Armies are tasked with enforcing government policies. When it came time for the British military to enforce parliamentary policies concerning the American colonies, however, some members of the army and navy found themselves unable to answer the call because they disagreed with their government. A number of officers across all grades, who were distinguished for their bravery and ability, refused to serve in America. Their positions were respected for the most part by the King, his ministers and their countrymen. Those who took such a stand did so for reasons of conscience or political principles; they could not be participants in war against fellow Englishmen.
Some regimental officers, those subject to deployment to America in direct command of troops, resigned their regimental commissions. Most of them, however, stated that they would serve King and country if France and Spain entered the war; they were placed on half-pay, an inactive status that allowed them to be recalled to active duty. Others sought transfers, by exchange or promotion, to regiments not ordered for service in America.1 Exchange with an officer in another regiment could be accomplished only by agreement of both officers and by the colonels of both regiments, if the rank was equal, and no money was exchanged to sweeten the agreement; the Secretary at War and the King also had to approve exchanges.2 Some officers belonged to powerful families (or their families had powerful friends) who used their influence to obtain commissions in regiments remaining in Great Britain. A few who could not resign on half-pay or exchange went so far as to ask permission to sell their commissions. On February 6, 1775, William Henry Zuylestein, the Earl of Rochford and Secretary of State for the Southern Department informed Simon, the Earl of Harcourt and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland that “His Majesty will not listen to any further Requests for selling from the officers of those Corps, who now are, or may be hereafter, under strict orders for Embarkation [to America].”
A significant number of members of Parliament possessed commissions in the military. Twelve percent resigned those commissions between 1774 and 1783, a rate significantly higher than the average peacetime rate of one and a half percent. The largest number of resignations was in the ranking field officers, that is, the positions of major and lieutenant colonel. This occurred because these men lacked the influence to secure promotions or choice assignments and found retirement more agreeable than service in a war in which they had nothing to gain.
All of the above reasons for not wanting to serve in America can for the most part be grouped into two categories: those who explicitly refused to serve when in a position to have to do so; and those who voiced opposition to the war but were not in a position to have to make a choice about whether to actively serve in it.
Officers who Refused to Serve in America
Lieutenant-General Sir Jeffrey Amherst served as a Member of Parliament for Hythe from 1766-1768 and from Launceston from 1766-1774. He had been commander in chief of British forces in North America for most of the French and Indian War; he was pressed by the King George III on January 31, 1775 to accept the position of Commander-in-Chief in North America once again. He declined. King George III informed Lord Dartmouth,
My negociation proved fruitless. I stated very fully the intending to send him with an olive branch in one hand, whilst the other should be prepared to obtain submission, but the ground first taken was never acquitted, that nothing but retreat would bring him to go again to America. I am hurt at not succeeding, as I think it bore a prosperous aspect of bringing those deluded people to due obedience without putting the dagger to their throats. I see he cannot be persuaded, we must do what is next best, leave the command to Gage. 3
Horace Walpole believed he refused the command because “his wife dissuaded him;” George Bancroft believed that Amherst refused to go because the Ministry would not give him a large enough army with which to undertake the business of reconciling or subduing the rebellious colonists. It has also been proposed that he recognized the futility of attempting to conquer the Americans by a land war or he was disinterested in giving up his life at home and the social life of London. 4 To this day, his reasons remain uncertain.
In 1778, when the British commander in North America, William Howe, requested to be relieved, the ministers urged the King again to consider Amherst as his replacement; again, he refused the command. He instead accepted the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, a cabinet position that put him in charge of all of Great Britain’s land forces. In this capacity, Amherst successfully argued for a limited war in North America: this meant keeping footholds along the coast, defending Canada, East and West Florida, and the West Indies, and putting more effort into the war at sea.
