by Joe Wagner
Often discussion with a visiting tourist in the reenactor camp will result in the question – what is the meaning of the term “regiment” as it is applied to the 18th century military? The following information is taken from various reliable sources related to the hobby. Keep in mind that as the war years went on, such military structures, particularly on the American side, were continually adjusted as to numbers and organization.
Like most everything else in colonial America, the regiment was adopted in form and purpose from our British masters. The regiment is an administrative entity within the military bureaucracy – a book-keeping and management entity that oversees the primary building block of a standing army. The fighting element of the regiment – the tactical maneuver unit – is the battalion. Luckily, just to keep it simple for us reenactors, during the Revolutionary War both an American and British regiment, as fielded, consisted of a single battalion. So we can think of them as one and the same.
In the British army of the 1770’s, each battalion/regiment consisted of 10 companies, with 38 enlisted ranks per company. The addition of officers, music, etc. increased the total battalion strength authorized to 477. Eight of these companies were known as the battalion or “line” companies, since they fought in ranked double lines. If a member of these units, you were a part of the “British Line”. However, the remaining two companies had specialized missions. One was the “light company”, made up of the fastest, best conditioned members of the battalion, who served much the same role as an American rifle company – that of scouts, screening force, or sharpshooters (although armed with muskets). The second specialized company were the grenadiers. They were originally formed to light and throw small short fused, black powder bombs, known as grenades. When these passed from the scene, the unit was retained as the honor company of the battalion, and consisted of the tallest, most dedicated soldiers.
Both of these two specialized units in each regiment were known as “flank companies”, because their position in battle was normally at either end of the “line”. In fact, they often fought separately, pulled entirely from their battalion, and combined into masses with other flank companies to fight as a battalion of grenadiers, for example. When you did this, in theory, you now had the best companies of your army combined into a “super-battalion” of motivated, physically outstanding soldiers. That’s what the British did at Bunker Hill, throwing massed formations of grenadier companies at the American redoubt. The destruction of this “flower of the army” in such large numbers greatly aggravated the psychological aspects of that “victory” for the British command.
The American army established by Congress at the end of 1775 followed the British pattern to a point. It initially consisted of regiments with a single battalion of 728 men, which had 78 musketmen per company, with eight companies per battalion instead of ten. Since we did not have the specialized, trained units of grenadiers or light infantry, these companies were omitted, leaving only the eight “line” companies per battalion. Thus, if you were in an American battalion, you were, unlike your British light or grenadier counterpart, by definition a member of the Continental “Line”. Later reorganizations added the light companies to the American battalion, in response to the need for screening and scouting duties by bayonet-armed regulars (vice riflemen).
As you can tell by the numbers above, on paper, every American regiment was much larger than the British counterpart, even with eight verses ten companies. As you probably are aware, the paper numbers don’t mean much when the American regiment likely consists of volunteers and short-term enlistees who are not easily replaced with fresh recruits. In fact, their sizes shrank so rapidly that in a few years, there was a consolidation of units to maintain adequate manpower in any given unit.
Now we will look at the positions of management within the regiment, responsible for the operations of these hundreds of musketmen, again based on the English model of the mid to late 18th century.
The commander of a regiment held the rank of Colonel as to his pay, but in fact, due to the desirability of the job, and the number of those qualified by rank, the incumbent was almost always a general officer. The job was obtained by purchase or patronage – i.e. – it was strictly a political issue. One of the side perks was that the commander was given the funds necessary to clothe and equip his regiment, and anything left over was his to keep. It could be, and often was, a profit-making business for the commander, on top of his salary as the commanding Colonel. The Colonel was also the commander of a company of the regiment, and received that pay as well. Naturally, he had an officer to actually do the work of running “his” company, and that officer was the most junior ranking Captain of the battalion – known as the Captain – Lieutenant.
Each regiment had a civilian agent, who served as the go-between for pay and purchasing activities for the regimental commander. He was responsible for receiving the payroll from the Army staff paymaster, and for making contracts and obtaining service arrangements to supply the regiment with all its needs. This was a highly desirable and lucrative job, with the opportunity to skim from every contract and payroll. Some agents for British regiments held their positions for 40 years or more.
Each regiment was authorized two Lieutenant Colonels. Normally only one was on active service with the fielded battalion, and he was the actual military commander. The staff and command functions shown below reported to him.
The battalion of a regiment were authorized two Majors. Besides serving as the Lt. Colonel’s deputies and as staff assistants, each would command a “wing” of the battalion in action. Recall that a battalion would consist of 8 battalion or line companies, ranging typically from 50 to 75 men each, plus a light and a grenadier company. The battalion companies were known as “hat” companies or hatmen, for the tri-corn hat they wore, while the light units were known as “light bobs” and the grenadiers as “tow rows”. A wing might consist of only 4 hat companies, or also include either the lights or grenadiers.
This was an administrative position, not a rank. The job was normally held by a Lieutenant or Ensign, and he acted as the personal staff officer or aide to the commander. He was responsible for the drill and duty assignments of the regiment (guard duty, foraging parties, etc.), as well as discipline and the other military skills of the troops. He was almost always an ex-enlisted man – probably a sergeant-major, who could read and write, and knew how to deal with NCOs and the troops.
This was both a rank and a staff position. He was not a line officer (he could not command troops), but was a staff officer (Captain equivalent) responsible for supplying all ammunition, food, equipment, and supplies to the regiment. He served as the regiment’s conduit for distributing material from the Regimental Agent and the Army Quartermaster – General.
This was also a regimental staff position, equivalent to a Captain. He was appointed by the commander, and was allowed two enlisted assistants. Quality was usually not good, and the position was often unoccupied.
Similar to the Surgeon, this was a regimental staff position filled by appointment by the regimental commander.
A position held by a regimental officer as an additional duty. He was responsible for receiving the regimental payroll from the agent, and distributing it to the Captains of the individual companies.
This was the senior enlisted soldier of the regiment, and served as the primary action officer for the Adjutant and the Commander in running the activities of the enlisted troops.
Each company was commanded by a Captain, who was assisted by a Lieutenant and an Ensign.
There were normally two Sergeants, 3 Corporals, and a drummer and/or fifer assigned to each company.
The company-level NCOs would also carry added duties as assistants to the paymaster, quartermaster, etc. as well as positions such as drum-major, armorer, and pioneer.