In April, 1775, the Revolutionary War opened with a bloodless British victory in Lexington, followed by an easy victory in Concord… followed by a sanguinary and hard-fought retreat that made the British relief force’s (QRF, 18th-Century style) leader, Brigadier-General Lord Hugh Percy, bitterly aware he hadn’t won at all.
Colonial propaganda print of the Battle of Lexington. Both sides gave orders not to fire, and afterward insisted the other fired first; historians have little hope of ever sorting it out.
First, the operation was a mission failure: Francis Smith’s soldiers and John Pitcairn’s Royal Marines hadn’t captured the men and most of the stores they were after, but they did precipitate an open rebellion. Despite Smith’s leadership and courage in the embittered retreat, and Percy’s, in coming after him, each command had taken unsustainable casualties. Their recent operations, where they sortied against suspected enemy arms dumps, were over. They were besieged in Boston. And this wasn’t supposed to happen to His Majesty’s army! Percy wrote, in grudging admiration of the rebels:
Whoever looks upon them as an irregular mob will find himself much mistaken. For my part, I never believed, I confess, that they would’ve attacked the Kings troops, or have had the perseverance I found in them yesterday. They have men among them who know very well what they were about.1
But, while the scale of the outbreak of organized violence was new, the fight itself had been a long time coming. In 1773 and 1774 hostility to the Crown and the British regulars who had descended upon restive Boston in 1768 had risen to a level tantamount to war. (The British forces came, not to defend the colonists against foreign or Indian threat, as in the past, but to keep the Americans in line). In Worcester, a day’s march west of Boston, patriots had seized the courthouse and sent His Majesty’s representatives packing in the fall. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a day’s ride to the north, tipped off by that rascal Paul Revere, they’d seized Fort William and Mary from a caretaker force in December 1774. This was a bloodless demonstration of armed rebel might, making off with His Majesty’s cannon, powder and shot, before the Navy could land men (which they did: too late to capture the rebels, who slipped away). The colonials, resurrecting methods that had been honed by Indian raids in the prior century, were masters of asymmetric warfare — they could mobilize, and organize, and demobilize, in such as way as to put force against weakness, but evaporate against force. Such was the militia, the minutemen.
Painting of Minutemen, by Don Troiani
All across New England, rising tensions struck hardest against civilians who were loyal to King George III and England. These tended to be well-to-do landowners, professionals, and leaders of society, but they often fled with little more than the shirts on their backs. They wound up under the protection of the Crown, in the only place in New England where the Crown could protect them: under the guns of Boston.
The refugees bedeviled Governor Sir Thomas Gage. Gage was, in Rebel propaganda, and therefore in many later American history books, as a heartless, bloodthirsty monster, but in fact he was a cautious and sensitive soldier who had little taste for war on fellow Englishmen, and was incensed that the rebellious colonials did. Gage sympathized with these refugees, but he couldn’t easily feed and house them.
For all his concern for the dispossessed Loyalists, Gage had little sympathy to spare for his own redcoats. They were the sweepings of the workhouses and jails, or boys so poor that the miserable life of a soldier was a step up. And they were treated much like livestock, casually beaten and abused, fed just enough to keep them alive, and paid very little. (Enlisted men in the Navy fared no better, which is why the Navy used pressgangs). The Army as an institution had a grudging respect from Britons, and an Army officer could be a gentleman of a somewhat discounted sort, but soldiers themselves were not viewed much differently from the beggars and thieves with whom contemporary London teemed. (The above-mentioned Lord Percy was a rare exception; gout-wracked and irascible, he nonetheless believed in leading by superior example, not by the lash, and he was generous and gentle with his men, forbidding floggings in his regiment. He saved his ire for General Lord Howe, with whom he could not get along).
Unless one lucked into Percy’s 5th Regiment of Foot, one’s life as a musket-bearer for HM George III was a life of hardship, circumscribed by cruelty, and motivated by dispensations that tended to 0% carrot and 100% stick. Iron discipline was enforced by the lash and the noose; it was thought quite a fine thing that the lobsterback feared his NCOs more than any imaginable enemy.
These reenactors are a lot more ragged in their formation and fire discipline than the real Redcoats were, or ever would have been.
You could say that the British Regulars who stood and delivered at Concord, and who kept order throughout the bloody retreat on 19 April 1775, had been quite literally “whipped into shape.” But it was a functional shape, and the red uniforms of the British Army were known and feared worldwide. By far and away, any British formation in the Colonies in 1775 was vastly more powerful than any similar-sized body of their irregular enemy, simply by dint of their greater experience at drill.
But the enemy was culturally different, and here was the revolution. He joined the fight, not because it was a Hobson’s choice between the King’s shilling and the gallows, but because it was his fight. The colonial American was much less observant of class distinctions than his peers from metropolitan England. Peerage in America was something remote, a reference to a motherland that more and more colonists had never seen. (There was not, for instance, any lord whose seat was Boston or New York).
The colonists were, as one loyal officer wrote home, “Drunk with liberty.” Colonies founded in New England by groups akin to the Levellers of the English Civil War lacked the instinctive class deference that characterized metropolitan England. The citizens there wanted to rule themselves, for good or for ill.
Part of the change would be an Army and Navy of volunteers with the natural rights of free men, not a formation of pressmen, serfs, slaves or helots (all of which have some point of comparison to the state of the English ranker of 1775). The liberty-oriented American volunteer would cause his own army some difficulty over the years: short enlistment terms and elected officers were both troublesome in the US Civil War. But the British Army’s class stratification and peculiar institutions weren’t done causing trouble for Britain, either. (Two words: “purchased commission.”)
Today, there’s been some cultural convergence in the evolution of the two armies that descend from the ones that glowered at each other across no man’s land on Roxbury Neck, during the siege of Boston. The US and British Armies are more like one another, culturally, today, than either one is like its 1775 forebear. But there are also some differences which stem, in part, from those very different origins.
- Quoted in Ketchum, p. 25.
Ketchum, Richard M. Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill. An Expanded and Fully Illustrated Edition. New York: Anchor, 1962.