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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Eighteenth-Century Warfare

A soldier's musket, if not exceedingly ill bored, will strike the figure of a man at 80 yards; it may even at 100; but a soldier must be very unfortunate indeed who shall be wounded...at 150 yards, provided his antagonist aims at him; I do maintain...no man was ever killed at 200 yards, by a common soldier's musket by the person who aimed at him.¹

- British Col. George Hanger, 1814

Imagine you are an American soldier at Saratoga marching with your regiment. Your commander declares, "Halt!" He shouts a string of orders, "Make Ready! Present! Give...Fire!" With a crash of thunder you and the other soldiers in your line deliver a volley at the British line, only 75 yards away. The British are slightly downhill so your volley passes harmlessly over their heads. While you quickly and precisely reload for the second volley, you can hear those same orders being echoed across the field by the British commanders. They fire with the same roaring fury that so recently came from your line. Hundreds of musket balls whistle by you. The noise and smoke throw all into confusion. You see men around you falling, some dead, others crying out in their suffering. Some of the Americans try to run while others stand fast; your volley is delayed. The British volley has done what it was intended to do. As your line wavers, the British fix bayonets and charge. You are commanded to reload. Through the dense smoke you see the British line 40 yards away, closing in on you, a mass of bayonet points intent on piercing through your line. Your commander repeats the words you want to hear, the orders preparing your line to fire another volley. You fire! The British line is shattered, the charge stops, and they retreat. You tend to the dead and wounded...and prepare. There will be more volleys and more charges until one side takes the field.

The nature of warfare in the 18th century was dictated by the characteristics of its principal weapons. Most troops used the musket, a smooth bore firearm. The inside of the gun's barrel was smooth as opposed to grooved, as in the case of a rifle. Its ammunition was a loose fitting lead ball. These two characteristics combined to make the musket very inaccurate. For example, on June 2, 1777, when Burgoyne approached Fort Ticonderoga, 3,000 American soldiers manned the outworks. As a British detachment approached the works, a lone British soldier advanced ahead of the lines. At the distance of 100 yards, the order to fire was issued to the Americans and every soldier discharged his weapon. When the smoke of the 3,000 shots cleared, two British soldiers had been wounded. The muskets had done almost no damage to the British line.²

To compensate for the musket's lack of accuracy, commanders deployed troops on open fields in lines that would halt within 100 yards of each other. Troops stood shoulder to shoulder and fired together in a "volley." By doing so they had a better chance of hitting the enemy. Speed was essential to 18th-century soldiers because the more quickly a volley could be fired, the better the chance that the enemy would break and run without returning fire. A good regiment could load, fire, and reload 3 times in a minute. Opponents would exchange volleys until one side broke and ran or until a bayonet charge ended the volleying with hand-to-hand fighting.

At Saratoga, the disciplined units of the Continental Army fought a traditional European battle. It is possible that the British broke with tradition at Saratoga, advancing in open order (one arm's length apart) rather than shoulder-to-shoulder. This formation would have made movement through the woods easier, enabling the troops to cover more ground with fewer men. However, it would also have spread the volley out, possibly reducing its effectiveness.

In addition to traditional technique, there was also skirmish fighting. Skirmishers, called "light troops," were marksmen armed with muskets or rifles. The rifle used tight-fitting balls and had a spiral groove cut in the barrel that made it very accurate over a longer distance. Because rifles took a long time to produce and were expensive, very few soldiers were armed with this weapon. Rifles had other disadvantages. A good rifleman could fire only once every 1 to 2 minutes. Furthermore, rifles could not take bayonets making them useless in hand-to-hand fighting.

Both armies used light troops. While in some instances the British made better use of them, at Saratoga the Americans used their riflemen to great effect. American marksmen aimed at gunners, keeping the British cannons quiet, and at officers of infantry, disrupting command and communications on the British lines.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What style of warfare did the American army use at Saratoga, frontier or traditional European?

2. Compare the musket to the rifle and describe the advantages and disadvantages of each.

3. Why do you think soldiers would drill and practice for hours on loading and firing muskets?

4. What were the advantages and disadvantages of open order fighting? Why might the British have adopted this technique at Saratoga?

¹ Anthony Darling, Redcoat and Brown Bess (Bloomfield, Ontario: Museum Restoration Service, 1971 ), 19.
² John Luzader,
Decision on the Hudson (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975), 20-21.

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