Thursday, January 26, 2012

Letters from the Front: The Battle of Brandywine and British Light Infantry

"...the two companies quitted the road for this purpose to gain an orchard on the flanks; received a fire from about 200 men in the orchard..."

"Sleeves of the jacket sewed to the waistcoat; shell laid aside.
One or two pockets in the waistcoat below the breast."

Among the many documents contained within the Sol Feinstone Collection that are unique and vital, none is so absolutely fundamental to our understanding of the Battle of Brandywine and of the British Light Infantry as document number 111. This item consists of two parts: a memorandum describing the battle of Brandywine from an officer in the 1st Battalion of British Light Infantry (probably Lt. Wetherell of the 17th Regiment of Foot) and notes on the conduct and equipment of the British Light Infantry in the field. The former is a vivid blow-by-blow account, covering the experience of several British Light Infantry Companies from the opening salvos of the battle to its conclusion, filled with detailed remarks on the other British forces engaged as well as their American opposition. It provides an eye-opening glimpse into the experience of combat in North America during the Revolution, shattering the well-worn stereotype of lines of British regulars marching against American riflemen hiding behind trees.

The second part is vital to our knowledge of how the British Light Infantry operated in principle during the war and the sorts of equipment they carried. Appearing on pages 2-3 of the document, this set of memorandums begins with a side-by-side comparison of the war-time practice of the 1st Battalion, British Light Infantry, and the system created by Colonel Dundas, which was used from the 1790s through the Napoleonic Wars. Following this section in a series of notes covering the proper way to carry ammunition, how light infantry needed to be outfitted for service in warm climates (in this case, the West Indies) and some general notes on the movements of armies.

Our thanks goes out to David Library Research Assistant David Swain, who transcribed this invaluable document. Please read below to see the entire transcript


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Letters from the Front: British Landings at Head of Elk

"It is likely we shall have hot work in this Neighbourhood ‘ere long—I wish it most cordially..."

August of 1777 found the Continental and British Armies facing off in Maryland, at the beginning of the campaign for Philadelphia, the then-capital of the United States. Having failed to bring Washington to battle during several campaigns in North Jersey during the opening months of 1777, British General Sir William Howe embarked his men in mid-summer and sailed south to the Chesapeake. His design was to quickly overrun Philadelphia through bypassing the formidable American defenses set across Delaware Bay by moving overland from his landing spot at Head of Elk in Maryland's eastern shore. In today's Letter from the Front, we catch a window into Washington's maneuvers as he concentrated his portion of the Continental Army to face this new threat. Mounted troops were essential to his operation, providing a flexible reaction force as well as a desperately-need body of scouts who could keep tabs on the British advance. Short of horsemen, Washington called on Baylor to bring his regiment of dragoons, which had not finished recruiting, into action. Attached to the bottom of the letter is a post-script by Washington's aide, R. H. Harrison, who replaced Joseph Reed. Harrison's note references the opening salvos of the other campaign of 1777-- British General John Burgoyne's invasion of Upstate New York, which focused on capturing Albany, forging a link with British forces in New York, and successfully cutting the United States in half. As Harrison's note shows, the American forces were full of fight and ready to engage with the redcoats on multiple fronts. For the full transcript of the letter, please read below. Our thanks go out to David Swain for this transcript.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Letters from the Front: Tending to POWs

"You will immediately take into your Charge the following Prisoners of War who have petitioned for to be sent in to New York, being all maimed, but otherwise recovered of their wounds..."

As the British and American forces geared up for the Philadelphia Campaign, the daily administrative routine of both armies continued to grind on. Among the more poignant issues addressed was the treatment of prisoners of war. By August 1777, when Elias Boudinot penned the letter below to his colleague in Bucks County, both sides had ample numbers of enemy combatants "behind the wire." In some cases, however, these prisoners posed no further threat to their captors, having been so maimed in battle that they were no longer fit for service. This letter covers just such a group of men-- British soldiers who had recovered from their injuries (as much as they could) and who requested to be sent back to their Army in New York. From there, these men would have been discharged and sent back across the Atlantic to England, on the government dime, unless they opted to stay in America. A lucky few might be recommended for military pensions from the Chelsea Hospital. While the war was over for these men, Boudinot's letter speaks to another side of the issue: the treatment of American prisoners held by the British. One of the standard military conventions of the days was to send money and clothing through enemy lines to the prisoners to aid in their car, since armies of the period did not feel themselves obliged to provide for captured enemy troops (though the British often did the best they could for American prisoners). This practice reflects how the Continental Army attempted to act in every way like a conventional professional European army of the period. Our thanks once again to David Swain for this transcript.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Letters from the Front: Opinions on Light Horsemen

"...I am confident that since the Beginning of this campaign not one light horse man gave or got a trust or a Cutt of a sword."

One of the most under-represented types of soldiers present in the armies which fought in the American Revolution was the light horseman. In British terms, light horse was generally represented by light dragoons, men who originally fought on foot but rode to the battlefield on horses. By the latter half of the eighteenth century, dragoons more often than fought on horseback. Their "lightness" was reflected in their lack of armor and use of light sabers, in addition to their pistols and carbines. The dragoons were represented by two regiments, the 17th and the 16th (or Queens) Light Dragoons, the latter of which provided a special dismounted troop for service in America. The Royal Provincial Regiments would take the light horse a step further towards the ideal with the Queen's Rangers Hussars, who were armed primarily with sabers, and the British Legion Dragoons, who carried pistols and sabers. Both fought from horseback. On the opposite side of the field, the Americans struggled to form a competent cavalry corps. From the outset, the Continental Army had been a primarily infantry force, though some militia formations were mounted (though in the classic dragoon since, where they rode to battle but did not fight from horseback). For the Ten Crucial Days Campaign, for example, Washington had only the 50 mounted troopers of the Philadelphia Light Horse, which he used as his personal bodyguard. The Continental Army would come to raise several regiments of light dragoons, which included dismounted troops and legionary formations that appeared later in the war. At the crucial stage when Brigadier General Thomas Conway wrote the letter below, however, the American forces were still figuring out how to raise and employ mounted troops. In Colonel Armand's Legion, they would find an excellent example of the proper use of light horsemen. Our thanks to David Swain for the excellent transcript below.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Letters from the Front: Perils of the Recruiting Service

"...They were ready to fight when men of Fortune & monopolizers did."

In this installment of Letters from the Front, we skip ahead of the dreary late winter days of 1777 and into the spring, when the recruiting service started up again. As discussed in a previous entry, most Continental regiments recruited annually, enlisting men for one year of service at a time. In 1777, this practice began to change, but many regiments still felt the crunch to recruit their full quota of men. As the letter from Thomas Cartwright and James Jones below demonstrates, the recruiting service was extremely difficult. Colonel Henry Jackson dispatched the two men from his headquarters in Boston to head north, towards New Hampshire, "beating up for men" (as recruiting was sometimes called in period speech) along the way. Their report highlights the many difficulties involved in this task. While communities were expected to provide a certain quota of able-bodied men for Continental Service, they generally lacked the coercive power to actually do so. The drafting referred to below is the one exception: in later years, militia companies were formed and a certain number of the men therein were drafted into Continental service. Personally, I did not think this practice caught on until much later in the war, so I welcome comments from other researchers here. Also of note is the fact that a clear gulf was beginning to emerge between the rich and the "monopolizers" (merchants benefiting from the sale of now-rare goods) and the common men who did most of the actual fighting. This is one version of the age-old theme of "rich man's war, poor man's fight" that echoes throughout world history. Please see below for the full text of the letter. Our thanks go out to David Swain for this transcript.