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Introduction

British and Allied Soldiers in the American Revolution

British Soldiers and Organizations in the American Revolution

During the 18th century, the army of Great Britain served as the "backbone" of the Crown. As the executor of the King's will, these soldiers were both professionally trained and proficient in their duties. The regiments of foot or infantry bore the burden of war and served as the primary military resource on America's battlefields. The infantry was usually supported by light cavalry or dragoons and artillery, but the foot soldier's sole purpose was to close with and destroy his enemy. Marching directly into battle and fighting in tight linear formations required tremendous discipline and confidence in one's officers and comrades. England's army excelled in all these categories and was (and still is) universally recognized as the finest military machine of its age.

When the American Revolution erupted in 1775 there were seventy regiments of foot. During the course of the war that number was expanded to 105 regiments. Each regiment was comprised of eight battalion companies. These companies were supported by one light company and one grenadier company. These were employed on the regiment's flanks or wherever the commander maneuvered them to protect his main force or deploy rapidly for offensive operations. Each regiment was organized with 811 officers and men under the command of a colonel. The commander had 40 officers, 72 non-commissioned officers (NCOs), 24 drummers, two fifers, and 672 privates. Each regiment carried three non-existent men on the rolls to provide adequate pay to maintain uniforms and for whatever else the commander chose to do with the funds to maintain his unit.

The British infantryman carried the .75 caliber flintlock musket known affectionately as the "Brown Bess." This 15-pound weapon was used with great effect in massed formations and was tipped with a foot-long bayonet, which the soldiers were famous for wielding in battle. The grenadier company was comprised of the largest and strongest men available to the commander. These men typically wore tall bearskin hats and were considered an elite outfit and the most intimidating soldiers on the battlefield. The light infantry was a mobile reserve of maneuverable physically adept men who were normally used as rangers. They were often armed with hatchets and knives and were outstanding in close-quarter fighting.

England was stretched to the breaking point during the American Revolution. In addition to maintaining units at home for defensive purposes, England employed land and naval assets across much of the globe, from the West Indies to the East Indies.

The British regiments that deployed to America and fought there during the war included:

1st Regiment of Foot Guards: Arrived in America in 1776 (New York). Long Island, Fort Washington, Philadelphia Campaign, Brandywine, Monmouth Court House, Charleston, Guilford Court House, Green Spring, and surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia.

3rd Regiment of Foot (The Buffs): Arrived in America in 1781 (South Carolina). Charleston, Ninety Six, Eutaw Springs; sent to Jamaica in 1782.

4th (The King's Own) Regiment of Foot: Arrived in America in 1774 (Boston). Lexington, Concord, Siege of Boston, New York Campaign, Philadelphia Campaign, Charleston, East Florida; sent to Barbados.

5th Regiment of Foot: Arrived in America in 1774 (Boston). Bunker Hill, New York Campaign, Philadelphia Campaign, Brandywine, and Germantown; sent to the West Indies in 1778 . . .

Sample Battle Entry:

Germantown, Battle of (Philadelphia Campaign)

Date: October 4, 1777.

Region: Northern Colonies, Pennsylvania.

Commanders: British: Lieutenant General Sir William Howe and Lieutenant General Baron Wilhelm von Knyphausen; American: General George Washington, Major General Nathaniel Greene, Major General John Armstrong, Major General William Alexander, Major General John Sullivan, Major General Adam Stephen, Major General William Smallwood, Brigadier General Thomas Conway, Brigadier General William Maxwell, Brigadier General Francis Nash, and Brigadier General Anthony Wayne.

Time of Day / Length of Action: Attack: (6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.); withdrawal (11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.).

Weather Conditions: Thick fog and cool.

Opposing Forces: British: 10,000 (including 3,000 Hessians); American: 11,000.


British Perspective: For the British, the Battle of Paoli (September 21, 1777) eliminated the Patriot threat that had been plaguing their rear. General Howe was now free to focus his attention west against General Washington's main army at Reading or east against Philadelphia. Howe decided to establish his army along the southern banks of the Schuylkill River from Gordon's Ford (now Phoenixville) in the west to Fatlands Ford and Valley Forge in the east. The construction of a bridge across the river at Gordon's Ford was undertaken, which enticed Washington to focus his attention on Reading instead of Philadelphia. The British ruse worked well, and on the 22nd of September Howe ordered his army to cross the fords at both ends of the river and move toward the colonial capital. Marching unopposed in two columns along the Ridge Road and Germantown Pike, Howe's British occupied Germantown on September 25. This move placed his army between Washington's command and Philadelphia. The British were now within five miles of the city. Howe dispatched scouts to reconnoiter routes leading southward into the colonial capital.

