They won most major battles—while losing the American War of Independence.

The way nations remember history is more important than strict truth, argued 19th century French writer Ernest Renan, and that is especially true where military history is concerned. The American War (as the Revolutionary War was known in Britain) has spun its own web of mythology, casting the ultimate winners as noble Patriots selflessly devoted to “the glorious cause,” while the losing side is often pilloried as a coalition of mercenary Germans, loutish Redcoats and Tories who richly merited the dispossession visited on them after the war.

Mythologies aside, it is important, when evaluating the merits of opposing sides, to acknowledge hard truths about armies. Good men can fight well in a bad cause, there is no consistency in valor, and today’s hero may prove tomorrow’s poltroon. The best-conducted armies, whether wearing the king’s red or Congress’ blue, contain a sprinkling of zealots, sadists and the plain terrified. And no army is a monolithic structure, obeying doctrine and responding predictably to every tug on the chain of command.

So there is a case for taking seriously the Redcoats. “Crown forces won the great majority of the battlefield engagements of the American War,” notes Matthew H. Spring, whose With Zeal and With Bayonets Only is the best book yet written on the British army of the era. But, like many soldiers before and since, Redcoats discovered that winning such battles as Bunker Hill, Brooklyn, Brandywine, Germantown, Savannah, Camden and Guilford Courthouse did not necessarily win a war.

Who were these Redcoats who so often fought so effectively? The rank and file of the British army during the American War were, in theory, volunteers, who had signed on after listening to a regimental recruiting party of an officer, a sergeant and a couple of drummers.

Not a few “volunteers” were tricked, having gone to bed in a tavern drunk and been rudely awakened with a hangover and the king’s shilling in their pocket. More found hunger the most eloquent recruiting sergeant. Scottish diarist James Boswell chatted to a foot guards sentry who confessed that he was a tailor and had enlisted to escape arrest for debt. In emergencies the government authorized the compulsory enlistment of “all such able-bodied, idle and disorderly persons who cannot…prove themselves to exercise…some lawful trade or employment.” In 1778 the undersheriff of Berkshire told a government minister that he held men condemned for highway robbery and horse stealing, but who were “exceedingly proper fellows for either the Land or the Sea Service.”

Enlistment was generally for life, though the services introduced shorter terms for specific wars. In practice, a man might soldier on until he was too infirm to serve or until the army reduced its numbers—as it always did at the end of a war—discharging soldiers and sending off officers on half-pay. Before being formally attested, a potential recruit had to “pass the doctor,” but both the state of medical knowledge and pressure to fill vacancies ensured that examinations were often perfunctory. Age limits for enlistment ran from 17 to 50 at the height of the war, though drummer boys were taken younger.

At the time of the American War, just over half the rank and file came from England and Wales, the remainder from Scotland and Ireland. Most British soldiers in North America were infantrymen: Just over 60 regiments of foot served there for at least part of the war, though accurate accounting is complicated by the raising, in North America, of units then carried on the regular establishment. Only two regular cavalry regiments—the 16th and 17th Light Dragoons—were sent overseas, though the use of Loyalist horsemen somewhat made up for Britain’s shortage of cavalry.

The British army, traditionally small by the standards of such major European land powers as France or Prussia, expanded with war and contracted with peace. During the American War, its establishment rose to seven battalions of foot guards and 111 battalions in the line, with 30 regiments of cavalry (use of the term “battalion” poses other questions, but at this time most regiments had a single battalion). Each British battalion had 10 companies, eight battalion companies—their soldiers known as “hatmen” for the tricorn hats they wore—and two flank companies, one light and the other grenadier, whose members also wore distinctive caps.

At its full establishment strength, an infantry battalion should have numbered around 600 officers and men. In North America most British battalions were smaller: Flank companies were posted away to form light infantry or grenadier battalions, gaps left by casualties remained unfilled, etc. On the eve of the Battle of Camden, the 33rd Regiment’s eight battalion companies totaled 238 officers and men, and the two Guards battalions at Guilford Courthouse went into battle with about 200 men each.

