LIGHT INFANTRY. The term "light infantry" denotes infantrymen whose equipment and armament were modified (reduced in weight and made less cumbersome) to give them maximum mobility for their primary role as skirmishers in front of the main line of the regiment. Like their peers in the battalion and grenadier companies, soldiers in the light infantry company were trained to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a line two or three ranks deep and deliver the volley fire that made linear tactics so effective, and to form up into deeper and narrower columns to assault an enemy with the bayonet. But the light infantryman also had other duties. While the men in the battalion and grenadier companies formed up in line, the light infantrymen would move forward to fight in open order, using speed, agility, and concealment in the terrain to direct an aimed, harassing fire against the enemy line or column, to inflict casualties and sow disorganization before the enemy came into musket range of the line. Light infantrymen had to be fit and agile, with the self-confidence and self-discipline to fight alone or in small groups away from the comfort and security of the line. Because they might also be out of sight of their noncommissioned officers, company officers had to have confidence that the light infantrymen would perform as skirmishers with little super-vision and would not take the opportunity to desert.
Light infantry was created to support a system of linear tactics. The need for such troops was recognized across Europe, from the Austrians who faced swarms of Turkish skirmishers in battles on their eastern marches, to the British who had to adapt to war in the Scottish Highlands and the wilderness of North America. Light infantry companies became standard in most European armies during the third quarter of the eighteenth century. In the British army, where they were formed permanently from 1771, their elite status earned them the designation, along with the grenadiers, as flank companies, and entitled them to a position of honor on the left of the regiment when it was drawn up in line (the taller, more imposing grenadiers, as the senior company, took station on the right of the line). Many British officers had gained experience with light infantry in North America, including Thomas Gage, who raised the Eightieth Regiment of Light Armed Foot in mid-1758; Henri Bouquet, who fought successfully against Native American warriors on the Pennsylvania frontier; and William Howe, who led an ad hoc light infantry battalion at the battle of Quebec (13 September 1759).
Thanks in large part to the special light infantry training camp Howe conducted at Salisbury during August and September 1774, from the very beginning of the Revolution the British used light infantry with great effect as shock troops and skirmishers. It was a common practice for the British army in America to detach the flank companies from each of the regiments present and form them into ad hoc battalions that could be used for especially important or arduous service. At Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, for example, Howe sent a column of ten light infantry companies down the Mystic River beach in his best opportunity to outflank the rebels. For the New York campaign in 1776, he organized a brigade of four battalions of light infantry companies (and another of four battalions of grenadier companies) to spearhead his army. Charles Lord Cornwallis in particular distinguished himself in the early campaigns as commander of the light infantry corps.
Light infantrymen could also function as rangers (the American term) who acted independently and in advance of the army or participated in the partisan-style "war of posts" between armies. As the war continued, the British main army filled its need for skirmishers by relying on both the Jäger (hunter) companies that came to America as part of the German auxiliary contingents, and certain Loyalist units led by British officers, the most famous of whom was Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe of the Queen's Rangers.
American light infantry served most prominently with Washington's main army, where it evolved from the six companies of Pennsylvania and Virginia riflemen that joined the Continental Army at Cambridge in July 1775 into the light infantry corps organized annually. By 1779 the corps became the elite striking force of the American army. The American light infantry combined two traditions. The riflemen embodied a tradition of adapting the skills honed in fighting native Americans on the frontier to the needs of a European-style army, whereas the corps of light infantry paralleled the British practice of creating elite battalions within an army. Various units of riflemen served with the main army at New York City in 1776, but the first unit created by Washington to function as skirmishers was a small ad hoc ranger battalion formed in early September under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton of Connecticut. Early in June 1777 Washington ordered Colonel Daniel Morgan of Virginia to form a corps of five hundred riflemen from among Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland riflemen already enlisted in the army. Morgan's riflemen worked hard for two months screening the main army against British maneuvers in northern New Jersey, while simultaneously trying to determine from his actions the plans Howe had for the 1777 campaign. When Washington sent Morgan and his Corps of Rangers to the Northern army in mid-August to help counter the white and Indian skirmishers supporting Burgoyne's invasion, he wasted little time in creating a new force of light infantry for the main army. On 28 August he ordered that a hundred men be drafted from each of the army's seven brigades. Two days later he placed the formation under the command of Brigadier William Maxwell of New Jersey and gave it the mission of skirmishing in front of Howe's advance from Head of Elk.