Admiral Augustus Keppel served as a Member of Parliament for Windsor. He abhorred the war in America. While naval officers flocked to the Admiralty, offering their services and requesting employment, Keppel kept to himself, declaring that “if the necessities of the times called for his services, and he knew that it was the King’s desire, he was ready to do his duty, but not in the line of America.” 5
In November of 1776, he received a message from Lord Sandwich that his Majesty requested to know whether, in case of a war with the continental powers, he would undertake the charge of the home fleet? He said that he wished to give his answer in person to his Majesty. He was admitted to a private audience, and, at the personal solicitation of the King, consented to assume the command of the Channel fleet. 6 To his surprise he was not consulted about the preparations of the fleet that was to be under his command. On January 14, 1777, he wrote to Lord Rockingham,
Most probably the K will have no want of my services, and the seeming indifference of his M towards me, since the first moment of my having been given to understand I might be called upon, I think, makes it advisable for me to keep out of town, which may help to shew my indifference towards them in return.7
On November 18, 1777 in a heated discussion in Parliament, the Duke of Grafton said:
Nothing, my Lords, can be more unparliamentary than the assumption, that every man who differs from administration is an enemy to his country … the very gallant naval officer, Admiral Keppel … is a striking instance of it. It is no secret to the noble Lords in office that that gentleman highly disapproves of the present unnatural civil war. He has frequently given a public testimony of his disapprobation, and has supported his opinion by his vote as a senator. How the noble Earl at the head of the naval department will reconcile his opinions with his conduct, I do not pretend to say; but it is somewhat remarkable that this fleet, which has been so highly extolled, on which it is acknowledged the salvation of this country so entirely depends, should be trusted to a person who, according to the current ministerial language of this House, must be deemed ‘an enemy to his country.’ 8
The warlike preparations of France could no longer be ignored. Steps were now quickly taken for appointing officers and impressing seamen. On March 22, 1778, Keppel received his instructions and commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet.
Colonel James Cuninghame served as a Member of Parliament for East Grinstead. After serving in the French and Indian War under Loudoun and Wolfe, he returned to England in 1760. He was stationed with his regiment in Ireland shortly after the war. In August of 1773 the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Harcourt, forwarded to Lord Rochford, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, a memorial from Cuninghame mentioning his long service and asking for an appointment as lieutenant-colonel of a regiment of foot “in any part of the world,” or some other mark of favor. 9
His application was unsuccessful and in 1775 when his regiment, the 45th Regiment of Foot, was ordered to America, Cuninghame refused to go and went on half pay. In February 1780, he was appointed Captain-General and Governor in Chief of the island of Barbados. In 1782 while on half pay, he was promoted to major general.
Captain Thomas Howard, the Earl of Effingham resigned his captain’s commission in the 22nd Regiment of Foot when it was ordered to America; he refused to serve in a cause he thought “pernicious.”
Adelphi Buildings, April 12, 1775
To Lord Harrington, Secretary at War.
I beg the favour of your Lordship to lay before his Majesty the peculiar embarrassment of my present function.
Your Lordship is no stranger to the conduct which I have observed in the unhappy disputes with our American colonies. The King is too just and too generous not to believe that the votes I have given in Parliament have been given according to the dictates of my conscience. Whether I have erred or not, the course of future events must determine. In the meantime, if I were capable of such duplicity as to be any way concerned in enforcing those measures of which I have so publicly and solemnly expressed my disapprobation, I should ill deserve what I am most ambitious of obtaining, the esteem and favourable opinion of my Sovereign.
My request therefore to your Lordship is this, that after having laid those circumstances before the King, you will assure his Majesty that he has not a subject who is more ready than I am with the utmost cheerfulness to sacrifice his life and fortune in support of the safety, honour, and dignity of his Majesty’s crown and person. But the very same principles which have inspired me with these unalterable sentiments of duty and affection to his Majesty, will not suffer me to be instrumental in depriving any part of his people of those liberties which form the best security for their fidelity and obedience to his government. As I cannot, without reproach from my conscience, consent to bear arms against my fellow subjects in America in what, to my weak discernment, is not a clear cause; and as it seems now to be finally resolved that the 22nd Regiment is to go upon American service, I desire your Lordship to lay me in the most dutiful manner at his Majesty’s feet, and humbly beg that I may be permitted to retire.
Your Lordship will also be so obliging to entreat that as I waive what the
custom of the service would entitle me to, the right of selling what I bought, I may be allowed to retain my rank in the Army, that whenever the envy or ambition of foreign powers should require it, I may be enabled to serve his Majesty and my country in that way in which alone I can expect to serve them with any degree of effect …
I have the honour to be, with great respect.
Your Lordship’s most obedient.
