The British Manpower Problem in the American War

By Gabriela Maduro

As Thomas Paine pointed out in Common Sense, the distance between Great Britain and its American colony was one of thousands of miles. This not only called to question Britain’s dominion over the American colonies, as he charged, but also put the British at an immediate disadvantage in the American War. In addition to being tasked with organizing troops on a foreign continent, the British had to transport supplies and reinforcements from the Old World, leading to many delays and periods of waiting for the British soldiers in the American colony. Letters written by William Glanville Evelyn, a captain in the British Army who fought in the American War until his death on November 6, 1776, exemplify this phenomenon. Only four days into the war, in fact, it was clear that the manpower problem that had plagued the British Army throughout the eighteenth century had reemerged, as Evelyn wrote on April 23, 1775 that, “We expect every day the three Generals [Generals Howe, Clinton and Burgoyne], and a strong re-inforcement of troops from Great Britain and Ireland. I wish they were arrived.”

Many of these reinforcements were likely acquired by “beating up,” a process in which a drummer would accompany army officers to areas that likely contained numerous willing new recruits. Enlistments were normally life-long commitments, but Special Recruiting Acts were sometimes passed during wartime, in which high bounties were offered along with short-term enlistments, often defined as being a length of three years or the duration of the war. When even these methods were insufficient, however, force was also used, as individuals ranging from debtors to those capitally convicted could evade prison time and punishment by enlisting. In truly desperate times, such as in 1778-1779, The Press Acts were passed, which required the impressment of able-bodied men who were unable to prove that they were engaged in some form of constant employment.

Even when sufficient numbers of recruits were procured, however, the British Army struggled to find adequate numbers of “complete soldiers” who were prepared to engage in military service abroad. A popular though ultimately ineffective solution to this problem was “drafting,” a process by which experienced and trained men were transferred from a unit not likely to immediately see action to another unit actively fighting or about to go on service. Often employed as well were “additional companies,” which were units attached to regiments serving abroad that consisted of experienced men who were meant not for active service but rather to train the members of the regiments to which they were attached.

Further exacerbating the British manpower problem was the inherent corruption that accompanied the purchase system, the process by which individuals bought positions within the Army rather than advancing through promotion. Contemporary critics denounced the system, alleging that it discouraged ordinary men from enlisting because promotion was based upon wealth rather than true merit. Many thought that it riddled the Army with laziness and incompetence, for, as a contemporary critic lamented:

The army is officered by gentlemen of anything but a studious turn of mind… A great many of them being well born, and all of them gentlemen, they do not look with much respect to a profession which requires study and close attention, or what they term plodding and drudgery. In fact, not a small portion of them have betaken themselves to the Army from their distaste to study… They have viewed with envy the seemingly easy, gentlemanly life of some officer in the army who happened to have no other object than riding out after the morning parade, or sauntering about a town, ogling and coquetting with the fair who admired his dress and equipment, and who was an object of notice at concerts, theatre, and evening parties.

Grenadier, 40th Foot

Ironically, even Evelyn’s personal correspondence is indiciative of frustration with the purchase system’s emphasis on the need for connections for advancement, despite the fact that he had purchased a captaincy in 1772. Although he was a member of the upper classes, many of his letters consisted of requests to his father to “cast about, and find out what channel you could come at… any General or man of rank,” for, as he explained on October 7, 1775, “’Tis inconceivable the trifling circumstances by which one rises in our line… I have taken up this profession for life, and it is my business to get on in it as fast as possible.”

It is no coincidence, then, that in the century following Britain’s defeat in the American War, major reforms were undertaken in the British Army, including the abolishment of the purchase system in 1871. Though a hindrance to the British, the manpower problem of the eighteenth century allows for an interesting case study for historians, as it brought about phenomena such as the hiring of Hessian troops for the American War.

Another year, another trip nach Deutschland

It’s been an eventful new year so far (say we all)! While I am heading back to Germany soon for another short research trip (pictures and stories to follow next month), there will soon be a new post by Gabriela detailing her latest findings about the British Army in the eighteenth century.


Other upcoming events that will be detailed here:

The Consortium on the Revolutionary Era in Charleston, SC in February

And the Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History in Jacksonville, FL in March