The British Army in North America

Some Background

What most Americans know about the British Army in North America is this: they were the most powerful Army in the world, partnered with the most powerful navy in the world, and that the American colonists in rebellion never stood a chance.  This, of course, is only true in the context of a refined, well trained army sent to confront farmers, shopkeepers, barmen, and boat builders who were drafted into the colonial militia. 

In 1754, the British Army had about 4,000 regulars serving in the North America [Note 1].  To understand what this means, in terms of manpower strength, the average size of an infantry regiment was between 700-800 men.  Given these numbers, then there were five regiments assigned to the colonies, each consisting of ten companies, the entirety being a brigade.  The brigade commander may have formed battalions of five companies each.  It is likely that British Army units were placed where they were most needed; given the size in area of the thirteen colonies, they were hardly an effective fighting force.  The soldiers in residence had been long neglected by the home government; they had become complacent in their duties and posed no threat to anyone, much less the French or their Indian surrogates.

Regimental Colonels were honorary positions of well-placed gentlemen.  The colonel’s frequent absences from the regiment made the lieutenant colonel the officer commanding, and he was assisted by a major.  Aiding the officer commanding was a small staff of five men (excluding personal batmen).  If the lieutenant colonel and major were absent from the regiment, then the senior captain stepped in as officer commanding.  In such conditions, with captains commanding the regiment, then it fell upon the lieutenants to command the companies.

The British infantry company was composed of 3 officers, 2-4 musicians, 6 noncommissioned officers, and 56 privates.  Sickness, desertion, and battle losses meant that British companies/battalions/regiments/brigades seldom — if ever — went into combat at full strength.

Young men of the eighteenth century often joined the British Army for economic reasons.  The onset of the Industrial Revolution and land closure brought enormous social changes in Great Britain.  Common laborers, textile workers, and displaced artisans joined the army to escape poverty.  The British private received eight pence per day before taxes — about £1.00 per month.   It was’t much, but it was better than the soldier could make “back home” as a laborer — £1.00 being somewhere in the neighborhood of $25.00/month in 2021 currency.

Where the British Soldiers Came From

The common soldier enlisted in the British Army under widely varied circumstances.  The unemployed textile worker may have sought out the recruiter and accepted the King’s shilling for his service “at the pleasure of the King.”  In other words, this recruit may have been recruited for life.  But the British Army also hired mercenaries; men who fought for money, and only when the money was right.  Most recruitments in the British Isles came from poverty stricken sections of the larger cities.  Each regiment recruited for itself and regimental colonels would often lead recruiting parties into towns and villages.  Some people were, with the permission of the Crown and local courts, pressed into service.  They were vagrants, homeless people, drunkards, and some were prisoners who thought it would be a better life in the Army than eating rat meat in a dark, dank prison in the midlands.   

British military officers purchased their commissions (and sold them).  The purchase price of a military officer’s commission was high enough that it precluded men of moderate means from becoming British officers, or ascending higher in rank.  Most officers up to the rank of major were of the middle class.  Only sons of nobility could afford high command; they had to be well-born, and   as such, they served concurrently as politicians and general officers.

The Braddock Expedition    

On 20 February 1755, Major General Edward Braddock arrived in the colonies with two regiments and assumed command of all British land forces as Commander-in-Chief of the British North American Army.  He met with several of the colonial governors in Alexandria on 14 April.  They persuaded him to undertake vigorous actions against the French, who had instigated native populations against British settlements.  With colonial militia reinforcing British regulars, Braddock planned his punitive expedition against the French around the following: a militia officer from Massachusetts would lead an attack against Fort Niagara; General Sir William Johnson from New York would lead an assault against the French at Crown Point; Colonel Monckton would lead an attack on the Bay of Fundy, and Braddock would himself march an expedition against Fort Duquesne (Pittsburg) on the Ohio River.

The main thrust of the British attack was Fort Duquesne.  General Braddock commanded the 44th and 48th Regiments of Foot (1,350 men), an additional force of 500 regular and colonial militia, field artillery, and other support troops, for a total of around 2,100 men [Note 2].  A twenty-three year old lieutenant colonel of militia accompanied Braddock — a surveyor, who knew the landscape, and a man capable of serving as Braddock’s aide-de-camp.  His name was George Washington.  Major General Braddock fell mortally wounded at the Battle of Monongahela on 9 July 1755, carried from the field by Colonel Washington and Colonel Meriwether.  Although Washington had no official position within the chain of command, he nevertheless brought order to the regiments and commanded a rearguard for the evacuation of the British expedition from the field.  Of Braddock’s regular force, 456 were killed, 422 wounded.  Of his officers numbering 86, 26 were killed, 37 were wounded.  There were 50 women in the Braddock expedition, all but four were killed.  Subsequent defeats along the frontier prompted London to expand the British Army in North America.  It was  easier said than done.

