British Regimental Officers in Combat – American War of Independence II


Banastre Tarleton

Officer casualties were probably disproportionately heavy in those engagements in America where British bayonet attacks failed to dislodge the enemy quickly because sustained fighting gave the rebels more opportunity to single out officers and shoot them down. Burgoyne later claimed that this had unfortunately very much been the case during the seesaw struggle in the center at the battle of Freeman’s Farm: “The enemy had with their army great numbers of marksmen, armed with rifle-barrel pieces. These, during an engagement, hovered upon the flanks in small detachments, and were very expert in securing themselves, and in shifting their ground. In this action, many placed themselves in high trees in the rear of their own line, and there was seldom a minute’s interval of smoke in any part of our line without officers being taken off by [a] single shot.” In a similar fashion, at Cowpens over two-thirds of Tarleton’s infantry officers went down in the fighting that preceded the final, catastrophic British charge, according to Roderick Mackenzie, who was himself wounded. Although officer casualties do not appear to have been grossly disproportionate in relation to those of the enlisted men, during the course of the war, some regiments and companies were clearly more unlucky than others. After the 52nd Regiment lost its fourth grenadier captain in three years at the battle of Monmouth, one of the corps’ drummers observed with black humor, “Well, I wonder who they will get to accept of our grenadiers now. I’ll be damned if I would take them!”

Considering how (as we have seen) eighteenth-century officers often carried spontoons (or, less commonly in Europe, firelocks) in addition to their swords, one might have expected that they would have fought alongside their men in action. As Mark Odintz has convincingly demonstrated, however, in America this does not appear often to have been the case. For example, when Brigadier General Alexander Leslie wrote to his brother about the death of Captain the Honorable William Leslie at Princeton, he reassured the earl, “I don’t find he was too rash, as you seem to fear, or that he was out of the ranks.” More explicitly, after the battle of Monmouth, Lieutenant Hale regretted the fact that he and three brother-officers of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers had recklessly outpaced their companies during the initial breakneck British advance. Hale shamefacedly added, “I am told the general [i.e., Clinton] has expressed his approbation of the ridiculous behavior of the four subaltern officers . . . who had got foremost.”

That Hale took especial notice of the fact that one of his brother officers had dispatched a rebel with his sword during the pursuit (“as we all might have done”) demonstrates that engaging in personal combat was an unusual exploit for an officer. Similarly, contrary to the recommendation of one officer and military writer who served in Britain, firelock-armed officers and sergeants in America were not encouraged to augment the battalion’s fire in action. At the opening of the Albany expedition, Burgoyne reminded his army that “[t]he attention of every officer in action is to be employed in his men; to make use of a fusil except in very extraordinary occasions of immediate personal defense, would betray an ignorance of his importance, and of his duty.” Likewise, in a memorandum composed around May 1776 at Cape Fear, Clinton complained that an officer could not properly command his men “while he is firing, loading, and playing bo peep behind trees.” According to the general, when this happened the soldier, “when things become desperate talks of every man for himself and sauve qui peut.” Months later, an incident at the storming of Chatterton’s Hill appeared to vindicate Clinton’s disapproval. He later described what happened when, having forded the Bronx River, two British battalions suddenly found themselves exposed to very heavy fire from the rebels atop the hill: “The officer who led them immediately formed in column for attack and advanced; the instant I saw the move I declared it decisive. But when the officer had marched forward about twenty paces he halted, fired his fusil, and began to reload (his column remaining during the time under the enemy’s fire); upon which I pronounced it a coup manqué, foretelling at the same time that they would break. It happened as I said, and I could not help remarking to Sir William Howe that, if the battle should be lost, that officer was the occasion of it. I had scarcely done speaking when Lord Cornwallis came up with the same observation.” Clinton’s judgment on the affair was unequivocal: “General Burgoyne and I have often represented the absurdity of officers being armed with fusils, and the still greater impropriety . . . by which they neglected the opportunity of employing their divisions to advantage. These had no confidence in them, and they became in fact as the worst soldiers in their divisions.” In short, the officer could not properly carry out his duty to orchestrate violence and simultaneously be a direct agent of it.

