turf, the American militia had an ability to “live off the land” in a way that the more conventional forces of the British Army had trouble replicating.[18] Despite decades of experience in the New World, including multiple small conflicts – such as King George’s War (1744 – 1748) and the French-Indian War (1754 – 1763) – the British regular army struggled to meet their wartime logistical needs as late as the Revolutionary War. This failure has been identified as one of the primary factors which lead to the defeat of the British in this conflict.[19]

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis By John Trumbull
Surrender of Lord Cornwallis By John Trumbull

As suggested by Washington’s struggle with raw recruits, this reliance on the militia made it difficult to adjust to threats or operations which were better handled by a more conventional force. For instance, at the outset of the War of 1812, the United States had over 700,000 on the states’ militia rolls, but a standing army of less than 7,000 officers and soldiers. Congress acted to authorize an expansion to a 35,000-man army, plus the acceptance of 30,000 militia into Federal service on 1-year contracts and then an additional 50,000 enlisted men with 18-month contracts for the regular army.[20] But it would take time to recruit and train these regulars, and as stated by Latimer, “the militia was everywhere in disarray – inefficient, unreliable, and expensive…”[21] This state of affairs apparently did not dissuade the more exuberant supporters of the invasion of Canada, however. Whether willfully ignorant or unable to see the limitations in the use of militia for projecting power, Governor Daniel Thompkins of New York exclaimed that the United States would become “masters of Canada by militia only.”[22] Despite the confidence, the attempt to wrest Canada from the British was a complete failure.

A related weakness was that the general reliance on militia made it difficult to develop and execute a strategic plan. Jon Latimer, in his assessment of America’s inability to conquer Canada, argues that the government had a “lack of will to dominate the decisive moments.” This resulted in part from the rapid expansion of military officers, from 191 during Thomas Jefferson’s administration to over 3000 by 1814, only a few years later. Many of these officers had little or no prior military training, which hampered the ability of America’s military leadership to execute a coordinated plan.[23]

In conclusion, the unique environment of North America, coupled with the persistent threat posed by European armies – whether rivals of the mother nations or, as with the War of Independence and the War of 1812, against the home state itself – served to cultivate a distinct way of war. This method of fighting emphasized decentralized militia units that could be called upon in times of war – alone or in conjunction with the purposefully small standing army – to defend the nation, the state, or the region. They could also be called upon to project power, although as the War of 1812 revealed, the militia were not particularly strong in this regard. The true value of the American way of war was its versatility. It augmented the standing army as it prosecuted war against the Indians on the frontier, and it provided resilience against conventionally more powerful foes such as Britain.


Grenier, John, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Latimer, Jon. 1812 War with America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Spring, Matthew H. With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

[1] “To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, pp. 10–15.

[2] Alexander Hamilton, “Federalist #8,” in te Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York, Mentor, 1961), 66-71.

[3] From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 21 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790 – 30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996, p. 32.

[4] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710 – 1760 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 15.

[5] Jon Latimer, 1812 War with America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 10.

[6] Ibid, 132.

[7] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire, 173

[8] Ibid, 202-203.

[9] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 253.

[10] Ensign Thomas Hughes, as cited by Matthew H. Spring, ibid, 253.

[11] Ibid, 256.

[12] Ibid, 252 – 262.

[13] Ibid, 37.

[14] Ibid, 15

[15] Ibid.

[16] John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire, 185.

[17] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775 – 1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 28-29.

[18] Jon Latimer, 1812, 38.

[19] Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only, 34.

[20] Jon Latimer, 1812, 56-57.

[21] Ibid, 57.

[22] Ibid, 58.

[23] Ibid, 53.


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