If you were to ask someone on the street what was the ordinary British soldier was like during King George’s time, he or she might say something like: dregs, scoundrels, scum from the streets of London, debtors, drunks, common criminals or sweepings from the slums of Liverpool, men who were subjected to the lash for the simplest offense under draconian laws and who were repeatedly beaten and brainwashed until they became disciplinary machines incapable of anything but following orders.
The truth of who the rank-and-file English regulars were is something a far cry different from the picture just painted. Though the dregs of society and ‘sweepings of the city streets’ were found in quantities in every British regiment, the vast majority of the ministry were young men from rural England. Along with farmers, unskilled laborers and traders, there were artisans like tinsmiths, blacksmiths, coopers, joiners, stone masons, plasterers, sawyers, along with retailers like hatters, bakers, tailors, gunsmiths, and shoemakers; the ranks included domestics like postilions, butlers, cooks, scullery and journeymen (who worked for wages) like draymen, wagoners, bricklayers, caulkers and rope makers, and the list goes on and on.
Most of these men were not liquored up and pressed into service, to wake up in the morning in camp, committed in life and duty to their King, but had rather been recruited, drawn by the promise of better food, clothing and a small, guaranteed salary, which many sent home to wives and families. Throw in the opportunity of travel, adventure and the glory attributed to serving one’s country, and the average British soldier was very similar to his American counterpart.
When the British and the American soldier faced each other over the farmlands of western Long Island on August 27th, 1776 in the largest land engagement of the entire Revolutionary War, the British regular was far better trained, better disciplined, better paid and had far better weapons and equipment than the American patriot. In addition, the redcoats were healthy. At the time the first volley of musket belched over cornfield and cannon ball ripped the Brooklyn sod, nearly half of Washington’s army was on the inactive or sick list. Compare that to the British, who had only a fraction of their regulars in the large hospital tents and barns on Staten Island, which was the British main camp during the New York campaign.
Why the disparity? The answer is simple: sanitation. When Washington first accepted the position as Supreme Commander of all forces assembled to counter British aggression, he was appalled by the squalor and noxious fumes that greeted him as he arrived outside of Boston to review the troops and their camps. Even though much was done to improve the situation, the Americans trudging up the long roads from Boston to New York brought old habits with them. Before the arrival of Washington’s army, most New Yorkers bought bottled water from New Jersey, Westchester County, and Long Island, rather than rely on their wells. Throughout New York City open sewers, poor water, and disregard to recommended health procedures by many regular and militia officers to led to rampant outbreaks of pox, malaria and other diseases related to poor sanitary conditions. In Huntington’s Regiment alone, 180 men (two thirds of the unit) were too sick for duty. “Sickness prevails greatly in camp,” wrote regimental surgeon Albigence Waldo, adding that conditions were worse in other camps.
Compare that to the British camp, where army life and discipline fell naturally to a strict enforcement of proper sanitation conditions in every soldier’s daily routine. Orders from the Commander in Chief were followed by the highest officers on down to the lowly private; there were no exceptions. The result was a British army in excellent health and spirits. As quoted in the London Chronicle, “Every soldier is obliged to put on a clean shirt twice, perhaps three times a week…and there are a certain number of officers appointed every day to see that each man washes his own linen, if he had not a woman to do it for him.” In the American army, many young men who grabbed their muskets in answer to their militia’s call had only one change of clothing for the entire season, some for the entire year. As to washing: if you could step back in time and walk among the stench of a rebel regimental camp, you would have your answer.
Beyond weapons and equipment, major factors were the experience and average age of the two armies. The average American was in his early twenties, many far younger. Army life was a new experience for these part time militiamen who drilled only twice a year. At Kips Bay, New York, members of Colonel Douglas’ Connecticut Militia had been plowing fields or were working in their father’s retail business just two weeks prior to being the target of one of the fiercest bombardments of the entire war. The British regular, whose average age was late twenties, had already served five or six years in the army by the time he shipped out to the American Colonies. That was five or six years more experience than the young men and husbands who answered the call to serve in Washington’s Continental Army.
Over time, sanitation, equipment, and discipline improved, and the Continental Army eventually mustered the skills and means to stand toe to toe with the then-finest fighting force on earth. But in the mean time, several disheartening American defeats would be suffered as the difference between these two adversaries slowly diminished.
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Becker, Ann M., Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implementatons of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War. The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Apr. 2004) pp 381-438
McCullough, David 1776. 2005 Simon & Schuster, New York, NY
Rogers, H.C.B., The British Army of the 18th Century. 1977 Hippocrene, New York