Hessian Soldier
Hessian Soldier
The British ranks were filled with volunteers. By law the British Army was not allowed to force men into service but a young man might awaken after a night at the pub to find that he had “enlisted.” Also most crimes in the 18th century were punishable by death. As an alternative, some judges would commute a prisoner’s sentence to enlistment in the army.

Enlistment was based on fitness rather than age. The majority of men enlisted between the ages of 20 and 25 after having first tried another career. The average British Revolutionary War soldier was in his mid-30’s after having received 6 months to 2 years of training before being sent into combat.

Soldiers enlisted as a life-long career and would be discharged when no longer fit for service; their average length of service was nine years. The Generals averaged thirty years of service and all were seasoned combat veterans from other wars around the world. The British army was composed of a number of specialized departments covering everything from hospitals, engineers and quartermasters, making it one of the first global bureaucracies.

The British soldier was well equipped and well-armed with muskets and bayonets. They relied on their “Brown Bess” flintlock weapon. Its lack of accuracy was countered by the use of line formations. This consisted of 2-4 lines of foot soldiers firing rotating volleys. But ihe greatest attribute of the Redcoats was their strong affection and loyalty to their King George. This created a strong bond throughout the ranks of the regulars—regardless of rank.

British officers purchased their commissions. Five hundred pounds sterling made you a lieutenant, while 1500 pounds sterling advanced you to captain, twenty six hundred to be a major. The result of this commission purchasing system was that most officers came from the aristocracy. However, becoming a British officer could also be a pathway to wealth. Officers kept the pay of any of their men killed in battle.

The heart of the British army was the .regiment with its battle history and traditions that set it apart and made its members proud and full of pride to belong to their special fighting unit.

A large number of soldiers fighting on the British side were not British at all. They were German mercenaries, called Hessians, contracted for military service by the British government which found it easier to pay for their service than to recruit and train its own soldiers. About 30,000 Hessians fought in the Revolutionary War, a quarter of the British troops sent to America. They came as entire units, fighting under their own flag, in their uniforms and commanded by their German officers. The troops that General George Washington faced in the Battle of Trenton early in the morning of December 26, 1776, were Hessians. The element of surprise allowed the Continental troops to win the battle with few casualties.

When not enough volunteers joined the Continental Army, African-American slaves and freemen were allowed to enter its ranks. It is estimated 5000 fought with the Patriots and as many as 20,000 fought with the British. Slaves were offered their freedom in return for joining the British cause. Lord Dunmore, the former royal governor of Virginia, in 1775, proclaimed freedom for all slaves belonging to patriots, if they were able and willing to join the British forces.

In reality, the revolution was America’s first Civil War as many Americans remained loyal to Britain and fought with the British troops. There were Loyalist Regiments, composed of Americans who fought under the command of British officers. John Gunby, volunteered as a minuteman and raised a military unit at his own expense but his loyalist father fought for the Crown. Families disintegrated over the issue of Independence. Even Benjamin Franklin disavowed his only son who remained an avid Loyalist. During Franklin’s long life, over 73 years, he never spoke or met with his son again.

There, were entire battles where American Loyalists fought against American Patriot units. In one of these battles, British Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton commanded a force of nearly 2,000 men, comprised mostly of Pennsylvanians and southern volunteers, called the British Legion. In 1780, Tarleton and his men defeated a Patriot force at Waxhaws, South Carolina. In vicious combat, over 300 Patriots were killed, many bayoneted after being wounded. This prompted the Patriots to spread the story and speak bitterly of Loyalist military units.

The American Revolutionary War lasted from 1775 to 1783 and resulted in the birth of our free and independent nation. The cost in lives, reputations and fortunes was immense, especially for all those on both sides who fought for their country.

Editor’s note: This is part two of two in a historical column about the Revolutionary War. The first was a review of the colonial side and the second is the British side.  

Basta und damit!