The British army that fought in the opening engagements of the American Revolution in 1775 was not a wartime army, it was a peacetime army that suddenly found itself involved in a war. It was composed entirely of volunteer, professional soldiers, but not many among them had prior combat experience. This is true at the beginning of almost every war in history, so it is no surprise that it was so in America in 1775. What is not known, though, is the number or proportion of combat veterans in the British regiments serving in America at the beginning of the war, or in any of the regiments that joined the conflict in subsequent years. While muster rolls for the 1775-1783 era are reasonably complete for most regiments, only a few survive from the era of the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War), and the service of many men was not continuous (that is, they were discharged from the army, then enlisted again later on).
Although we may never know the number of British combat veterans who joined the war in America, either at the beginning or part way through, we can identify a few. Among the soldiers who received pensions after their service were some whose discharge papers describe service in other wars before they fought in America. Some had been wounded, but soldiered on. Below is a small sampling of these long-serving veterans, showing the diverse military careers that typified the professional soldiers in the British Army.
The 4th (King’s Own) Regiment of Foot arrived in America in 1774, part of the military buildup in Boston that the British government hoped would restore order in the colonies. When the expedition to Concord marched out on the night of April 18-19, 1775, their ranks included a grenadier of the 4th Regiment with the familiar name of John Smith. He was certainly familiar to long marches and military routine, having joined the army in 1754. The native of St. Andrews in Norfolk, England, was twenty-three years old when he enlisted, having tried the trade of a dyer before turning instead to the army. His regiment began the Seven Years’ War in Minorca and Gibraltar, then sailed on an expedition to the West Indies. They twice fought on the island of Martinique, first on an abortive strike in 1759 and then in the successful capture of the island in 1762. In one of these engagements, Smith was wounded in the leg.
The injury was not disabling, and he continued in the infantry, healthy enough to undertake the long trek to Concord at the age of forty-four. Before the day was over, he had been wounded again, this time by a shot through the thigh. Once again, the wound did not end his career. He continued with the 4th Regiment through campaigns in New York in 1776, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1777, and again in New Jersey in 1778, although no longer with the grenadier company; he then went with his regiment to the West Indies once again, there to fight the French. He was finally discharged from the army in 1788, at the age of fifty-seven, after thirty-four years of service which included two wars and two wounds. He received a well-deserved pension.
Also in America when the war began was a man from the Bath suburb of Walcot in Somersetshire, William Marchant. He was not in Boston but at St. Johns, a post along the Richelieu River between Quebec and Lake Champlain. The 7th Regiment of Foot, called the Royal Fusiliers, probably hoped the conflict in Boston would remain local and not affect their region. Any such hopes were dashed in November 1775 when an American force besieged and captured the post. The prisoners were marched off to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Marchant, thirty-seven years old, had been wounded in the neck fourteen years before, serving in the 103rd Regiment of Foot when the British took Belle Isle, off the Brittany Peninsula, from the French during the Seven Years’ War. He was discharged at the war’s end when the 103rd Regiment was disbanded, but with no trade to fall back on, he enlisted again into the 7th Regiment.
Faced with imprisonment, Marchant chose a different path: along with a few of the other prisoners, he enlisted in the American army. Whether he did so because he was disheartened, or because he was clever, is not known, but the move allowed him to get to the New York City area. There, in the autumn of 1776, large numbers of American soldiers deserted or were taken prisoners. Marchant’s own circumstances aren’t known at this writing, but on October 17 he joined the British army again. He enlisted in the 63rd Regiment of Foot, and was transferred back into the 7th Regiment the following year when that corps’ prisoners were exchanged and the regiment was reconstituted. The 7th served in several subsequent campaigns. Portions were captured at the battle of Cowpens and the surrender at Yorktown, but Marchant was not among them. When he was finally discharged in 1788 at the age of fifty he was recommended for a pension, “having been wounded in the Neck at Belleisle, suffered much by being confined when prisoner of war in America, & being much afflicted with the Rheumatism, is unfit for further service.” No mention was made of his brief stint in the American army.
