British Regulars and Colonial Militias at War

Colonial troops and, to a lesser extent, Indians contributed to Canada’s defeat, but British regulars bore the brunt of the fighting. The relationships among redcoats, colonials, and Indians were strained, but the developing rift between British officers and colonial civilians was even more ominous. Regular officers believed colonial troops had no merits. They were, wrote one of Braddock’s subordinates, “totally ignorant of Military Affairs.” They were ill disciplined and lazy and, lacking even elementary knowledge of camp sanitation, suffered an appalling rate of sickness. Colonies never fielded as many men as the legislatures voted, officers failed to report accurately their unit’s strength, and men deserted in droves, so the number of colonial troops was always uncertain. The large enlistment bounties that were needed also made colonial recruits exorbitantly expensive.

This catalog of shortcomings was true in many respects, and understanding why is important. The Great War for Empire was a war of conquest, requiring extended offensives far from the homes of most militiamen. But the militia was a system for local defense. Large numbers of militiamen could not be absent long without leaving their colonies vulnerable to enemy raids and without dislocating the local economy. Militiamen were part-time citizen-soldiers who had to run businesses, tend crops, and conduct the fishing and fur trades. Consequently, authorities hesitated to impose militia drafts and instead relied on volunteers, who came primarily from the lowest social strata. In the few cases when a colony resorted to a draft, the sending of substitutes and paying of commutation fines ensured that few middle- or upper-class citizens served. But of all the high-ranking British officers serving in North America, Lord Loudoun alone seemed to realize that colonists marching with English regulars against some distant fort were different from the men enrolled on militia musters. “The Militia,” he wrote, “are the real Inhabitants; Stout able Men, and for a brush, much better than their Provincial Troops, whom they hire whenever they can get them, and at any price.” Almost all other British officers confused the expeditionary forces with the actual militia, thus misjudging the militia’s military potential in defense of its own terrain.

Holding such a low opinion of colonial soldiers, British officers relegated them to auxiliary functions. They built roads, served as wagoners and boatmen, and repaired and constructed forts. With their aristocratic ties and long years of experience, English officers were reluctant to treat American officers, who were usually young and newly commissioned, as equals. While provincial officers had traditionally relied on exhortation and admonishment to maintain discipline, English officers inflicted ferocious punishment upon enlisted men, including liberal use of the lash and, for serious offenses, execution by hanging or firing squad. To colonial soldiers, whippings and executions were horrific and unnecessary. And because the redcoats engaged in swearing, excessive drinking, and whoring, the colonists also condemned them as profane, irreligious, and immoral—pollutants in a pure land. And initial British defeats mingled with earlier memories, making a lasting impression. The Walker expedition, Cartagena, Braddock, Loudoun at Louisbourg—what right did professionals have to claim superiority? All in all, serving with British regulars graphically reminded colonists of a standing army’s threat to free people living in a free society, and persuaded them that their own military institutions were morally and militarily superior.

British officers also considered Indians questionable allies. Amherst described them as “a pack of lazy, rum-drinking people, and little good,” and Forbes accused them of being “more infamous cowards than any other race of mankind” and having a “natural fickle disposition.” These impressions flowed in part from cultural ethnocentrism, but also from the natives’ difficult position in the white rivalry swirling around them. Between 1748 and 1760 England and France negotiated constantly with the Indians and tried to buy their allegiance through lavish gift giving. While the natives listened to, and took presents from, both French and English ambassadors, they were naturally anxious to be on the winning side. Inactivity, duplicity, and hesitancy to go on the warpath were stratagems to buy time until a clear-cut winner emerged. But these traits exasperated British professionals, who demanded unwavering commitment.

Initially, with English arms suffering reverses, Indians tended to support the French, and the British maintained the neutrality of important tribes, such as the Creeks and Iroquois, only through astute diplomacy coupled with large expenditures for gifts. The turning point in Indian relations, as in the war itself, came in 1758 when a reversal of battlefield fortunes occurred and the naval blockade prevented French goods from reaching Canada. Addicted to European products through the fur trade and white gift giving, French-aligned natives suffered. The tide of allegiance shifted to England.

