Light Infantry Never Surrender!

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 19, 2015
by Todd W. Braisted Also by this Author


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In August 1780, Lieutenant-Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk of the 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, received orders to form a light infantry company.[1] The commanding officers of five other Provincial battalions around New York City also were directed to form light infantry companies composed of men drawn from the rest of their battalions. It was typical in all British regiments of the time, and many other Provincial ones as well, to have one company of particularly agile, reliable men, trained to fight in open order and move quickly. Light infantry could both cover ground rapidly and, as picked troops, fight tenaciously when called upon.

Van Buskirk was not pleased at the order as this new company was destined to be detached from his regiment, thus depriving him of the service of these men.[2] The 4th Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers had already sent forty officers and men to serve under Major Patrick Ferguson in the American Volunteers the previous winter, and they had yet to return. Now he was being called upon to detach even more men for an unknown service and duration.[3]

The new light infantry company would be commanded by Captain Jacob Van Buskirk, son of the lieutenant colonel. It would have amongst its ranks representatives of some of Bergen County’s most notable families, including those Van Housen, Christie, Wannamaker, Westervelt, Ackerman and Zabriskie. The lieutenant of the company would be John Van Norden, and its ensign Richard Cooper. Cooper was an interesting choice, as the twenty-four year old was promoted up from the ranks, having served as his battalion’s sergeant major. The company was joined to the other five light companies created, those of the 1st & 2nd Battalions of New Jersey Volunteers, the 3rd Battalion of DeLancey’s Brigade, the King’s American Regiment, and the Loyal American Regiment, all under the commanded of Lieutenant Colonel John Watson Tadswell Watson.[4]

Watson was not a Loyalist, but the commanding officer of one of the light infantry companies in the elite Brigade of Guards, a British unit formed of men from the three regiments of Foot Guards in Great Britain. Like Ferguson, John Graves Simcoe, Banastre Tarleton and Francis, Lord Rawdon before him, Watson was a young officer striving for an independent command, but unable to advance within his own corps through the traditional method of preferment based upon date of commission rather than purely on merit. In these situations, aspiring officers such as those named were given Provincials to command, much to the anger of deserving Provincial officers who saw their corps weakened and neglected for the benefit of favored regular army officers.

After being joined together, the new corps was named the Provincial Light Infantry. The service they were intended for was not local, but rather part of General Alexander Leslie’s expedition to Virginia which sailed from New York in early October 1780. After a month or so of raids to capture stores and supplies, Leslie’s expedition was re-embarked and stood off for Charleston, South Carolina, to reinforce the British Army under Lord Cornwallis. Watson, Van Buskirk and the rest of the light infantry, however, did not join Cornwallis’ main force, but rather were sent off into the High Hills of Santee to chase down and eliminate partisans under the famous Thomas Sumter.

Sumter had served for years as a field officer in the South Carolina Continentals, but after the fall of Charleston in May 1780 had led bands of militia and irregulars in harassing Cornwallis. In February 1781, however, Sumter ran into a succession of defeats, culminating on the 27th when he ran across Ensign Richard Cooper and twenty of his light infantry. The story of the ensuing engagement is told by four of the participants.

Lieutenant Colonel John Watson, commander of the Provincial Light Infantry, wrote the following:

Returning one day from a foraging Party, one of the Waggons, which was bringing a Mill, to grind the Corn, broke down, as it was not above one mile and a half from home, I left an Ensign, whose name was Cooper, with 20 Men, to repair, & bring it on – our Men were but just in and began to dress their dinners; when we heard a centinal firing towards the Line in which he had been left; every Man was instantly in Arms. Suspecting the cause, which was confirmed by the Horses galloping home by themselves. We were soon up to the Spot which was but about a mile for having repaired the Cart, they were proceeding home; when Sumpter wholly surrounded them, & called to him to surrender; but forming his Men in a Circle, round the Trees nearest him, he replied Light Infantry never Surrender, and began firing as hard as they could – seeing us approach, they quitted our Gallant Ensign, & formed to receive us. This business did not last long before they fled, leaving what killed and wounded may be seen by the returns. We took some Prisoners and 30 Horses. Lord Rawdon came the next day, & flattered his young Corps much, by his manner of thanking them, & took that particular notice of Mr. Cooper, he so well deserved. Sumpter was himself said to be wounded, which was probably the case, as he never afterwards appeared in that Quarter, & I believe not very long after died. His Lordship [General Cornwallis] too, much approved the Post, we had taken, and the manner in which we had strengthen’d it.[5]

