by Joe Wagner
At the time of the Revolution, the British army was made up of about 60% Englishmen (including Welsh), 24% Scotsmen, and 16% Irish. Of the officer corps, only 42% were English, while 31% were Irish and 27% Scottish. There were more non-English officers due to a lack of opportunity for the subjugated Irish and Scots minor nobility at home, resulting in their joining the army for advancement. The reputation of the British officer corps, at least among their own troops, can be summarized by this excerpt from the memoir of one William Corbett, a Sergeant-Major in the 54th Regiment of Foot, who arrived at his view of officers later in life while serving as a Member of Parliament.
“Promotion to Sergeant-Major brought me in close contact, at every hour, with the whole of the epaulet gentry (Officers), whose profound and surprising ignorance I discovered in a twinkling. Familiar with the drill, I taught the officers what to say on parade and gave them crib cards showing the regiment’s dispositions. There I was, at the review, upon the flank of the grenadier company, with my worsted shoulder-knot and my great high coarse hairy cap; confounded in the ranks among my men, whilst those who commanded me to move my hands and feet, thus and so, were, in fact, uttering words which I had taught them and who were, in everything except authority, my inferiors. We were an army of lions . . . led by donkeys.”
There was a constant call from the colonial British leadership for more troops from England. While we tend to think of England at that time as a world military power, with a large army to meet whatever world-wide needs arose, the fact was that in 1776, with over 10,000 troops either in or on the way to America to combat the Revolution, the British army of North America represented the largest concentration of forces that England possessed, representing about one fourth of total worldwide forces. The home army numbered less than 9,500 soldiers, with smaller contingents scattered in Ireland, Gibraltar, and the West Indies. As a result of the shortage of national forces, the British sought out the well-known “rental” of German mercenaries, hired from the relatives of King George III in the German states. Although the term Hessian is applied to these troops, the units came from at least four German principalities:
- From the Duke of Brunswick, 4,300 infantry.
- From the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, 12,000 infantry and a battery of 6 pieces of artillery.
- From the Prince of Waldeck, a regiment of 670 infantry and a section of 2 artillery pieces.
- From the Count of Hanow, a regiment of 660 infantry and 128 artillerymen.
The British royal troops in America never forgot to whom they owed their allegiance. The occasion of the royal birthday of King George was intended as a source of patriotism and celebration among the troops. And so it was that on January 18th, 1777, the British force in New York conducted an appropriate celebratory display. A detachment of 300 troops were drawn up on parade and delivered three volleys. This was followed by a like display from the allied Germanic forces, and the Royal Artillery fired off a 21 gun salute. The Royal Navy then acknowledged the birthday of the King by firing a 21 gun salute from each of the ships anchored in New York harbor. Unfortunately, the Frigate HMS Diamond, lately returned from active service at sea, in the words of the follow-up investigation, “had not taken sufficient care in drawing the shot from its guns, and thereby when firing its salute, discharged a load of grape into a near-by transport ship.” The crew of the transport ship marked the King’s birthday with 5 dead sailors and the wounding of three others.