Although the British found that friendly Indians were useful, in the final analysis they were not essential. To combat American conditions and the enemy’s guerrilla methods, the British recruited white frontiersmen and organized them into ranger companies to perform duties traditionally done by natives. Regulars also made certain tactical adaptations. They formed light infantry companies composed of agile, lightly armed men who received training in irregular warfare tactics. Some units learned to deliver aimed fire rather than volleys, to maneuver by companies instead of battalions, and to march single file to lessen the impact of an ambush. These modifications, however, were not widespread, and the British army’s success depended on standard European practices. The regulars’ discipline and organized persistence counterbalanced the virtues of Indian-style warfare.

Relations between British regulars and colonial civilians were a reenactment of the Walker expedition performed on a continent-wide stage. Conflicts over recruitment, quarters, transportation, and provisions fueled mutual resentment. To fill understrength regiments and raise new ones, the British hoped to tap the colonial manpower reservoir. In 1755 and 1756 they met considerable success, enlisting some 7,500 colonists, but thereafter the number of recruits dwindled. One reason was that men had a choice: long-term service in the regulars with low pay and harsh discipline, or short-term service in a provincial unit with an enlistment bounty, higher pay, and lax discipline. Another reason was the often violent opposition to the unscrupulous methods British recruiters used. For example, they recruited heavily among indentured servants, a practice that colonists considered “an unconstitutional and arbitrary Invasion of our Rights and Properties” that cast suspicion on all recruiting. By 1757 mobs regularly harassed recruiters and “rescued” men whom they assumed had been illegally recruited. The inability to find men outraged professionals and forced Pitt to rely on full-strength regiments from the home islands.

Redcoats needed quarters, especially during winter, but America had few public buildings that could serve as barracks. The only option was to quarter them in private houses, but citizens argued that soldiers could not be quartered in a private home without the owner’s consent. Civilians had the law on their side, but Loudoun insisted that “Whilst the War lasts, Necessity, will Justify exceeding” normal quartering procedures. He told the Albany city government “that if they did not give Quarters, I would take them” by force. Albany officials maintained that Loudoun “assumed a Power over us Very inconsistent with the Liberties of a free and Loyal People. . . .” Civilians and soldiers invariably reached an accommodation over quarters, but only at a high cost in mutual trust.

The British government also counted on colonial assemblies to provide adequate provisions and timely transportation, but the colonies proved stingy and dilatory—at least in the opinion of regular officers. Every British officer complained about the reluctance of assemblies to comply “with the just and equitable demands of their King and Country,” but legislators acted at their own deliberate pace. They were so slow in fulfilling requests that the British frequently impressed or seized what they needed, which was an unjustified exercise of arbitrary power from the colonial perspective.

British officers thought they perceived sinister motives in the colonials, who seemed “bent upon our ruin, and destruction,” working tirelessly “to disappoint every Plan of the Government.” Professional soldiers simply misunderstood colonial institutions and political philosophies. England’s appointment of a commander in chief for North America imposed centralized military control on a decentralized political system. Each colony considered itself sovereign and was anxious to maintain its freedom of action in military affairs. Allowing the Crown’s representative, who was also a high-ranking officer in a suspect standing army, to direct the war effort would reduce every colony’s independence. Furthermore, many colonists accepted radical Whig ideology, which preached a dichotomy between power and liberty. Every accretion of power reduced freedom’s sphere. When the British army recruited fraudulently, quartered men illegally, impressed property, and tried to bully assemblies, colonists feared that growing military power threatened their liberty. Colonial legislatures believed they were fighting two wars of equal importance, one against France and one for liberty.

Several important themes emerged from the colonial wars. First, most Americans gained a high opinion of their martial abilities and a low opinion of British professionals. Colonists typically emphasized British defeats and insufficiently praised the triumphs of Amherst, Forbes, and Wolfe. Such attitudes were a tribute to the colonists’ selective military memory and help explain colonial confidence in 1775. Second, the wars had a nationalizing impact. In 1763 each colony still jealously protected its sovereignty, yet during the wars against New France important experiments in cooperation had occurred. The Albany Plan, though rejected, was an evolutionary step leading to the First Continental Congress. During the colonial wars English colonists became Americans. Finally, a growing estrangement between England and the colonies emerged. Many Englishmen agreed with Loudoun that the colonies assumed “to themselves, what they call Rights and Privileges, Totally unknown in the Mother Country.” Many colonists concurred with the Albany city council, which stated that “Upon the Whole we conceive that his Majesties Paternal Cares to Release us [from the threat of France] have in a Great Measure been Made use of to oppress us.” The Peace of Paris, which should have pleased Englishmen everywhere, left a bitter heritage.


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