BATTALION. During the second half of the eighteenth century, the term "battalion" meant the basic active-service maneuver unit in the linear tactical system that dominated European land warfare. The standard battalion in the British army contained ten sub-units called companies which acted as coordinated fire units within the battalion command structure. The terms "battalion" and "regiment" were nearly synonymous in the British and American armies because most infantry "regiments" contained only one active-service "battalion." Although the umbrella administrative structure of the "regiment" could manage two or more active-service battalions, that form of organization was not common. In the British army in 1775, there were 71 infantry battalions in 69 regiments; only the First (Royal Scots) Regiment of Foot (the Royal Regiment) and the Sixtieth (Royal American) Regiment of Foot had 2 battalions. During the war 34 regiments of foot were added, 3 of which, the Seventy-First (Fraser's Highlanders), the Seventy-Third (MacLeod's Highlanders), and the Eighty-Fourth (Royal Highland Emigrants), had a second battalion. Two more battalions of the Sixtieth were raised in 1775, and a second battalion of the Forty-Second (Royal Highlanders) in 1781, so that by 1783 the army had 111 infantry battalions in 103 regiments. (In the American army, the Second Canadian Regiment was the only multi-battalion regiment; its four battalions each had four companies.) Active-service horsed cavalry units were almost always called regiments and contained three, sometimes four, sub-units called troops that could maneuver independently if necessary.
In the standard infantry battalion/regiment in the British army, eight of the ten companies, called battalion companies, were uniform in structure, training, and purpose. The two remaining companies, one of grenadiers, the other of light infantry, were called flank companies because, in the standard linear battle formation of the period, they took station on either flank of the battalion companies. Both flank companies were elite formations, composed of men chosen for specific physical characteristics and trained to perform battle functions over and above what could be expected from a standard battalion company. The grenadier company was the senior flank company, and as such took its place of honor on the right of the battalion line. Grenadier companies had originally been formed, in the late seventeenth century, of tall, strong soldiers who were trained to throw gunpowder-filled cast-iron spheres called grenades over fortifications. The light infantry company was composed of smaller, more agile men whose purpose was to skirmish ahead of the battalion line so as to break up advancing enemy formations and cushion their impact on the battalion line. Formed at the middle of the eighteenth century in response to both European and North American conditions, the light infantry companies, when in line, took station on the left of the battalion. It was common practice from midcentury to detach the flank companies and gather them into provisional elite battalions for special purposes, usually as the spearhead of the army.
The regiment in the British army was commanded by its colonel, usually a senior general officer who retained some of the perquisites and responsibilities of the prior age when the colonel owned the regiment and did not normally lead the regiment on active service. A battalion usually went to war under the command of the lieutenant colonel (literally "in place of the colonel"), but the demands placed on senior field officers was often so great that the major, the third-ranking field officer, was left in charge of the battalion. In the American army, which generally followed British organizational patterns, the colonel would be expected to lead the battalion himself. In 1781 the Continental Army abolished the rank of colonel and created in its place the rank of lieutenant colonel commandant (i.e., commanding) for battalion or regimental commanders. Prisoners were exchanged on the basis of actual rank; few or no colonels were in service in the British army in America.
Authorized strengths of battalions varied widely in the British and American armies. Companies in the prewar British army were set at 38 private soldiers each, which totaled, with officers, noncommissioned officers, and musicians, about 490 men in a battalion. In August 1775 company strength was raised to 56 privates, or about 680 men per battalion, and again in 1779 to 70 privates, or about 820 men per battalion. The strength of the Continental Army regiments for 1776 authorized by Congress on 4 November 1775 was about 720 men (76 privates in each of eight companies, plus officers, noncommissioned officers, and musicians), a structure reauthorized on 16 September 1776 for the 88-battalion army of 1777. Authorized strength dropped to about 580 men on 27 May 1778 (53 privates in each of ten companies), and rose to about 700 men on 3 October 1780 (64 privates in each of nine companies). The battalions in both armies were almost never recruited to full strength, and replacements were rare. For example, many of the American and British regiments at Yorktown numbered around 200 rank and file, and few had more than 600.
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revised by Harold E. Selesky
bat·tal·ion / bəˈtalyən/ • n. a large body of troops ready for battle, esp. an infantry unit forming part of a brigade typically commanded by a lieutenant colonel. ∎ a large, organized group of people pursuing a common aim or sharing a major undertaking.