Roger’s Lost Glory

Introduction

One significance of Methuen, Massachusetts (settled in 1642) is that it served as one of the first American portals for Scots-Irish immigrants.  Today, approximately nine million Americans claim Scots-Irish descendancy.  One of these American-born Scots-Irishmen was the son of James and Mary Rogers, whom they named Robert, born on 8 November 1731.  Eight years later, in 1739, the Rogers family relocated to the Great Meadows district of New Hampshire.  Robert was fifteen years old when he joined the New Hampshire militia during King George’s War (1744-1748).

Background

What made European wars so very complex during the early modern period (1453-1789) was that (a) they were mired in complex rules of noble succession, (b) several of the major royal houses were related to one another through marriage, and (c) the continual (and often confusing) secret alliances that existed between them.  So, before continuing, let’s sort out the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

The War of the Austrian Succession was a conglomeration of several conflicts, two of which developed after the death of Charles VI, head of the Austrian Hapsburgs and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  Upon his death in 1740, Charles VI had no male heirs.  Since there were proscriptions against a woman becoming heir to specific European thrones (notably, the Holy Roman Empire), Charles VI’s daughter Maria Theresa was determined to defend her right of inheritance.  A separate issue was that the Hapsburgs had retained the Crown of Holy Roman Emperor since 1437.  This was an elective position, not subject to the right of inheritance.  The European ruling houses decided that it was time to end Hapsburg’s Holy Roman dynasty.

The participants in the War of Austrian Succession included Austria, Bavaria-Saxony, the Dutch Republic, France, Hanover, Prussia, Savoy, Spain, Poland, Italy, Sardinia, and Great Britain.  Its significance was that it reshaped the balance of power in Europe, established a precedent for subsequent wars of succession, and because it obligated the involvement of alliance partners into affairs that ordinarily would be none of their concern.  British involvement came from its alliance with Austria, which opened the door to additional conflicts with France and Spain, who were allied against Austria and needed minimal prompting to war against the British — their North American competitor.

The War of Austrian Succession, as it evolved in British America, became King George’s War (1744-1748), the third of four “French and Indian Wars” fought in North America.  King George’s War was also a continuation of the War of Jenkins’ Ear fought between Britain, Spain, and Spain’s ally, France.

Young Rogers

Following the tradition of the “common burden,” Robert Rogers enlisted as a private in Captain Daniel Ladd’s Scouting Company of the New Hampshire Militia in 1746.[1]  In the following year, he joined the Scouting Company of Captain Ebenezer Eastman.  In both assignments, Robert Rogers joined the effort of the local militia in guarding the New Hampshire frontier against French and Indian raids.  The strategy of these ranging companies was to “hit them before they could hit you.”

Young Washington

In 1753, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, commissioned the half-brother of Lawrence Washington, the Adjutant-General of Virginia, a young man named George, as a Major of the Virginia militia and appointed him to command one of the colony’s four militia districts.  At the time, the British competed with France to control the Ohio Valley.  Initially, the effort involved the construction of British and French fortifications along the Ohio River.  Dinwiddie dispatched Major Washington on a three-mission expedition into the Ohio Valley.  Washington’s orders were to demand the withdrawal of French forces from Virginia land, establish peace with the Iroquois Confederacy, and gather intelligence about the disposition of French military forces.[2]

In November, Major Washington’s force reached the Ohio River but was soon intercepted by a French patrol and escorted to Fort Le Boeuf.  The officer commanding Fort Le Boeuf was Commandeur Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre (1701-1755), who welcomed Major Washington by rendering him every courtesy of his rank and position.  Washington dutifully informed Saint-Pierre that it was his duty to insist that the French vacate Virginia colony land.  A few days later, after providing Washington and his men with food stores and extra winter clothing, Sant-Pierre handed his reply to Gov. Dinwiddie in a sealed envelope and sent George and his men on his way back to Williamsburg.

In February 1754, Dinwiddie advanced Washington to lieutenant colonel and appointed him as second-in-command of the Virginia Regiment of militia, a force of around 300 men.[3]  His new orders were to take half the regiment and confront French forces at the Forks of Ohio (the convergence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers).  Washington’s expedition set off in April, eventually learning that those French forces included around 1,000 men engaged in the construction of Fort Duquesne.  Washington established a defensive position at Great Meadows, seven miles from the French construction site.

With the understanding that the French force involved around 1,000 men, Washington enlisted the aid of Indian allies (presumably Iroquois) and moved to attack the French garrison, which consisted of around fifty men.  The confrontation became known as the Battle of Jumonville Glen, during which Washington’s force killed all French defenders, including its commandant, Joseph Coulon de Jumonville.  When French officials learned what had happened, they accused Washington of making an unprovoked attack, which would only be true if the French were not encamped on British territorial grounds.  The Battle of Jumonville ignited the (fourth) French and Indian War (1754-1763).

