Royal Regiment of Foot Guards in the American Revolutionary War
The British Brigade of Guards that fought in the American Revolutionary War was rooted in the English Civil War period of the mid seventeenth century. This select group of guardsmen raised specifically for the American conflict was chosen from the three guards regiments: First Foot Guards, Coldstream Guards, and the Third Foot Guards. Originally the three guard regiments were each separate entities. Not until 1707, with the unification of the United Kingdom, were the three regiments formed as the Royal Regiments of Foot Guards.
In 1656, Charles II fled to Europe seeking allies to challenge the rule of The Lord Protector and leader of England’s Commonwealth Army, Oliver Cromwell. Charles had aligned himself to Spain who, by treaty, agreed to assist in his quest to resurrect the royal government. The Spaniards agreed to shoulder the expenses to raise a regiment of British loyalists as long as they were attached to the Spanish army. They could quit the Spanish once Charles had an opportunity to invade England. The Royal Regiment of Guards was formed in Flanders in the spring of 1656 under the command of Lord Wentworth. An earlier regiment of guards had been formed by Colonel Monck in 1650 as part of the Cromwellian army. It was entitled the Coldstream Guards.
After Cromwell’s death in 1658, Colonel Monck, in 1660, marched his regiment from Coldstream, Scotland to London in support of Charles II return to power. Charles II reestablished the monarchy and disbanded the old army of the Commonwealth. A new army was raised and the regiment raised in Flanders became the First Regiment of Foot Guards, (It wasn’t until 1815 that it became known as the Grenadier Guards). The Coldstream guards were recognized as the second regiment of foot guards, but retained their name as the Coldstream Guards. These two regiments were known as the King’s Royal Regiment of Guards and placed under the command of Colonel John Russel.
What was to become the Third Regiment of Foot Guards was originally the Life Guards of the Army of Scotland, formed in 1642. It was deactivated while Charles was in Europe. Upon his return, the Life Guard became the Scots Guard and part of the Scottish army rather than the English army. When the two countries merged in 1707, the Scots Guard marched to London to assume their new role.
The Royal Regiments of Foot Guards saw subsequent action in all of England’s wars including the Battle of Culloden that sealed the demise of the Scottish Jacobites. During the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in America, the Guard did not see action in the American colonies; having been mostly employed in the West Indies. By the mid seventeen seventies, the three regiments of Foot Guards were in England.
With the advent of hostilities in England’s American colonies, an elite detachment from the Foot Guards was formed. On February 13, 1776, the Guards Headquarters in London received orders. A brigade of guards was to be chosen from the three regiments of Foot Guards. They were destined for service in the war upon the colonists. Fifteen privates were chosen from each of the sixty-four companies of Foot Guards. Officers and other personnel necessary to the proper function of the brigade were also drawn. They were divided into ten companies: eight companies of regular infantry, one of light infantry and one of grenadier. Colonel Edward Mathew* of the Coldstream Guards was to be given command with the rank of brigadier. The brigade, numbering thirty officers and 1,062 men of guards, left for New York on May 2, 1776.
The brigade arrived in New York on August 12, 1776 under the convoy of Commodore Hotham. British commander-in-chief General William Howe ordered they be formed into two battalions of five companies each. First Battalion: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, infantry companies, (men and officers from First Guards regiment), 4th company, (men from all three regiments, officers First Guards regiment), and the grenadier company, (men from all three guard regiments). Second Battalion: Companies 5 & 6, (men and officers from Third Guards regiment), companies 7 and 8, (men and officers from the Coldstream Guards), and the light infantry company, (men and officers from all three regiments). Command of the two battalions remained under Brigadier Mathew. Lieutenant Colonel Trelawny commanded the First Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel Ogilvie commanded the Second Battalion. The subordinates attained their ranks: Captain Cox – adjunct, Captain Stevens- brigadier major, and Captain Lister – quarter master. The grenadier company was commanded by Lt. Colonel Sir George Osborn, 4th Baronet while Captain Thomas Twistleton led the light company.
