Win, Loose, or Draw?

By Mark Tully

We've all heard the story -- during the American Revolution the British army was stupid and stood in rows and made easy targets for the cunning farmers who picked them off with their Kentucky rifles. Well, WE know this was not the case at all, but how do we convince our audience?

At a recent event a Visitor asked me what the average casualties were in any given engagement during the American Revolution. I told him the percentages were very low compared to the American Civil War, which seemed to satisfy him and he went away. But, being one who dwells on such things, the minute I returned home I started digging through my books.

I compiled a side-by-side comparison of the wins, losses and casualty percentages of the more renowned battles of the American Revolution, which is shown below. I have only included the better-known engagements, so please forgive me if I failed to include your favorite skirmish.1

To better illustrate the effectiveness of 18th-century firepower, only the numbers actually engaged in battle are shown and figures do not include those captured in the list of casualties (except Saratoga where I didn't have an accurate breakdown). To make it as clear as possible all percentages have been rounded up to the nearest whole number.

It is interesting to note that in a war that lasted about seven years or 2,555 days. There were a total of 83 major engagements, therefore only 3.5% of a soldiers time was actually spent engaged in battle!

One more interesting point -- the British were running out of ammunition on their retreat from Concord. If each British soldier had his full compliment of 60 rounds, and each rebel engaged in the battle got off an average of only two shots, that means there were somewhere near 115,526 shots exchanged with only 337 total casualties --so only about one-quarter of one percent of the bullets fired actually found their mark! (So much for the marksmanship of the average militiaman!)

Note that the AVERAGE casualty rate of battles in the American Revolution was only about 13% killed or wounded. This means that for every 100 soldiers engaged (about the numbers that field for a medium-sized NWTA event) there were only about 13 or 14 casualties -- both killed and wounded -- on each side. Note too that there were NO major battles or skirmishes where one side or the other was totally wiped out to the last man (there were a few "massacres" where most of the losing side were bayoneted to death, but none where all were killed exclusively by musket fire).

So, from the data provided here, to demonstrate an accurate portrayal of an 18th-century skirmish, we need to consider taking FEWER casualties. The "losing" side should be defeated by being outmaneuvered or overwhelmed by sheer numbers. This is sometimes difficult to do. If the "winning" side is under strength -- as is often the case -- how do they convincingly achieve victory? Here are a few ideas:

* ARTILLERY. Rather than start the battle demonstration with a cannonade, the victors could hold it in reserve. The losing side could then retire from the field in the face of the artillery barrage. They would not necessarily have to take heavy casualties from the artillery, just leave the field. A rear guard could cover the retreat and be captured as the enemy swarms over the field.

* LOSS OF MORAL. After receiving a few particularly crisp volleys, part of the losing side could break and run, thereby evening the odds to allow for a more convincing victory by an under-strength attacking force. We could also have one of our wily riflemen "pick off" an officer or two to bring about a rout.

* CASUALTIES. Even though the total number of dead and wounded were typically quite low, a losing force can further deplete their numbers by tending to their wounded during the action. For example, if there are 14 "wounded" on the field, the commanding officer can detach pairs of soldiers to carry each one to the rear. This would effectively take and additional 28 men out of the line. Coupled with the loss of moral mentioned above, this scenario could cause a line to collapse rather quickly.

* MANEUVERS. A flanking force could be detached by the attackers to harass the enemy's flank (the flankers should deploy close to the ropeline where the crowd can see what is going on). The loser's wing would then fall back to keep from being enfiladed, and the newly-exposed flank would follow suit, and so on down the line -- giving the defenders a reason to fall back despite superior numbers. Of course, the flanking maneuver needs to be planned in advance and the field commanders from BOTH sides need to be made aware of it -- otherwise it will likely go unnoticed.

* DEPLETION OF AMMUNITION. The battle of Germantown is a classic example of this scenario. At the very crux of the battle, the Continentals began running low on ammunition. The soldier's cries for more rounds to be brought up alerted the enemy to their plight, and caused them to make the final push that decided the day. We could employ the same tactic, even going so far as to detach part of the force to run and fetch the "ammunition cart". In this particular scenario, the public MUST be made aware that the ammunition is running low, and we could really suck the Visitors in to the urgency of the situation by asking THEM to go fetch the ammunition cart -- which of course doesn't really exist, subsequently they won't be able to find it, which in turn makes the Visitors responsible for losing the battle!

I'm sure that there are many other tactical scenarios we could use -- give it some thought! If you think of any, discuss them with your field commanders to work out the details and give it a try!

One last point. Very few of the battles during the American Revolution ended with a surrender -- Trenton, Fort Washington, Saratoga and Yorktown being the most obvious exceptions. There were instances where a large portion of the defeated force was forced to surrender -- at Breed's Hill, and Long Island for example -- but most often they simply left the field. This is not to say we should NEVER end a battle demonstration with a surrender, but the technique should be used sparingly. Rather than ending the demonstration, surrender negotiations could be used as a "feint" to allow the troops to reform, reinforcements to come up or just to offer something different. Surrender negotiations can also be used as a short break in the action so we can take on water or clarify what we're supposed to do next before the fighting re-commences.


1) Engaged and Casualty figures come from Ward's The War of the Revolution and Cullen, Joseph P., The Concise History of the American Revolution, Stackpole books, 1972.


Continentals Engaged
Killed &

Crown Forces
Killed &


Lexington & Concord3763903%180024713% Continentals
Bunker (Breed's) Hill 200041121%2400105444% Crown
Long Island 3500 1400 40% 17000 377.2% Crown
Kip's Bay 900 60 7% 4,000+ 12 .25% Crown
Harlem Heights 2,000 1307% 5,000 171 4% Crown
White Plains 1,600 154 10% 4,000 313 8% Crown
Fort Washington 2,900 149 5% 8,000 452 6% Crown
Trenton 2,4004 .2% 1,400 114 8% Continentals
Princeton 4,000105 3% 1,200 210 18% Continentals
Oriskany 860 200 23% 1,000 150 15% Crown
Bennington 2,33080 4% 1,442 207 15% Continentals
Brandywine 11,000 950 9% 12,500 570 5% Crown
Saratoga 3,000 283 9% 3,000 600 20% Continentals
Paoli 1,500 150 10% 900(?) 9 1%(?) Crown
Germantown 11,000 673 6% 9,000 520 6% Crown
Bemis Heights9,200 200 3% 2,200 426 19% Continentals
Monmouth 11,000 479 5% 9,500 1215 13% Draw
Savanna 850 83 10% 3,500 13 .5% Crown
Paulus Hook 300 5 2% 250 50 20% Continentals
Camden 3,052 1,050 34% 2,239 313 14% Crown
Cowpens 1,025 72 7% 1,100 329 30% Continentals
Guilford Courthouse 4,400 261 6% 1,900 53 28% Crown
Hobkirk's Hill 1,551 134 9% 900 208 22% Crown
Eutaw Springs 2,200 514 23% 2,000 436 22% Draw
Yorktown 9,500 88 .75% 8,885 526 6% Continentals

For a Chronology of major events in the war for American Independence, check here.