The company, commanded by a captain assisted by a lieutenant and an ensign, was the battalion’s basic building block and in 1768 should have numbered three officers, three sergeants, three corporals, two drummers and 47 “private men.” Light and grenadier companies had higher establishments but fielded fewer men than paper strengths suggested. Captain John Peebles of the 42nd Royal Highlanders acknowledged that in the second half of 1779, more than 50 of his 80 grenadiers were sick, so that even this elite company had a fighting strength of fewer than 30 men. Cavalry regiments comprised eight troops, each a captain’s command. Britain’s shortage of cavalry meant that regular horsemen were often scattered in penny packets: The troop of 17th Light Dragoons present at the 1781 Battle of Cowpens did well to put 60 officers and men into the field.

Battalions in the field were commanded by a lieutenant colonel, although command sometimes devolved upon the battalion’s major or even the senior available captain. Regular army regiments were effectively “owned” by their colonels, usually senior officers who got their appointments as a reward for past service. A regiment’s colonel could expect to profit from the difference between the money given him by the government to equip his regiment and the actual cost of items supplied. He also drew the pay for commanding one of the battalion companies, but the real work was entrusted to the battalion’s captain-lieutenant, who ranked above the lieutenants but below the captains. The colonel’s influence (“interest” was how it was expressed in the 18th century) was crucial in determining how officers were appointed to, and promoted within, the regiment. Colonels might be active, perhaps by taking a close (and often exasperating) interest in the minutiae of uniform, or they might delegate their duties to London-based contractors who handled the details of the regiment’s nonoperational identity.

Until the 1750s, regiments were known by the names of their colonels. Thereafter, they were numbered by seniority from the date of their raising, although some regiments had names that remained more familiar than numbers. Thus, the 1st Foot was the Royal Scots, the 2nd was the Queen’s, and the 42nd was styled the Royal Highlanders or the Black Watch. A regiment’s seniority was a matter of import, as peacetime reductions always struck first at more recently raised units. Career officers understandably craved billets in senior regiments.

The horse and foot regiments were the responsibility of the army’s commander in chief, usually an experienced professional officer. That post was held from 1766 to 1769 by the Marquess of Granby, and from 1778 to 1782 by Lord Amherst, with an interregnum during the early part of the American War. The commander in chief was not responsible for artillery, engineers, fortifications and associated stores, which were entrusted to the master general of the ordnance, a peer who usually had a seat in the cabinet; Viscount Townshend held the post between 1772 and 1782.

There were sharp differences between the officers of British horse and foot regiments and the “gentlemen of the ordnance.” Artillery and engineer officers were commissioned after passing through the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and then promoted by seniority. Young men who sought commissions in the horse and foot had to produce a letter testifying to gentlemanly status and could then buy the rank of ensign (for the infantry) or cornet (for the cavalry). Then, subject to regulations that increasingly demanded time in rank, they could buy promotion as vacancies became available. But an officer could only buy his way to lieutenant colonel, after which all promotion was by seniority.

What seemed a simple system was actually complex. Although most first commissions between 1660 and 1871 were purchased, in wartime the abundance of first commissions as new units were raised outstripped the supply of young gentlemen whose families were prepared to disgorge a substantial sum and thus give the lad a chance at early death. Free commissions might be obtained by the active interest of powerful men; by joining a regiment as a gentleman volunteer, like Thomas Anburey, who served as such in America with the grenadier company of the 29th before being given a commission in the 24th. It was also possible to be commissioned from the ranks. Jacob Brunt, for example, enlisted in 1770, was commissioned into the 55th Foot in 1793 as ensign and adjutant, took a free lieutenancy in the newly raised 83rd, and eventually became a lieutenant colonel in the same regiment in 1811.