Shortly after the Brigade of Guards arrived in New York, the uniforms were altered from the parade ground look of a London garrison to the rugged appearance of a combat unit. Brigadier General Mathew solicited Lord Loudoun’s advice; John Campbell, fourth Earl of Loudoun – commander-in-chief of British forces during the early part of the French and Indian War. Though Mathew favored Loudoun’s recommendations on attire and equipment, they were not that of the king who insisted his Gurads remain as is. Mathew then received a letter from Loudoun in which he elaborates on the subject: “…His Majesty had ordered the new clothing to be sent out complete in the same shape as it would have been delivered here… As to the old clothing, after the detachment is given into your hands, I shall ask not questions.”
Once reaching American, Mathew immediately set about outfitting his men. They had already discarded their spontoons and halberts in England. Cocked hats were let down and cut smaller then turned up on one side only. Waist belts were discarded and bayonet scabbards were mounted on cartridge pouches. Breeches were replaced by trousers and gaiters set aside for splatterdashes. Lastly, eighteen yards of white lace was removed from uniform coats. The First Battalion succeeded in retaining some of the lace, but only on their shoulder straps.
Note: Historians and some written records frequently refer to the two battalions of guards, the First Battalion and the Second Battalion, as the First Brigade of Guards and the Second Brigade of Guards (as is the case with Johnson). The First Brigade of Guards was one of the three regiments that remained in England. There was no Second Brigade of Guards. The second brigade formed was called the Coldstream Guards.
Prior to the Brigade’s first action, they went ashore on Long Island under the guns of Commodore Hotham and set up camp in the New Utrecht area. The Brigade was assigned the far right in the first line of battle; a position of strength and honor. The Battle of Long Island was fought on August 22, 1776. While General Grant and the Hessians staged an attack from the south, General Clinton led the main body of the British forces to the west through Flanders along the left flank of the American line. Cornwallis commanded the reserve and the First Battalion of Guards. General Percy and General Howe followed with the artillery and the Second Battalion of Guards. Early that morning they fell upon the rear of the American line driving the Americans behind their fortifications along Brooklyn Heights.
After a disastrous defeat, Washington withdrew his men across the East River to Manhattan. The Guards camped at Hell’s Gate along the east shore of the river. Howe launched the invasion of Manhattan of September 15th, 1776, landing a full division of British and Hessian troops at Kip’s Bay, about six miles north of New York City. The Guards followed and camped near Turtle Bay, just north of Kip’s Bay. They were called out the night of September 20-21 to fight a devastating fire in the city that had suspicious origin. A third of the western portion of New York was totally destroyed. Credit is given to the Guards for helping to contain the fire from spreading any further than it had.
Rather than assaulting Washington’s strong fortifications on Harlem Heights, Howe attempted to trap Washington’s forces on Manhattan. He sent a large force north up the Long Island Sound and into Westchester County. The Guard participated in the landing at Frog’s Neck on the 12th of October and Pell’s Point on the 18th in which they battled Colonel Glover’s regiment in what became known as the Battle of Pell’s Point. The Guards were present at the Battle of White Plains, but formed the right of Howe’s line and did not participate in the battle. Afterward, they accompanied the army in its march to Tarry Town then turned south to join forces assembled against Fort Washington, located on a high prominent height on the north end of Manhattan Island.
On November 15, 1776, the Guards were ordered to leave their camp at Kingsbridge and carry one day’s provisions. The plan of attack was four-pronged. The main assault was launched from the north by Hessian General Kynphausen. General Percy brought up the column from New York City and attacked from the south. The 42nd regiment or ‘black watch’ crossed Harlem Creek and attacked from the southeast. Brigadier Mathew led the Brigade of Guards and the Brigade of light infantry down Harlem Creek to attack from the northeast. Knyphausen accepted the surrender of the Americans as his Hessian’s bore the brunt of the assault and suffered heavily. There were no casualties among the Guards.
