Special Operations during the American Revolution

by Robert L. Tonsetic
Casemate, 2013


Anyone with a passing interest in the American War of Independence will know that the nature of that conflict differed from conventional warfare in many ways. As Robert Tonsetic points out in Special Operations during the American Revolution, this was a war where raids and ambushes were common, and speed, mobility, and surprise directed against the static, linear European tactical model proved very successful. This, he continues, was the way of war that emerged from the colonial conflicts between settlers and Native-Americans that were a breeding ground for “special operations”. Indeed, Tonsetic argues that the Pequot War of 1637 was a “Total War” and a testing ground for special operations. By the time of the French-Indian War of the 1750s, irregular units such as Rogers Rangers were conducting “deep reconnaissance” and “special operations raids against distant targets behind enemy lines”. When the Revolution rolled around, special operations were part of the fabric of continental warfare. Having established his thesis, Tonsetic leads his readers through several case-studies of special operations.

Special operations began almost as soon as the war began with the raid by Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys and Benedict Arnold on Fort Ticonderoga. According to Tonsetic, this raid “adhered to many of the principles of modern-day special operations” and “demonstrated the value of paramilitary forces”. It should be noted, however, that the attackers outnumbered the defenders who were surprised in their beds; that Allen was insubordinate to Arnold and was subsequently not re-elected to command his regiment; and then he was finally captured the following year while leading another raid on a better prepared British garrison near Montreal. Tonsetic’s second case-study is a “seminal event in the history of special operations” when the fledgling Continental navy landed newly raised marines on New Providence. After a brief skirmish against a weak garrison, the marines stormed Nassau, though the British governor had skipped town with the gunpowder the marines were supposed to capture. Therefore, this was another failure wrapped up in the stars-and-stripes and deemed a success. The reconnaissance aspect of special operations is highlighted by the formation of Knowlton’s Rangers who fought one battle, which they lost, and in doing so lost their namesake commander, and Whitcomb’s Rangers who proved more successful patrolling the northern wilderness. Returning to the sea, Tonsetic narrates the story of John Paul Jones’ raid on Whitehaven in England, which by all accounts was a fiasco but a moral victory for the Americans. The author continues with two general chapters on partisan warfare in the northern and southern theatres of the Revolutionary War in which Tonsetic elevates the activities of militia units to the level of special operations but curiously only on the American side. After a puzzling eighteen-page description of the Battle of King’s Mountain, Tonsetic loads his readers onto whaleboats for destructive raids on British positions on Long Island. Whether they fit the description of special operations, however, remains open to question. Tonsetic concludes his overview of special operations with George Rogers Clark’s march to Vincennes, which successfully detached the northwest theatre from British control. In his Epilogue, Tonsetic argues that the lessons from special operations in the Revolutionary War have been incorporated into modern doctrine and appeals for standing special operations forces to remain part of the US Armed Forces.

Wargamers might find some inspiration from Tonsetic’s collection of revolution case-studies with most fitting quite nicely into an evening of Muskets & Tomahawks. As a work of history, however, Special Operations during the American Revolution is seriously flawed. This reminded me of James Pickett Jones’ Yankee Blitzkrieg, where the whole concept is anachronistic and teleological: modern definitions are sprinkled throughout and attached to historical figures, most of whom would have no idea what they mean. Readers interested in this form of warfare and how it developed would be much better served with Patrick Malone’s excellent The Skulking Way of War. Moreover, Tonsetic’s biased ‘Patriot’ agenda detracts significantly from his credibility as a military historian, at least anywhere outside of the United States of America, and unless you enjoy reading hagiographies you will find these stories told elsewhere, and better.


Reviewed by Neil Smith