THE AVERAGE REDCOAT DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION - MYTH AND REALITY
Meet Tommy Lobster. He is a private serving in His Majesty’s 23rd Regiment of Foot, currently fighting the colonial rebels in North Carolina. Tommy “took the King’s shilling” and joined the British Army at the age of 18. He grew up as a farm labourer in his native West Midlands, in England. A combination of monotonous hard work and a taste for adventure meant he was always looking to leave. The catalyst came when he ended up getting the farmer’s daughter pregnant. Sure of losing his job and being beaten to within an inch of his life, Tommy ran to the nearest town market and found the local recruiting party.
That was in 1774. He was been “with the colours” for 7 years. Indeed, the majority of his regiment have been serving for 5 or more years. Despite this, before they arrived in the colonies, only two men in Tommy’s company had fired a shot in anger - his captain and his sergeant, both of whom served in the Seven Years War as a junior lieutenant and private respectively.
Since joining what they call “the American War,” Tommy and his comrades have seen enough fighting to last a lifetime. The 23rd has served in almost every major engagement in the past 5 years.
Like the other British soldiers serving in the South, Tommy is a far cry from the public ideal of a immaculately dressed, wig-wearing redcoat. His three-sided cocked hat has been let down to form a broad brim to keep the sun off his brow and neck. Most of his coat’s buttons have been lost or sold, and the lace has been torn off, frayed or is hanging loose. The wool coat itself is also worn thin and badly faded. He cut off its heavy, warm coat tails not long after the regiment arrived in Charlestown in 1780. His trousers and gaiters are gone, replaced by loose “Indian trousers” that have been patched almost to obscurity. His shoes have long since worn out - he intends to replace them with those belonging to the next rebel corpse he comes across, whether they fit him or not. His Army-issue tin canteen took a musket ball at Camden, and he has replaced it with a cup bought from the regimental sutler. His pack is likewise gone, lost when fording the rushing Catawba river - his bedroll and a sack now suffice in its place.
He has nearly died twice, once to dysentery and once to yellow fever. Disease has killed more of his brothers in arms than the rebels. He is lean, tanned, and mostly occupied by feeding himself and his comrades, cleaning his Short Land Pattern musket and bayonet, and marching. When battle is joined he fights for the men around him, for his Regiment and for his King. Initially he felt little animosity towards the rebels. He hates them now. The average America’s living standard is much better than their British counterparts. Like most Britons visiting America, he believes the colonials are privileged, lazy and, above all, ungrateful.
Above all else, he is a professional soldier in an army that is as dynamic, as determined and as well-led as it ever has been and ever will be. In young men like Tommy, the colonials have found an enemy who will loom large for eternity in their national history, and with good reason.
David Hackett Fischer makes the point that at the fighting on April 19, 1775, the colonial militia actually had more battle experience than did the army they were facing. Yeah the men in the “strike force” had been in the British Army for several years, but they hadn’t actually seen combat, where as maybe as many as 1/3rd of the men they were facing on April 19th, 1775 were veterans of the French & Indian War.