Afterwords, the Guards accompanied General Cornwallis in his capture of Fort Lee, NJ, and the pursuit of Washington’s dwindling army. Washington crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania on December 7th , 1776, and since Washington confiscated all boats along the Delaware River, they were not pursued. The Guards were ordered into winter quarters at Raritan Landing, just up river from Brunswick, New Jersey. After the American victory at Trenton on Dec. 25th the First Battalion was ordered into the field throughout the first part of January. The Second Battalion remained with Mathew at Brunswick. During the rest of the winter, the Guards participated in several raids and foraging parties. The spring of 1777, sixty four rank and file and half a dozen officers were sent from the home regiments in England to replace or compensate for losses in death and illness.
In May of 1777, Howe tried to draw Washington out from his strong position in the hills around Morristown, NJ. He faked a withdrawal of his main force to Staten Island. When Washington took the bait and left his stronghold to follow Howe’s retreating forces, Howe sent Cornwallis along with the Guards and a strong detachment of Hessians in a circuitous route to turn Washington’s left flank. They fell in with Lord Stirling and General Maxwell’s forces. It was a hotly contested encounter which resulting in the Americans retreating, but not before Washington was alerted and moved his main body of troops safely behind his defenses around Morristown. The Guard’s casualties were very light with one officer wounded. Captain John Finch of the light infantry later died of his wounds in Amboy on June 29th.
After what became known as the Battle of Short Hills, the Guards embarked aboard ship with General Howe and the bulk of his force on July 23, 1777. Two hundred and sixty seven ships under the command of Lord Howe (General Howe’s brother) set sail for Delaware Bay. General Howe hoped to force Washington from his strong positions in New Jersey and onto the open fields to defend Philadelphia. The fleet arrived the Delaware on the 29th, but finding they could not proceed up the river due to its shallow passage, moved south into the Chesapeake. The fleet anchored between the mouths of the Sasafras and Elk Rivers on August 22nd.
Washington, with 20,000 troops, took up position along the Brandywine Creek, about 20 miles south of Philadelphia. Howe landed his forces on Aug. 25 along the north shore of the Elk River opposite Cecil Courthouse. They marched to Iron Hill on the third of September then gradually approached the Brandywine. On September 11th, Howe detached two columns. The Guards were under the command of General Cornwallis.
Washington’s right was centered on a hill at Birmingham Church commanded by Lord Stirling. The American left stretched to the Brandywine Creek. Both flanks were covered by thick woods. Cornwallis and the Guards formed Howe’s right and attacked the American positions along the Brandywine. They pushed through a fierce cannonade and musketry and forced the Americans back into the woods. The Guards pursued the Americans until nightfall losing five wounded, one killed and one missing. The Guards slept on their arms that night and chased the enemy until September 21st. The Guards were ordered to camp along the Schuylkill River which runs into the Delaware River just below Philadelphia. The next day they crossed the River at Flatland Fort. The rest of the army came up on September 25th and marched in two columns to occupy Germantown, about six miles from Philadelphia. They camped in a line that stretched along the Skippack, the main northern road. The next day Cornwallis, with the brigade of Grenadier and two battalions of Hessians, took control of Philadelphia.
Part of Lord Howe’s fleet came up from the Chesapeake to the Delaware with stores for the army. Three regiments were detached to Chester and Billings point to convey the supplies to headquarters. This left approximately eight thousand British and Hessian troops in camp along the Skippack. Washington decided to take advantage of the situation and ordered 11,000 men forward for an attack on the morning of October 4th, 1777.
What became known as the Battle of Germantown was to designed to surprise the British while they were in camp, much the same way the Hessians were assaulted at Trenton. Washington divided his force into four segments. Greene was to charge the British right under Grant and Donop. Washington was with Sullivan’s forces who drove down the Skippack Road and attacked the center. Militia were to a strike the flanks; Queens Rangers on the British right and light infantry on the left. The assault was to commence precisely at 5:00 AM. They were to charge with bayonets and no shots were to be fired.
There was a considerable amount of fog that morning which ultimately hindered the assault. Sullivan’s troops drove in the British pickets, but met strong resistance by a battalion of light infantry and Colonel Musgrave’s 40th foot. The British were stubborn in their retreat. Musgrave ordered four hundred of the 40th foot to occupy a large stone home known as the Chew House. Greene attacked, but instead of following orders and press the right wing, he heard firing to his right and swung his force toward Sullivan’s men. He soon became engaged in trying to dislodge the British from the Chew house. Meanwhile, Sullivan pressed the attack, but became confused in the fog; his troops firing on their own men. He was soon assaulted on both flanks by Grant’s and Brigadier Grey’s forces who forced him back towards the Chew House.
