British Army in North America

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When Paul Revere set off on his famous ride to warn Patriots of a British advance on Lexington and Concord (19 April 1775) in Massachusetts, he almost certainly cried out "The regulars are coming." Revere referred to the "regular establishment" of the British army; soldiers were administered in accordance with laws and regulations governing such things as pay, promotion, and retirement.

In 1754 about four thousand regulars served in North America. They were too scattered to act effectively and had long been neglected by the home government. Two British battalions arrived in Virginia in March 1755 to participate in Braddock's Expedition. They suffered staggering losses in the Battle of the Wilderness (9 July 1755) at the Monongahela River. Subsequent defeats along the frontier prompted the home government to expand greatly the regular establishment in America.

Recruiting proved difficult. During the first two years of the French and Indian War, some seventy-five hundred Americans enlisted in British regiments while only forty-five hundred regulars came from Britain itself. Following the official declaration of war against France in the summer of 1756, recruiting efforts in Britain were more successful. Some eleven thousand regulars were sent from Britain to America in 1757. Simultaneously, the flow of colonial recruits diminished to a trickle. Setback and defeat in 1757 marked the nadir of British fortune. James Abercromby's appointment as commander in chief in North America in early 1758 brought reform and improvement in an army that grew to twenty-three battalions. The year 1758 marked the turning point of the war and the restoration of the British regulars' prestige.

The British regulars in their red coats stimulated a wide range of emotional responses among Americans. After the Peace of Paris in 1763 that ended the French and Indian War, the regular establishment in the colonies was set at ten thousand men. Americans living on the frontier welcomed their presence as security against the Indians. Americans who had to pay taxes for the war debt and for the expenses of maintaining the regulars disliked them. In places like Boston, this dislike turned to hatred after the socalled Boston Massacre (5 May 1770). For them the British regulars were Bloody Backs, a derisive term referring to their severe discipline, which included lashing. Tolerated or hated, the British regular of 1775 was a highly disciplined professional soldier.

He and his officers were contemptuous of the fighting prowess of the colonials and the ability of their leaders. Regulars regarded provincials as ungrateful, second-class citizens. Even those who, like George Washington, sought approval and acceptance within the regular establishment, encountered discrimination. The poor performance of many colonial units during the French and Indian War, combined with the proclivity of America militia to break and run during Revolutionary War battles, reinforced the British sense of superiority. Consequently,

many British commanders acquired an overconfidence that ultimately contributed to some shocking setbacks.


The infantry regiment made up of a single battalion was the era's tactical building block. Each regiment had three field officers—colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major—along with a small staff numbering five men. However, the colonel was a titular officer, so the lieutenant colonel often acted as brigade commander. Frequently, though, both he and the major were detached for special assignment, which meant that the senior captain commonly commanded the regiment while on campaign. The field officers were also nominal commanders of a field company. Consequently, lieutenants commanded their three companies while on campaign. The net effect of this organizational practice was a reduction in the number of officers present on campaign and in battle.

Twelve identical companies composed a regiment, but two of them were recruiting depots, one permanently stationed in England and one in Ireland. Two of the companies were so-called "flank" companies: the grenadier company, composed of the largest men, and the light company, selected for agility. The flank companies were elite formations and were habitually detached from their parent regiments to form provisional grenadier and light battalions. While this practice gave British leaders elite combat formations, it deprived the remaining line, or "battalion companies," of their best men.

Each company had 3 officers, 2 musicians, 6 noncommissioned officers, and 56 privates. At full strength and minus the flank companies, the regiment numbered 514 men. Because of sickness, desertion, battle loss, and men assigned to detached duty, a regiment never entered battle at full strength.

Warfare in Europe shaped the British organization. Here the emphasis was on close order, meaning the soldiers packed elbow to elbow in order to maintain the discipline and solidity required to conduct a bayonet charge. Accordingly, formal doctrine called for the British infantry to deploy in three ranks, although the third rank's fire was inefficient. Experience in North America demonstrated the superiority of a looser deployment in two ranks. The two-rank deployment became standard tactical doctrine.

Soldiers wore a woolen red coat with voluminous folds buttoned back to form lapels. A cocked hat, stiff stock, waistcoat, small clothes, and gaiters reaching just above the knee completed the standard uniform. A foot soldier carried about sixty pounds of equipment, including a cartridge box, knapsack, haversack, blanket, canteen, musket, and ammunition.

The standard Brown Bess smoothbore flintlock musket weighed fourteen pounds. It had an effective range of three hundred yards but was wildly unreliable at more than one hundred yards. In order to maximize firepower, regiments deployed into line. At ranges as close as forty yards, the opposing lines traded volleys in massed group fire. Repeated close-order drill instilled the ability to load and fire quickly, absorb losses, and close ranks as losses thinned the firing line.

The hallmark of the British infantry was the ability to deliver a bayonet charge. Soldiers fixed the one-pound, fourteen-inch-long socket bayonet over their gun's muzzle, and at their officers' command advanced on their foe at the quick step. A charging line of bayonet-wielding redcoats presented an imposing scene and often proved tactically triumphant.

privates and officers

Eighteenth-century soldiers most often joined the British army for economic reasons. The onset of the industrial revolution brought enormous social change. Destitute common laborers, unemployed textile workers, and displaced artisans joined the army to escape poverty. A private soldier received eight pence per day from which there were numerous required deductions. Privates seldom had much if any coin in their pockets to supplement their poor diet or afford any recreations. Even officers' pay failed to keep up with wartime inflation.

