BOOK REVIEW: A Very Fine Regiment: The 47th Foot during the American War of Independence, 1773-1783 by Paul Knight. (Warwick, UK: Helion Publishing, 2022)
The author, Paul Knight, produced a history of the 47th Regiment in the broader context of evolution of the regiments in the British Army. This is a very dense work filled with analysis and details about the regiment, its soldiers, leaders, evolution, and place in the British military structure. This is not a regimental history for the casual reader. If you are interested in information about the development of the British regimental system during this period, as well as in the 47th Regiment, this is the text for you. A reader with minimal background on other British regiments will find details embedded in the text along with the story of the 47th that will help build background knowledge on the British military, regimental system, changing tactical techniques, and procedures. This, however, requires a slow, deliberate read, and in some cases a reread to digest the wealth of information presented to extract the basic history of the 47th Regiment that is intertwined with examples and experiences of soldiers and officers in other regiments. The text lacks an index, making cross-referencing more time consuming for the reader.
The regiment saw two extended deployments to North America, 1750-1763 and 1773-1783. The 47th Regiment was originally formed in Scotland in 1741 but moved to North America in 1750, literally after a roll of the dice turned up the regiment’s number. The regiment served in Nova Scotia and Canada through 1763; it returned to Ireland for ten years before redeploying to North America once again, in 1773, to address the colonial unrest developing on the eve of the American Revolution. The regiment served in New Jersey and New York then moved to Boston in 1774 and on to Canada in 1776, relieving the siege of Quebec. Assignment to Quebec was in part because Gen. Sir Guy Carleton, commanding in Canada, was also the colonel of the 47th. The bulk of the regiment was captured at Saratoga while several companies remained in Canada and continued service in the Canadian theater through the end of the American Revolution.
The author uses surviving muster and other primary source material to analyze personnel numbers and demographics. He frequently references other regimental studies, providing a comparison of similarities or differences. He discusses the differences between the Irish and British regimental structures and how military structure in general changed and evolved over time, impacting the 47th. All this is interesting background and compliments the author’s analysis of tactical techniques and procedures employed by the 47th and other regiments when on campaign. These discussions focus on the regiment’s adaptations to the changing mission set and the nature of the operating environment.
The author points out the challenges faced by any military unit when transitioning between peace and war, the “gray zone” when escalation takes place but a clearly defined enemy has not yet been identified. These were the conditions faced by the 47th upon its return to North America in 1773. The 47th, like other regiments, was challenged to make this transition from peace keeping to peace enforcement to traditional combat in a changing and evolving operating environment.
Changing political and military conditions on the battlefield require leaders and soldiers to adapt. The author points out, as have many others, that this is a necessary response in any war. The ability of the leaders and soldiers of the 47th to adapt to changing conditions in North America during the American Revolution could not overcome the political and operational decisions that placed the regiment in disadvantageous positions on the battlefield.
Knight has a favorable view of the training and organization of the British Army in North America but is critical of the operational-level decision making and lack of consistent execution. The 47th participated in the actions at Lexington and Concord, and the assault on Bunker Hill, in 1775, and in the May 1776 relief of the siege of Quebec, before continuing in on campaign. The unit participated in the small but important 1776 victory at Trois-Rivers in pursuit of a retreating Patriot army.
There are no indications the 47th participated in General Carleton’s actions at Valcour Island, but the unit did winter in communities around Montreal in 1776-7. They were then assignmed to General Burgoyne’s 1777 Saratoga Campaign as part of the 1st Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. William Powell, along with the 9th and 53rd Regiments. Knight’s analysis points out that the American Patriots, whom he identifies as “rebels,” were not necessarily all backcountry inhabitants familiar with the woods. The British Army was therefore not at a tactical disadvantage when operating in the American wilderness as sometimes presented. He attributes Burgoyne’s surrender not to the British soldier but to logistical failures, the inability of the British Army to win a war of attrition in North America, and lack of communication between Generals Burgoyne and William Howe.
Knight traces the regiment and its survivors as part of the Convention Army, the term given to the British prisoners captured at Saratoga in October 1777. He provides descriptions and analysis of the plight of the Convention prisoners. The author addresses numerous successful and attempted escapes as evidence that British soldiers were committed to the army and the Crown and therefore concludes the 47th was “A Very Fine Regiment.” The author’s work adds to the body of knowledge on the study of British regiments that served in North America and should be viewed and approached by readers as more than just a study of a single British regiment.
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