The British, including the Guards, surrounded Colonel Matthews’ isolated 9th Virginia regiment and captured most of the unit including Matthews. They then pressed their attack against Greene, driving his men back. Washington was forced to retreat sixteen miles while harassed by British dragoons. Colonel Trelawney, commanding the Guards first battalion and Captain Bellow were among the wounded.
The Guards remained in camp in the Germantown area and participated in trying to draw Washington out from behind his defenses further north. When it became apparent Washington was not to be tempted, Howe ordered his army into winter quarters retaining the 71st regiment in the field while the rest of the army, including the Guards, were housed in Philadelphia.
Sir Henry Clinton was given the helm of the British army upon the resignation of William Howe in May, 1778. Because France entered the war, Clinton decided to consolidate his troops along the coastal cities. He evacuated Philadelphia and crossed into New Jersey on the 18th of June. As his army made their way towards NY, he was followed closely by Washington’s troops. On June 27th, Clinton arrived Monmouth County at Freehold Courthouse. The next morning, June 28, Clinton resumed his march. No sooner had he departed Freehold, then General Lee’s division occupied the ground he had just left. Clinton sent Knyphausen on with the baggage and turned his main force to offer battle.
Clinton ordered his right to drive in the Americans. The Brigade of Guards and a corp of Grenadier attacked and pushed Lee’s forces into a retreat. They were followed up with the rest of Clinton’s men. Washington arrived the field with the main army and rallied Lee’s retreating division. Battle lines were drawn. The Guards faced Varnum’s Rhode Islanders who proved to be a force to deal with. The Rhode Islanders refused to leave the field and battled the Guards to a draw. The American army generally held the field proving the advantage of General Steuben’s strict discipline and battle tactics.
The Guards spent the next two years in garrison duty in and around New York. On the 23rd of April 1779, Colonel William Style retired from command of the 1st Battalion. He was succeeded by Colonel William Thornton. Companies of the Guards were detached for raids and skirmishes in Portsmouth, Virginia, and New Haven, Connecticut throughout 1779, including Young’s House in New York in 1780.
In Virginia, Colonel Garth led Guard companies of grenadier and light infantry in a raid on the marine yard at Gosport at the mouth of the Chesapeake. Newly promoted Major General Mathew commanded the expedition that included the 42nd (Black Watch) and a large detachment of Hessians. Historians disagree on the number of troops involved listing from 1,800 to 2,500. They departed for Portsmouth, Virginia on May 5, 1779 landing on the 10th. They were met with no opposition except at Gosport, a small contingency of 100 men held out for a short time at Fort Nelson. All the nearby towns were pillaged and burned. One hundred thirty vessels were torched or confiscated. Over a hundred hogsheds of tobacco were carried off including supplies that amounted to about two million pounds sterling. Only one man was lost.
Prior to General Mathew’s return from Virginia in May 1779, the flank companies of the Guards joined General Vaughn in an attack up the Hudson on forts La Fayette and Stony Point. The expedition was successful and the Guardsmen returned to New York. In July of that year, the Guards accompanied Major Generals Tryon and Garth (both former First Guardsmen) in their devastating raids against American stores and shipping supplies in Connecticut. The total number of Guards losses were: five killed including Adjunct Campbell, twenty two wounded plus Captain Parker, and sixteen missing. Later that year, the Guards remained in New York while General Clinton took a large force south to invade Charleston. The Guards commander Brigadier Major General Mathew left for England on Nov. 3rd 1779, to take command of the 62nd Regiment of Foot. Later that winter, Brigadier John Howard was put in temporary command. On May 12th 1780, General Charles O’Hara of the Coldstream Guards was given the helm of the Brigade of Guards in North America. He would not assume his duties until seven months later in Charleston.