The French and Indian War (1754-1763)

War with France engulfed the British colonies in 1755, also spreading to Europe.  Initially, the British suffered several defeats, most notably the massacre of General Braddock’s force at the Battle of Monongahela.  Indians who were not already allies of the French were encouraged by these early French victories and joined with the French against British settlements.  A series of deadly Indian raids soon followed the entire length of British western settlements.

In 1754, Massachusetts governor William Shirley appointed John Winslow as major-general of the colonial militia.[4]  In 1756, General Winslow turned to the 25-year-old Robert Rogers to raise and command soldiers for service to the British Crown.  Recruitment wasn’t difficult because frontier citizens were badly frightened (not to mention angry) by the sudden increase in Indian depredations.[5]

Rogers raised an irregular (militia) company of rangers, one of several New England ranger companies with a tradition dating back to the 1670s.  The model for Roger’s ranging company was Gorham’s Rangers, initially formed in 1744.[6]  During the French and Indian War, Gorham’s Rangers was a contemporary company raised by Robert Rogers. Among Robert’s early recruits were his younger brothers James, Richard, and John.[7]

The only likeness of Rogers known to exist

Roger’s Ranger Company was an independent provisional force trained, equipped, paid, and commanded by Captain Rogers.  The mission of this rapidly deployable light infantry unit was reconnaissance and such special operations as conducting winter and night raids on French towns and military encampments.  The company operated primarily in the area of Lake George and Lake Champlain (New York).  It was particularly adept at moving rapidly but quietly over rugged mountain terrain and rain-swollen rivers.  Rogers’ ranging tactics proved so effective that the ranging company was eventually expanded into a corps of more than a dozen companies (around 1,400 men), which became the chief scouting arm of British land forces in North America.

The usefulness of Rogers’ company during 1756 and 1757 prompted the British to form a second ranger company in 1758.  Eventually, the fourteen companies of rangers would include three all-Indian units (two of Stockbridge Mahicans and one of Mohegan and Pequot composition).  Governor Shirly promoted Robert Rogers to Major and placed him in command of the Ranger Corps.

The Fighting

There were no Queensbury Rules of fighting a guerilla war during the French and Indian War.  As good as Rogers’ Rangers were, they didn’t always win the day.  In January 1757, Rogers led a 74-man company in an ambuscade near Fort Carillon (near the narrows along the southern region of Lake Champlain).[8]  After capturing seven prisoners, a force of around 120 French regulars, militia, and allied Indians attacked Rogers.  The strength of the attack forced Rogers to withdraw.  The French killed fourteen of Rogers’ men, took six as prisoners, and wounded six others.  It was only through his use of snowshoes that Rogers and his men escaped without further casualties.

Later that year, a company of rangers was stationed at Fort William Henry when the French placed the fort under siege.  When the British commander realized that his fight was over and surrendered, the French massacred every British regular and militia soldier, including Noah Johnson’s Ranger Company of sixty men.

In March 1758, another company of rangers attacked a French and Indian column, but once again, the rangers took heavy casualties, losing 125 soldiers killed, eight wounded, and 52 surviving through rapid withdrawal.

In May, four companies of rangers (around 500 men) went ashore at Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, during the siege of Louisbourg.  Three companies of Rogers’ Rangers and one company of Gorham’s Rangers.  While conducting search and destroy operations, the rangers encountered over a hundred French and Mi’kmaq warriors.  In the ensuing fight, Rangers killed fifty and took 70 more captives.

In July, Rogers’ Rangers took part in the Battle of Carillon.  Some two-hundred French Canadians and three-hundred Indians attacked a British convoy, killing 116 and capturing 60 men.  A month later, at Crown Point, a French force of 450 men attacked a smaller force of British light infantry and provincials.  Ranger Captain Israel Putnam was one of the men captured.  The British lost 49 killed in this battle but claimed 100 or more dead French and Indian allies.  Putnam was later saved from burning at the stake by the intervention of a French officer.[9]

The St. Francis Raid of 1759 was one of the more infamous engagements of the rangers.  In retribution for what General Amherst thought of as Abenaki treachery, he sent Rogers to destroy the Indian settlement at St. Francis, near the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River outside Quebec.  Major Rogers led a force of 140 men from Crown Point deep into French territory.  The raid was successful, which, according to Rogers, meant that he and his Rangers slaughtered 200 women, children, and elderly people.[10]  News of the attack reached Trois-Rivières around noon that day.  Captain Jean-Daniel Dumas organized a force of experienced fighters to pursue Rogers.