After Morgan returned from Saratoga with his rifle corps on 18 November 1777, Washington decided to institutionalize light infantry in the Continental Army. Based on his recommendations to a committee that visited Valley Forge during the winter of 1777–1778, on 27 May 1778 Congress decreed that each eight-company infantry regiment would add a ninth company of light infantry, to be kept up to strength by transfers from the other companies, regardless of how understrength the rest of the regiment became. Aware that creating light infantry in this manner drew the best soldiers away from battalion companies that might otherwise rely on them to improve the bearing and performance of the entire regiment, Washington balanced this concern against the often pressing need to form an elite corps of light infantry for special missions. Circumstances over the next four years prompted him to detach the bulk of these light infantry companies from their regiments to form a Corps of Light Infantry at some point during the campaigning season, but he always returned them to their institutional and administrative home for the winter.
Major operations ended in 1778 with the battle of Monmouth Courthouse on 28 June. After positioning the main army in the Hudson Highlands to watch the British army now concentrated at New York City, Washington reformed the corps of light infantry on 8 August. "For the safety and ease of the army and to be in greater readiness to attack and repel the enemy," he directed that "a Corps of Light Infantry composed of the best, most hardy and active marksmen and commanded by good partizan officers be draughted from the several brigades, to be commanded by Brigadier General [Charles] Scott [of Virginia]" (Washington, p. 300). For the next three months, Scott and his four battalions actively patrolled the zone between the two armies. When Scott went home on furlough in mid-November, Colonel David Henley, one of his battalion commanders, took over command of the corps until it was disbanded on 1 December. The value Washington placed on the light infantry in an emergency was shown on 4 December, when information that a British fleet was ascending the Hudson led him to recall the companies and place them under Brigadier General Anthony Wayne of Pennsylvania. They were released again on 4 December when no attack materialized.
The light infantry corps was reformed in June 1779 under Wayne, again with four battalions. It distinguished itself at the attack on Stony Point on 16 July, the pinnacle of American light infantry, and was disbanded after 28 December 1779.
The light infantry corps for the campaign of 1780 was ordered into existence on 16 July and embodied in two three-battalion brigades on 1 August. Initially commanded by Major General Arthur St. Clair, it was led by Major General the marquis de Lafayette from 8 August 1780 until it was disbanded on 26 November 1780. The corps had little opportunity to distinguish itself during a year of relative inactivity in the North.
The light infantry corps for 1781 was reconstituted early in the year (1 February) because of the need to send reinforcements to Virginia to operate against the traitor Benedict Arnold's incursion into that state. Lafayette led twelve hundred light infantry, in three battalions, south in mid-February and reached Head of Elk, Maryland, on 3 March, where he waited to see if a French squadron from Newport could prevent the British from reinforcing Arnold. Despite French failure, Lafayette resumed his southward progress on 4 April and reached Richmond on the evening of 29 April. The three light infantry battalions participated in the summer's campaign in Virginia and were joined on 26 September by two more battalions, part of Washington's force that had left the Hudson Highlands on 20 August. Lafayette remained in command of what was now a light infantry division of two brigades, the flower of the Continental Army, and took part in the operations that culminated in the surrender of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown on 19 October 1781. The light infantry battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton particularly distinguished itself in the assault on Redoubt No. 10 on 14 October. The companies returned to their regiments after Washington's army returned to the Highlands in early December. No separate corps of light infantry appear to have been formed during 1782 or 1783.
SEE ALSO Bouquet, Henry; Cornwallis, Charles; Ewald, Johann von; Flank Companies; Gage, Thomas; Howe, William; Jägers; Knowlton, Thomas; Maxwell's Light Infantry; Morgan, Daniel; Riflemen; Stony Point, New York; Virginia, Military Operations in; Wayne's Light Infantry; Yorktown Campaign.
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revised by Harold E. Selesky