While Clinton went south, General Knyphausen was left in command of New York. He learned of a large contingent of American ‘rebels’, 450 men, were wintering at Young’s House near White Plains, NY. This was about thirty miles from New York and twenty miles before the British outposts in an area of Westchester County; an area that became known as no-man’s land because of the large number of raids on both sides. Lieutenant Colonel John Chapen Norton or the Coldstreams was ordered to attack and dislodge them. He took four companies of Guards, two of Hessians and some mounted Yaegers (German riflemen), and two small three pounder field pieces. They were accompanied by an additional hundred mounted loyalists. They left New York the evening of Feb. 2nd. Traveling through two feet of snow, by morning they were seven miles from Young’s Horse. Norton immediately had the premises surrounded, including the barn, courtyard, and outbuildings. A heated battle lasted 15 minutes until those Americans who could fight their way past the British escaped . Those who remained barricaded in the house and barn were killed or captured. Fourteen Americans died along with Lt. Col Joseph Thompson of Mass. Thirty seven were wounded and seventy six were captured. British losses were five killed and eighteen wounded.
Between June 7 – 23, 1780, General Knyphausen tried to dislodge Washington from the heights around Morristown. The Guards were heavily involved in the Battle of Connecticut Farms, NJ, on June 7 and the Battle of Springfield, on June 23. During the later, the Guards attacked and overwhelmed the Americans on the Heights of Springfield on the northwest of town. This was the farthest the British advanced before returning to New York. General John Howard *, temporary commander of the Guards, would have led both battalions.
Clinton, now back in NY, decided to aid Cornwallis’ efforts in the Carolinas. He sent an expedition to Virginia in hopes of forcing Congress to draw off American forces to face this new threat. Under the command of General Leslie, on October 16th, they departed for Virginia. The Guards accompanied detachments from three regiments (17th, 82, 84th) and a thousand Hessians. They landed in Virginia and took possession of Portsmouth in preparation to link up with Cornwallis. Deciding the distance too great, the Guards re-boarded and with a total strength of 2,000 troops, sailed to Charleston to join with Cornwallis. They reached Charleston on December 13. Here the Guards were met by their new commander, General O’Hara.
After the British defeat at Cowpens, Cornwallis began the long pursuit of the American forces across North Carolina. American General Greene had replaced the dishonored General Gates and was skillfully keeping Cornwallis’ army at arms reach. In one instance, the Guards forced a passage at the Catawba River while under heavy fire. Lt. Colonel Hall of the light infantry, along with three rank and file, were killed; thirty six were wounded. After a series of maneuvers, General Cornwallis was delighted to learn that General Greene had formed line of battle at Guilford Courthouse, just twelve miles from the British forces. Dawn, March 15th, 1781, and the British began the attack.
The Americans were deployed in three lines. North Carolina militia formed the first with back country riflemen on both flanks. The second line was made up of Virginia militia supported by cannon. The third and strongest line were Continental regulars from Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland; all battle tested troops. The First Battalion of Guards, under Colonel Norton, formed the extreme right of the line along with the 71st and Bose’s regiment of Hessians. They were commanded by General Leslie. Assembled along the far left of the British line was the Second Battalion of Guards under Lt. Colonel Stewart, 23rd. and 33rd, and the Grenadiers. Brigadier O’Hara of the Guards had overall command of these troops.
The entire British line attacked as one. The Americans opened fire at a distance of 140 yards. Their riflemen, marksmen many, had a deadly affect. It did not seem to phase the British who continued to advance. They paused to loosen a volley, then charged. The British charge was halted when hit with precision shot from the riflemen. With urging from the officers, the British charge resumed. After a second volley that did great damage, the first American line, as expected either ran into the woods that flanked both sides of the battlefield, or back to the second line of Virginians. The British continued onto the second line which opened up a devastating fire before, like the first line, retreated. Both Guards units took the brunt of these charges.
By now the Second Battalion had moved to the center of the line and found themselves on open field before the third and final line of Greene’s regulars. They attacked and once again faced heavy fire. A fierce volley by the regulars halted O’Hara’s men who were then thrown back by the charging Continentals who quickly returned to their positions. O’Hara, reinforced by the 23rd and 71st, renewed the assault, but were soon struck in the rear by William Washington’s dragoons. The Continentals regulars saw this and immediately countered attacked.
