Sunday, July 31, 2005
The Myth of the American Minuteman
While I'm talking history here, there's another myth that seems beloved by both high school history books and the right wingnut fringe: the myth of the American Minuteman. The myth goes like thus: The American Revolution was won by militia who mustered whenever the British soldiers came near, then went home afterwards. These militia defeated the British by firing from behind trees instead of by marching in easy-target columns like the British.
The reality was a bit more complex. First of all, the majority of the militia were not armed with useful military weapons. The most common weapons owned by militiamen were
fowling pieces and flintlock rifles (common only on the frontiers). Fowling pieces were basically single-shot muzzle-loading shotguns, not designed to fire ball rounds but it was possible to use them to do so (though they were horrifically inaccurate if you did so). Flintlock rifles were accurate in the hands of a trained sniper (which most Colonials were *not*, they rarely hunted, instead relying on farming and barnyard animals for their food) but took a very long time to load, perhaps two minutes in a combat situation. Furthermore, neither of these allowed fixing a bayonet. Since the slow rate of fire meant that hand-to-hand combat was a near certainty, soldiers with military-grade weapons capable of fixing a bayonet had an enormous advantage.
The other issue is with those military grade weapons. These were smoothbore muskets. At 100 yards, you were lucky to hit within six feet of what you were aiming at. However, they made up for this lack of accuracy with rate of fire. A well-trained musketman could let fly one round every 15 seconds. Thus the proper use of musketmen was to stand them in ranks facing the enemy, and have each rank take turns letting lead fly. The goal was to keep so much lead in the air that the enemy had to keep his head down until you were amongst his ranks with your bayonets, at which point the enemy became sashimi.
The reality was that the Battle of Long Island showed George Washington that militia were basically useless against well trained musketmen. The militia fired their one shot, then ran, and never quit running because when you have people with long knives stuck on the ends of their muskets running after you getting ready to give you an unwanted proctology exam, and you have no long knife of your own, well... Washington barely got off the island with his own life, and that was only because the British troops weren't exactly marathon runners (they'd been on ships for a long voyage over the ocean, after all) and were loaded down with gear and ammo, while the American militia men threw down all their gear and ammo and ran for their lives.
From thence onward, militia were only used as skirmishers and snipers. The rest of the fighting was basically done by professional soldiers fighting in ranks with military-grade weapons (including bayonets). Indeed, there was only three brigades of Virginia militiamen amongst the two armies (French and American) that cornered Cornwallis at Yorktown, and they were employed primarily as snipers, where their ability to pick off British officers from long distance made them valuable but their inability to fire rapidly meant little absolute firepower. In addition, since the Pennsylvania flintlocks were basically modifications of a German Jaegar rifle, as the German mercenaries became more widely used in the American conflict any "sniper gap" in favor of the Americans was gone -- the German snipers were every bit as good as the Americans.
In the end, the majority of the American Revolution was fought with professional soldiers, and was won because the expense of shipping and provisioning an enormous army overseas (the British eventually had over 60,000 soldiers in North America as part of the effort to put down the revolution) was unsustainable given the limits of the British tax system and the lack of a draft for replenishing British manpower. The militia were basically irrelevant to the outcome -- far more important were the "Sons of Liberty", a terrorist organization which terrorized farmers and merchants into not selling goods to the British thus forcing the British to supply their forces via long expensive overseas supply lines (albeit the militia helped in this effort by preventing the British from sending out foraging parties to simply steal the goods). After the battle of Lexington and Concord, which was a disaster for the British primarily because of poor discipline and poor tactics on their part (doctrine said that if the enemy was sniping at you from behind the trees, the proper thing to do was for your skirmishers to fix bayonets and go turn him into sashimi, but the British had left their skirmishers at home that day) the only other battle where militia were important was Cowpens, where the militia won the day only because of the fog of war, not because of their military firepower. Basically, Morgan's regulars had thought they'd received an order to retreat, the British regulars gave chase running right by the militia who had previously retreated to the side in order to reload, then Morgan got his soldiers turned around and shooting again at the same time that the militia decided to chime in from the side and rear of the British, and the British, under the delusion they were beset on all sides by regulars who could kill them, largely surrendered -- although the militia, lacking bayonets, actually could have been swiftly chopped down by the British if the British had but known that the soldiers behind that huge cloud of smoke on their flanks were militia rather than regulars.
But the myth of the Minuteman still lives on, even though it *is* a myth. It's unclear why this is so. Perhaps it is like a lot of other myths that Americans cherish not because they're true, but because they make you feel good to be an American. In the end, feeling good about yourself, not truth, appears to be most important to the majority of Americans. The cult of self esteem is not a recent invention... indeed, the whole deal about George Washington and the Cherry Tree originated in 1806 via a hagiography by Parson Mason Locke Weems, sort of a combination of the Judith Miller, Karl Rove, and Pat Robertson of his era. Making Americans feel good about their leaders and their national exceptionalism seems to have been a primary goal of American propagandists from day one of this nation's existence.
The more things change, in other words...
- Badtux the History Penguin
Posted by: BadTux / 7/31/2005 09:42:00 PM
I think the myth continues because the Minutemen epitomized the American mindset, regular folks willing to stand up for their rights and their land.
# posted by Fixer : 1/8/05 2:53 AM
I've often wondered what the history books will say years from now about the Iraq war.
# posted by Desi : 1/8/05 5:06 AM
I figured the Minuteman legacy was a myth, but until now, I never had the details to back my belief up. Thanks for filling in so many blanks...
# posted by Mimus Pauly : 1/8/05 7:03 AM
One of my favorite "myths" is the Battle of New Orleans. What they don't tell you in the textbooks is that there were two battles that day, one on each side of the river. America only won on one side of the Mississippi. On the other side, the British not only one, but they recaptured a cannon that America captured during the American Revolution.
# posted by n. mallory : 1/8/05 8:22 AM
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