A New York newspaper published an extract of a letter from Charlestown, South Carolina dated March 4, 1781; the writer is not identified, but appears to be Surgeon Uzal Johnson:

General Sumpter with the South Carolina Militia being high up in the country when Lord Cornwallis passed through North-Carolina, was left behind, he has made bold to attack a Post of ours at the Congaree Stores, he met with their usual success, and only lost a few men and all his baggage; since that Colonel Watson has had him hem’d up in a large swamp; news was yesterday brought to town that they had had an action, Sumpter got off with eighteen men killed and five wounded made prisoners; Lieutenant Cowper, of Buskirk’s battalion, has gained immortal honour, he was sent with twenty men to a mill for grain, some accident happened [to] his wagon, and before he got fit to proceed to camp, found himself entirely surrounded by Sumpter’s whole army, he charged through the whole of them, finding it still impossible to prevent being again surrounded, he ordered his men to form the hollow square, and defended himself upwards of an hour against Sumpter’s whole army, until Colonel Watson came up and drove off Sumpter.[6]

Lieutenant Colonel Nesbitt Balfour, commandant of Charleston, sent the following description to Sir Henry Clinton:

In my letter of the 24th Ultimo, I had the honor to communicate to your Excellency, the situation of the Congarees, & of its being invested by a Force under Colo. Sumpter. I have now the honor to inform you, that by the good Conduct of [Brevet] Major [Andrew] Maxwell of the Prince of Wales’s [American] Regiment, the Rebels were repulsed in their attempts on that Post. They next turn’d their views to Thompson’s & were there likewise Defeated, with some loss. Sumpter, then reconnoitred Nelson’s; but finding it too Strong. pass’d the Santee five Miles above that, where he was opposed by some Provincial Light Infantry under Lieut: Colonel Watson, & obliged to Retreat with the loss of Eighteen Killed, a few taken, & many Horses.

This Action was brought on by Sumpter’s having surrounded Lieut. Cooper with a Small Party of the Light Infantry, – on which occasion, Colonel Watson mentions, with high Applause, the meritorious Conduct, & Gallant Resistance of that Officer, & which I therefore think it my Duty to communicate to your Excellency.[7]

Colonel Francis, Lord Rawdon, commanding at Camden, penned his own brief account from there on March 7, 1781:

Sumter, finding his rear was not pressed, undertook to cross the Santee by swimming his Horses, & passing his Men in two Canoes which he found by accident at Fludd’s Plantation. He effected his purpose on the 27th, & the same evening, fell in with Lt. Col. Watson. An action ensued, in which the Enemy were forced to fly, leaving 18 dead on the field, several wounded, & about forty Horses. Our loss was only a Subaltern & Seven Privates wounded. Harrison’s people, mounted & armed with Swords behaved very gallantly routing the Enemy’s Cavalry regularly formed & thrice their number.[8]

Following the anti-partisan campaigns, the Provincial Light Infantry was but a fraction of its original strength. Losses by desertion, death and capture lessened its numbers and effectiveness, which was only made worse by Lieutenant Colonel Watson’s return home that summer on leave, the command then devolving on Major Thomas Barclay of the Loyal American Regiment. Its last large engagement was its biggest and bloodiest, serving in Brigadier General Alexander Stewart’s force at the Battle of Eutaw Springs on 8 September 1781, losing forty-eight officers and men out of one hundred and eight engaged, including Captain Van Buskirk seriously wounded.[9]

Ensign Cooper however had done well that day in February, and was promoted to lieutenant the following year. Much hard fighting would continue until the company returned back to the New York area in the summer of 1782. Cooper and Van Norden on their return joined other officers of the battalion in forming what would become the St. George’s Masonic Lodge, serving in garrison duty until the end of the war.[10]


[1] Major John André to Colonels Beverley Robinson, Gabriel G. Ludow, Edmund Fanning, Lieutenant Colonels Abraham Van Buskirk, Joseph Barton, and Major John Colden, New York, 15 August 1780. Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 275, John André Letterbook, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Hereafter cited as CL.

[2] Van Buskirk to Deputy Adjutant General Frederick Mackenzie, New York, 19 August 1780. Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 118, item 2, CL.