At this stage in the battle, Cornwallis ordered grapeshot fired into the melee. Both Americans and British were hit by this devastating shot. Though costly to the British, Cornwallis’ decision forced the Americans to withdraw.
Cornwallis did not pursue Greene. He retained the field of battle, but with heavy losses (a third of his army), that could not be replaced. Five hundred and fifty British soldiers were killed or wounded. The Guards suffered the heaviest. They lost eleven out of nineteen officers including O’Hara, their commander who was wounded. Two hundred out of the four hundred and fifty Gurads were casualties. Officers killed were: Lt. Col. James Stuart, commanding the first battalion, and Lt. Colonels Schutz, Maynard, and Goodricke. The Guards were reduced to one battalion of four under-strength companies.
Dangerously short on supplies and manpower, Cornwallis gave up the south and moved into Virginia, seeking to provision his army. The Guards moved with him and ultimately on to Yorktown, Virginia where on October 19, they surrendered to Washington and French forces. General O’Hara, second in command, surrendered Corwallis’ sword to Washington’s representative, General Lincoln. Brigade officers were paroled and the men were marched into captivity at York, Pennsylvania where they remained until 1783. During the Guards capture, Lt. Colonel John Watson (of the Third Guards) commanded from NY.
At war’s end, the Guards returned to England in two detachments. One arrived in January of 1783, and the other in July of that year. The detachment, after seven years service in the Americas,marched to rejoin their respective regiments.
*Note: Brigadier Mathew was not in the Battles of Connecticut Farms or Springfield as listed on the net and in historical texts. He had already returned to England by then.
The internet, including Christopher Ward and several other historians who wrote after Ward’s 1952 (reprinted in 2011) treatise, The War of the Revolution, lists Major General Edward Mathew as commanding the Guards during General Knyphausen’s excursion into New Jersery from June 5 – 23. Mathew was in England during that time and did not participate in what has become known as the Battles of Springfield and Connecticut Farms, NJ. Thomas Fleming’s 1973 book, The Forgotten Victory, also places Mathew at the head of the Guards during this engagement.
Ward and many authors have included extensive citations to Bancroft’s History of the United States, 1878, in their footnotes and bibliographies. In reference to the battle of Conneticut Farms, New Jersey on June 5, 1780, Bancroft, in vol. 10, page 372, made only a fleeting reference to Mathew as having brought up an advance guard. Presently this author can find no other earlier reference to Mathew having been in the America Colonies during 1780 and beyond. Lt. General Sir F. G. Hamilton wrote a history of the of the Royal Guard regiments in 1874; particularly a detailed section that dealt with the detached battalions that fought in the American Revolution. On page 240 of volume 2, he states that Mathew had departed for England on November 3, 1779, leaving Brigadier John Howard in temporary command of the Guards until April of 1780 when General O’Hara of the Coldstream Guards assumed command while in England. However, O’Hara did not arrive the colonies until December of 1780. Therefore General Howard would have been in command of the Guards during the battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield, NJ.
Bancroft, George. History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent, Vol. 10. 1878: Little Brown & Company, Boston, Massachusetts.
Bolton, Robert Jr. History of the County of Westchester from its First Settlement to the Present Time, in Three Volumes. 1848: Alexander S. Gould Printer, New York, NY.
Ford, Worthington Chauncey. British Officers Serving in the American Revolution, 1774 – 1783. 1897: Brooklyn Historical Printing Club. Brooklyn, NY.
Gordon, William D. D. The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States, Vol. 2. 1801: Printed for Samuel Campbell, New York, NY.
Hamilton, Lt. General Sir F. W. The Origin and History of the First or Grenadier Guards, in Three Volumes. 1874: John Murray Publisher, London, UK.
Johnston, Henry P. The Battle of Long Island and the Loss of New York. 1878: Published by the Long Island Historical Society, New York, NY.
MacKinnon, Daniel. Origin and Services of the Coldstream Guards in two Volumes. 1833: Richard Bentley Publisher, London, UK.
Ward, Christopher. The War of the Revolution. 2011: Skyhorse Publishing Co., New York, NY.