The average Englishman had little interest in serving in the British Army; it was a challenging lifestyle at the best of times.  Between 1755-57, only 4,500 Englishmen enlisted for service in the colonies.  At the same time, 7,500 British colonists enlisted in the British Army of North America.  After Grat Britain formerly declared war against France in 1756, recruiting efforts on the Homefront were more successful.  Some 11,000 regulars were sent from Britain to America in 1757.  Simultaneously, the flow of colonial recruits diminished to a mere trickle of what it had been.

In early 1758, the British government appointed General James Abercromby to serve as Commander-in-Chief in North America.  Abercromby brought reform and improvement in an army that grew to twenty-three battalions (about 8,000 men).  That year marked the turning point of the war and the British Army reclaimed its prestige.  After the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the regular British Army serving in North America was raised to 10,000 men.  Americans living on the frontier welcomed these men; the British regular represented colonial security.  On the other hand, while Americans enjoyed the peace of mind and safety provided by the British Army, no one wanted to pay for them in the form of taxes.  This made no sense to any thinking person, but it is difficult to argue that most American colonists in 1770 were skilled in that regard.

The American Revolution

In terms of the sentiments of American colonists, there were only two sorts where the British soldier was concerned: those who loved them, and those who hated them.  There was no middle group.  The rabble-rousers in Boston fell into the latter category and sought to create confrontations with the symbol of British authority at every opportunity [Note 3].  By 1775, the British North American soldier was a highly proficient, extremely professional soldier — one could not look upon the colonial militiamen with anything but contempt.  British soldiers didn’t run away from a fight.

The colonist’s fuss about paying their “fair share” of taxes to support the British Army in the colonies brought disdain from the British regular.  He didn’t respect the colonist, and he didn’t respect the leaders of the emerging American government or its militia.  A few years earlier, no one wanted to serve as a British regular officer more than George Washington, but the British establishment responded to his every effort with scorn.  After 1770, colonial farmers, shopkeepers, and militia came to realize that despite all they did for England, the British would always regard them as second-class citizens.

France’s entry into the colonial revolution on the side of the Americans changed Great Britain’s strategic calculus.  The British were no longer masters of the sea along America’s sea coast.  While the British Army was widely distributed from Canada to Florida and the West Indies, the French could deliver fresh troops to any place along the East Coast at a time of their own choosing — unchallenged by either the British Army or the Royal Navy.  Because the West Indies was more valuable to the British than the rebellious colonies, a large number of British Army and Royal Navy resources were diverted to protect British interest there.

The government in London soon realized that the colonies in New England were probably beyond saving.  British loyalists living in New England were few in number.  The southern colonies, on the other hand, had large populations of loyalists; there was hope that these colonies might be saved, and so the British Army and Royal Navy turned its attention to the Carolinas and West Florida.  Britain’s effort toward saving the southern colonies was the match that lit the kindling in the southern colonies; capturing Charleston added logs to the fire.  

General Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown (Oct 1781).  One key feature in the southern campaign was the number of British Loyalists who fought the British fight.  The Battle of King’s Mountain in 1780 was an exclusively American engagement.  The outcome of King’s Mountain prompted the Loyalists to reconsider; after all, there was never a guarantee that the British would win the war — and if they didn’t, then what would happen to the loyalists?  Loyalists would have been suicidal to throw their lot behind the British if there was any chance at all that the patriots would end up as the victors — which, of course, they were.

British regular soldiers continued to fight well and the colonial militia always maintained their fear of British regular formations.  The problem was that the British Army was getting smaller with each battle.  Cornwallis did not have a regular pipeline for troop replacements, which meant that each British victory came at a high price.  The British soldier was poorly fed, poorly cared for, and quite often poorly led … but they steadfastly performed courageously in battle after battle — at the beginning of the conflict and at the end of it.

The Age of Sail

It was never easy to support the British Army 3,000 miles away on the North American continent.  To feed these soldiers a daily ration, the British government contracted with food producing companies who transported the rations in bulk across the Atlantic.  By the time they arrived and found their way into the Red Coat’s mess kit, the rations were inedible.  Biscuits were full of weevils, the bread was moldy, the butter rancid, the flour spoiled, insects infested peas, and then came the maggoty beef.  It is no surprise to learn that the British soldier was seriously malnourished and toothless by the time he reached 30 years of age.  Senior officers did register complaints, but they fell on deaf ears.