[3] The American Volunteers was a composite corps of 175 officers and men drawn from eight Provincial battalions at New York City that were not part of the original expedition to take Charleston, South Carolina. After the capture of that city, the corps was to return to New York and the men returned to their various units. Ferguson however lobbied successfully to keep the corps in South Carolina, where it was used to help train newly raised militia units, eventually being destroyed with Ferguson at King’s Mountain.

[4] The King’s American Regiment, raised in December 1776, had actually had a light company since its first formation.

[5] Undated, un-addressed letter from Lieutenant Colonel John Watson, Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 232, item 21, CL

[6] The Royal Gazette (New York), March 21, 1781.

[7] Nesbitt Balfour to Sir Henry Clinton, March 3, 1781, Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 184, folio 155, Great Britain, The National Archives. Hereafter cited as TNA.

[8] Francis, Lord Rawdon to Charles, Earl Cornwallis, 7 March 1781, Cornwallis Papers, PRO 30/11/69, folios 7-11, TNA.

[9] “Return of Killed, Wounded, and Missing in the Army Commanded by Lieut. Colonel Alexander Stewart in the Action at Eutaws September 8th 1781.” Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 104, Page 271, TNA.

[10] William Silas Whitehead, Origin of Masonry in the State of New Jersey: and the Entire Proceedings of the Grand Lodge from its First Organization, A.L. 5786. (Trenton: Published by Joseph H. Hough, Murphy & Bechtel, Printers, 1870), page xxvii.


  • Todd, thanks for an interesting article. It reminds all of us that there were committed and brave Americans on both sides of the Revolutionary War! The loyalists you cite were wiling to travel to far away colonies to fight to stay within the British Empire.

  • Thanks Gene. The period during which this encounter takes place was the high point for Loyalist involvement in the war, at least as far as their importance in the overall army was concerned. The British had fewer and fewer troops and needed their Provincials to bear a much larger part of the fighting. Most units that came from the North went back with fewer than half their men when it was all said and done.

  • It is interesting to consider the timing of Van Buskirk’s orders to form a light infantry company in August 1780 as this was precisely the same time that Washington was transitioning from using provincial light infantry units on a seasonal, or individual campaign basis, to full time, year round deployment. The successes of these American units since their formation in 1777 was without question (consider Wayne and Stony Point in 1779) and it looks like he and the British were both seeking to expand their capabilities at the same time. Coincidence?

    I love the Simcoe avatar! He looks like quite the character!

    1. Gary, that’s an interesting observation. The Provincial Light Infantry more followed along the lines of the Volunteers of Ireland, British Legion and American Volunteers: American corps created mostly from existing units to give commands to promising British officers who could not be advanced otherwise. The nature of the war in the South was perfect for light infantry, so it was an obvious fit. Other Provincial units had light infantry (and grenadier) companies that never were separated from their battalion companies, such as the Queen’s Rangers, Volunteers of Ireland, Prince of Wales American Volunteers and King’s Orange Rangers.

      1. That pattern of forming light infantry out of the Loyalist regiments began early in the southern campaigns. Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell took 60 of the best and most active men from each regiment (one was the NY Volunteers,) and formed a regiment of Light Infantry under James Baird. They were instrumental in capturing Savannah in the original invasion of 1778. Guided through a thick swamp by a slave named Quamino Dolly, the light infantry (along with the remainder of the NY Volunteers) burst out of the swamp and outflanked the Patriots causing an instant collapse. The city was taken.

        1. Quite correct Wayne. That light infantry was formed from the 3rd Battalion, New Jersey Volunteers, New York Volunteers, and 1st & 2nd Battalions of DeLancey’s, joined to the two light companies of the 71st Highlanders. All those units likewise contributed men to form the nucleus of the two troops of Georgia Light Dragoons. The light infantry would later be joined by the men of the 16th Regiment and fall under the command of Major Graham of that corps. They would continue together through 1779 and serve at the Siege of Charleston in 1780. After that, most of the Provincials were returned to their battalions. The light infantry under Tarleton at Cowpens was the remnants of that incarnation: the two companies of the 71st, the men of the 16th and the light company of the Prince of Wales American Volunteers, which had suffered a number of casualties at Hanging Rock the previous August.

  • What became of these men after the war ended? I mean, aside from becoming Masons. I’m very curious about confiscations and other consequences of taking the loyalist side in the war. You note that they were from prominent New Jersey families. There must have been property that could be seized and a big change in circumstance for these people after the war.