Commissions in the army were bought and sold. The purchase system hampered men of moderate means from ascending very high, regardless of their military talents. Most regimental officers up to the rank of major came from the middle class. Only sons of the nobility—William and Richard Howe, Thomas Gage, John Burgoyne, Henry Clinton—could afford high command. They had to be politicians as well as soldiers to become senior generals.

The common soldier usually enlisted for life. Army service was not popular, and the government had difficulty in filling the ranks. The Scottish Highlands and Ireland had long been a fruitful recruiting ground. Because of emigration to America and unusual Irish prosperity, fewer recruits were available when the American War for Independence began. This led to the employment of some thirty thousand German mercenaries along with numerous additional Germans who served in British units. Various bounties attracted some recruits in the British Isles, but after three years of war the government increasingly had to turn to impressment. This measure brought vagrants and the extremely poor into the ranks. Jails released debtors and criminals. Yet field battalions continued to be under strength.

When the Revolution began, the paper strength of the Royal Army stood at some 48,647 men, including 39,294 infantry, but its real strength was closer to 20,000. Some 7,000 served in North America, including those assigned to garrison Canada. By 1781 the number of effectives in North America had risen to about 40,000. Americans helped fill the ranks, but most Tories preferred to serve in Loyalist units. Numerous Continental deserters also took the king's shilling.

strategic problems

During the age of sail, supporting an army operating three thousand miles from its home was a daunting technical challenge. The government annually concluded contracts to furnish a complete daily ration for every soldier in America. Transport carried the provisions across the Atlantic, but hungry redcoats found them to be inedible. Commissary generals repeatedly complained about the delivery of moldy bread, weevily biscuit, rancid butter, sour flour, worm-eaten peas, and maggoty beef.

Distance from its home and the colonial environment made the army's task to crush the rebellion very hard. The negligence, corruption, and inefficiency of its administration, particularly in the provisioning and transport services, enormously compounded that difficulty.

France's entry into the war in February 1778 changed the strategic calculus. Unchallenged command of the sea was gone. The French fleet could deliver enemy soldiers anywhere at a time when the British army was widely dispersed from Canada to Florida and in the West Indies. In fact, the crown valued the West Indies more than the rebellious colonies. The need to retain the islands greatly diminished the resources available to fight the rebels.

The king was even willing to concede that New England, the birthplace of the rebellion, might be beyond reconquering. However, the supposed presence of thousands of Loyalists in the southern colonies helped turn attention toward the Carolinas. The result was the last British strategic offensive. It opened with the capture of Charleston (May 1780) and ended with the surrender at Yorktown (October 1781).

A notable feature of the southern campaign was the participation of large numbers of Loyalist units. Indeed, except for the British commander, the strategically critical Battle of Kings Mountain (7 October 1780) was exclusively an American fight. Yet in the end the Loyalist turnout was disappointing to the British. The British infantry remained the key to battle. The redcoats continued to fight bravely, but their numbers steadily dwindled. Lord Cornwallis's pyrrhic victory at Guilford Courthouse (15 March 1781) cost him too many irreplaceable men and compelled him into his ultimately disastrous march into Virginia.

Although poorly fed and cared for and often poorly led, the redcoats time and again performed courageously. For example, the ability of the British infantry to suffer two repulses with heavy losses and then mount a third, decisive charge up the blood-soaked slopes of Breed's Hill (17 June 1775) was a remarkable martial achievement. Regimental pride and discipline go far to explain such sterling conduct.

the war of 1812

The Revolutionary War ended with the British army having lost some of its imposing reputation. But it retained a presence in North America, and those soldiers garrisoning certain forts on the Great Lakes became one of the causes for a new conflict, the War of 1812 (1812–1815).

The War of 1812 began at a time when the British army was absorbed in a death struggle against Napoleonic France. Since the American Revolution, the British infantry had formally converted from fighting in three ranks to two, which greatly improved its firepower. But the disciplined bayonet charge remained its tactical trump.

At war's start only a small regular force defended Canada, but it was sufficient to repulse the uncoordinated American invasion. Thereafter, major conflict occurred along the Niagara frontier, which the redcoats fought with their customary steadiness.

Napoleon's fall from power in 1814 released British veterans for service in North America. They easily defeated the mismanaged Americans at Bladensburg (24 August 1814) in Maryland and proceeded to capture Washington. However, their frontal charge against well-led Americans at New Orleans (8 January 1815) was a costly defeat. Napoleon's return from exile in 1815 refocused the army on the war against France. In sum, for the British army, the War of 1812 was very much a sideshow.

See alsoFrench and Indian War, Battles and Diplomacy; Military Technology; Revolution: Military History; Revolution: Military Leadership, American; War of 1812 .


Brumwell, Stephen. Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755–1763. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Curtis, Edward E. The Organization of the British Army in the American Revolution. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

Fortescue, J. W. A History of the British Army. 13 vols. New York: AMS, 1976.

Frey, Sylvia R. The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775–1783. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964.

James R. Arnold

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British Army in North America

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