When overseas conflicts began to drag on for years, the British army raised new regiments to increase strength, then disbanded them when the war ended. In 1760, with the Seven Years’ War raging around the globe, the 88th Regiment of Foot was raised in Scotland. Among the enlistees was Donald McPhee, a twenty-nine-year-old illiterate farm laborer from Kilmallie, near Fort William in Inverness Shire. He went with his regiment to Germany, where a splinter from an exploding mortar bomb wounded him severely in the head. He nonetheless served out the war and took his discharge when it ended. In 1775 another new regiment was authorized to recruit in his area, the 71st Regiment of Foot or Fraser’s Highlanders. Now forty-four years old, McPhee answered the call again. His regiment arrived in America in 1776 and fought in several major campaigns. At the siege of Charleston, South Carolina in 1780, McPhee was wounded again, this time in the thigh. He was deemed no longer fit for service and sent home to his native Inverness, having been a soldier for ten years in two wars. He went straight home rather than passing through London to appear before the army pension board. Perhaps he thought he hadn’t served long enough or wasn’t infirm enough to be eligible for that reward. By 1791, however, he was disabled and bedridden, unable to support his wife and six children. The family was supported by the parish until an army officer who’d served with him in America intervened on his behalf, writing to the pension board “that from the Testimony of several Gentlemen of first veracity & Honor on behalf of the Bearer Donald McPhee, and having a recollection myself of the poor man’s services in America, I am enabled not only to renew his Discharge (on account of his having lost the Original) but to Certify that he has been confined to his Bed and supported by his Parish for some years Past, which prevented his being able to come up in due time to solicit His Majesty’s Bounty of Chelsea Pension.” The deserving veteran, now sixty years old, was added to the pension rolls.
The Seven Years War wasn’t the only conflict that British soldiers fought in before the American Revolution, and continental North America wasn’t the only western Atlantic place for them to be stationed when war broke out in 1775. In 1772, slaves on the island of St. Vincent in the West Indies rebelled against their local rulers. Several British regiments were sent to put down the rebellion, among them the 6th Regiment of Foot. The ranks of the 6th included Samuel Stratton, a literate man from Madeley in Shropshire who’d been a silversmith before enlisting at the age of twenty in 1768. During fighting on January 25, 1773, Stratton was wounded in the neck and head, but continued as a soldier after he recovered. The 6th Regiment remained in garrison in the West Indies until it became clear that the war far to the north was escalating. In 1776 they were sent to New York to join General Howe’s army.
After their arrival, it became clear that the 6th Regiment was no longer fit for service, their ranks reduced and men weakened by the harsh tropical climate. The able-bodied men were transferred into other regiments, the infirm men were discharged, and the officers and noncommissioned officers went back to England to recruit anew. Samuel Stratton was among the able-bodied, and joined the grenadier company of the 37th Regiment of Foot in December. He remained able-bodied for about eight months, until he was shot through the right arm and the right leg at the battle of Brandywine. These wounds, too, did not end his career. He served out the war and remained in the 37th Regiment until December 1790 when he took his discharge and received a pension because, besides having been wounded, he was “worn out in the service.”
One of the most storied battles of the Seven Years War was Minden, fought in Prussia in August of 1759. A number of veterans of that famous clash went on to fight as British soldiers during the American Revolution. Not all of them were British. Take, for example, Heinrich Lücke, a recruit who joined the 4th Regiment of Foot in New York in October 1776, part of a substantial reinforcement for the British army that bolstered the strength of each regiment. Lücke was thirty-eight years old when he was recruited into British service in his native Hanover in the German states. A Catholic from the city of Hildesheim in Lower Saxony, he had already spent almost nineteen years in the Hanoverian army, including the battle of Minden where he received a wound in the wrist. Far from being too old to serve, men like him were valued for their experience. Just as they did in Great Britain, recruiters on the European continent looked not only for willing young men but also for seasoned soldiers still in good health; it wouldn’t do to increase the size of the army by relying solely on men with no military experience. So it was that when “recruits” arrived in America, they generally included a mixture of men transferred from other regiments, men who had reenlisted after prior service, and men who were truly new to the military. In this way the overall experience of the army was not diluted too much.