The Rangers, burdened by the weight of their supplies and the inconvenience of marching prisoners, made good progress, covering the 70 miles to Lake Memphremagog in about eight days, but at this point, their rations began to run out.  The wearied condition of his men and dwindling food stores forced Rogers to divide his men up into smaller units, which he sent out independently with orders to proceed to the abandoned Fort Wentworth.  Rogers suffered 21 of his men killed, six wounded, and five missing in action (later determined captured) during this operation.  But as to the number of casualties on both sides, British and French reports reveal significant discrepancies of the same incident.

In the spring of 1760, the Rogers’ Rangers joined the Montreal campaign under General Jeffrey Amherst, which included a raid on Fort Saint Therese, a French supply hub between Fort Saint-Jean and Ile Aux Noix.  After destroying the fort, the French and Indians assaulted the Rangers during their withdrawal but inflicted only minor casualties.

Afterward, Amherst ordered the Rangers to support the column of Brigadier General William Haviland.  General Haviland dispatched Rogers’ four ranger companies (augmented by a detachment of light infantry and Indian allies) with three cannons through the forest and swamps to take up a firing position to the rear of the French position.  It was a difficult task, taking several days, but Rogers did manage to set the artillery along a riverbank facing the French naval force.

Rogers’ order to fire completely surprised the French navy and caused some panic among them to move their ships out of harm’s way.  When one sloop cut her cable, wind and current carried her to shore and fell into the hands of the British.  The other ships managed to escape but went aground in a bend in the river, and these too were eventually captured by Rangers, who swam out to board the vessels.

With their line of communications severed, the French had little choice but to evacuate the island.  General Amherst moved quickly to capitalize on his successes by forcing a French withdrawal to Montreal, which surrendered without a fight in the following month.

After the French and Indian War

After the fall of Montreal, General Amherst assigned Rogers to Brigadier Robert Monckton, who ordered Rogers to capture Fort Detroit.  Once accomplished, there being no further need of Rangers, Amherst disbanded them and sent them home.  Following their standard practices of the day, the British retired Robert Rogers at half-pay.

Rogers’ income proved dire because the British did not reimburse him for the money he had spent out of his pocket paying and equipping his men, which rendered Rogers destitute.  He traveled to London, where, in an attempt to produce an income, he authored a book about his adventures and helped develop a stage play about Pontiac’s War.  Both the book and play were successful enough to earn him an audience with King George III.  The King rewarded Rogers for his service by appointing him as Governor of Mackinaw, a minor posting.

In America, General Thomas Gage replaced Amherst as Commander-in-Chief.  Unfortunately, Gage detested Rogers, and from every account, the feeling was mutual.  In 1767, General Gage charged Rogers with treason for having established a “too comfortable” relationship with French Canadians.  Having arrested Rogers, Gage ordered that he be taken to Detroit in chains to answer the charge.  General Gage’s evidence was insufficient to stand up in court, but despite his acquittal in 1768, Gage ordered Rogers deported to England.  To meet Rogers on the dock were London officials who promptly escorted him to debtor’s prison where he languished for three years.

In 1775, with a war on the horizon between Britain and the American colonies, the disenchanted Rogers returned to America and offered his services to the American military commander, George Washington.  Washington, however, suspected Rogers as a British spy and ordered his arrest.  However, the clever Rogers escaped and promptly offered his services once more to the Crown.

Based on Rogers’ previous success, the British commissioned him to command the Queen’s Rangers as regimental colonel.  As General Gage previously stated on more than one occasion, Colonel Rogers was no gentleman — a fact that Rogers seemed to prove when he appointed, as officers of the Queen’s Regiment, owners of taverns and brothels.

Worse than that, however, beyond the arrest of Nathan Hale (a somewhat naive young captain who was ill-suited for espionage), the Queen’s Rangers had no successes in battle.  In late October 1776, while General Washington withdrew his army toward White Plains, New York, General William Howe landed troops in Westchester intending to cut off Washington’s escape.

General Howe ordered Rogers to cover his eastern flank by seizing the village of Mamaroneck.  During the night of 22 October, patriot Colonel John Haslet attacked the Queen’s Rangers, achieving complete surprise and inflicting many casualties before withdrawing.  Even though the Rangers quickly recovered and attempted to pursue Haslet, General Howe sacked Colonel Rogers (and his officers) and appointed someone more “appropriate” to command the regiment.  Howe may have cited Rogers’ poor health as justification for his relief, but the fact is that Rogers was an alcoholic, and he soon after returned to London.