    1. Their stories varied after the war. Bergen County, where many of these men had lived, saw 134 properties confiscated by the state, more than any other county in New Jersey. Abraham Van Buskirk became a prominent figure in the new town of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, which in the course of one year went from no population to one of the largest in North America. Jacob Van Buskirk likewise became a figure in early Shelburne, and served as a field officer in the militia. The New Jersey Volunteers, like all the other units shipped to Nova Scotia at the end of the war, were disbanded on 10 October 1783. Those that went to Nova Scotia received free grants of land depending upon their rank and size of their family. They likewise received free provisions for a couple of years, as well as clothing and farming tools. New towns received items to create gristmills and blacksmith shops. Tens of thousands left, but many stayed behind and attempted to make peace with their old neighbors, or recover their property. Those Provincials who chose not to go received their discharges in New York City on 3 September 1783.

  • Great article, Todd, as one would expect from you on the subject.

    I’m just curious now of what happened to Captain Jacob Van Buskirk? Did he survive his wounds? In Boatner’s Encyclopedia, I could only find reference to his father, as you’d laid out, Lt. Col. Abram Van Buskirk.

    Thanks again for a well researched and written article.

    1. Thank you John. He did indeed survive and lived to I believe 74 years of age. He became a prominent merchant, judge and justice of the peace in Shelburne, Nova Scotia and also served as major and lieutenant colonel in the militia there. He passed away a widower in 1834. I have visited his grave, as well as that of his father and step mother in Shelburne.

  • Hi Todd,
    Great article, it’s very interesting! It peaked my couriosity on this subject. Do you recommend any book(s) that describes the actions of this and the other light infantry companies?
    Thanks for your excellent work,

    1. Thank you Brian. In all honesty, no. These sorts of side actions, fragments of campaigns, are really best covered by the great authors here at Journal of the American Revolution. Unless one spends an inordinate amount of time in primary sources, JAR is really the only place you will find these sorts of forgotten actions, which is what makes this website so special, and valuable.

      1. Thanks Todd! I had a feeling that there wasn’t any book just on this subject but I thought I asked to be sure. I agree, there are many great authors and articles here at the Journal and I will keep reading!

        1. Brian,
          While these are not book-length treatments of light infantry per se, these may be of some value/interest:
          J.F.C. Fuller, British Light Infantry in the Eighteenth Century (London: Hutchinson and Co., 1925);
          Leonard L. Lerwill, The Personnel Replacement System in the United States Army, Pamphlet No. 20-211 (Department of the Army, 1954);
          John K. Mahon and Roma Danysh, Infantry Part 1: Regular Army (Washington: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1971);
          John T. Wright, “The Corps of Light Infantry in the Continental Army,” The American Historical Review 31, no. 3 (April 1926): 454-461.

          1. Gary, i would caution against Wright’s “Corps of Light Infantry” essay. Since its publication, much has come to light and it has a few glaring inaccuracies. I used to refer to it myself but began to find errors in it as time went on, especially about Stony Point.

            Brian, Another book that covers British Light infantry is Matthew Spring’s “With Zeal and Bayonets Only” from a few years ago. While not a narrative peice, nor is it entirely about light infantry, it covers tactics and anecdotes are used to highlight the point he is trying to make. Reads like a textbook, but an invaluble source.

          2. Thank you Gary and Michael for your recommendations. I appreciate it. I will check these books out!

  • Some background for those who weren’t already aware of it:
    The British army had been using provisional light infantry battalions since the beginning of the war. Each British infantry regiment had one light infantry company (out of ten companies altogether). When necessary, these companies were detached from their regiments and formed into battalions. It was just such a battalion that was in Lexington on the morning of 19 April 1775. When that operation was over, the companies returned to their regiments; provisional battalions of light infantry and grenadiers were assembled again on 17 June to assault Bunker Hill.

    General Sir William Howe established light infantry and grenadier battalions more formally when he reorganized his army in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in April and May 1776. These battalions stayed intact – with alterations to which companies were in which battalion and which officers were in command as force levels changed – throughout the war. Light infantry and grenadier battalions were also put together on Burgoyne’s 1777 campaign, and in other places. Variations occurred as local situations warranted; in Rhode Island in 1778, for example, the grenadier and light infantry companies of the 38th and 54th Regiments operated together as a little battalion.

    With all this in mind, the Provincial light infantry battalion of 1780 was not a totally new concept, but a continuation of a practice that was well-established. It does, as Todd Braisted mentions in a previous comment, reflect the increasing reliance on Provincial troops later in the war.

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