Vacancies created when an officer died or was killed were filled by seniority within the regiment. The August 1775 order book of Maj. Gen. William Howe, then commander in chief in North America, shows how the process worked following the death of a captain in the 49th Foot:

Captn Lieut James Grant to be Captain Vice [in place of] Heptune Dead

Lieut Robert Wilson to be Captn Lieut Vice Grant Preferred

Ensign Willm Roberts to be Lt Vice Wilson Preferred

John Wrigglesworth Volunteer to be Ensign

Vice Roberts preferred.

The process was prone to manipulation. An officer with money could dart about the Army List so as to finish up in his desired regiment. Arthur Wesley (as he then spelled his name), the future Duke of Wellington, was commissioned into the 73rd Foot in March 1787, promoted into the 76th that December and slipped, via the 41st Foot and the 21st Light Dragoons, to a captaincy in the 58th in 1791. He moved on, by way of the 18th Light Dragoons, to a majority in the 33rd Foot in April 1793 and a lieutenant colonelcy in the same regiment in September that year at the age of 24. Seniority made him a colonel while he was commanding the 33rd, and he reached major general in 1802.

Armies rely upon a mixture of coercion and reward to maintain their cohesion, and it is easy to identify the British army’s formal processes during the American War.

Discipline was strict. Men were flogged for minor offenses and executed for more serious crimes, although officers dispensing capital sentences thought hard about their moral responsibilities. Executions—often for desertion, that bane of 18th century armies —were designed to impress and deter, and victims were often pardoned at the last moment. In July 1779, Private John Sutherland of the 64th, condemned for desertion, was reprieved at the foot of the gallows, and “fainted with joy when his pardon was pronounced.” Casual brutality, however, was rare in most regiments. Captain Peebles much regretted hitting a drunken soldier, while others wrote of their surprise at the way certain British officers knocked about German troops serving under them.

At the other extreme, regular pay, the prospect of promotion (especially the “brevet” rank granted officers for distinguished service), good rations and a generous alcohol allowance (intended to alleviate the rigors of campaigning rather than to send men into battle dead drunk) all helped. So too did prize money, produced from the sale of captured enemy public property, although the distribution by shares according to rank often aroused ire.

It is harder to agree on the effect of the intimate bonds that lie at the very heart of soldiers’ motivation. Admirers of the regimental system argue that the ties of loyalty, burnished by long service in a unit with its own culture, generated cohesion on and off the battlefield. But historian John Houlding long ago showed that peacetime deployments saw regiments broken down into smaller groups, impeding both collective training and the acquisition of esprit de corps.

Soldiers received basic training in drilling and weaponry on joining the army, but battalion maneuvers and training in collaboration between different arms of the service was hampered by the fact that the army was scattered about Great Britain. There were some peacetime “camps of instruction,” and in wartime, regiments often assembled in Britain to perfect their own advanced training and to work with other units. In the summer of 1774, seven light companies came together in camp near Salisbury to have William Howe teach them his excellent new system of skirmishing drills. Howe based his tactics on his own experience of the 1754–63 French and Indian War, and many senior officers were also combat veterans. But the overwhelming majority of officers and men had no combat experience before they reached North America.

Matthew Spring has shown that distinctive paraphernalia like regimental colors and grenadier caps were rarely seen in North America, as dress was radically modified to meet local demands. Moreover, many regiments had short histories, and the practical demands of campaigning meant that new men were constantly entering their ranks. Nevertheless, there is abundant evidence that unit identity mattered greatly to British soldiers serving in America. Sergeant Roger Lamb describes how, when the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers approached the Rebel first line at Guilford Courthouse in March 1781 and saw American muskets leveled across a rail fence, there was a “general pause.” Lt. Col. James Webster rode forward and said, with more than his usual commanding voice, “Come on, my brave Fuziliers.” Although the Rebel volley was, as one officer grimly recalled, “most galling and destructive,” most of the American line took to its heels when the British, heartened by this appeal to their tribal loyalty, pressed forward.

