Our Insurgency: From Concord to Bunker Hill

Granger Collection
‘Bunkers Hill or America’s Head Dress’; an English satirical engraving on the narrow British victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill, 1776

A recent publication by the United States Army provides surprising insight into the origins of the American Revolution. Field Service Manual 3-24, released in 2006 and apparently the brainchild of General David Petraeus, explains how in the future the military might devise more effective counterinsurgency strategies. Successful counterinsurgency operations, of course, require an informed grasp of the political and cultural wellsprings of insurgency. It is not an easy task. As the report states, “every insurgency is contextual and presents its own set of challenges.” But whatever the differences may be, we learn that all insurgencies “use variations of standard themes and adhere to elements of a recognizable revolutionary campaign plan.”

Although defeating these movements requires “contemporary experiences,” it is also wise to draw upon “historical studies.” The manual mentions in passing the French Revolution but, predictably, most examples of insurgencies come from more modern times. One common form of insurgency involves “struggles for independence against colonial powers.” In such cases—as in other types of insurgencies—it is a good idea for military planners to study how “ideology and religion” energize resistance to established regimes. The use of overwhelming force seldom achieves positive results. “Though firmness by security forces is often necessary to establish a secure environment,” the Manual explains, “a government that exceeds accepted local norms and abuses its people or is tyrannical generates resistance to its rule.”

General Thomas Gage, the officer dispatched to Boston in 1774 to restore British authority in New England, confronted an almost textbook case of insurgency. His colleague General Henry Clinton, who arrived in America just in time to participate in the Battle of Bunker Hill, was horrified to discover that “insurgents had seized every avenue from the surrounding country.” He confessed that while the Americans were “badly armed…without discipline or subordination,” they still managed to organize a force “respectable for its numbers and the enthusiasm by which they were actuated.” Gage never overcame the shock of fighting an enemy that employed what today might be called guerrilla tactics. The Americans, he observed,

deriving confidence from impunity, have added insult to outrage; have repeatedly fired upon the King’s ships and subjects, with cannon and small arms, have possessed the roads, and other communications by which the town of Boston was supplied with provisions.

He was unprepared to counter people who “make daily and indiscriminate invasions upon private property, and with a wantonness of cruelty…carry depredation and distress wherever they turn their steps.”

Whatever terminology military figures such as Clinton may have used to describe the Americans who cut off Boston from the rest of New England, historians of the Revolution have been reluctant to call them insurgents. Like other respected scholars of the period, Nathaniel Philbrick, in his new book,…

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