Siege Warfare and the Storming of the Capitol

The Storming of the Capitol of the United States of America on 6 January 2020 represented an insurrectionary act and a military operation, not a riot by a mob.

The Pro-Trump supporters who participated in the “Save America” rally and march to the Capitol came to Washington, D.C., armed and organized for storming the Capitol in order to halt the legitimate certification of the Electoral College vote. Many groups who organized the “Stop the Steal” campaign clearly aimed to coerce, take hostage, or kill targeted U.S. Representatives and Senators and their staff members that they viewed as treasonous. The Make America Great Again (MAGA) crowd also targeted Vice President Pence and members of Congress for execution as traitors.

Many journalists and politicians have referred to the Siege of the Capitol, a description that does not precisely capture the nature of the event. Nonetheless, the history of siege warfare offers an important perspective to understand the political and military violence of the Trump supporters.

Siege warfare normally involves conventional military forces surrounding a fortress or city and blockading it, cutting off the defenders’ communication with outside support. Sieges often proceed through a progressive tightening of the blockade, a bombardment of defenses, and a methodical approach of besieging forces toward defensive lines.

Sébastian Le Prestre de Vauban, a French field marshal and siege engineer under King Louis XIV, developed elaborate methods of siegecraft in the late seventeenth century that have guided the prosecution of sieges ever since. Besieging forces methodically attack outer fortifications and defensive perimeters at key points, in order to weaken the defenders’ positions and to disrupt their defense-in-depth systems.

In the final stages of a formal siege, after achieving a breach in the main fortifications, besiegers launch assaults to storm the main defensive lines and break into the unprotected center of the fortress or city. During successful siege assaults, victorious troops often break into a killing frenzy—massacring vulnerable defenders and civilians and pillaging their belongings.

Jean Errard, La fortification desmonstrée et reduicte en art (1620).

Sometimes, army commanders choose to bypass these formal siegecraft techniques and instead launch a direct assault immediately upon arriving at a fortress or city. Direct assaults could occur during any conflict, but have historically been more common in the context of civil wars and revolutionary wars.

The Storming of the Capitol can be considered such a direct assault in the context of civil conflict.

The MAGA crowd was composed of paramilitary and military groups that had organized and prepared for a direct assault on the Capitol, and substantial evidence shows that they considered their actions military in nature. The so-called militia forces and White Supremacist groups that participated in the Storming of the Capital came armed with axe handles, crowbars, ladders, and other conventional weapons used in direct assaults to overcome defensive barriers and obstacles. All of these implements are classic weapons of siege engineers. Some attackers also brought Molotov cocktails, firearms, and pipe bombs as heavy weapons for the assault.

The assault on the Capitol exhibited considerable coordination, communication, and planning. There are reports suggesting that some militia groups may have used military command and control during the assault itself.

It was no accident that organizations preparing for the “Stop the Steal” assault referred to the coming “Storm.” Although this term references “The Storm” of QAnon belief, it is not a mere rhetorical device. The New York Times reports that “the term “Storm the Capitol” was mentioned 100,000 times in the 30 days preceding Jan. 6, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company.” The idea of storming the Capitol was much more than a symbolic rallying cry, signaling military preparations for a direct assault, or storm.

As these preparations went forward, President Trump directly incited violence by mobilizing a massive crowd of supporters for 6 January and promising that the day would be “wild.” Then, during the rally on the Ellipse of the White House, Trump directed his MAGA crowd to march on the Capitol building, which he had already targeted for storming, and implied that they should attack some members of Congress.

Many of the MAGA crowd that responded to President Trump’s call to arms included so-called militias, White Supremacist groups, and neo-fascist groups such as the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, Nationalist Social Club, and Oath Keepers. These groups represent national organizations with local units or chapters that utilize pseudo-military structures and conduct paramilitary training. Many of these organizations include veterans of the United States military, National Guard, and police forces who have extensive experience with firearms, tactics, and combat. Members of these militia groups were capable of acting leading other members of the MAGA crowd in organized attacks on barricades and rugby-style scrums to break through doorways of the Capitol.

Siege assault tactics can vary in the context of revolutions and civil conflicts, since crowds and militias become engaged in close combat. Many members of the Pro-Trump crowd brought anti-personnel weapons including batons, baseball bats, hockey sticks, and pepper spray. Revolutionary crowds often use improvised weapons, and the Pro-Trump supporters utilized flagpoles, fire extinguishers, broken furniture, and crowd-control barricades as makeshift weapons. Some members of the crowd brought zip ties, flex cuffs, and rope—perhaps intended to be used in holding members of Congress hostage.

Rebellious and revolutionary crowds use rich symbolic violence, which can reveal the motives and aims of the participants, as we can see from the storming of government buildings during the American, French, and Russian Revolutions. Armed crowds have assaulted a number of state capitols and government buildings in the United States, especially during the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War. The MAGA crowd used diverse symbols of the American Revolution, the Confederacy, neo-fascism, White Supremacy, Anti-Semitism, Holocaust Denial, and vigilante justice suggesting a blurring of overlapping motivations for their political violence.

Armed direct assaults are markedly different from occupations of government buildings by unarmed protesters in a number of ways. Such sit-ins and peaceful occupations can sometimes turn violent, but non-violent protesters do not normally have access to the weaponry or paramilitary training to carry out a direct assault or defend an occupied building. Diverse militia groups in the MAGA crowd, in contrast, planned precisely on carrying out a direct assault using the weaponry and techniques associated with siege assault.

It is vital to understand the tactics of siege assaults in addition to the motivations of the armed militia groups that are currently preparing for further violence, including a “Million Militia March” to disrupt the Inauguration of President-Elect Biden on 20 January.

The U.S. Capitol clearly needs the enhanced defenses and fences that have been erected, as well as the large reserve of National Guard forces that has been deployed in Washington, D.C. to prevent another storming of the Capitol. The Capitol Police, Secret Service, National Guard, FBI and other affiliated agencies involved in organizing security for Inauguration Day must prepare for the possibility of further military actions by far-right militia groups using direct assault tactics. 

For further reading on the history of siege warfare, see:

Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World, 1494-1660 (London: Routledge, 1996).

Anke Fischer-Kattner and Jamel Ostwald, eds., The World of the Siege: Representations of Early Modern Positional Warfare (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 265-287.

Jamel Ostwald, Vauban Under Siege: Engineering Efficiency and Martial Vigor in the War of the Spanish Succession (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Martha D. Pollak, Cities at War in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Brian Sandberg, “‘His Courage Produced More Fear in His Enemies than Shame in His Soldiers’: Siege Combat and Emotional Display in the French Wars of Religion,” in Battlefield Emotions, 1500-1800: Practices, Experiences, Imaginations, ed. Erika Kuijpers and Cornelis van der Haven (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 127-148.

Brian Sandberg, “‘To Have the Pleasure of This Siege’: Envisioning Siege Warfare during the European Wars of Religion,” in Beholding Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, ed. Erin Felicia Labbie and Allie Terry-Fritch (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2012), 143-162.

This entry was posted in Civil Conflict, Comparative Revolutions, Crowd Studies, Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, History of Violence, Political Activism and Protest Culture, Political Culture, Revolts and Revolutions, United States History and Society, War and Society, War, Culture, and Society, Warfare in the Early Modern World. Bookmark the permalink.

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