Conversely, when 2nd Battalion Light Infantry buckled under a surprise attack at Germantown in October 1777, Howe yelled, “For shame, Light Infantry! I never saw you retreat before. Form! Form! It is only a scouting party.” The light infantry gained wry satisfaction when Howe realized they were indeed facing a major assault, and a blast of grapeshot rattled about his ears.

Spring rightly adds “self-assurance and xenophobia” to the Redcoats’ motivational brew. Given the reasons for enlistment, it is chastening to see how those who owed their country so little could strive so hard on its behalf. A Hessian captain attributed it to their “confounded pride and arrogant bearing.” A French observer of the Yorktown surrender in 1781 was astonished to see British “arrogance and ill-humor in the face of peasants who were almost naked…and who, nevertheless, were their conquerors.” Dislike of foreigners in general and irregulars in particular, together with the euphoria of the charge and the desire to avenge comrades hit by musketry, often meant that Rebels who might have surrendered were bayoneted out of hand in the fury of battle.

There were also a few occasions when royal troops went further. For example, on Sept. 28, 1778, 12 companies of British light infantry under Maj. Gen. Charles Grey overran elements of the 3rd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons under Colonel George Baylor. The Americans had quartered for the night in several barns in Harrington Township, N.J. During the surprise night attack, some of the British troops obeyed their officers’ prompting to kill Americans who had surrendered.

British tactics in America are only now being properly understood. The pressure to make infantry more agile predated the war. As Private Matthew Todd observed in 1757, “We were frequently Exercising by Bushfighting, Street firing, etc.” Tactics, dress and equipment were modified to enable infantry to deal with irregular opponents in the wild or forested country, and officers ensured that “regiments are frequently practiced at firing with ball at marks.”

However, tension remained about the relationship between musketry and cold steel. Some officers admired the Prussian pattern, in which infantry slammed out volleys as rapidly as possible. But this was incompatible with combat in broken country, and volley fire was arguably more difficult in practice than it was in theory. Although the infantry certainly hammered away toe to toe at some battles, like Camden in August 1780, such instances were less common than we might think. When attacking, the British generally fired a single volley at close range—say, as little as 35 yards—cheered and then charged with the bayonet, a tactic that often broke their opponents.

This fire-cheer-charge sequence outlasted the American War and proved extraordinarily successful in Wellington’s great victory at Salamanca in 1812. The striking difference there was that broken Frenchmen had no refuge from the cavalry that thundered in to cut them up as they ran. In North America, broken troops (whichever side they were on) usually took refuge in the woods and, all being well, reassembled later. The British did not lack cavalry in America because they had none to send but because the terrain meant they could rarely go beyond tactical victory to destroy the beaten army. Nor were successful infantry charges necessarily useful in woodland, for the advantages of discipline and cohesion enjoyed by regulars were at a discount in a formless battle.

American Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene (together with Commander in Chief George Washington himself) recognized that defeating the British might well involve losing every battle but ensuring that the beaten Continental Army retained enough cohesion to fight another day. That controversial British cavalry officer Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton was right to observe that victory at Guilford Courthouse was pointless, as “a defeat of the British would have been attended with a total destruction of Earl Cornwallis’ infantry, whilst a victory at this juncture could produce no very decisive consequence against the Americans.”

Rebel successes, on the other hand, often had an impact resonating far beyond America’s shores. In strictly military terms, British Gen. John Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga was not a major event, but it encouraged the French to join the war, presenting the British with a conflict of strategic priorities in which ultimately safeguarding the British Isles would be more important than retaining control of North America. Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown had an even greater effect, for it persuaded the British political establishment, always of two minds about the war, that the game was up.

In truth, the king’s men had no answer to what Spring has called “Rebel resilience.” An experienced German officer maintained that after initial British failure to nip the rebellion in the bud, “the Rebels couldn’t help but become soldiers.” And so they did: British inability to destroy the Continental Army was central to their greater failure to convince the colonial population that rebellion would be extinguished. And populations, as my generation knows to its cost, can defy purely military predictions.


For further reading, Richard Holmes recommends With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775–1783, by Matthew H. Spring.

Originally published in the May 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here