The third activity that officers were expected to perform in action was to keep the men under order. This responsibility included supporting the sergeants in their main duties of filling vacancies and dressing the ranks and files — an important job when the men’s natural instinct was to “bunch” under fire. To facilitate this task, in conventional linear warfare officers and sergeants customarily carried spontoons and halberds; which were less useful as weapons than as tools with which to manhandle misaligned men into position. As mentioned earlier, the formation of two ranks at open file intervals customarily employed by the redcoats in America from 1776 precluded them from maintaining perfect dressings in combat. Despite this, however, the officers and sergeants needed to preserve a certain level of order, without which their control over the men would have broken down. This was especially critical when the battalion came under fire, met unexpectedly aggressive resistance, or routed one enemy force only to encounter a fresh one in its path. Any of these scenarios was likely, at best, to have dampened the men’s ardor and to have temporarily diverted their attention from their officers. At worst, the battalion might have fallen into disarray, in which case it could neither have continued its advance, prevailed in the firefight, nor withstood a resolute enemy attack. Whatever the degree of confusion, it was the officers’ immediate and overwhelming priority to restore full control over the bewildered or excitable soldiery.

As one instance of this, during the final assault at Bunker Hill, the adjutant of the 1st Battalion of Marines, Lieutenant John Waller, had to exert himself to restore order to the corps before it could resume its advance and storm the rebel position. Waller’s account is so vivid that it deserves to be quoted at some length:

when we came immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire of the enemy, but did not retreat an inch. We were now in confusion, after being broke several times in getting over the rails, etc. I did all I could to form the two companies on our right, which at last I effected, losing many of them. While it was performing, Major [John] Pitcairn was killed close by me, with a captain and a subaltern, also a sergeant, and many of the privates; and had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off. I saw this, and begged [Lieutenant] Colonel [William] Nesbitt, of the 47th [Regiment], to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing while this was doing; and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.

Similarly, during Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood’s first attack at Princeton, a “very heavy discharge” at forty yards brought down seven of the men in Lieutenant Hale’s ad hoc grenadier platoon and forced the others to recoil some distance, where Hale “rallied them with some difficulty, and brought them on with [charged] bayonets.”

As Hale’s experience indicates, sometimes the officers and sergeants could not restore their men’s order while the enemy continued to present an immediate threat, in which case the whole had to retire some distance first. Thus at Concord, when the rebel militia’s fire forced Captain Walter Laurie’s three light companies at the North Bridge (in the words of one of the officers) “to give way, then run with the greatest precipitance,” the four remaining officers did not succeed in halting the men until they reached the cover of the grenadier companies marching to reinforce them. A similar phenomenon occurred at the battle of Eutaw Springs. There, when Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart’s line collapsed, it was necessary for the King’s troops “to retire a little distance to an open field in order to form” under the cover of the fire from a detachment of the New York Volunteers, who posted themselves in an adjacent brick house.

The last of the regimental officers’ four main activities was to oversee the various maneuvers and firings of their troops. In theory, because the battalion was under the overall control of the field officers, this task did not demand a vast effort from the captains and subalterns. For example, if the commanding officer ordered the battalion to open fire at the halt by subdivisions, the eight officers in question simply had to step forward and give the signal in the predetermined sequence for their fire divisions to “make ready,” “present,” and “fire” (and then to “load”). Hypothetically, maneuvering the battalion generally demanded even less of the captains and subalterns, for most of the evolutions required no further verbal instructions than the initial command bellowed by one of the field officers. All the captains and subalterns had to do was to oversee their maneuver divisions as they executed the evolution — doubtless the sergeants would have shoved wayward men into place. In short, in conventional linear warfare the directorial role of the captains and subalterns did not require them to display a great deal of tactical initiative. But as will become clear later, it was a very different matter in America. There the British considerably loosened the ties that ordinarily bound the maneuver and fire divisions of the battalion so rigidly into a single tactical entity.

Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew H. Spring

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