On September 26, while Howe remained in Germantown five miles north of the city with 9,500 men, Lord Cornwallis and 3,000 troops moved south and occupied Philadelphia without resistance about 10:00 a.m. Local Tories were all that remained in the capital, the rebels and their Congress having evacuated the city. It had taken Howe 80 days and a great expenditure of lives and treasure to capture the Patriot capital. Unlike in Europe, however, there was no request for surrender terms and no discussion of ending the war. As they had in the past when the British captured New York and Boston, the Americans simply moved their capital elsewhere, this time to York, Pennsylvania.

Howe's success offered a new problem for his command: supply. While he focused efforts to eliminate bands of rebels operating in the area, he also had to feed his army. The enemy maintained a small naval fleet and two forts south of Philadelphia that prevented the British from moving supply ships up the Delaware River. Supplies had to be hauled from Head of Elk. On October 3, Howe learned Washington's army was advancing toward Germantown. The British general did not believe his enemy capable of striking a serious blow so soon after several defeats. His response was to order his outposts advanced with a warning to be observant.


American Perspective: September 1777 had been a month of setbacks and defeats for the Patriot cause. The fight at Brandywine on September 11 had thrown aside General Washington's army and exposed Philadelphia to capture. The inconsequential fiasco known as the battle of the Clouds five days later was followed by a more substantial disaster at Paoli on the 21st.

General Washington reorganized his forces at his main supply depot at Reading. Scouts were posted along the northern bank of the Schuylkill River to watch the enemy and guard the fords while Washington contemplated his next move. He could defend Reading or Philadelphia, but not both. It was a difficult decision because he had no idea what Howe would do next, and to a large degree his own actions had to be dictated by Howe's unfolding strategy. Washington's scouts reported information that led him to believe Howe would attack his army at Reading, but by September 23 it was obvious the British were marching toward Philadelphia. Riders were dispatched to warn the citizens there, and Col. Alexander Hamilton led a small force into the city to retrieve valuable supplies, such as blankets, horses, shoes, and food. Cornwallis paraded his command into the city on September 26.

Although embarrassed about the loss of Philadelphia, Washington formulated a plan to turn the tables on Howe. Washington ordered the commander of the Pennsylvania navy, Commodore John Hazelwood, to vigorously defend the approaches to Philadelphia on the Delaware River at Forts Mifflin and Mercer. With the British supply fleet denied access to Philadelphia from the south, Howe was forced to disperse foraging teams into the countryside to feed his army in the city and to escort vulnerable supply trains from Head of Elk. Washington planned to choke off land routes to the north and west, locking the British into an ever-tightening enclave. He also decided Howe's position at Germantown was vulnerable to a surprise attack. Washington's own army had been reinforced and now consisted of 8,000 Continentals and another 3,100 militia.

Washington moved his army to Pennypacker's Mill. On the 29th he marched five miles east to the village of Skippack, where he remained until October 2, when he moved his army a few more miles to Centre Point. The Patriot army was now just 15 miles north of Germantown. American naval losses in the Delaware River, meanwhile, including the capture of the 32-gun American frigate Delaware, gave the British maritime capabilities above and below Forts Mercer and Mifflin.

With his army ready to attack Germantown, Washington moved out at dusk on October 3 to get into position for the assault. The operation was bold, but too complex for an amateur army to carry out. The plan called for a confusing night march executed in several columns over difficult terrain. General Greene's wing comprised about two-thirds of the army's strength. It was ordered on a wide envelopment toward Lucken's Mill against the British right flank. General Sullivan would advance from the north along Shippack Road to attack the British center. General William (Lord Stirling) Alexander moved behind Sullivan as a central reserve. Militia was stationed on either side of the army. General William Smallwood's Maryland and New Jersey infantry was ordered to march beyond Greene's left and get behind the British flank. On the other side of the army was General Armstrong's Pennsylvania militia, which would move along Ridge Pike along the Schuylkill River toward the British left. Every unit was to be in position to attack by 2:00 a.m., with preparations for the attack completed by 4:00 a.m. The attack itself would commence at dawn. The men of the Continental Army carried only their arms, ammunition, and pioneer tools. Each was directed to pin a piece of white paper on his hat for recognition purposes.

Although the Patriot army moved out about 7:00 p.m., the march was slowed by bad roads and other difficulties. Chestnut Hill, two miles north of Germantown, was not reached until dawn. The army was hours behind schedule and no one was in position as planned. Just as the sun was rising Patriot light cavalry ran into a British outpost at Mt. Airy on the Shippack Road, triggering the first shots of the battle of Germantown.


Terrain: The battlefield was five miles north of colonial Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1777, Germantown was a small village where the main roads converged before leading into Philadelphia. The gently rolling terrain was dotted with rural villages and farms carved from thick forests. The Schuylkill River provided a natural barrier southwest of Germantown. It flows from west to southeast and empties into the Delaware River at Philadelphia. Three main roads passed through Germantown from the north and west to the city of Philadelphia in the south. The main British lines were established along these routes; Howe's headquarters was established at the southeast corner of the town behind the main lines.

