“American Guerrillas” (Lyons, 2017) by Thomas D. Mays is a collection of historical accounts on American “guerrilla warfare.” Mays’ account begins with the first European settlers and works forward in time, identifying along the way how Europeans, Native Americans, British colonists and every American fighter since has used the terrain and his guile to target larger, better organized military forces. Although guerrilla warfighters do not win wars, they do contribute immensely to the battles waged by much larger conventional forces.
Early in the book, Mays tells the story of the first ranger company led by Captain Benjamin Church in 1676. The Governor of Massachusetts commissioned Church to lead “scouts” against enemy Native Americans. Adopting Native American tactics and employing friendly tribesmen against their rivals, Church fought and eventually subdued his state’s enemies during King Philip’s War in the year between June 1676 and August 1677. The success of Church’s rangers subsequently led to the formation of other ranger companies during periods of conflict in the 18th Century.
Mays brings these stories to life. In fact, many accounts can be tied to some modern-day Hollywood drama. For example, Colonel William Tavington – antagonist to Mel Gibson’s hero in The Patriot (2000) – bears some resemblance to Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton was a British Calvary Officer who employed a company of regular British and Loyalist dragoons to wage a brutal campaign against local patriot militiamen and Continental troops in the southern United States. His raids on local farms and murders of surrendering American troops caused uproar among the local populace. Although often effective tactically, guerrilla warfare during the Revolution increasingly blurred the line separating civilians from soldiers.
The U.S. Army made significant legal efforts to define guerrilla combatants during the American Civil War. In 1862, when General Henry Halleck was promoted to general-in-chief of all U.S. armies, he turned to a German-American jurist – Francis Lieber – for help managing Southern insurgents who refused to uphold the unwritten laws of armed combat. General Order No. 100, also known as the “Lieber Code,” was the result. The order protected civilians and their property. It also defined “combatants,” outlined the rights for prisoners of war and permitted summary execution for spies, saboteurs and guerrilla soldiers. This order was used throughout all conflicts up to and including World War II, until Operations Against Guerrilla Forces (FM-31-20) was released in 1950. In 1940, the Marine Corps published the Small Wars Manual, based on its experiences in Latin America. Then-Major General David Petraeus used these manuals to write the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) in 2006.
Mays also explores historical events unknown to or forgotten by most American readers. This history includes such topics as Andrew Jackson’s exploits in the Creek Wars; battles fought by Kentucky riflemen during the Battle of New Orleans (1812-1814); the defense of Texas and victory over Mexico (1835-1836); the lawless pro-Union and pro-confederate militias who spread terror in and around Kansas during the Civil War (1860-1865); the record of Filipino insurrectionists (1898-1901); and the U.S. Special Forces' missions to train and support Montagnard Tribesmen during Vietnam (1961-1975).
The book is informative and covers a lot of historical territory. As such, the author avoids too much detail on any one person, battle or conflict, leaving out any mention of some of the most successful unconventional military operations, including CIA’s support of the Mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, or Special Forces support to the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. The book mentions other conflicts and events in passing, which heightened this reader’s curiosity for more about the history of specific people and campaigns. But this is not intended to be an exhaustive or definitive history. Mays’ book is a near-comprehensive, thorough and readable introduction to the history of American guerrilla warfare.