Major Adrienne Harrison, Professor of American History at West Point, discusses Revolutionary War topics including George Washington’s unorthodox tactics and why Long Island was an ideal place to start a spy ring.
Q: The Americans didn’t have a unified military. Did this push them to become more creative and unconventional with their tactics against the British?
A: I think that’s definitely true in the case of George Washington. His challenge was, as a commander, to bring together people from local militia units who had no sense of belonging to a larger-sized army. It forced him to be a non-conventional leader in terms of tactics. For example, he tried to fight a conventional, European-style war in New York, but New York City was a horrible place to defend. When he lost badly on Long Island, he was lucky that the British general, Howe, opted not to finish him off on the day of the battle. Eighteenth-century military convention stated that if you were the clear loser on the battlefield, you waited until the next day for daylight to come so you could surrender with honor. Washington knew that if he waited until the next day, that was it, the revolution was over. So he defied convention and had his entire army move in the middle of the night from Brooklyn to Manhattan. He made running away in the middle of the night and living to fight another day an art form, so to speak.
Q: What are some other unorthodox strategies did Washington use during the Revolutionary War?
A: In European warfare, not only did you fight large-scale battles on an open battlefield and pitch back and forth until somebody gave in, but you fought to either completely capture the enemy army or capture their capital. If you captured the capital city, that’s it, the war’s over. So Washington kept his army alive by keeping it just a little bit out of reach, and the Congress took a cue from that: When the British closed in on Philadelphia, the Continental Congress ran away. So when the British captured Philadelphia, it was a windfall for them in some ways, but it didn’t end the war. The British could not find a center of gravity to capture that would be the definitive, “Okay, the Americans know that they’re defeated and this is the end.”
Q: What were some tactics used to recruit and identify potential rebel spies?
A: Washington surrounded himself with a military family of aides-de-camp and subordinate officers, and those officers had contacts within the local areas where they were from. The aides were instrumental in acting on Washington’s behalf and reaching out to people that they knew and could trust. You had to be able to test people’s loyalty, and the best way to do that was if you knew them. Trust was a very important factor, especially because Washington couldn’t always consistently pay these guys. You needed loyalty to make sure you didn’t get a spy who would become disgruntled over the fact that he had taken a lot of risks and then wasn’t being justly rewarded.
Q: What was the role of privateers during the war?
A: The United States, being the fledgling nation that it was, didn’t have a navy to speak of. So just as there were people who were willing to be these irregular soldiers on the ground, you had sailors who were willing to be a kind of irregular navy. It wasn’t a way to defeat the British — they were never going to beat them that way — but it was a good way to annoy them and distract them and show the British that it’s not going to be as easy to defeat them as they think.
Q: The Americans led attacks during winter. Why was this considered unconventional?
A: You did not fight in the winter in European battle terms. It just didn’t make sense. Movement was slow, if not impossible. It’s hard to find enough fodder for horses to eat. Food supplies were scarce. The most famous example of Washington defying that convention was in 1776 on Christmas when he decided to launch an attack on the Hessian garrison at Trenton. He followed it up with another attack on the college town of Princeton. Very small victories in military strategic terms, but for the Americans it was an ideological victory.
A: New York offered several advantages for the British. It was a large natural seaport that was capable of housing their navy for the winter. There were not too many ports — once they lost Boston, you really only had New York and Charleston. And it was a largely loyalist population that would house the British army and supply them whenever possible. Also, the Hudson River running up through New York was seen as a key communications avenue and also as something that was important for the British to control. They saw New England as the problem: If you could cut them off, then the rest of the colonies would fall back in line.
Q: What was the strategic significance of the Connecticut coastline?
A: When it became harder to get black market goods in and out of New York City, Connecticut became a good place for smuggling. The non-importation agreements had deprived the Americans of the finished products that they liked and also needed, so Connecticut’s coastal towns and seaports were a hotbed for smugglers to meet. If you were British and wanted to disrupt the Americans’ efforts a little bit, concentrating on Connecticut made sense.
Q: What made Long Island an ideal place for Washington to start a spy ring?
A: Long Island, with its farms, was very instrumental in supplying the British with the food they needed. It wouldn’t have looked odd for somebody to be going back and forth between Long Island and Manhattan if he was delivering or selling produce. Then he could bring information back to the patriot spy strongholds on Long Island.