The army that attempted to subdue rebellion in America in the 1770s and 1780s consisted primarily of soldiers from the British regular army. Although supplemented by German regiments, regiments raised in America composed of colonists, and other auxiliaries, most garrisons and campaign forces were composed largely of career soldiers who had enlisted in Great Britain and been sent to fight in America. With only a few exceptions (that will be the subject of another article in the future) they enlisted voluntarily. Those who’d enlisted before the onset of hostilities – the majority of most regiments – had enlisted as a career rather than for a fixed term of service.
Why did these men enlist? Each individual had his own reasons, and unfortunately very few British soldiers left any record of what those reasons were. There are only a dozen or so personal memoirs, and in some of those the men say only that they did enlist without saying why. Extensive study of army records, depositions, court martial proceedings and a host of other sources allows us to discern some of the common factors that led thousands of men to choose the army as their career.
In a world of where seasonal and itinerant labor was common, and economic upturns and downturns affected industries just as they do today, the army offer employment security that few other professions could match. Pay, food and clothing were guaranteed. Interruptions did occur, of course, but accounts were eventually settled. Undeniably there were dangers, but occupations such as mining, stonecutting, carpentry, and metalsmithing offered hazards of their own. Long-term employment in a structured environment was preferable to many other choices available to the era’s laborers and tradesmen. The army also offered an enlistment bonus, something lacking in other professions.
Opportunities to travel
The vast majority of jobs available in Great Britain were local and static – weaving, mining, tailoring, and a host of other trades were likely to keep the worker in one place for a lifetime. But men in their early twenties who’d completed an apprenticeship and begun practicing a trade often yearned for something more. Books both factual and fictional romanticized overseas adventures, and returning army and navy veterans had tales of foreign curiosities. Several men who gave their reasons for enlisting express a sense of wanderlust, a roving disposition that demanded more than a stationary life could provide.
Parents were in the army
Documents listing place of birth are available for only about a quarter of the British soldiers who served in America; a phrase that appears on them with some frequency is “born in the army.” Wives and children often went with soldiers on overseas deployments, and children of soldiers often themselves became soldiers. Some started at an early age playing a fife, then a drum when big enough to handle it, and finally joined the ranks with a musket in their teens. For some, life as a soldier started young.
Escape from the family
Although we have only a handful of writings in which men explain their reasons for enlisting, familial discord is a common theme. Valentine Duckett joined the 65th Regiment after “my step-mother and I could not agree;” John Robertshaw ran to a recruiting party because his father “told me before he set off that if I did not finish my last week’s work, when he came home he would give me a trimming;” Roger Lamb lost all his money gambling, and rather than “return and tell my father of my indiscretions,” sought out recruiters for the 9th Regiment. There are also numerous depositions by women in Great Britain who had never again heard from their soldier husbands, leaving us to wonder if some of these men enlisted to flee their familial obligations.
Friends and relatives were enlisting
Savvy recruiting officers had long known that they stood good chances of raising recruits in the home towns and counties of men already in the ranks. Some regiments focused their recruiting efforts in specific regions; when the demands of the American War caused new regiments to be established, several were sponsored by cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Edinburgh as a way to foster spirit de corps. Regional recruiting was so effective that, in 1782, the War Office assigned a county to each regiment to encourage connections between localities and military service; these regional affiliations have remained a part of British army organization ever since.
Escape from a bad boss
Much is written about harsh discipline and corporal punishment in the British army, without considering some important factors: corporal punishment could be inflicted only after a trial, and only a small portion soldiers were subjected to such punishments. In civilian life, however, apprentices and employees could be overworked, underpaid and even beaten arbitrarily by their employers. Some men chose the army as a gentler option than continuing to work for brutal masters.
The army thrived on paperwork and needed literate men who could read orders, write reports and manage accounts. Grade-school education was fairly common in England, less so in Scotland and Ireland, but many British regiments so valued literacy that they established schools for willing soldiers as well as for their children. We have no indication of how many men took advantage of this opportunity and, like Thomas Watson of the 23rd Regiment, resolved to “endeavor for learning, which I measurably did, while in the army.”
The army offered something that no private profession did: the opportunity to receive a pension. It was not guaranteed, but men who had served for at least twenty years or who had contracted a disability while in the army stood a reasonable chance of being awarded a pension after making their case in person before an examining board in London. The stipend was paid semi-annually at a rate that was five-eighths of the soldier’s base wage – not a lot of money, but enough to subsist and paid for the rest of the veteran’s life.
A land grant
Men who enlisted after the war began could choose to remain in the colonies and receive a grant of fifty acres of land when the war ended. This was a huge incentive, particularly for farm laborers who would otherwise stand no chance of owning their own property. The war’s outcome meant that the available land was in Canada, but hundreds of discharged British soldiers took their families and made a new start in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
While only a very few men rose through the ranks to become officers, this type of advancement was a real reason for some to join the army. In a nation with a thriving middle class, there were many young men with the education and intelligence to fill important posts, but who lacked the means or connections to enter the army with a commission. They enlisted instead as private soldiers, hoping to win the favor of their officers and obtain a rare but achievable promotion. Others saw the opportunity to work as soldier-servants to officers as a way to gain a place in a gentleman’s household after the officer retired. For many others, obtaining an education, a pension or a land grant was itself a form of social advancement that no other profession could provide. So much has been written about the unattractive aspects of military service during this era, that the real benefits that attracted so many men to enlist have been overlooked almost entirely.
Good quality literature on this subject is all too rare. For those interested in learning more, I must immodestly recommend my own study, British Soldiers, American War (Westholme Publishing, 2012) which delves into greater detail on the topics above. Another useful work is Sylvia R. Frey’s The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period (University of Texas Press, 1981); for similar information on a slightly-previous period, see Stephen Brumwell’s excellent work, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (Cambridge University Press, 2006).[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “Placing the Guards” by Pamela Patrick White (whitehistoricart.com)]