And most humble servant,
Captain James Wilson in March of 1776 was running for one of the two seats up for election for the County of Antrim in Parliament. Three months before the general election he resigned his commission in the army in order to avoid having to
disobey the commands of his sovereign, or adopt the horrid alternative of stifling every impulse of humanity, and rushing into the blood of his kindred fellow-subjects and countrymen. 11
His action did not hurt his chances in the election; he won the second seat by 109 votes. At his victory dinner, two of the toasts were “equal liberty to all parts of the British empire” and “a speedy and happy reconciliation between Great Britain and America.” 12
Lieutenant John Pennington served as a Member of Parliament for Milborne Port from 1781 to 1796. In 1762, he served as a lieutenant and then captain in the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards; in 1765, he exchanged into the 2nd Regiment of Foot Guards where he was then promoted to major; and in 1773 lieutenant colonel of the 37th Regiment of Foot. In 1774 he unsuccessfully ran for a set in Parliament.13 In 1775, two events occurred that changed his life forever: first, after being informed in October that his regiment was embarking for America, specifically the expedition to the southern colonies, he retired from the military – and second, his father, Sir Joseph Pennington, decided to turn over the running of his Muncaster estate to John, his eldest son. This author has not as of yet found a connection between these two events, but as a thirty-four year old, high-ranking field officer, he had nothing further to gain by serving in the war.
Officers who Spoke Out against the war in America
General Sir Henry Seymour Conway served as a Member of Parliament for Higher Ferrers from 1741 to 1747, Penryn from 1747 to 1754, St. Mawes from 1754 to 1761, Thetford from 1761 to 1774, and Burt St. Edmunds from 1775 to 1784.
His military career began in 1740 as captain-lieutenant in the 8th Regiment of Dragoons. Over the next thirty-two years he would serve with the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, the 48th Regiment of Foot, the 34th Regiment of Foot, the 13th Regiment of Dragoons, the 4th Regiment of Horse, the 1st Regiment of Dragoons, the 4th Regiment of Dragoons, and the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards. His rise in rank occurred with the movement from one regiment to another. In 1772, he was promoted to full general.
He served in the Rockingham cabinet as Secretary of State for the Southern Department in 1765 and leader of the House of Commons from 1766 to 1768. He favored a moderate policy towards the American colonies. In 1766 he supported repeal of the Stamp Act. In 1767 he opposed the Townshend Acts, refused to introduce them in the House of Commons, and voted against them on May 13 and May 15. He was made governor of the Island of Jersey in 1772. Two years later he began a tour of the Continent for the purpose of becoming acquainted with the Prussian and Austrian military. When he returned to Parliament in 1775 he “not only refused to take any part in the war, but opposed it at every point.” “… he always thought the measure of coercing America for the purpose of raising a revenue, an unjust one; he always looked upon it to be impracticable; but was ‘certain it was to the last degree cruel, oppressive, and destructive.’” 14 Between 1778 and 1781, he spent much of his time addressing the affairs and defense of Jersey that was threatened with invasion by the French.
General Sir George Howard served as a Member of Parliament for Lostwithiel from 1761 to 1766 and for Stamford from 1768 to 1796. He began his army career in 1736 as a lieutenant in 24th Regiment of Foot. Over the next forty-one years he would only serve with three more regiments: the 3rd Regiment of Foot, the 7th (the Queen’s own) Regiment of Dragoons, and the 1st (the King’s own) Regiment of Dragoons. He was made governor of Minorca from 1766 to 1768 and then Governor of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London from 1768 to 1795. On February 7, 1766, during a debate in the House of Commons on a motion by George Grenville regarding the enforcement of laws in America, Howard said,
He hoped in God it would not succeed, for in all likelihood he might be ordered to execute it, and before he would imbrue his hands in the blood of his countrymen who were contending for English liberty, he would if ordered to draw his sword, but would soon after sheathe it in his own body. 15
Captain George Augustus Herbert was the son of Henry Herbert, the 10th Earl of Pembroke. To protect him from being ordered to the American colonies, the Earl kept his son travelling on the continent until 1780. Captain Herbert started on his Grand Tour in November 1775 with the Rev. William Coxe, his tutor, and Major Floyd, his travelling companion. They stayed at Strasbourg till April 1777, except for the summer of 1776 that they spent in Switzerland. During the next three years Lord Pembroke made them traverse Europe in various directions: Belgium and Holland, May-July 1777; Potsdam, Berlin, Breslau, Prague, Dresden, and Leipzig, August-October 1777; the winter in Vienna; and then, on April 1778, Warsaw, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Petersburg; in July, Moscow was added to the itinerary. They returned from Petersburg by Finland, Sweden, Hamburg, and Munich, reached Vienna in the summer of 1779; and Venice, Milan, and Naples in the fall of the same year. With the country at war, Herbert wanted to join his regiment. Pembroke finally agreed, but Herbert was to return by way of Spain and Portugal. On January 1, 1780, he wrote, “I … consent to your return home without visiting those two countries, provided that you will promise me to do it the first opportunity.” After a few months in Turin, and a tour of France, he reached England in June 1780. 16
Lieutenant-General Charles Lennox succeeded his father as the Duke of Richmond in Parliament in 1756. He became captain of the 20th Regiment of Foot in 1753. During his career he would also serve with the 33rd Regiment of Foot and the 72nd Regiment of Foot. At the end of the Seven Years War he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Sussex and ambassador extraordinary in Paris. In 1765 he returned to England, was appointed Secretary of State for the Southern Department in the Rockingham administration, and voted for the repeal of the Stamp Act. In 1770, he was promoted to lieutenant general.
