The End Of Formalized Warfare


Cavalry, the third of the combat arms and once the mistress of warfare, had been relegated to a secondary place by the Sixteenth Century. In a complete reversal from the shock tactics employed by the heavily armed knights of the Middle Ages, the horsemen in their zeal to employ firearms came more and more to rely on missile action. Riding in rank toward the enemy’s line to pike point, they fired their pistols, wheeled, made way for the next rank, and then rode off to re-form. Gustavus quickly put a stop to this maneuver, called the “caracole,” by requiring his cavalry to fire first and then charge home with saber, thus giving it the full shock effect of an earlier day.

Warfare in Europe by the middle of the Seventeenth Century was a formal business conducted with professional armies, governed by detailed and precise rules, and fought in fixed formations. Battles were built around a rigid line of infantry made up of pikemen and musketeers, formed in advance in geometric pattern according to protocol and a complicated system of mathematics. This formation consisted of six to eight ranks and was rigid and unmaneuverable. It was made more so by the immobile artillery that was set along the line to support the infantry but once in place could be moved only with great difficulty. Cavalry remained on the flanks to scout and, at the critical moment, add the weight of its charge to the battle.

The key to victory was discipline. The whole purpose of the advance was to bring the line within effective range of the enemy so that the musketeer could do his work. The number of ranks was based on the time required to reload, so that the first rank after firing could march to the rear and ready its weapons. Thus, the individual elements of the rigid line were constantly in motion. Accuracy was unimportant—only ability to load and fire under all circumstances mattered. The endless discipline of training on the parade ground was designed to produce a mechanical perfection of the physical motions required to maintain a straight line and to load the musket; that was the obsession of the infantry. Failure meant a ragged volley or a broken line, either of which could lead to defeat.

Under such a system of warfare and with the weapons of that day battles could be fought only under the most favorable conditions of weather and terrain. No commander whose men were armed with the matchlock could hope to attack in the rain or to keep his rigid and unwieldy line intact while marching over a broken and hilly countryside. He looked rather for large, level stretches, which were plentiful in Europe.

In the wilderness of North America the settler from the Old World would not find many areas suitable for warfare in the traditional style. Moreover, the Indians neither knew the rules nor cared to learn them. They lived in fortified villages surrounded by a stockade constructed of logs. Still in the neolithic stage, they fashioned their weapons of stone, horn, or hardwood. For shock action and fighting at close quarters they used the tomahawk and the knife. As missile weapons, they placed chief reliance on the bow and flint-tipped arrow. For forest warfare, the Indian bow was superior in some respects to the colonial matchlock. It was light, practically silent, could be used in all weather, and, in the hands of a skilled warrior, was an extremely accurate weapon with a rapid rate of fire.

Indian tactics were admirably suited to the forest. Formations were open and organization loose. Each warrior operated largely on his own, fighting from the cover of trees and utilizing skillfully his knowledge of the terrain and his ability to conceal his presence. Emphasis was placed on swift movement and surprise, pitched battle avoided whenever possible. If victory could be won by stealth, ambush, deceit, or treachery, the Indian did not hesitate to use such practices.

Once engaged he was a fierce fighter, for by his code valor and heroism were outstanding virtues and death in battle the best of all possible deaths. Rarely were prisoners of war taken in Indian battles, and torture was an accepted custom, governed by code. To die under torture without a cry of pain was to achieve greatness.

Faced with such a foe and with these informal tactics, the first settlers quickly realized that the formal and rigid methods they had brought with them from Europe would be unavailing. The enemy simply would not fight “openly in ye feeld,” as Captain Underhill of Connecticut learned when he “chose to beat up the drum and bid them to battle” while marching his men forward with colors flying. “But none,” he complained, “would come near us.”

Even if the red man had not already been accustomed to fight from cover, he would have done so quickly after his first encounters with the settlers. Ineffective as the traditional advance of the infantry line was against him, the Indian could not easily dismiss the fire that came from that line. Moreover, his arrows had no effect on the metal armor worn by the early settlers, or even on the heavy leather coats used later. Forty musketeers, wrote Francis Higginson of Massachusetts Bay, could drive 500 “savages” from the field.