FRAGMENTATION OF THE LINE DURING THE ADVANCE
In conventional linear warfare it was, as Bland had put it in 1727, “a fixed rule for every battalion to act, as near as possible, in concert with the whole, both in advancing, attacking, pursuing, or retiring together.” This was because a battalion that did not regulate its movements “according to the motion of the line” risked being “surrounded by fresh troops, and cut to pieces, before the line can come up to their assistance.” Here the principal threat was that the battalion might be “attacked on the flanks by the enemy’s horse, who are frequently posted between the first and second lines for this purpose.” In short, “the whole line must act like one battalion” or else risk destruction in detail: “While they [i.e., the battalions] keep in a body, they can mutually assist one another; but if they should separate in pursuing those they beat, the enemy may destroy them one after the other, with such an inconsiderable number of troops, that were they in a body, would fly at their appearance.” More succinctly, at the battle of Dettingen (1743), Lieutenant General Jasper Clayton directed one British regimental commander to “[k]eep your battalion in a line with the regiments on your right and left, [and] if you perceive any of them to give way, look sharp and guard your flanks.”
British commanders in America cannot have been unaware of the importance of what Bland recommended. Indeed, Howe made efforts to improve his battalions’ ability to maneuver together in preparation for the New York campaign by holding a series of exercises on Citadel Hill at Halifax. During the first series of exercises in the second half of April 1776, Lieutenant General Lord Percy exercised the line battalions three at a time (that is, in brigade strength), while Major Thomas Musgrave exercised the light infantry and grenadiers eight or so companies at a time (that is, at battalion strength). During the second series of exercises in May and early June, Musgrave took out the newly organized flank battalions (four in number) and Percy the First to Sixth Brigades (each of three battalions). Presumably, one of Percy’s priorities was to practice the brigades in deploying and maneuvering together, Howe himself having later testified that at Halifax the army “received great benefit . . . from the opportunity of being exercised in line, a very material part of discipline, in which we were defective until that time.”
Yet despite Howe’s exercises at Halifax, it does not seem that British battalions in America often regulated their movements in the manner recommended by Bland. This was largely because they did not need to do so. Since the rebels lacked the powerful cavalry forces maintained by European armies, and since only the cream of the rebel infantry was capable of maneuvering adroitly and aggressively, rebel field commanders often proved incapable of seizing the tactical initiative by, for instance, launching violent local counterattacks. Of course, the Continental Army did improve dramatically in quality over the course of the war. But even then the celerity with which the redcoats usually advanced, the extended frontage their battalions needed when drawn up two deep with open files, and the broken and/or wooded terrain that characterized most American battlefields all militated against the maintenance of a well-connected line of battle. As the journalist of the Hessian Feldjägerkorps put it in recounting the attack of Cornwallis’s division at Birmingham Meetinghouse at the battle of Brandywine, “We could not see the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry [on our right] because of the terrain, and while we received only a few orders, each commander had to act according to his own best judgement.”
Throughout the war then, it was common for British lines of battle to bulge and even to fragment entirely as their constituent battalions diverged from a single axis and rate of advance to engage whatever enemy units presented themselves. In fact this phenomenon was so marked at some engagements (such as Monmouth Courthouse) as to make the precise sequence of events almost incomprehensible for the historian. Captain John André’s account of the attack at Birmingham Meetinghouse illustrates vividly how the various corps conducted their maneuvers with only limited reference to those of their neighbors:
At about 4 o’clock the attack began near the [Birmingham] Meeting House. The Guards were formed upon the right, the British Grenadiers in the center, and the Light Infantry and Chasseurs [i.e., Jäger] on the left. The Hessian Grenadiers supported the Guards and British Grenadiers, and the 4th Brigade supported the Light Infantry and the left of the Grenadiers. The 3rd Brigade under [Major] General Grey was the Reserve. The Guards met with very little resistance and penetrated to the very height overlooking the 4-gun battery of the rebels at Chad’s Ford, just as General Knyphausen had crossed. The Hessian Grenadiers were to their left and not so far advanced. The British Grenadiers divided after passing Birmingham Meeting House, the 1st Battalion inclining to the right and the 2nd pushing about a mile beyond the village of Dilworth. The Light Infantry and Chasseurs inclined to the left, and by this means left an interval which was filled up by part of the 4th Brigade. The Light Infantry met with the chief resistance at a hill on which the rebels had four pieces of cannon. At the end of the day the 2nd Battalion [of] Grenadiers received a very heavy fire; the 64th Regiment, which was near them was engaged at the same time. The rebels were driven back by the superior fire of the troops, but these were too much exhausted to be able to charge or pursue. The Reserve moved centrically in the rear of the whole and inclined successively to the parts most engaged.
