Revolutionary War Historical Article
Soldiers of the King
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the September 1984 Edition of the Valley Compatriot Newsletter
On that fateful day in April '75, when "the shot heard round the world" was fired at Concord, Massachusetts, the total effective strength of the British Army - world wide - some 45,000 Officers and men. 8,500 of them were stationed in North America. This force consisted primarily of infantry, a small artillery contingent and no cavalry. Six years later, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the British Army in North America consisted of 39,294 infantry, 2,484 artillerymen, and 6,689 cavalry, plus a few thousand contracted civilians, serving as wagoners, drivers, butlers and odd-job-job men.
But who were these men? We all have heard of generals Howe, Gage, Burgoyne, Lord Cornwallis and a few other leaders. But this writer seriously doubts that a single reader can name one common soldier! This article is written to present a brief description of the average "Red Coat."
Comparing the British soldier of the eighteenth century with today's troops, one is instantly assured of a complete mutiny if we even so much as suggested our armed forces endure the life style of the "Red-Coats"! First, ENLISTMENTS WERE FOR LIFE! The pay was so horrible that an Officer of the XXIXth Regiment published in a pamphlet (London 1775) "From the 8 pence (about $0.20 in 1984) which was issued for the pay of the soldier when all deductions were made for clothing, for necessaries, for washing, for the paymaster, for the surgeon, and for the multiplied articles of useless and unmilitary fopperies (introduced by many colonels to the oppression of the soldier for the credit and appearance of the regiment) there is not sufficient overplus for healthful subsistence; and as to the little enjoyments and recreations which even the meanest rank of men can call their own in any country, the brave, the honorable, the veteran soldier must not aspire to." Even the Officers were hard pressed to make ends meet. Fortunately, the system which granted Commissions (which were purchased) meant that most Officers had independent incomes.
Under these conditions, what would make a British subject join
the Army? Very few of the enlisted men were volunteers. Recruiting
squads (every Regiment had one) obtained enlistees by any means,
fair or foul. Many young man met one of these recruiters in a local
pub, and awaking the next morning with a fearful hangover, found he
had accepted the "King's Shilling" and had enlisted for LIFE! The
King's Shilling was the bonus given by the crown for enlisting, and
once given meant that death was the only alternative. Another
source of 'volunteers' were the courts. Most crimes in the 18th
century were punishable by the gallows, so for some offenses a kind
judge would commute the prisoner's sentence to enlistment.
As a result of the miserable conditions the soldiers were forced to endure, it was necessary to maintain the strictest of discipline. A small theft resulted in hanging. Hundreds of other infractions were publishable by the lash - a cat-o-nine-tails - up to one thousand lashes were commonplace. Punishment was always administered in public, hence the nick-name of "Bloody-backs" was applied both in the colonies and in England.
General William Howe, Military Governor of Massachusetts was very popular with his men, and considered by most to be eminently fair. His orderly book paints a horrid picture off standard military punishments.
"Thomas Owen and Henry Johnson, Private Soldiers-in
His Majesty's 59th Regiment of foot, tried by General
Court Martial . . . .for having broken into and robbed
the store of Messrs. Coffin, storekeeper, of sundry
goods, the Court having duly considered the whole
matter before them is of the opinion that the prisoners
are guilty of the crime laid to their charge . . . .adjudge
that said Thomas Owen and Henry Johnson do suffer
death by being hanged by the neck until they
are dead" (The sentence was carried out in Boston).
Another example of lesser violations :
"Thomas Bailey, grenadier in His Majesty's Corp of
Marines, tried by General Court Martial . . for
striking Lt. Russel of the fourth or King's Own
411 Regiment and of insolent mutinous behavior. The Court
having found him guilty of the latter and- therefore
sentence him to receive 800 lashes on the bare
back with a cat-'o-nine-tails."
An yet another example :
"Thomas MacMahon, Private Soldier in His Majesty's 43rd
Regiment:, and Isabella MacMahon, his wife, tried by . . .
Court Martial for receiving sundry goods stolen goods
knowing them to be such are found guilty of the crime
laid to their charge and therefore adjudged the said
Thomas MacMahon to receive 1,000 lashes . . . the said
Isabella MacMahon to receive 100 lashes on her bare back
at cart's tail in different portions and the most conspicuous
parts of the town, and to be imprisoned 3 months."
When we imagine the British Regulars, our mind's eye
pictures them resplendently attired, in smart uniforms, always
spotless -- but did you ever think of what it took to keep those
uniforms in such condition? Contemporary sources state that the
common soldier spent more than three hours preparing his uniform
for 'parade'! The order in which they prepared was first to
dress their hair. Stiff curls were worn falling alongside their
faces and a 'pig tail' in back. This was accomplished by using
ample pomatum or the end of a tallow candle. Than they had to powder their hair, they had to shine at least a dozen brass buttons on their red coats. All white facings had to be whitened with pipe clay, and finally their shoes had to shine like new. The last article to be put on were the white gaiters, which were whitened with pipe clay and put on WET to insure they fit tight when dried. The cross belt, waist belt, carriage box, were all whitened with pipe clay and finally the 'Brown Bess', the soldier's gun polished until it gleamed, the brown having long been rubbed off so the gun gleamed of polished steel.
Although a very poor existence, most Regiments permitted,
and in fact paid for, the families of the common soldier to go on foreign service.
The wives of the Regulars served a very
necessary function - they washed, cooked, mended uniforms, and
served as army nurses in time of battle. They also helped keep the morale of the men up. Surprisingly, there seemed to have been little problems with 'love triangles.' In spite of the harsh living conditions, marriage was sacred.
But the soldier's bravery is unquestioned. For example, coming back along what is now called "Battle Road" to Boston and fighting every inch of the way. Only the most disciplined troops could have withstood the constant musketry from their flanks and not panicked. They saw 273 of their ranks cut down, and still they maintained control.
These are the same men who two months later marched, then charged up Bunker (Breed's) hill, sustaining 1,150 casualties out of the 2,500 who made the four attacks. A credit to the Crown for having withstood the losses and carried the day. But why did they do it and not desert to the obviously better Country life of Massachusetts?
The Regiments stationed in North America were considered
the best in the British Army. With the possible exception of
our own U. S. Marine Corps, we do not have nor understand the
British pride of Corps that has encouraged Englishmen for generations
to re-write military history with impossible feats of
It matters not how many times the personnel of the
Regiment Change, it retains its distinct identity and is known
and feared because of its Regimental reputation. It was better
to fall in Battle than to disgrace the Regiment. Each and every "Red Coat" knew the history of his Regiment and of its glory - he knew the names of everyone of its hero's, and to be able to join the ranks of hero's was his highest reward. A different philosophy than that of the twentieth Century - or is it?