From 1774 to 1783, he was a strong critic of Lord North’s American policy.
He believed that Parliament possessed legislative supremacy over the colonies, but should not use its power to force the colonists to submit to parliamentary taxation. In 1775 during the debate on the second reading of the American Prohibitory Bill, he declared in the House of Lords that the resistance of the American colonists was “neither treason nor rebellion, but it is perfectly justifiable in every possible political and moral sense.” 17 In 1780 Charles Jenkinson said of the Duke, “If there were two dukes of Richmond in this country, I would not live in it.” 18
In 1782, Marquess of Rockingham’s bi-partisan ministry replaced Lord North’s ministry. Soon afterwards, the Duke of Richmond was appointed Master-General of the Ordnance with a seat in the Prime Minister’s cabinet.
Charles Lennox, the 3rd Duke of Richmond was the great-grandson of King Charles II.
John, Viscount Pitt, son of William Pitt, entered the British army in 1774 as an ensign in the 47th Regiment of Foot. Six months later he was serving with Gen. Guy Carleton as an aide-de-camp in Canada. The next year when an American force invaded the province, he was almost captured. On February 14, 1776, Lady Chatham, the wife of William Pitt, wrote to General Guy Carleton, the Governor of Canada:
The weakness of my Lord’s health will not admit of his expressing at large the sense he has of the extent of your goodness to his son. It has made an impression on him which will always remain in his mind, attended with the sincerest gratitude. The advantages Pitt has received, from the time he has been honoured with the eye and protection of General Carleton, have been such as my Lord had persuaded himself, from every reason, he must receive.
Feeling all this, Sir, as Lord Chatham does, you will tell yourself with what concern he communicates to you a step that, from his fixed opinion with regard to the continuance of the unhappy war with our fellow-subjects of America, he has found it necessary to take. It is that of withdrawing his son [in the 47th Regiment of Foot] from such a service. He honours the service; and, under the military auspices of General Carleton, he had flattered himself that his might one day have arrived at some degree of merit in the profession. Though, from particular circumstances, he must cease to have the honour of attending you as aide-de-camp, my Lord will nevertheless hope for the continuance of your favourable opinion and protection to him, and trust that you will accept his sincere wishes for your return to England, and for the happiness of yourself and your whole family; – in which allow me to join.
I am, Sir, with every regard, etc…
Hester Chatham 19
He arrived back in England on November 2, 1775. According to the London Chronicle, ”An officer who is just arrived from America, gives an account, that so great a respect and veneration do the people of that country pay Lord Chatham, that upon Lord Pitt’s first landing there, they got an exact description of his person, which was given in orders to the riflemen, with an intent to spare him upon all engagements: it was likewise given in constant orders, should he be taken prisoner, to treat him with all imaginable respect, the etiquette of which was even settled in every Particular.” 20
On December 10, 1775, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Page,
I hope Ld. Chatham may live till the fortune of war puts his son into our hands, and enables us by returning him safe to his father, to pay a debt of Gratitude. 21
Major-General Sir John Griffin served as a Member of Parliament for Andover from 1749 to 1784 and in the Seven Years War on the continent. In 1743, he was made Captain of the 3rd Foot Guards. Over the next thirty-five years he would also serve with the 33rd Regiment of Foot and the 1st Troop of Horse Grenadier Guards. In 1778, he was made a full general.
In a conversation with Lord Chatham on October 27, 1763, Griffin told him that he was considering retiring from Government. During his time in the House, he was considered an independent; he believed that “he should vote his own way and according to evidence.” 22 Sometimes he voted with the Government and sometimes with the Rockingham Whigs.
