The Fate of British Regulars


March 21, 2013
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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mercer detailI read with interest Thomas Fleming’s article, “The Fate of Regulars.” Readers may be interested to know that British soldiers had much better prospects when the conflict ended than their American counterparts. With a professional standing army that had been in existence for nearly 100 years, Great Britain had long since grappled with and resolved the issues of how to reward men for faithful service to the country. An established and well-run pension system provided relief for soldiers who had served long and well, and extensive colonial land holdings were available to reward men who enlisted during times of conflict.

During times of peace, men enlisted in the British army as a career; there was no fixed term of enlistment, and a man expected to serve until he was no longer fit for the physical demands of the military. A deserving soldier could, however, receive a pension from the government at the end of his service, something not available for any civilian trade or laboring profession. Under these terms, when the American war began many British soldiers had been in the army for a long time, and many would remain in the ranks for a long time after it ended. Twenty to thirty years of service was typical if death or incapacitation due to injury did not intervene. When it became clear that the war would require significant military effort and might not end quickly, recruiting activities intensified and a new incentive was offered: men who enlisted after 16 December 1775 would be entitled to be discharged at the end of the conflict if they had served for at least three years, and would also be granted a tract of land in the colonies.[i] This was a strong inducement for men who had little prospect of owning land in Great Britain.

So it was that, when the war ended and forces were drawn down, there were two types of soldier in the British army: those who had enlisted before 16 December 1775 or who had not yet served 3 years, and those who had enlisted after 16 December 1775 and had served three years. This delineation was made on 24 August 1783. Most British regiments in North America at this time were in New York, with contingents also in Halifax, Nova Scotia and in the West Indies. Once the delineation had been made, soldiers had the following options:[ii]

Those who had enlisted before 16 December 1775, or had enlisted so recently as to not yet have three years of service, remained in the army on the usual peacetime terms. They could request a discharge at any time, but were likely to get it only if they had served for at least twenty years or had some incapacitating injury. With so many men being discharged and the size of army being reduced, regimental officers may have been more lenient than usual in granting discharges, but in general these men remained in the army.

A substantial portion of these men received pensions when they left the service. The army hospital at Chelsea, outside of London, administered the pensions but the hospital itself had very limited space to offer in-pensions, that is, pensions that included residence at the hospital. Most men received out-pensions. The man appeared before a board of examiners and presented his discharge (a document proving that he had been legally released from his service obligation). No records survive of the types of questions asked by the board, but based on the man’s merit and ability to earn his own living, he was awarded or denied an out-pension. He then made his way back to the parish of his birth, or the place where he’d told the pension board that he’d take up residence. Every six months he went to the local excise office and collected his pension at a rate of five pence per day; the pension board informed local excise offices of which men were on the pension rolls, and if a man failed to collect his pension the excise office informed the pension board so that the man could be struck off the rolls.[iii]

The pension was not without obligation. In times of crisis pensioners were required to appear before an examining board and, if fit enough, to do garrison duty at one of Britain’s many coastal fortifications. This service had some appeal as it returned the man to a full soldier’s pay of eight pence per day, along with the military perks such as lodging and camaraderie. So it was that many veterans of the American Revolution soldiered on well into their sixties.

Those who had enlisted on or after 16 December 1775 were entitled to be discharged, and in fact because of the overall force reduction (all regiments were reduced in size and some were disbanded altogether) many had no choice but to leave the service. But they did have a variety of ways to accept that departure:[iv]

  • They could take their last pay and simply walk away, to establish themselves in the new colonies in whatever way they could.
  • They could return to Great Britain with their regiment and be discharged there.
  • They could accept a grant of land in Nova Scotia, at the rate of 100 acres per man and a further 50 acres per family member. This was a substantial amount of property but the required great labor to convert from forest into productive farmland. Men and families who took this option, sailing from New York in early October 1783, faced a daunting winter waiting for the land to be surveyed and allocated followed by years of hard work making it productive. It was, nonetheless, an attractive option for men who had worked the land in Great Britain before joining the army.
  • They could reenlist in one of the British regiments being sent to Canada rather than returning to Great Britain. These regiments needed to maintain full strength while on overseas service, but were also going through the process of discharging men who were so entitled.

The 22nd Regiment of Foot was one that was ordered back to Great Britain after having spent almost the entire war in America. Of 220 men discharged from this regiment in the second half of 1783, 85 took land grants and 109 reenlisted either in the same regiment or in regiments bound for Canada.[v] Looking at this regiment over a longer period, 1005 men served in it for some period of time during the eight years of war. Of these, 617 eventually were eligible for either a pension or land grant because they had not died or deserted (this includes continued service after the war). 257 are known to have received pensions, and 85 are known to have received land grants; more may yet be identified.[vi] This means that over half of the British veterans of the American Revolution received some sort of sustaining reward from their government, reasonably good odds for enduring the hardships of war.


[i] London Gazette, 16 December 1775.

[ii] General Orders, 17 August 1783. Sir Guy Carleton orderly book, Frederick Mackenzie Papers, vol. F, WLC, 186–195, William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, MI.

[iii] For a detailed discussion of the pension system see Don N. Hagist, British Soldiers, American War (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2012) 186-190.

[iv] General Orders, 17 August 1783.

[v] Muster rolls, 22nd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3872; 17th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3406 and /3407; 54th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6399, The National Archives, Kew, England.

[vi] Chelsea admission book, WO 116; Soldier’s discharges, WO 97, WO 119, WO 121, The National Archives, Kew, England.


  • Interesting information in the article. It sounds as if the biggest pension bang for the lowest combat risk buck would go to any Brit who enlisted after 1775, surrendered with Burgoyne at Saratoga, and then moved to Cambridge and then south as part of the prisoner Convention Army. Any idea how many from that army mustered out and got pensions? I can certainly see why they might have been asterisked, given all the changes in the conditions of the agreement Burgoyne convinced himself that he was signing. Also, a number of the soldiers were Hessians, and under a different pension plan.

  • This is an interesting supposition, Dwight, but the campaign that resulted in Burgoyne’s surrender was arduous and combat-intensive, and the subsequent five-plus year imprisonment also included extended periods of great hardship. At the end of it all, those who had enlisted after 16 December 1775 had no greater prospect of a pension than any other soldier, unless they had been disabled by their sufferings – not an attractive proposition! It would be possible to determine the number of soldiers in Burgoyne’s army who endured the entire span of captivity and subsequently received pensions, but no one (to my knowledge) has attempted to do so. There is, however, no reason to believe that those men were more likely to receive pensions than others.

    You are correct that the German soldiers (“Hessian” applies to only a portion of them; most German regiments serving under Burgoyne were Brunswickers) were governed by the terms of their own governments; they were allies of the British, but not directly governed by British army policies.

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