Provincial Military Organizations

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Provincial Military Organizations

PROVINCIAL MILITARY ORGANIZATIONS. American colonists who continued to be loyal to King George III organized military units to fight the rebels almost immediately after the start of hostilities in the spring of 1775. The Loyalist military response took forms that varied from what amounted to like-minded groups of thugs that banded together to support themselves with violence directed usually against the rebels to fully fledged military units with excellent discipline, superb tactical skills, and all the esprit de corps that uniforms, accoutrements, and distinctive emblems could reflect and reinforce. The military value of Loyalist units was a function of how and when they were raised, and by whom. The men in most of these formations were as capable of performing valuable military service—such as standing in battle, skirmishing in support of regular troops, ambushing rebel units, and raiding rebel settlements—as any American soldiers raised and led under similar circumstances. The men on both sides of the imperial civil war who trailed off into activity of no appreciable military value were nothing more than bandits and outlaws, and they had little if any positive impact on achieving the political outcomes each side was trying to obtain.

The majority of Loyalist units formed in America were authorized by the British commanders in chief in America or Canada and were thus entitled to be called "Provincials," an extension of the name applied by the British to colonial regiments raised during the French and Indian War. These Provincials were raised for a fixed term of service (usually two years or the duration of the war), were paid, clothed, armed, fed, and housed by the British government, were subject to the same discipline, and were liable for service anywhere in North America. They were not legally part of the regular establishment, having been created for temporary service in a particular theater. On 2 May 1779, however, three Provincial regiments were placed on a hybrid American Establishment that offered them higher status and certain tangible benefits like access to better clothing and half pay for officers upon disbanding. The first three units—the Queen's Rangers (or Queen's American Rangers), the Volunteers of Ireland, and the New York Volunteers—were designated the First through Third American Regiments, and they were followed on 7 March 1781 by two more American regiments, the King's American Regiment (Fourth) and the cavalry of the British Legion (Fifth). On Christmas Day 1782, four of the American Regiments (all but the Third) were elevated to the British Establishment, a mark of royal favor that allowed their officers the chance to find a place in the permanent military forces of the crown. All of the Provincial regiments were disbanded at the end of the war.

Major General William Tryon, the former royal governor of North Carolina and New York, was the commander in chief of the Provincial forces in America, headquartered at New York City. Oliver De Lancey of New York (formerly commanding De Lancey's Brigade) was the senior brigadier general. The other brigadier generals were Cortlandt Skinner of New Jersey (New Jersey Volunteers); Montford Browne, governor of the Island of New Providence in the Bahamas (Prince of Wales's American Regiment); and in 1780, Benedict Arnold, the rebel defector. Alexander Innes served as inspector general, and Edward Winslow as muster-master general.

Any calculations concerning the Loyalist military effort—the history and number of Loyalist military units, the overall strength of those units, and the impact of armed Loyalism on the outcome of the War for American Independence—are complicated by a lack of records and problems in defining whom to count as a Loyalist. There seem to have been over 150 named Loyalist units during eight years of war, ranging from companies with a few tens of men to multiple-battalion regiments of well over one thousand soldiers. Somewhere between seventy and one hundred units seem to have had a significant military presence, at least to the extent of continuing to seek recruits and achieving an extended military presence. Perhaps three dozen units took the field with a maximum known strength of at least several hundred men; these are the units that can claim to have contributed materially to the British war effort.

The peak of Loyalist fighting strength—nearly ten thousand officers and men on the rolls of Sir Henry Clinton's command, headquartered at New York City—was recorded on 15 December 1780, but that figure does not include the units operating under Major General Frederick Haldimand's command from Canada or several units still in the process of organizing. According to Paul H. Smith, approximately twenty-one thousand men "saw service in the provincial corps during the War for Independence," but Nan Cole and Todd Braisted contend that "All told, perhaps 50,000 served at one time or another, on the land and on the sea," a difference that seems to rest on Smith's reliance on muster roll data and Cole's and Braisted's desire to be inclusive ("American Loyalists," p. 266; Cole and Braisted, "On-Line.")

SEE ALSO Associated Loyalists; British Legion; Butler's Rangers; Guides and Pioneers; King's American Regiment of Foot; Loyal Americans; Loyalists in the American Revolution; New Jersey Volunteers; New York Volunteers; Queen's Rangers; Queen's Royal Rangers; Regular Establishment; Royal Highland Emigrants; Volunteers of Ireland.


Cole, Nan, and Todd Braisted. "The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies." Available online at

Smith, Paul H. Loyalists and Redcoats: A Study in British Revolutionary Policy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1964.

―――――――. "The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength." William and Mary Quarterly, third series, 25 (1968): 259-277.

Ward, Harry M. Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.

                            revised by Harold E. Selesky

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Provincial Military Organizations

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