Defense in Depth as a Revolutionary War Battlefield Tactic

Part 4
(click here for first three parts)

General Daniel Morgan,

As we have seen, two untrained, amateur, but very effective soldiers perfected the concept of the defense in depth during the campaigns of 1781. Morgan was the first to experiment with the concept, and he did so with great effect at Cowpens, thoroughly defeating Tarleton’s Legion and sending “Bloody Ban” flying in a wild panic. Greene then adopted the tactic and applied it on a much larger scale at Guilford Courthouse. Even though he lost the battle, he scored a major strategic victory by punishing Cornwallis’ army and inflicting enormous losses on it for little gain—Greene’s army escaped to fight another day. His stand at Guilford Courthouse set the stage for the ultimate American victory at Yorktown.

By drawing in the enemy and causing him to commit, the defense in depth trades time for space and is an important part of a Fabian strategy. Confederate Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee successfully designed and implemented a defense in depth at the March 16, 1865 Battle of Averasboro. Using three prepared defensive positions just like Morgan and Greene, Hardee, with 5400 officers and men, held of fully half of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s grand army—more than 25,000 men—for an entire day. Hardee’s little army then slipped away during the night and joined General Joseph E. Johnston’s command. The combined force then turned on Sherman and nearly defeated Sherman in detail. Hardee’s use of the same tactic demonstrates plainly that even the advances of technology do not neutralize the effectiveness of a well-designed and well-implemented defense in depth.

Confederate Lieutenant General William J. Hardee

Indeed, the Germans made extensive use of this tactic during World War II when they used the hedgerow country of the Normandy region of France to delay the advance of the Allies after D-Day. NATO doctrine also intended to use a defense in depth to halt any efforts to invade West Germany at the Fulda Gap during the days of the Cold War. While the technology has changed, the tactics remain precisely the same, which is the reason why these tactics continue to be taught at West Point and on staff rides to this day. The old cliché that the more things change, the more they remain the same is amply demonstrated by the continued use of this strategy and tactic to this day.

There are many lessons to be learned from studying the development, implementation, and execution of the defense of depth at Cowpens and then again at Guilford Courthouse sixty days later, and with the end of this series of blog posts, I hope that you have come to appreciate the genius and effectiveness of Morgan and Greene.



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