The British Army

The British Army of the Revolutionary War was a professional force, designed for conventional European warfare. In the open field, able to take advantage of their disciplined superiority in maneuver, the red-coated regulars were a formidable foe who were rarely beaten. Ultimately, the skill of British field commanders and the valor of their troops were wasted by the failure to develop an effective strategy to win the war.

The Men in the Ranks

Small by European standards, the British army on paper was overwhelmingly superior to the militia forces initially available to the Patriots. At the outset of the war, the British army comprised 39,294 infantry, 6,869 cavalry, and 2,484 artillerymen. The problem for the British was that they were never able to bring all these forces to bear in America. Even when they were able to build up large armies in the colonies, there were not enough troops to effectively control the countryside. The vast distances to be covered in America, much greater than in more compactly settled European lands, repeatedly frustrated British planning. Not only was the territorial scale against which the British had to operate much greater than in Europe, but roads were poor to nonexistent. Most settlements were little more than villages. British armies were swallowed up by the trackless American wilderness.

The British soldiers thrust into this unfamiliar environment were professionals, enlisted for life. Most came from the lowest orders of society, men who had little prospects in civilian life. Many were convicts or mercenaries recruited from the Celtic fringe of the United Kingdom in Scotland and Ireland. Once in the army, these men were governed with harsh discipline. Their regiments became their homes, the focus of intense loyalties.

As highly trained professionals, British soldiers were hard to replace. Regular troops were always in short supply in America. The British government had a difficult time recruiting soldiers for the war. Neither the cause nor the terms of service were particularly appealing. The government experimented with limiting enlistments to three years or the duration of the war. When this had little effect, the government encouraged the pardoning of criminals in exchange for service in the army. The age range for enlistment was extended from sixteen years of age to fifty. From 1778 on, jobless men who had the misfortune of being arrested for disorderly conduct could be sentenced to military service. Ultimately the government had to address its manpower needs by hiring German mercenaries.

Food was not an inducement to join the British army. On one occasion some British troops were issued fifteen-year-old French hardtack that had been captured in the French and Indian War. The soldiers softened these biscuits by dropping cannon balls on them.

The Officer Class

In the British army of the eighteenth century, the officer corps was the province of the upper classes. The army was the defender of the King and the social order he symbolized. Command of the army could only be entrusted to men who could be counted on to identify their interests with the monarchy and property. Soldiers were the King's men.

Commissions through the rank of colonel were purchased, ensuring that only men of means could make their way into the officer corps. Promotions were purchased as well. A shortage of funds could leave a gentleman stranded in a rank for years, unless he could attract sufficient attention from his superiors to win a rare field promotion. Rank thus became a form of property. A veteran's commission could finance his retirement when he decided to sell out to a younger man.

The officers produced by this entrepreneurial system were surprisingly capable. Most officers joined the army at a young age and learned their business on the job as they purchased their way to the top. The essence of eighteenth-century leadership on the regimental level was leading by example. The gentlemen who commanded British regiments in the American war would repeatedly demonstrate courage as well as tactical skill.

Generals in the British army were members of the ruling elite. Usually aristocratic in background, they were often politicians as well as military leaders. Twenty-three generals served in Parliament during the war. Generals Burgoyne, Clinton, Cornwallis, and Howe were all members of Parliament. Political reliability was as important as military ability because the government picked its commanders. The idea of an apolitical military would have been incomprehensible in eighteenth-century Britain.

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