Rogers returned to America in 1779, again obtained a commission to command the King’s Rangers, but that appointment lasted only a few months before he was again sacked for drunken behavior.  Rogers returned to London, England, in 1780, where he remained until he died in 1793.  He was 63 years of age.

Conclusion

Robert Rogers was not the only military commander to succumb to alcoholism.  Famed patriot George Rogers Clark (the elder brother of William Rogers Clark) also died in the generally held disgraceful condition of alcoholism and self-pity, albeit several years later.

Robert Rogers did not invent unconventional warfare, nor even “ranging,” but he did display an affinity for special operations or “thinking outside the box.”  Benjamin Church of Massachusetts was the first to establish “ranging” units of frontiersmen and friendly Indians in 1675.  Those men would “range” between outposts looking for the sign of hostile Indians and French troublemakers.  Church’s memoirs, published in 1716, became the first de facto American military manual — and there were several ranging units in existence long before Rogers’ Rangers.

But British ranging units never gained the respect of the regular forces, particularly from among the British Army’s aristocratic leaders.  The stigma of commanding unconventional forces also attached itself to Colonel Sir Banastre Tarleton, and some degree to Colonel John Graves Simcoe, a fact carried forward in time to the Civil War when both Union and Confederate generals regarded partisan rangers as bushwhackers and murderers (which, in some cases, they were).

Still, the accomplishments of ranging units speak for themselves.  The Rangers were one of a few non-native forces able to operate in the inhospitable backcountry under harsh winter conditions and rugged mountain terrain.  By every account, the young Robert Rogers was an exceptional leader who mustered, paid, equipped, trained, and commanded his men.  His Twenty-eight Rules for Ranging and Roger’s Standing Orders form part of the U.S. Army’s introduction to training materials on ranging.  It wasn’t until much later in his life that Robert Rogers lost his glory and his honor.

Sources:

  1. Cuneo, J. R.  Robert Rogers of the Rangers.  Oxford University Press, 1959.
  2. Fryer, M. B., and Christopher Dracott.  John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806): A Biography.  Dundurn Press, 1998.
  3. Ross, J. F.  War on the run: the epic story of Robert Rogers and the conquest of America’s first frontier.  Bantam Books, 2009.
  4. Scotti, A. J.  Brutal Virtue: The Myth and Reality of Banastre Tarleton.  Heritage Books, 2002.
  5. Sheftick, G.  Rangers Among First Leaders of America’s Army.  U.S. Army Historical Center, 2016.
  6. Zaboly, G. S.  True Ranger: The Life and Many Wars of Major Robert Rogers.  Royal Blockhouse, 2004.

Endnotes:

[1] See also: Citizen Soldier and the American Militia.

[2] The name the Iroquois Confederacy gave to Major Washington was “Conotocaurius,” which we are told means the destroyer or devourer of villages. 

[3] In British America, the colonel of the regiment was a secondary assignment of the colonial governor.  Since most colonial governors never left their homes in England, the lieutenant governor served as de facto governor and also as lieutenant colonel of the colonial militia.  Dinwiddie served as lieutenant governor under Governor Willem van Keppel (1751-1756) and was reappointed under Governor John Campbell (1756-1758).  Subsequent to the Battle of Jumonville, Dinwiddie appointed Lieutenant Colonel Washington to command the Virginia Regiment.

[4] John Winslow was the grandson and great-grandson of two Massachusetts governors, the first of which, Edward, was born and raised in Droitwich, England, seven miles from the town of Worcester, where my wife was born. 

[5] While on his recruitment drive in Portsmouth, Robert met his future wife, Elizabeth Browne, the daughter of a local minister.

[6] In 1744, John Gorham raised an auxiliary unit of mixed native American rangers led by Anglo officers for participation in King George’s War.  Gorham was originally charged to reinforce regular British troops under siege at Fort Anne and was later employed in establishing British control over Nova Scotia fighting against Acadian and Mi’kmaq Indians. 

[7] Richard died of smallpox in 1757 at Fort William Henry.  Later, Indian enemies disinterred his body and, in retribution, mutilated it.  Whether these Indians came down with Richard’s disease is unknown, but if they did, they probably spread it around the tribe.

[8] Fort Carillon was later named Fort Ticonderoga.

[9] Native American tribes frequently used ghastly torture techniques to torment their captives, the specific technique dependent upon the folkways of a particular tribe and perhaps on the circumstances of the conflict and capture.  Burning captives at the stake was common among northeastern tribes. 

[10] The French insisted that Rogers “only murdered” 30 innocents.


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.