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January 8, 2008

How did an emerging nation beat the 18th-century's finest army?

In this winter’s Colonial Williamsburg, contributor Christopher Geist explodes one of the myths of America’s revolution. With “Of Rocks, Trees, Rifles, and Militia, Thoughts on Eighteenth-Century Military Tactics,” he shows that the rebels, like the redcoats, usually fought in formation, not guerilla style; that victory depended on well-drilled and disciplined regular ranks, not on hit-and-run, rag-tag militias.

Geist writes in the newest edition of the popular history journal: “Then there is the romantic mythology surrounding the American militia, those intrepid citizen-soldiers whose battlefield heroics faced down the finest army in the world. Problem is, as Washington himself knew from the beginning of the conflict, the militia was undependable, poorly trained, and generally ineffective on the field of battle. They came armed with civilian weapons ranging from fine rifles to cheap trade muskets to fowling pieces – known today as shotguns. Within each of these categories of arms, there were differences among individual weapons. A unit equipped with almost as many different kinds of soldiers could not load and rapidly fire volleys in unison.”

Contributor Andrew O’Shaughnessy examines the struggle from a more distant viewpoint, that of George III’s, In “Staying the Course, George III and the Revolutionary War,” he considers the king’s motivations, and writes: “The war became a personal crusade; he believed the stakes to be momentous for Britain’s future. He had initially justified the war as a defense of order and authority, but he came to believe that its prosecution was essential to maintaining Britain’s status as a great European nation. He thought the loss of America would lead to the destruction of the British empire.”

Elsewhere in the issue:

  • “Captain Nathaniel Butler: No Friend of Virginia”—Contributor Ivor Noël Hume takes a look at Nathaniel Butler and the 17th-century tell-all report he wrote that helped bring down the colony’s founder, the Virginia Company of London;
  • “Poison Ivy: Indian Education at the Best Colonial Colleges”—James Axtell, the College of William and Mary’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Humanities, writes about the Christian education of Native Americans in the 18th century; and
  • “Little Iron Horses, Hard-Working Canadians Have Rich Heritage”—Richmond-based writer Ed Crews discusses Canadian horses, livestockin Colonial Williamsburg’s Rare Breeds program.

    These articles and articles from previous issues are online at Colonial Williamsburg can be purchased at Everything Williamsburg™ and Williamsburg Booksellers® at the Foundation’s Visitor Center. Complimentary copies of the printed magazine can be obtained and subscriptions ordered at For more information, call 888-CWF-1776.

    The journal is published four times a year and is a benefit to donors who contribute $35 annually or more.

    Begun in 1926, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture — stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic tradespeople research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution for its guests, it also invites them to interact with history. Williamsburg is 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information or reservations, call toll-free 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg on the Internet at

    Media Contact:
    Penna Rogers
    (757) 220-7121

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