47. The British Soldier in North America

In general, British regulars fought well throughout their struggle against the American rebellion, as attested to by the fact that they won most of the battles in which they were engaged. This is as one would have expected given the proud and long-standing tradition of service exemplified by many of His Majesty’s regiments. They had crossed a wide and tempestuous ocean to fight a war that many historians believe they could not win, or at least could not after the failure of General William Howe, commanding the King’s army in North America, to destroy the Continental Army in 1776 (and even more so after France entered into an alliance with young America in 1778). For notwithstanding Britain’s vaunted naval superiority and her army’s advantages over the rebels in equipment, training, experience, and discipline, the challenges of conquering and holding the vast area encompassed by her thirteen rebellious provinces, and doing so at the end of a three-thousand-mile-long supply line, were arguably insurmountable. In addition, the nature of that domain was particularly problematic for the Crown’s military designs as the predominantly hilly and forested terrain of the New World was very different from the Low Countries of Europe, where most British officers had their formative military experience, and was naturally advantageous to any defending force—which in most cases constituted rebel soldiers.

Most British infantry came from such humble backgrounds as farmers, laborers, and tradesmen, and a small number were convicts who opted for military service over incarceration when given the chance to do so. They had volunteered for the army and many made it a career so as to reap the benefits of steady employment and pay. Notwithstanding its inherent dangers, a soldier’s life represented an appealing alternative to working-class youth in the British Isles who otherwise faced the prospect of long hours of exhausting and sometimes hazardous manual labor or an apprenticeship under exploitative conditions in which they could be overworked or beaten without recourse. Many of His Majesty’s troops believed their unit was the best in the army and were encouraged in their conviction. They were also intensely loyal to the monarchy and in that regard stood in firm opposition to those supporting the American rebellion. The British soldier was motivated by certain ideals that were as important to him as the cause of liberty was to his American counterpart, for to His Majesty’s troops this conflict was not primarily about power or interest but rather a set of values to which they were deeply committed and that generally informed their conduct—discipline, duty, fidelity, honor, loyalty, and service.

For the most comprehensive and contemporary study of British soldiers serving during the Revolutionary War, see Don N. Hagist’s Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution (Westholme, 2020). Don, who is managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, has even more recently completed These Distinguished Corps: British Grenadier and Light Infantry Battalions in the American Revolution (Helion & Company, 2021).

23. The Other Side

“Rule, Britannia”

The patriotic British song of that name, written in 1740, originated from the poem ‘Rule, Britannia’ by James Thomson and was set to music by Thomas Arne. One might be tempted to cue its lyrics when contemplating the experience of the British army during the period leading up to the American Revolution, described  by one historian as a record of “victory without equal in the world.”

When the American Revolution began, Britain’s senior military officers and sergeants were seasoned veterans of a momentous global conflict—known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) in Europe and the French and Indian War in the American colonies—in which they had triumphed over France and Spain. During the titanic struggle, the redcoats defeated every opposing power they encountered on five continents. An impressive legacy of that remarkable record lay in the various regimental honors that spoke to Albion’s global record of military success during this period—in Europe, at Minden and Emsdorf; in India, at Plassey and Pondicherry; in North America, at Louisbourg and Quebec; in the West Indies, at Guadeloupe and Martinique); in Cuba, at Moro and Havana; in the Mediterranean, at Minorca; in the Philippines, at Manila; and on the African continent, in Senegal.

Arguably as impressive as this pre-Revolution string of victories by his Majesty’s army is the tactical skill it displayed in its effort to suppress the American rebellion during the period from 1775 to 1783. Its prowess in battle may be judged by the fact that during the eight-year-long struggle, British regulars—separate and apart from the German regiments hired by the Crown and American Loyalist units fighting on the side of the redcoats—lost only a handful of battles to rebel troops. And while that aspect of the world war fought by Great Britain against France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the American colonies ended badly for the mother country, the King’s forces succeeded in repelling the American invasion of Canada and achieved an impressive string of victories across the other theaters of combat—the West Indies, Gibraltar, India, and the Atlantic’s high seas,

Who were we fighting?

Most private soldiers in the eighteenth-century British army were of humble origins—farmers, laborers, and tradesmen—while a few were convicts who chose military service over incarceration when given the choice. They had volunteered for the army and many made it their career, as they valued the steady job and pay. However dangerous a soldier’s life might be, it represented an attractive alternative to working-class youth who otherwise faced the prospect of being employed in wearisome and sometimes hazardous manual labor or suffering through a lengthy and harsh apprenticeship.

Patrick O’Donnell observes that many of His Majesty’s soldiers “thought, and were encouraged to believe, that their unit was the best in the army” and harbored “a deep loyalty to their king that set them in firm opposition to the Americans they were battling.” (Washington’s Immortals, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016, p. 42) These soldiers were driven by “ideals of loyalty, fidelity, honor, duty, discipline, and service that were as sacred to British Regulars as the cause of liberty was to the American rebels,” according to David Hackett Fischer, so that to them the war was not primarily about power or interest but rather “a clash of principles in which they deeply believed.” (Washington’s Crossing, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 50)

Suggested Reading

The following critically acclaimed works are worthy of consideration by the reader interested in learning more about such subjects as the colonial policies that precipitated Great Britain’s war with America, its rank-and-file soldiery during the Revolution, and British political and military leadership of the time:

An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America by Nick Bunker (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)—a penetrating and superbly written analysis of the origins of the American Revolution from a British perspective that focuses on the last three years before conflict erupted.

Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution by Don N. Hagist (Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2020)—a study of Britain’s enlisted men of the 1770s by a noted American expert on the subject who is managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution.

The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy (Yale University Press, 2013)—profiles of ten British political and military leaders that in the aggregate tell the story of America’s revolutionary conflict from the British point of view, although authored by an American.

With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 by Matthew H. Spring (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008)—an analysis by a British historian at both operational and tactical levels of how His Majesty’s army fought against the American rebellion.