The Fighting: Washington was traveling with the American center column when the fighting began. He ordered General Sullivan's center wing to lead the attack even though he was unsure whether General Greene was in position on the American left (he was not). Sullivan extended Anthony Wayne's division on the east or left flank, Thomas Conway's in the middle, and his own on the right (west). With a strong line of battle Sullivan advanced south against Lt. Col. Thomas Musgrave's British 40th Regiment of Foot, which had arrived to bolster the light infantry pickets. It was about this time that a dense fog descended and smothered Germantown. The fog and thick powder smoke reduced visibility to a handful of yards and slowed Sullivan's advance to a crawl.

Although the fog made it difficult for Sullivan to control his line of battle, it also hid his men from British musket balls. Musgrave's infantry veterans, outnumbered and outflanked on both sides, counterattacked briefly before falling slowly back as they delayed Sullivan's advance, using each fence line and obstacle to advantage. Believing themselves cut off, Musgrave and 120 of his men took up a position in a stone mansion that belonged to former provincial Chief Justice Benjamin Chew. Sullivan's infantry washed around the position and continued moving slowly south. On Washington's right flank, meanwhile, General Armstrong's militia located the left of Howe's line, which was held by Hessians under Wilhelm von Knyphausen. Armstrong unlimbered a few light artillery pieces to hold the enemy's attention, but little else was achieved on that flank.

Matters on the American left were not going well. Both Greene and Smallwood had taken the wrong road and for a time were lost. Eventually Greene reached his assigned position north of Lucken's Mill about 45 minutes after the fighting began. He deployed Stephen's division on his right (west), his own in the center, and Alexander McDougall's brigade on the left (east) and advanced. However, the British line had been extended farther east than Greene expected. As his men bore down southwest toward Meeting House with the intent of converging with Sullivan at Market Square, General Stephen's men veered sharply west toward the sound of the Chew house fighting-directly toward Sullivan's (Wayne's) exposed left flank.

While Armstrong was lobbing shells and Greene was struggling to hold his battle line together and turn the British right flank, the fighting continued in the center where British infantry was using the houses and fences to form a defensive line. Artillerist Henry Knox convinced Washington that the Chew bastion needed to be isolated and captured, not bypassed and ignored. William Maxwell's brigade was bought up for that purpose. When a man carrying a flag of truce was shot down, light artillery was brought up to shell the Chew house. Unable to inflict sufficient damage, an infantry charge was launched. That, too, failed. Howe, meanwhile, was preparing to order the evacuation of not only Germantown but Philadelphia under belief that the wide American front threatened to overwhelm his command.

General Wayne, meanwhile, holding Sullivan's left flank, was thrusting forward beyond the Chew house, cutting deeply into the British defensive line. The climax of the battle was at hand. Without warning a body of infantry fired into Wayne's left and rear. Stephen's men (Greene's wing) had arrived, mistaken Wayne's men for the enemy, and engaged them. Fighting was now taking place behind both of Wayne's flanks. Tired, running low on ammunition, and believing they were being cut off, Wayne's infantry began to retreat. As they streamed rearward out of the fog they announced to anyone who would listen that the enemy was flanking them. The promising attack through the British center was over. Wayne's retreat exposed Conway's left and his troops also fell back; Sullivan's men followed shortly thereafter, leaving behind a mortally wounded Gen. Francis Nash, who fell leading his North Carolina brigade near the Chew residence.

Within this confusion Greene continued pushing his men southwest into Germantown until his left flank was attacked by British reinforcements. A large portion of the 9th Virginia Regiment was trapped and cut off in front of the main advance. The fighting signaled a large-scale British counterattack, and Cornwallis arrived about this time from Philadelphia with additional reinforcements. When Greene realized he was fighting the battle alone he ordered a withdrawal, which was skillfully executed. The British followed the diverging American columns for about ten miles before stout rear guard actions and bad roads ended the pursuit.

Casualties: British: 71 killed, 450 wounded, and 14 captured; American: 152 killed, 521 wounded, and 400 captured.

Outcome / Impact: The sharp American tactical defeat at Germantown had consequences far beyond the battlefield. The immediate result was that the British maintained their grip on Philadelphia. Except for the American holdouts led by Commodore Hazelwood on the Delaware River, Howe remained master of the region as winter approached. Once the British fleet established control of the Delaware River, the strategic situation in the Northern colonies threatened to change dramatically.

Washington's complex battle plan with amateur soldiers was unwieldy and almost doomed to failure. However, his army retreated intact and the men sensed they had nearly won a decisive battle under difficult conditions. Though outgeneraled at Brandywine, they had also fought well on that field. They were on the road to becoming hardened veterans. Two weeks later, British Gen. Johnny Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to Horatio Gates at Saratoga in upstate New York. All of these facts were not lost on foreign observers. The French relied upon the enhanced American fighting capabilities, together with the important victory at Saratoga, to enter the war against England in 1778.

One other smaller consequence of the battle was the courts-martial of General Stephen, who was found to have been drunk during the battle and dismissed from the service. He was replaced with Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette.