British Army Command & Structure in the American Revolution – Grenadier & Light Infantry Battalions by Harry Schenawolf

Intro

Grenadier Bayonet Charge

The French and Indian War in the North American Colonies (Seven Years War in Europe) posed unique circumstances that required the British officers who fought in America to consider changes in their tactics and army’s structure.  Gone were the windswept fields where large bodies of troops faced each other over open ground.  Skirmishes and battles were fought in terrain that covered vast forests against an enemy that was often elusive.  More mobile, lighter uniformed, increased experience, and better trained units were needed to counter the standard ‘hit and run’ stratagem adapted by colonists and ‘frontiersmen.’  This article will examine the basic structure of the British infantry while focusing on the early establishment of combined grenadier and light infantry companies taken from regiments; ‘flank’ battalions of battle hardened troops trained to meet the special needs of colonial warfare.   These battalions were considered among the finest troops the British had in their arsenal.

General Sir William Howe Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Forces in North America

Trying to understand the British army’s structure in the 18th century is confusing.   Especially when brigade, regiment, battalion are interchangeable and the numeric size of each division of the army is never consistent.  Also the fact that many officers assumed multiple commands – examples: generals also retained their commission as a regimental commander, majors commanded companies which were typical lead by captains, or captains also commanded a regiment – normally commanded by a colonel.  It is necessary to shed some light on the general structure of the British Army’s organization and command so to better understand how these ‘elite’ battalions were formed.  This article will only cover infantry units; artillery, cavalry, and marine organizations were similar, but are beyond the scope of this article.

British Army’s Structure

Grenadier at the Battle of Bunker Hill

By the early 1700’s, European infantry had evolved from the days of retinues who followed their Lord Knight into battle to a more permanent army consisting of regiments; commanded by a colonel with a specific number of subordinates and with distinctive numbers, titles, and uniforms.  When a British army took the field, it was divided by two or more lines, depending on the size of the army, and a reserve which was itself another line.  Each line was broken down into brigades; anywhere from three to six.  In turn, each brigade was inclusive of three or more regiments.  The regiments consisted of ten companies; comprised of two flank companies (one grenadier company and one light infantry company) and eight companies of foot (or infantry).  The term flank means the right and left side of an attacking line of battle; the most vulnerable position.  If the flanks were compromised, the attacking line would double in on itself, collapsing the entire line.  Therefore the companies situated on the flanks were among the most experienced troops; the grenadier always on the right flank (the most prestigious) and the light infantry always on the left flank.  Captain Bennet Cuthbertson’s 1776 manual for the management of a battalion of infantry best describes the selection process of a company of grenadier: “… the Grenadier Company is to be constantly kept complete, from the best and tallest men in the regiment…, and have such men only in it, as are perfect masters of their business…”

Light Infantryman

Brigade formations were only present in war time and were dissolved during periods of peace.  Brigadier generals were often colonels who served as generals of brigades throughout the war and afterwards were returned to their former rank of colonel or lieutenant colonel.  Listed is a general breakdown of the British Army:  British Army, Two or more lines, Each line three to six brigades, Each brigade three to six regiments, Each regiment ten companies.

By 1775, the average size of a British regiment was approximately 600 troops (some historians list the average number at 700 or slightly higher).  This number varied a great deal as some regiments had as many as a thousand men while others dipped under 600 because of illness, death, and casualties (often it would take months for replacements to arrive from other postings around the globe).  The brigade averaged four regiments and the line averaged four brigades.  The army was generally divided into three lines plus a line in reserve.  During the American Revolution, the British army used German mercenaries which formed their own division similar in strength to a British line.  Therefore using 600 men per regiment as a general calculation, here is a breakdown of a British Army’s approximate troop strength:

Company:  60 / Regiment of ten companies: 600 / Brigade averaged four regiments:  2,400 / Line averaged four brigades: 8,600 / British Army averaged four lines (including reserve): 34,400 / British Army employed a division of Hessian mercenaries: 8,600 / Total British Army: 43,000

Light Infantry Charging

Battalions are often confused with the regiment for a very good reason; a regiment was frequently referred to as a battalion.  An example could be the 26th regiment being referred to in written orders and historical accounts as the 26th battalion.  However, there was a distinct difference.

Some regiments were very large, such as the 71st  highlander regiment.  It had upwards of a thousand men and was therefore divided into two battalions, 71st first battalion and the 71st second battalion, each having their own colonel and ten companies – basically two regiments in one.  [This became the norm later in the century and during the Napoleonic Wars.]  However the more common usage of battalion was the unit formed from detaching the two flank companies from several regiments and combining these flank companies into their own battalion.  The eight companies left of the regiment were in themselves a battalion of foot; therefore the 26th regiment, minus its two flank companies, could be referred to as the 26th battalion.   Ten to twelve companies of grenadier were extracted from ten to twelve regiments and formed one battalion, say the 1st Battalion of Grenadier.  Similarly, ten to twelve companies of light infantry were detached from ten to twelve regiments and formed one battalion, say the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry.  Since the flank companies were the best soldiers of the regiment, these flank battalions were considered the best of the best and were the first to see action, or play a critical role in a major engagement with the enemy.  Battalions were formed and dissolved throughout the war; often companies were returned to their mother regiments when numbers diminished due to casualties, sickness, desertions, and death.

Grenadier 40th Foot

There is one additional unit within the company that was utilized during training and was effective in firing weaponry during an action; the division.  Unlike the American division that was a large unit combining many brigades (similar to the British line), the British division was much smaller and encased within the regiment.  According to the Manuel Exercise of 1764, each company formed what was referred to as a subdivision.  Two companies formed a grand division.  During training exercises, firing was by divisions and grand divisions within ranks.  General Howe, a student of General Wolfe in the French and Indian Wars in America, instructed divisions to form two ranks (not three as the standard in Europe) and fire by company, depending on the leadership qualities exerted by company captains and lieutenants.

British Army Command

The army was lead by a commander-in-chief.  In August of 1776, the British had one main army in America that was lead by the Supreme Commander of His Majesty’s Forces in America; General William Howe.  Many Americans believed that the war was compounded by Parliament’s denial of colonial rights and therefore ignored the proper title of His Majesty’s Army (or Forces); instead labeled the forces sent against them the Ministerial Army.

Colonel Thomas Musgrave Commander of 1st Battalion of Light Infantry

Beneath the Commander-in-Chief is a Major General or Lieutenant General as second-in-command.  The second-in-command also acted as commander of one of the lines.  Other lines were also commanded by Major and Lieutenant Generals.  Brigades in the line were commanded by generals called brigadiers.  Beneath the brigadiers were the field officers of a regiment.  A regiment was commanded by a colonel.  The colonel was accompanied by two other field officers; a lieutenant colonel and a major.  Though the colonel had overall command of the regiment, he also commanded one of the ten companies of the regiment.  The lieutenant colonel and major, besides their duties assisting the colonel in command of the whole regiment, also had a company under their direct command.  This left seven companies within the regiment; each one was commanded by a captain.  Beneath the captain of each company was a lieutenant and an ensign (or second lieutenant).  Each company had six sergeants (non-commissioned), six corporals, two drummers, and in the case of grenadier companies, two fifers.

The battalion command structure was the same as the regiment with a colonel in overall command.  Flank battalions obtained their colonel from within the regiment – usually a lieutenant colonel or major.  A captain within the regiment was usually appointed a major of the battalion.  Companies within the battalion were commanded by captains and the same ratio of sergeants and corporals.  The more elite flank battalions generally had ten to twelve companies commanded by field officers and captains; larger than the foot battalions which normally had eight companies.

Highland Grenadier

The colonel of the regiment rarely saw to the daily needs of his company including when deployed in action.  The lieutenant within the colonel’s company often assumed the role of company commander and was referred to as lieutenant captain or just captain.   Foot companies and light infantry companies referred to the lowest officer rank as ensign, however grenadier companies used 2nd lieutenant, as did artillery regiments and regiments of marine.

Grenadier & Light Infantry Battalions – ‘Flank Battalions’

British generals never retired so a third of the 119 generals commissioned in the British army in 1775 no longer commanded in the field.  Many others were opposed to the war that was brewing in the Americas and let the government know that they were unwilling to serve in America.  When General Howe accepted the realm of supreme commander in America, he was only 111th in seniority.

General William Howe, supreme commander of North American forces, abandoned Boston in the face of a large rebel force and set sail for Halifax, Canada on March 17, 1776.  While in Halifax, he prepared his army for the return to the Americas less than five months later.  He and his predecessor, General Gage, had both served as light infantry commanders in America during the French and Indian War.  He was cognizant that to fight a war in the Americas required different techniques and organization than what was the norm for European conflicts.  Formations were adopted that took advantage of looser ranks known as ‘loose files’ where soldiers stood at a greater distance apart.  The infantry advanced not with firm steps, required in tight ranks of the European theatre, but did so at the ‘trot’ and depended more on the bayonet.

Howe decided that to better fight a mobile war in forests and over vast stretches of landscape, he needed to distill his army into smaller units with detachments and transfers from existing regiments.  After the successful use of light infantry in the French and Indian War, the British War office, in 1771, formerly added a light infantry company to every regiment.  While in Halifax, Howe reformed forty of his regiments by detaching the flank companies and forming them into their own battalions; four battalions of ten companies each.  These battalions, comprised of the most experienced officers and enlisted men of his army, would spearhead any offensive action required to regain command of the rebellious colonies.

On May 14th, 1776, Howe issued the following orders that organized these first four battalions; two of light infantry and two of grenadiers:

Major Charles Stuart commander of 4th Battalion of Grenadier – formed in August, 1776

The Commander in Chief is pleased to form the Grenadier and Light Infantry Companies into four battalions.  1st Battalion of Light Infantry composed of the following companies, to be commanded by Major [Thomas] Musgrave [64th Regt.] and Major [Thomas] Dundas [65th Regt.] viz: 4th, 5th, 10th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, 27th, 35th, and 38th.  2nd Battalion of Light Infantry composed of the following companies, to be commanded by Major [John] Maitland [Marines] and Major [Turner von] Straubezee [17th Regt.], viz: 40th, 43rd, 44th, 45, 49th, 52nd, 55th, 63rd, and 64th.  1st Battalion of Grenadiers, composed of the following companies, to be commanded by Lt. Colonel [William] Meadows [55th Regt.] and Major [Edward] Mitchell [5th Regt.], viz: 4th, 5th, 10th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, 27t, 35th, 38th, 40th.  2nd Battalion of Grenadiers composed of the following companies, to be commanded by Lieut. Col. [Henry] Monkton [45th Regt.] and Major [Charles] Stuart [43rd Regt.], viz: 43rd, 44th, 45th, 46th, 49th, 52nd, 55th, 63rd, 64th, 1st & 2nd Marines. [Kelley pg. 353]

These four flank battalions saw their first action in the Battle of Long Island during the New York City campaign; August 27th, 1776.  Major General John Vaughan, under Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, commanded the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, & 4th Grenadier Battalions.  Brigadier General Alexander Leslie, under General Henry Clinton, commanded the 1st and 2nd Light Infantry.  Two additional flank battalions took part in this action; the 3rd Grenadier and the 4th Grenadier.  These two additional battalions were formed in New York City after the arrival of the British fleet in July, 1776.  Most were comprised from grenadier companies under the command of Lieut. General Henry Clinton, second General Charles Cornwallis, who sailed from Charleston, South Carolina after their unsuccessful attempt to take the harbor.  The third battalion comprised grenadier companies the following regiments:  15th, 28th, 33rd, 37th, 46, 54th, and the 57th.   A fourth battalion was comprised mostly from the three large Highland Regiments; a company of grenadier from the 42nd and two companies from the 71st (Fraser’s Highland Reg.) which had a thousand men and was divided into two battalions, each with the standard ten companies including flank companies.  Example the 42nd grenadier which was authorized one captain, three lieutenants, five sergeants, five corporals, two drummers, two pipers, and one hundred privates (instead of the usual 60 or so), for a total of 116 officers and men.

These flank battalions, unlike regiments, were flexible in their size and duration throughout the war; except for a brief period after the return to the New York area in 1778, they were mainly detached to form these flank battalions.  At times the individual companies were returned to their regiments, only to later reform into another flank battalion, depending on the need.  Example the 4th Grenadier Battalion:   July 1776 – formed, Aug. 22 – lands on Long Island in first wave, Aug 26 & 27 – Battle of Long Island, Sept 15 – first wave at Kip’s Bay landing on Manhattan, Sept 16 – Battle of Harlem Heights.  Next month, October 1776, the 4th Grenadier Battalion was disbanded when an epidemic amongst the 71st regiment reduced their numbers to the extent that their two large grenadier companies were returned.  The 42nd Grenadier Company (also a large unit of 100 men, nearly twice the normal company size) was transferred to the 3rd Grenadier Battalion.   A third Light Infantry company was also formed from Lt. General Henry Clinton’s failed Charleston expedition.  Though there is mention of a 4th light battalion, one never existed.

Resources

Coote, Sir Eyre.  Captain Eyre Coote’s 37th Light Infantry Company Order Book, 1778-1781. Eyre Coote Papers.  2011: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

Curtis, Edward R.  The British Army in the American Revolution. 1926:  Yale University Press New Haven, CT.

Cuthbertson, Bennet.  Cuthbertson’s System for the Complete Interior Management of Battalion of Infantry.  1776:  Rouths and Nelson, Bristol, UK.

Ford, Worthington, Chauncey.  British Officers Serving in America 1774 – 1783.  1897:  Historical Printing Club, Brooklyn, NY.

Houlding, J.A.  Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army 1715 – 1795.  1981:  Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Johnston, Henry Phelps.  The Campaign of 1776 Around New York & Brooklyn…  1878:  Published by the Long Island Historical Society, New York, NY.

Kemble, Stephen.  Steven Kemble Papers, Vol. I, 1773-1789; Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1883.  1884:  Printed for the New York Historical Society, New York, NY.

The Manuel Exercise as Ordered by His Majesty, In the Year 1764.  1776:  Sold by J Humphreys, R. Bell, R. Aitken, Philadelphia, PA.

Web:  Tarleton’s quarter blog:  November 24, 2008

Comments 1

  • I particularly enjoyed the sections on Commander-in-chief, and the comments on how Howe had to reform European tactics to work on american soil. Keep up the good work!

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