One of the common cultural images of the American Revolution involves lines of men standing fifty yards apart and trading volleys. To the modern observer, one of the first questions that comes to mind is: “Why?” Why would people stand there like that? Well, as usual, it’s complicated.
First of all, there is the question of firepower. A well-trained Eighteenth Century musketeer could get off roughly four shots per minute, with an effective range of less than one hundred yards. Skilled commanders would hold their fire the enemy was within fifty yards (“…until you see the whites of their eyes!”), to maximize the impact of the first volley. That first volley was especially critical because black powder weapons belched out great quantities of smoke, obscuring the target. Furthermore, muskets quickly fouled and had delicate mechanisms (a lost or broken flint immediately turned a firearm into a club), so it was a case of diminishing returns.
It was also necessary to keep soldiers under control. When placing so many soldiers in such close proximity, with loaded firearms, for safety’s sake it was critical to control who fired when. Otherwise, “friendly fire” and accidental shootings would have been even more common than they already were.
The threat of cavalry attack also demanded tight formations. Large cavalry formations could quickly close the distance to enemy troops and use their swords and shock effect to break up infantry units. To repel cavalry charges infantry units learned to form tight, three-deep squares, using musketry and bayonets to keep the horsemen at bay.
Considering these factors, there really was no other option than to keep the men close. The objective in combat is to impose one’s will on the enemy, and with black powder muskets the only way to generate enough firepower to physically stop a body of enemy troops from doing something was to form up tightly, get close, and “pour it on.” In most cases a high proportion of troops under fire from enemy musketry survived, although there were cases when units taken by surprise or poorly handled were annihilated. (Teaser: in my upcoming novel, A Nest of Hornets, a British grenadier company meets this fate at the Battle of Spanktown).
Having said all that, combat in North America was different from combat in Europe. In the Americas distances were greater, troops less numerous, the ground more broken, and cavalry less prevalent. These factors forced commanders on both sides to adapt their tactics: there is compelling evidence that units on both sides adopted open formations, with up to a yard between soldiers, and also employed double, rather than triple lines. These adaptations made formations less vulnerable to incoming fire and enabled them to cover more ground. At Bunker (Breed’s) Hill in 1775, for example, the British used tight formations and attempted to trade volleys with the American militia, who fought from behind breastworks. As a result they suffered staggering casualties. They also learned to rely on bayonet charges. Their third attack at Bunker Hill was carried out with bayonets only, and succeeded. The British took this lesson to heart.
Starting with the Battle of Long Island the standard British tactics involved approaching to just within rifle range of American units and then rapidly closing the distance (often at a jog) until they could deliver a bayonet charge. This tactic served them well until the Continental Army gained enough experience and training to meet the British in the open field on something approaching equal terms. At Saratoga (1777) and Monmouth (1778) the Continentals proved that the British could no longer rely on the bayonet to always carry the day. But it would take three more years of bitter fighting until the Continentals and their French allies decisively proved the futility of the British cause at Yorktown.