BOOK REVIEW: These Distinguished Corps: British Grenadier and Light Infantry Battalions in the American Revolution by Don N. Hagist. (Warwick, England: Helion & Company, Limited, 2021)
Don N. Hagist, author of British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution (2012) and Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution (2020), has given Revolutionary War historians a fascinating and very detailed look at the British mobile troops who engaged in some of the fiercest fighting. These Distinguished Corps: British Grenadier and Light Infantry Battalions in the American Revolution follows these flank battalions from 1775 until they disbanded in 1783. Hagist provides a well-researched story of how these soldiers fought, where they travelled to during the war, what hardships they encountered, and even how they dressed.
These Distinguished Corps opens with a brief introduction of a young grenadier from northeast England who finds himself marching through the early morning hours towards Concord, Massachusetts as a member of the 38th Regiment of Foot. William Yeacott was one of the elite soldiers who made up 20 percent of each infantry regiment. The first chapter, “’First upon all attacks” and ‘skirmishing through woods’: Grenadier and Light Infantry Companies,” is a description of who the grenadiers and light infantry were. Information about their duties, uniforms, and military rules gives a clear understanding of who they were and what they were expected to do as a special force. The contemporary illustrations of individual soldiers supplement this understanding in an invaluable way. The grenadiers who fought at Lexington & Concord and on Breed’s Hill are the subject of Chapter 2, “‘Our men must be drilled’: Flank Battalions in Boston, 1775-1776.” Incidents of friendly fire show that the grenadiers were engaged in close combat in hectic conditions. Hagist adds several tables in this chapter, as he does throughout the book, that show how many members of the battalions were killed at specific engagements, what their ages and nationalities were, and how long they served.
Since the grenadier and light infantry battalions were involved with the fighting from the start, their story is a chronicle of the entire Revolution on the battlefield. In each chapter, Hagist takes the reader along with the battalions, going from Boston to New Jersey, then to New York and Canada, Philadelphia to New York again and then Rhode Island, and then to the West Indies. He describes the actions of the grenadiers in Trenton, Quebec, Lake Champlain, Hubbardton, Bennington, and Brandywine. The grenadiers fought in a strange land, learning how to forage off of it amidst an unruly population. Only a small number of them deserted during the entire war.
The story of the grenadiers and light infantry came to a sudden finish when the surrender at Yorktown made it unnecessary for battalions to leave New York for the Chesapeake, rendered so by “forces far beyond their influence. It is a sad statement that their ‘gallantry and exertions’ were eclipsed by the conflict’s outcome” (p. 172). Nine appendices complete the book, and so the reader gets more information about clothing, distinctions of both grenadier and light infantry battalions, rules and orders of discipline, General Howe’s maneuvers, and signals for the drum, whistle, and bugle.
The book is not about the philosophy of the war or the ideology of either side. The British soldiers and commanders (including Gage, William Howe, Clinton, Burgoyne) are at the center. They were professional soldiers fighting in a foreign land, so the colonists come across as the “enemy” throughout. Any reader cannot help but cheer for the members of the battalions, and learning the names of individuals who were killed and wounded does instill a sense of loss.
The primary sources used in These Distinguished Corps include newspapers, maps, letters, journals, diaries, military manuals, and guides. What makes the book unique in its use of sources is the inclusion of many illustrations. The full-color pictures show the uniforms that the soldiers wore; either marching, standing at rest, or even reclining against a tree. Some of the maps were in color, showing more details of the landscape for the expeditions. The first-hand accounts give a more personal touch to the story of the grenadiers. Don Hagist not only writes about what happened, but also about the individual soldiers and commanders, to whom such things happened. The writing is clear and succinct, and although the details seem to be intense at times, Hagist’s narrative style is flawless.
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