George Washington's Commandos: Special Ops During the American Revolution

October 30, 2014 Topic: HistoryMilitary StrategyDefense Region: United States

George Washington's Commandos: Special Ops During the American Revolution

 "Washington didn't have SEAL Team 6. But he made good use of what he had."


When most of us think of U.S. special-operations forces, Delta Force and the Green Berets come to mind.

But George Washington and his Continental Army? What did an eighteenth-century military force that marched to fife and drum and lined up in rows to blast away with muskets at fifty paces know about special ops?


But Special Operations in the American Revolution, by retired U.S. Army colonel Robert Tonsetic, explains that unconventional warfare was a major part of the War of Independence.

Tonsetic begins by noting that special forces have a long tradition in America, dating back to King Philip's War of 1675, when the Plymouth Colony formed "an experimental company of men who would train and operate using Native American tactics to attack Indian war parties, and raid their camps in the dense forests and swamps."

Then came the famous Roger's Rangers of the French and Indian War, where Indian and French troops who ambushed British regulars and American militia were ambushed by the Rangers.

Thus there were already instances of special ops by the time of the American Revolution. Soon after hostilities began, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys—a band of Vermont irregulars—used small boats to cross Lake Champlain and seize Fort Ticonderoga in a coup de main in 1775.

Washington created his special forces. Knowlton's Rangers, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Knowlton, was an elite unit designed for reconnaissance and espionage missions. Nathan Hale, hung by the British for spying, was a member. Today there is a Knowlton Award for outstanding military intelligence work.

Tonsetic also examines partisan warfare by bands of American irregulars in New Jersey and the South that wreaked havoc with British supply convoys and couriers. Much like Viet Cong guerrillas ruined attempts by Saigon to control the South Vietnamese countryside, so did American partisans undermine British political control and eliminate Loyalist sympathizers. These bands could be quite deadly in a fire fight, as British Major Ferguson's Loyalist militia discovered when they were wiped out at King's Mountain, South Carolina in October 1780.

The Americans conducted special operations at sea, as well as on land. In February 1776, the fledgling U.S. Navy launched America's first amphibious assault—on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. A force of 280 marines and sailors attempted to seize a British stockpile of precious gunpowder. The operation was fumbled, allowing the quick-thinking British defenders to spirit away the gunpowder to another island. But it showed the aggressive spirit of the emerging nation.

Then there were the "Whaleboat Wars," in which Continental troops and partisans used small boats to capture British officers and destroy British shipping, such as the thirteen-boat raid on Sag Harbor, Long Island in May 1777 that destroyed thirteen ships and numerous supplies.

John Paul Jones also makes an appearance as a special operator, as he and his warship Ranger stalked British shipping and raided British ports. He caused the British government and Royal Navy great embarrassment, though on occasion he also embarrassed himself, for example, when he raided Scotland to capture Lord Selkirk and trade him for American prisoners. The Lord wasn't home, but his wife and children were. When American officers demanded the family silver, "Lady Selkirk judiciously complied with the demands. When the servants had filled the sacks, she coolly asked for a receipt, and offered the two Americans a glass of wine before they departed with the silver. The entire episode lasted about 15 minutes."

The same thing happened to U.S. Special Forces during the 1970 Son Tay raid, where the raiders successfully reached a North Vietnamese prison camp, but found that the American POWs had been moved to another location. As John Paul Jones could have warned them, special operations are a chancy business.

The author doesn't break new ground in terms of describing the battles and combatants, nor does he delve into British special operations. What is unique about this book is the perspective. To a modern-day reader, special ops conjure images of highly trained and exotically equipped soldiers leaping out of helicopters and Zodiac boats to wipe out terrorists. By those standards, Knowlton's Rangers scouting for Washington's army during the retreat from New York seem more like regular light infantry than Delta Force.

Or is this only a modern conceit? The U.S. military defines special ops as:

operations requiring unique modes of employment, tactical techniques, equipment and training often conducted in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments and characterized by one or more of the following: time sensitive, clandestine, low visibility, conducted with and/or through indigenous forces, requiring regional expertise, and/or a high degree of risk.

The operations in Tonsetic's book fit at least some of these criteria. Perhaps the better question is: In an era when warfare was supposed to be gentlemanly and follow certain rules, did Washington and his contemporaries embrace special operations? The answer would seem to be, “Yes.” Even if they didn't use the term "special ops," they were willing to employ elite reconnaissance units, spies and partisan bands.

Washington didn't have SEAL Team 6. But he made good use of what he had.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy and a writer for War Is Boring. Follow him on Twitter: @Mipeck1.