Protecting the Empire’s Frontier: Officers of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot during Its North American Service, 1767-1776. Steven M. Baule. Ohio University Press, 2014. PDF: 978-0-8214-4464-1; Hardcover: 978-0-8214-2054-6; Paperback: 978-0-8214-2055-3. 372 pages, 6 × 9″, maps. Link.
This year’s prestigious Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award went to The Men Who Lost America by Andrew J. O’Shaughnessey, a compilation of biographies of senior British officers and officials who guided British military policy during the American Revolution. That a book of this type would be recognized as so important underscores how little is known, or at least how little is readily accessible, concerning some of the war’s key figures. If the paucity of information is this great for prominent leaders, those of lower ranks are almost completely unknown. Only a few mid-level and junior officers – Major John Pitcairn, Lt.-Colonel Banastre Tarleton, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, for example – are remembered for their contributions to the American Revolution, even though thousands served. For the most part, students of the conflict must rely on primary sources to learn anything more than the most basic information about regimental-level military officers of this era.
A bit of this chasm in the literature has been filled by Dr. Steven M. Baule’s compilation of biographical material on officers from a single British regiment, the 18th, or Royal Irish, Regiment of Foot. Including every officer who served in the regiment during its deployment to America in the 1760s and 1770s, it is a rare comprehensive look at the internal management of the organizations that formed the backbone of the British army in America, the infantry regiments. Although focused on the decade before the war began, the book provides a good foundation for understanding the state of the army’s officer corps in the early stages of the war. Although the 18th Regiment as an organization returned to Great Britain at the end of 1776, many who were officers during its American service remained involved in the American war, some in surprising capacities.
In addition to a biographical essay on each officer who served in the 18th Regiment from its arrival in America in 1767 until its departure in 1776, the author devotes substantial introductory material to the organization and operations of the regiment during this time. This background is essential for putting the individual biographies in context without a great deal of repetition within each one, and also improves the utility of the book as an overall reference; some readers may find the introductory material more useful than the biographies.
The down side is that the resulting work is not straightforward to read beginning-to-end, any more than one would read an encyclopedia in such a manner. With the biographies arranged by officers’ rank, and alphabetically within each rank, the book is a collection of short essays that can be challenging to understand on their own. Even after reading the overview material, it can be difficult to see how an individual fit into the bigger picture of the regiment and the world it was in. Adding to this difficulty is the inconsistent quantity of information available for each man. In every case, we read a narrative about his commission history and the places where he was posted, but for some men that is all we have; we are left with nothing about the officer as a person, of his effectiveness or impact on events. For others, there is much richer data to draw from – personal problems and career events and aspirations conveyed in letters and other documents that convey the voice of the man and soldier. Within the chapter on Lieutenants, for example, we find sequential entries for William Smith and Nicholas Trist, but the former has only a half-page summary of commission dates and locations of service, while the latter man receives six pages devoted to the challenges of balancing a marriage with a military career.
This is not the fault of the author, but a sad fact of life when researching this era.
This is a reference book, not intended so much as a cover-to-cover read but as a foundation and supplement for other studies. In this capacity it is thoroughly effective, and beyond this is offers the inviting opportunity to be read as a collection of short stories. Opening to a random page reveals stories of career ambitions and frustrations, interpersonal conflicts and feuds, fiscal and physical misfortunes. Each story is different, and collectively they display the diversity of background, capability and experience that typified the British officer corps of the era. Anyone interested in the human side of military organizations will find this book satisfying.