Howe’s Hessian aide de camp understated the case when he wrote that, after the Fourth Brigade moved forward to fill the gap between the grenadiers and light infantry, “The new front was somewhat more sloping.” In reality, by the close of the battle, the battalions had become quite widely separated. For example, as the journalist of the Hessian Feldjägerkorps put it, “as the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry had attacked so far to the right, we stood at a great distance from the army . . . until about seven o’clock in the evening.”
Where the fighting took place in thickly timbered country, it was plainly impossible to maintain a properly connected line during the advance. Thomas Anburey, who fought at Hubbardton as a “gentleman volunteer” with the grenadiers, later noted that “the woods were so thick, that little or no order could be observed in advancing upon the enemy, it being totally impossible to form a regular line.” Limited visibility was not the only factor that prevented the troops from maintaining a well-connected line of battle in woodland fighting, however. Some units inevitably encountered stiffer opposition than others, which consequently slowed their advance. As an anonymous Brunswick officer commented in the aftermath of the disaster at Bennington, “It is serious business fighting in wild woods and bushes, and one company may easily have better or worse luck than another.” A similar phenomenon was experienced at Guilford Courthouse, where, as Stedman later recalled: “The British line, being so much extended to the right and left in order to show a front equal to the enemy, was unavoidably broken into intervals in the pursuit of the first and second American lines; some parts of it being more advanced than others, in consequence of the different degrees of resistance that had been met with, or of other impediments arising from the thickness of the woods, and the inequality of the ground.” Lieutenant Thomas Saumarez, with the 23rd Regiment on the British left, highlighted the role of these “impediments” when he related that, during the advance against the second rebel line, “[n]ot being able to attack in front, the Fusiliers were obliged to take the ground to their left to get clear of the brushwood.”
Tarleton’s account of Guilford Courthouse conveys especially clearly how the British line became deranged as it fought its way through the woods. He recorded that, after Cornwallis’s line had routed the North Carolina militia and plunged into the dense woodland that blanketed most of the battlefield, “[t]he broken ground and the extent of the enemy’s front . . . occasioned the flanks to open from the center.” What Tarleton meant by this was that, because the units posted on the extremities of the first rebel line maintained the contest after the militia had flown, the brigades of Lieutenant Colonel Webster and Major General Leslie drifted to the left and right respectively, leaving a yawning gap in the British center. This gap was filled by the 2nd Battalion and the grenadier company of the Guards, which were ordered up from the reserve. But the integrity of the British line was not restored for long. As the battalions engaged and forced back the various units of Virginia militia in the second rebel line, the fact that some units encountered “less opposition and embarrassment than others” conspired with “[t]he thickness of the woods where these conflicts happened” and thereby “impeded the British infantry moving forwards in a well-connected line.” Consequently, some corps unknowingly outstripped the rest of the army and “arrived sooner in [the] presence of the Continentals.” First to break out of the woods, on the left, was Webster with his own 33rd Regiment, with which (supported by the Jäger and the Guards’ light company) he immediately attacked that part of the rebel third line that he could see across the open ground. Rebuffed in disarray, the mortally wounded Webster and his command remained in the woods “till he could hear of the progress of the King’s troops upon his right” — which effectively meant until the end of the action, when he “soon after connected his corps with the main body.” Next to emerge from the woods, in the center, was the 2nd Battalion of Guards, whose impulsive, unsupported attack the Continentals also bloodily repulsed. With the British left and center (if they could still be called such) now in confusion and the right stalled far behind in the woods, it was probably fortunate for Cornwallis that Greene now ordered a general withdrawal before the 2nd Battalion of the 71st Regiment and the 23rd Regiment came up. These had initially been part of Leslie’s and Webster’s brigades, but (in Tarleton’s words) “had inclined from the divisions on the right and left.”
In combat in America then, the field officers were compelled to display an unconventional degree of tactical initiative in directing their respective corps, as Major General Phillips admitted in general orders prior to his thrust against Petersburg in April 1781: “As the present movements will be made in a difficult country, it becomes necessary that officers leading columns and commanding corps, should use and exert the intelligence of their own minds, joined to the knowledge of the service, in times of an attack, when they cannot immediately receive the orders of the Brigadier General [i.e., Benedict Arnold] or Major General.” It is worth stressing once again that this kind of order would have been unusual in most conventional European campaigns.