The six-foot tall Lücke, who had left his wife behind in Europe, served long and well with the 4th Regiment. Within days of arriving in New York he was appointed corporal, matching his previous Hanoverian rank. His name as rendered on the muster rolls evolved, as it often did for German recruits in British service: Heinrich Lücke became Henry Leich. He participated in campaigns in America in 1776, 1777 and 1778, then went with his regiment to the West Indies to campaign against the French. When the war ended he remained in British service even though he was, like other men who enlisted after December 1775, entitled to be discharged. He finally left the army in March 1791, now fifty-four years old and a veteran of thirty-six years in two armies. He had no trade and was illiterate, but was subsisted by a pension awarded in consideration of his long and faithful service. Whether he returned to his wife after such a long absence is not known.
Ambrose Fox had been to school and then learned to be a tailor in the city of Lancaster in the English northwest, but by the time he was twenty-one years old he decided on a change of careers. He enlisted in the 24th Regiment of Foot in 1759. The regiment went on campaign in Europe, and on August 16, 1762, Fox received a wound in his left leg during a contested river crossing in the battle of Reichenbach in Germany. He continued on as a soldier in the 24th, seeing the end of the Seven Years’ War and then the beginning of a new war in America. His regiment was sent to Canada in 1776 to relieve the besieged city of Quebec and chase an invading American army all the way back to Lake Champlain. When the next campaign season came, Fox marched with General Burgoyne’s army. The campaign ground to a halt at Saratoga, and Fox was among the British soldiers taken prisoner and marched overland to the outskirts of Boston. After enduring a miserable winter and the news that they wouldn’t be sent home as originally expected, the troops were moved further inland to Rutland, Massachusetts. In late 1778, they were shifted again, this time all the way to Albemarle, Virginia. Some 600 prisoners made their break during this march, particularly when they were relatively close to British-held New York City.
Among the escapees was Ambrose Fox. His captain sanctioned his escape, giving him sixty Continental dollars to help him along the way. After a nineteen-day trek through hostile territory, he appeared before the British lines at Paulus Hook, New Jersey, where he was received and sent on to New York City. There he joined the 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers; nine of his fellow escapees from Burgoyne’s army were already in the regiment, and over thirty more would join it before the war ended. Fate was not kind to Fox, however; in October 1781 he was captured once again, at Yorktown, Virginia. Although many Yorktown prisoners escaped and made their way back to British lines, including some who’d done so once before, Fox waited out his captivity this time. When hostilities ended in the first half of 1783, he and other prisoners were repatriated; he returned to New York, then to Great Britain at the end of the year. He took his discharge in March 1787, and received a pension when it was determined that “being old and worn out in the service, he is rendered unfit for further service.”
There were others, many others. The six men above are identifiable because their discharges happen to mention war wounds, and because those discharges were filed when they received pensions. Many men with similar histories can be found among the British pension records, and there were surely countless hundreds who did not apply for pensions. And of course, many soldiers who served in America went on to see other conflicts after 1783, but that’s a story for another day.
 Muster rolls, 4th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2194 and /2195; discharge of John Smith, WO 121/5/226. All WO references are from the War Office Papers, British National Archives.
 Muster rolls, 7th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2474 and /2475, and 63rd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/7241; discharge of William Marchant, WO 121/5/29; Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg, PA: Lane S. Hart, 1879), 2nd Series 1:422.
 Discharge of Donald McPhee, WO 121/10/149.
 Muster rolls, 37th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5101; discharge of Samuel Stratton, WO 121/10/51.
 Muster rolls, 4th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2194 and /2195; “Liste Des Recrués Anglois embarqués á Stade pour Spithead en Irlande ce 14me de Mai 1776,” WO 43/405; discharge of Henry Lytch, WO 121/11/18.
 Muster rolls, 24th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/4059, and 23rd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3960; “Board of Enquiry held at New York,” PRO 30/55/6884, British National Archives; discharge of Ambrose Fox, WO 121/1/138.