On November 1, 1775, confronted with the choice of abandoning the notion of the Supremacy of Parliament or of going to war over the notion, Griffin hesitated and was unwilling to decide. He declared that
he had hitherto supported Government on principles, without regard to men; thinking it his duty as an honest man so to do, as long as the true interest of the country appeared to be consulted, and the public affairs conducted to the credit or honour of the nation; denied that to be the case at present … adding, he should ill deserve to sit there any longer, if he continued to afford his support to men, the effects of whose mistaken and pernicious measures had reduced us to so shameful and dishonourable a situation. [He] professed himself an advocate for the supreme legislative authority of this country over its colonies; disclaimed however on the one hand vindicating the rash and indiscreet measure of having taxed the Americans, as he did on the other, their mode of resistance.
He opposed coercion and conquest, the use of foreign troops, and the increase of the army. Instead, he preferred the
tender of conciliation on terms suited to the true spirit of the British constitution ought to be preferred and held out to the Americans, which, if found not to prevail, to relinquish all connections with them; or otherwise, if practicable, to harass them with your fleets, by interrupting their trade, till at length they might perhaps be brought to sue for protection. 23
Lieutenant-General Lord Frederick Cavendish served as a Member of Parliament for Derbyshire from 1751 to 1754 and for Derby from 1754 to 1780. He began his career in 1749 as an ensign in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards; within three years he was a lieutenant in that regiment and a captain in the army. Over the next thirty years he would also serve with the 29th Regiment of Foot, the 67th Regiment of Foot, and finally as colonel of the 34th Regiment of Foot. In 1782, he was made a full general. He fought in the Seven Years War but his political principles and sympathy for the colonial cause prevented him from seeking a command in the American War of Independence. For 1774 and 1775, he served as Rockingham’s first leader in the House of Commons. 24
Each of these men was loyal to his King; a credit to his profession; and proud to be an Englishman, however, each man for his own reasons could not raise his sword against a fellow Englishman. Had the conflict been against France or Spain, historic enemies, not one of them would have refused a commission.
On May 31, 1775, the following was written in a letter from a general to a friend:
Unhappy it is though to reflect that a brother’s sword has been sheathed in a brother’s breast, and that the once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood or inhabited by slaves – sad alternative! But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice? 25
The general was George Washington.
1 J.W. Fortescue, ed., The Correspondence of King George III, 1760-1783 (London: 1927-28), 5: No. 2928.
2 Lord North to William Eden, August 22, 1775, Additional Manuscripts, British Museum; “Lord North to King George, August 25, 1775,” Fortescue ed., Correspondence of George Third, III, 249.
3 Historical Manuscripts Commission’s Report 13, Appendix Part IV, 501.
4 The Last Journal of Horace Walpole, I, 432-33; George Bancroft, History of the United States, IV, 128.
5 Thomas Robert Keppel, The Life of Augustus Viscount Keppel (London: Henry Colburn, 1842), 2:1-2.
6 Ibid., 2.
7 Ibid., 4-5.
8 Ibid., 10-11.
10 Hilda Engbring Feldhake ed., The Lords Effingham and the American Colonies,
(Effingham, IL: Effingham County Bicentennial Commission, 1976), 8.
11 Henry Joy, Historical Collections relative to the Town of Belfast: from the earliest period to the Union with Great Britain (Belfast, 1817), 127-8.
12 Belfast Newsletter, June 25, 1776.
13 Sidney Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. XLIV Paston – Percy
(London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1895), 333.
14 The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons (London: J. Almon, 1802), 3:283.
15 Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, (Series 7), Vol. IX, 139-43; Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The House of Commons, 1754-1790 (New York: 1964), 2:645.
16 Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1754-1790 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 2:3-4, 610-11.
17 Sidney Lee, ed., Dictionary of National Biography (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1893), 44.
18 Historical Manuscripts Commission, The Manuscripts of the Marquess of Abergavenny, Lord Braye, G. F. Luttrell, Esq, etc… 10th Report, Appendix, Part VI (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1887), 31.
19 William Stanhope Taylor and Capt. John Henry Pringle, eds., Correspondence of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham (London: John Murray, 1840), 4:411-412, 420-21;
Lady Hester Chatham to John, Lord Pitt, July 1775, and to William Pitt, July 18, 1775, Chatham Papers PRO 30/8/10, 26-27, British National Archives.
20 London Chronicle, February 3, 1776.
21 Julian P. Boyd, et al., eds., The Papers of Thomas Jeferson (Princeton: 1950-), 1: 270-71.
23 The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Lords during the first session; and of the House of Commons during the second session (London: T. Gillet, 1802), 2:271.
24 Henry Steele Commager, and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of ‘Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1958), 1:239.
25 George Washington to George William Fairfax, 31 May 1775,” John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., in The Writings of George Washington (Washington DC: 1931), 3: 290-2.