British Regimental Officers in Combat – American War of Independence I

battle_of_bunker_hill

The Battle of Bunker Hill by Percy Moran

In eighteenth-century conventional linear warfare, the regimental infantry officer took part in four main activities: he motivated his men, directed them, kept them in good order, and engaged in personal combat. At least on European battlefields, perhaps the first of these four activities was the most important. Historians commonly assert that eighteenth-century common soldiers braved enemy fire partly because they were more afraid of their officers than of the enemy. There is some truth in this. As Wolfe put it in his tactical instructions to the 20th Regiment in 1755, in action the cordon of supernumerary subalterns and sergeants in the battalion’s rear were required “to keep the men in their duty.” This meant they used compulsion — even lethal force — to prevent the men from taking off: “A soldier that quits his rank, or offers to fly, is to be instantly put to death by the officer who commands that platoon, or by the officer or sergeant in the rear of that platoon; a soldier does not deserve to live who won’t fight for his king and country.” Roger Lamb, a veteran of the American War, later opined that this threat was effective: “A coward taught to believe that, if he breaks his rank and abandons his colors, he will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy.” British officers in America did occasionally resort to such threats in action, even if they do not appear to have carried them out. For example, Ensign John De Berniere wrote of the retreat from Concord that, as the militia’s fire began to take its toll, “we began to run rather than retreat in order. The whole behaved with amazing bravery but little order. We attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose: the confusion increased rather than lessened. At last . . . the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die. Upon this they began to form under a very heavy fire.” Less happily, Tarleton recalled that “neither promises nor threats” availed the frantic efforts to recover the troops from their panic after the collapse of his line at Cowpens.

Although the threat of summary retribution must (if only subconsciously) have reinforced common soldiers’ readiness to brave enemy fire, eighteenth-century officers principally led rather than drove their men into combat. As previously discussed, this sometimes took the form of stirring exhortations that appealed to national or regimental identity. Similarly, the officers probably orchestrated the loud cheering in which the redcoats commonly indulged during combat. But the main way that the officer motivated his men was by maintaining a resolute, steady demeanor, particularly before and during the advance. As Bland pointed out in 1727, “the private soldiers . . . form their notions of the danger from the outward appearance of their officers, and according to their looks apprehend the undertaking to be more or less difficult.” For this the officer needed presence of mind and, above all, physical courage — the essence of the eighteenth-century cult of honor and sine qua non of the gentleman-officer. The need for these qualities intensified once the battalion engaged in close combat because the advanced position of the regimental officers who conducted the firings made them highly vulnerable not only to the enemy’s fire but also to that of their own men (whether accidental or otherwise). The officer’s prominent position also ensured that any momentary lapse in resolution would have been highly conspicuous. Any who failed in this respect almost certainly would have been pressured into quitting the corps, as happened to two unfortunate officers of the Queen’s Rangers after the battle of Brandywine.

Like courage, stoicism was a key element of the officer’s ability to lead by example. This manifested itself most often in reluctance on the part of injured officers to leave the battalion for medical treatment. A particularly impressive instance occurred at the battle of Freeman’s Farm, as later related by Thomas Anburey:

In the course of the last action, Lieutenant [Stephen] Harvey, of the 62nd, a youth of sixteen, and nephew to the Adjutant General of the same name, received several wounds, and was repeatedly ordered off the field by [Lieutenant] Colonel [John] Anstruther; but his heroic ardor would not allow him to quit the battle, while he could stand and see his brave lads fighting beside him. A ball striking one of his legs, his removal became absolutely necessary; and while they were conveying him away, another wounded him mortally. In this situation the surgeon recommended him to take a powerful dose of opium, to avoid a seven or eight hours’ life of most exquisite torture. This he immediately consented to, and when the Colonel entered the tent with Major [Henry] Harnage, who were both wounded, they asked whether he had any affairs they could settle for him. His reply was, that being a minor, everything was already adjusted; but he had one request, which he had just life enough to utter: “Tell my uncle I died like a soldier!”

Similarly at Bunker Hill (according to Captain the Honorable Charles Stuart), “not one officer who served in the light infantry or grenadiers escaped unhurt and few had less than three or four wounds.”

In America courage was an even more essential commodity for British officers because the hazards run in action there were seemingly higher than in conventional linear warfare. European officers generally considered it taboo to target individuals of consequence. At Brandywine, for instance, Major Patrick Ferguson countermanded his order for three of his British riflemen to shoot down an unsuspecting mounted rebel officer and his aide de camp because “the idea disgusted me . . . ; it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty.” By contrast, rebel troops appear to have been positively encouraged to kill British officers. Indeed, at a dinner after the fall of Yorktown, captive Captain Lieutenant Samuel Graham noted that the unpolished Daniel Morgan “spoke with more volubility, perhaps, than good taste” on his riflemen’s role in Burgoyne’s downfall — and particularly of his having expressly ordered the shooting of Brigadier General Fraser during the battle of Bemis Heights.

To combat the rebel tactic of picking them off in action, British officers commonly toned down their appearance. In the case of the Guards, this process started even before the troops departed for service. Hence one English journalist noted how “[t]he [Guards] officers who are ordered for America are to wear the same uniform as the common soldiers, and their hair to be dressed in the like manner, so that they may not be distinguished from them by the riflemen, who aim particularly at the officers.” In America Howe issued a similar instruction to the British and Hessian officers in his army days before he opened the New York campaign. Although British regimental officers would have retained their scarlet (rather than brick-red) coats and their epaulettes and swords, they appear to have stripped the metallic lace from their button holes and hats, laid aside gorgets (and possibly also their crimson sashes), and (like the sergeants) taken up fusils. These sensible measures probably enjoyed some success. After the battle of Long Island, Captain William Dansey reported with relief that the threat the rebel sharpshooters posed was “not so dreadful as I expected,” though (as he added later) “such a bugbear were they at first [that] our good friends thought we were all to be killed with rifles.” Interestingly, when Simcoe was wounded and captured in October 1779 during the Queen’s Rangers’ raid into New Jersey, he heard one rebel regret that he had not shot him through the head, “which he would have done had he known him to be a colonel, but he thought ‘all colonels wore lace.’”

Nevertheless, whatever their appearance, British officers would have marked themselves out in action by issuing commands to and encouraging their men. Such was the case with the aforementioned mounted officer with the grenadiers at the battle of Monmouth, one rebel officer having recorded: “I ordered my men to level at him and the cluster of men near him. . . . He dropped [and] his men slackened their pace.” An even more striking instance occurred during the storming of Chatterton’s Hill, as related by Corporal Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment:

Captain [Lieutenant William] Gore, who commanded the right wing of our battalion, seeing the rebels which we engaged on the right wing were dressed in blue, took them to be Colonel Rall’s brigade of Hessians, and immediately ordered us to cease firing; for, says he, “you are firing at your own men.” We ceased for about two minutes. The rebels, hearing him, made answer that they were no Hessians, and that we should soon know the difference. . . . The aforesaid captain was killed upon the spot: the enemy in his front took as good aim as possible at him, and directed the most of their fire towards the place [where] he stood, for they took him for the officer that commanded the regiment.

Clearly the rebels singled out and peppered the unfortunate Gore precisely because he drew attention to himself in such spectacular fashion.

Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew H. Spring