Adding to the difficult task of crushing rebellion was the corruption of British bureaucrats, contractors, ship’s captains, and commissary officers in the supply chain.  Corruption didn’t begin with the British war ministry, and it certainly didn’t end there.  One may wonder how well the family of Lyndon Baines Johnson profited from the Vietnam War. 

Thirty Years Later

Many historians will argue that the American Revolution ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris of that year.  I disagree.  Oh, there may have been a treaty with Great Britain, but the behavior of the officers commanding British Army forces in North America never changed toward the Americans, nor — for that matter — did the behavior of the Royal Navy toward American flagged ships.  Among more than a few senior British  Army and Navy officers, an American Revolution “re-do” was a worthwhile undertaking.  Officers commanding British forts in Canada never once stopped instigating Indian attacks against American western settlements or westward migrations — even to the extent of paying Indians for American scalps.

Renewed conflict with Great Britain in 1812 favored the Americans because, at the time, the British were up to their nickers in a fight with Napoleon Bonaparte.  Because the priority for army forces was given to Europe, the British manned their North American forts with cadre staffs.  Sadly, by 1812, America no longer had a George Washington to lead them.  They had to rely on much older revolutionary era generals who, truth be known, weren’t all that good as generals when they were much younger.

While it was true that the early conflict favored the Americans, we should recall that America was once more at war with a powerful nation — and one that had one hand tied behind its back.  It would have been advantageous to the Americans to win its War of 1812 early on — but no.  Incompetent generals and one disaster after another denied the Americans a clear victory, even while confronting a much-diminished British army.  It may have been too much for the Americans to covet Canada.

In 1814, Napoleon was soundly defeated, and when this occurred, the British were then able to turn their full attention to the United States.  In that year, the British mauled the American army at Bladensburg, Maryland (See also: At Bladensburg, 1814), burned the city of Washington, and reasserted the Royal Navy’s control over the Eastern Seaboard (See also: Joshua Barney).  It wasn’t until after the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the War of 1812, that General Jackson destroyed the British Army in New Orleans — (See also: At Chalmette, 1815) an American victory at last, but it was a superficial victory.  The Americans did kill a lot of British soldiers — but to no good purpose.

Sources:

  1. Anderson, F.  The War that Made America: New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
  2. Brumwell, S.  Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  3. Curtis, E. E.  The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution.  New York: AMS Press, 1969.
  4. Ellis, J. J.  His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Knopf, 2004.
  5. Fortescue, J. W.  A History of the British Army (Thirteen volumes).  New York: AMS Press, 1976.
  6. Schenawolf, H.  British Army Command and Structure in the American Revolution; Grenadier & Light Infantry Battalions.  Revolutionary War Journal Online.

Endnotes:

[1] North America included the thirteen British Colonies and after 1763, Canada.

[2] General Braddock’s overwhelming defeat was partly due to his lack of understanding about French activities and their shenanigans with native tribes.  He also didn’t understand the Indians and had no interest in recruiting them for service with the British Army, which may have been a product of his aristocratic arrogance.  Several additional issues plagued the operation from the beginning, including the difficulty in procuring the necessary supplies that would sustain his force while in the field.  One the expedition began, he found the roadway was too narrow and in constant need of widening to move artillery and cargo wagons, it was rutted and painfully slow.  His frustration in the lack of speed caused him to split his force.  With 1,300 men in his “flying column,” he crossed the Monongahela River on 9 July, ten miles away from Fort Duquesne … but it was difficult terrain.  The collision of both British and French/Indian forces surprised both groups.  Braddock’s advance guard was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Gage.  The Indians immediately assumed their usual practice of independent action; most of the French fled back to the Fort.  Gage’s line of soldiers, wearing red coats, were difficult for the Indians to miss.  As the soldiers began taking casualties, somewhat shaken by the war whoops of the Indians, Gage’s line became a shamble.  Several of the British, in their confusion, fired on other British formations.  Thereafter, the battle became a rout.  Though Braddock exhibited personal courage and tenacity, the advantage went to the Indians, who were able to fire at the red coats from behind trees.  It was the first time in North America where a British force was destroyed by an inferior number of enemy.  

[3] In a manner similar to the way the modern-day BLMOs seek confrontations with police officers and random members of white society.