Bayonets

“…with zeal and with bayonets only, it was resolved to follow Greene’s army to the end of the world.” –Brigadier General Charles O’Hara, Commander of the Brigade of Guards, 1781.

In the combat zones of the 21st Century one can find a dizzying array of weaponry, from ballistic missiles to barrel bombs, assault rifles to rocket launchers, hand grenades to IEDs, drones to chemical agents. If you were to inspect the kit of a soldier in any one of the many conflicts scattered around the world, chances are that in the midst of the GPS units, radios, and high-capacity magazines you will find a relic from an earlier time: the bayonet.

The bayonet had its origin in the early days of firearms. Early muzzle-loading weapons were slow to fire and unreliable. Infantry formations in those days often consisted of musketeers and pikemen: the pikemen, wielding their long spears, would keep enemy infantry or cavalry from overrunning the musketeers after the first volley. While firearms technology improved, the musket’s rate of fire remained too low to prevent a determined enemy from closing to within arm’s reach. “If only there was a way to turn those long, sturdy muskets into spears!” Enter the bayonet.

Early bayonets had a plug the owner shoved in the muzzle of his firearm, making the weapon incapable of firing until the soldier could spend some quality time getting it out. The technology evolved to include rings and sockets. By the time of the American Revolution the state of the art bayonet had a socket to secure it securely to the muzzle of the firearm, and business end consisting of a spike-like blade, around a foot-and-a-half long. The weapon could be loaded and fired with bayonet fixed, although it tended to get in the way of loading, slowing the process down slightly.

Throughout history soldiers have found many household uses for the bayonet: tent peg, candlestick holder, cooking spit, probe (I have personally used a bayonet to search the occasional haystack-it can be used to search for landmines, but that is not recommended), etc. While it can be helpful around camp, the bayonet is, at its heart, a weapon. It arguably reached its zenith as a weapon of war during the American War for Independence.

The British forces in American were quick to take stock of their enemy once the war broke out. American troops, especially militia, were handy with firearms. Given a prepared defensive position, such as the breastwork on Breed’s Hill in the battle that became known as Bunker Hill, the Americans would stand their ground and pour devastating volleys into the best troops the British could muster. They were not so tenacious, however, when faced with the bayonet’s “cold steel.” Many of the American troops, particularly the militia, finished their own firearms, which they used for hunting and other household chores; hunting weapons did not come with bayonets. Thus, few of the militiamen on Breed’s Hill were so equipped; when American ammunition ran low, the British surged forward, leading with the tips of their bayonets, and the Americans ran for it. That lesson was certainly not lost on the British.

Battle_of_bunker_hill_by_percy_moran

 

After the evacuation of Boston the British retrained and adjusted their tactics in response to the lessons of 1775. Starting in the summer of 1776 the British would attack in open order, with space between men. They would not stop to trade volleys with the Americans. Instead, the British infantry would minimize its exposure to American fire by jogging or running toward the American positions. They might stop once to fire a single volley, but then would charge in with bayonets. This played out in the Battle of Long Island with several American positions being quickly overwhelmed by British and Hessian bayonet charges.

Needless to say, this presented quite a problem for the Americans. The solution involved organization, logistics, training, and leadership.

George Washington quickly realized that the militia was a “broken reed,” and that he would have to rely on a long-service, regular army along European lines. This regular, “Continental” Army, would be as uniformly equipped as possible; ideally each regiment would be equipped with a single model of military-grade musket, each with a bayonet. Once equipped, troops were trained in bayonet combat, giving them the confidence to face down their adversaries. The final ingredient was tactical leaders who knew how and when to employ the cold steel.

Assault_on_Redoubt_10_at_YorktownThese reforms paid dividends. In the skirmish at Drake’s Farm, in February, 1777, (retold in my book A Nest of Hornets)Colonel Charles Scott and his 5th Regiment of Virginia Continentals were ambushed by a British Brigade.  Rather than stand fast and allow his men to be pounded by artillery and encircled by enemy infantry, Colonel Scott led his men in a bayonet charge that broke a British grenadier battalion. This threw his enemy into confusion and bought Scott time to conduct a fighting withdrawal.  At Saratoga, in September and October, 1777, Continental brigades not only held their ground against British regulars, but also launched several successful bayonet charges (A Constant Thunder). At Cowpens, in January, 1781, Brigadier General Daniel Morgan took advantage of British aggressiveness: he had his men feign retreat, and then turn, fire, and launch a bayonet charge against the exhausted British, winning the day and effectively destroying the entire British force. In the climactic act of the war, at Yorktown, In October, 1781, Redoubts 9 and 10 were carried by Franco-American nighttime bayonet charges.

When the British landed on Long Island in the summer of 1776, they were convinced that they prod the Americans back into obedience to the Crown with the tips of their bayonets. Five long years later, the drama would culminate with French and American bayonets hemming in a British army at Yorktown. In future American wars the bayonet would be put to use: it would be wielded to great effect at places like Chapultepec, Little Round Top, the Argonne forest, and Iwo Jima. But perhaps never before or since the American Revolution were a war and a weapon so inextricably linked.

 

Robert Krenzel Facebook Author Page:  https://www.facebook.com/RobertKrenzelAuthor/

Gideon Hawke Novels Facebook Page: https://m.facebook.com/GideonHawkeNovels/

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