Review: Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution

Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution by Don Hagist. Foreword by Rick Atkinson. (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2020)

Back in the 1950s, respected military commentator Walter Millis (1899-1968) stated that British soldiers at the time of the American Revolution represented “a class apart.” They were, “generally speaking, from the least productive elements at the two ends of the social scale.” Although “theoretically volunteers,” wrote Millis, “actually, they were the sweepings of jail, ginmills and poorhouses, oafs from the farm beguiled into ‘taking the King’s shillings’.”[1]

Not so fast declared historian Sylvia R. Frey in her very readable statistical study, published in 1981, focusing on British soldiers serving in Revolutionary America. Frey put the dead beat lobsterback stereotype to rest in constructing an analysis of civilians who enlisted with “socioeconomic roles” that were “either permanently or temporarily displaced by changes in the English economy.” She explained that “the textile industry felt the impact of industrialization first and it was that industry which furnished most recruits to the service.” Frey went on to discuss the commonly-used practice of “beating up for volunteers” by recruiting parties that offered cash bounties in return for gaining enlistments.[2] She also provided a social profile of the soldiers in service ranging from such key subjects as training, discipline, health and disease, and crime and punishment among other important matters.

Now, almost forty years later, we have a valuable new study by well-known historian Don N. Hagist regarding the same subject. Titled Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution, this volume both reifies and expands the findings of Frey while dismissing the kind of ne’er-do-well portrait offered by Millis and others who commented earlier on the characteristics of eighteenth-century European soldiers. Hagist has spent years researching and evaluating surviving records regarding who the British soldiers were, where they came from, what their socioeconomic status and occupations were upon enlistment, and how they fared once in the Crown’s military ranks. Pointing out that much evidence no longer exists, Hagist concludes that regimental records, muster rolls, and other bits and pieces of information justify viewing the British rank-and-file soldierly as “an all-volunteer force, composed primarily of men who enlisted as a career rather than for a fixed term of service.” (xvii)

Hagist has divided his study into three parts: A peacetime army getting ready for war, the wartime army, and military careers ending once the war was over. Men volunteered for a variety of reasons, and most had some form of civilian occupational training. Hagist notes in particular the presence of tailors, but he cannot determine what craft levels they had attained before enlistment. Literacy rates were impossible to determine, but somewhere between 20 and 25 percent received promotions to corporal and/or sergeant, suggesting a modestly high level of literacy among the volunteers, as does the level of civilian job-related exposure.

The Articles of War, all 111 of them, prescribed everything from rigorous training rules to severe punishment for disorderly conduct, drunkenness while on duty, and the worst crime of them all, desertion. Those found guilty could expect whippings on their bare backs of up to 500 lashes. Hagist points out that “these were severe beatings” with cat-o’-nine-tails, “but it was against the army’s interests for these punishments to be fatal, and measures were taken to ensure men survived this brutal treatment.” (52)

During the war punishments became more severe, with hangings a little more prevalent and court-martial convictions resulting in beatings of up to 1,500 lashes. Long marches left the soldiers more vulnerable to fatigue and exposure to diseases ranging from dysentery to rheumatism, consumption, and “remitting fevers” of every kind. Surprisingly, smallpox outbreaks did not seem to affect the King’s soldiers as this horrible killer disease did in ravaging American Continental forces, a matter worthy of more exploration.[3]

By and large, Hagist does not engage in comparative analysis but concentrates on the British side of the story, as in his excellent chapter on abusive plundering activity. But he does not look into the subject of rape, which Frey did.[4] These kinds of alleged crimes by British soldiers were a serious problem faced by their commanders trying to reestablish lost imperial favor in the hearts and minds of the rebellious American colonists.

Those men who survived the war—many didn’t—faded back into civilian life as they grew too old for service. Some received land grants or pensions, depending on individual circumstances. Hagist states that most had proved to be worthy soldiers who accepted “itinerant military life” and performed “their duty faithfully and well.” (258) No doubt there were plunderers and ill-disciplined rascals among them. On the whole, however, Hagist concludes that they earned the appellation “Noble Volunteers,” a title that “may lean toward hyperbole, but it captures the desired spirit if not the actual motivations of the redcoated soldiers in America.” (xvii)

Among other matters, a pleasant surprise along the way are the drawings of various British soldiers by the multi-talented Saratoga Park Ranger historian Eric H. Schnitzer. Overall, this reviewer would have appreciated some comparative analysis with the findings of Sylvia Frey and the experiences of Washington’s Continentals. Still, this thought should not in any way diminish from Don Hagist’s  magnificent compilation of evidence contained in his fascinating new book about the characteristics and character of British soldiers fighting in the War for American Independence.

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[1]Arms and Men: A Study of American Military History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1981), p, 17, Originally published in 1956 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

[2]The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), pp. 3-13.

[3]A good staring on this subject may be found in Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 13-79.

[4]British Soldier in America, 78-80.

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