Redcoats. For Americans, the word brings to mind the occupying army that attempted to crush the Revolutionary War. There was more to these soldiers than their red uniforms, but the individuals who formed the ranks are seldom described in any detail in historical literature, leaving unanswered questions. Who were these men? Why did they join the army? Where did they go when the war was over?
In Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution, Don N. Hagist brings life to these soldiers, describing the training, experiences, and outcomes of British soldiers who fought during the Revolution. Drawing on thousands of military records and other primary sources in British, American, and Canadian archives, and the writings of dozens of officers and soldiers, Noble Volunteers shows how a peacetime army responded to the onset of war, how professional soldiers adapted quickly and effectively to become tactically dominant, and what became of the thousands of career soldiers once the war was over.
In this historical tour de force, introduced by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Atkinson, Hagist dispels long-held myths, revealing how remarkably diverse British soldiers were. They represented a variety of ages, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and many had joined the army as a peacetime career, only to find themselves fighting a war on another continent in often brutal conditions. Against the sweeping backdrop of the war, Hagist directs his focus on the small picture, illuminating the moments in an individual soldier’s life—those hours spent nursing a fever while standing sentry in the bitter cold, or writing a letter to a wife back home. What emerges from these vignettes is the understanding that while these were “common” soldiers, each soldier was completely unique, for, as Hagist writes, “There was no ‘typical’ British soldier.”
Extracts from the Wall Street Journal, wsj.com/articles/noble-volunteers-review-the-men-beneath-the-red-coats-11606173354
Review by By Mark G. Spencer
"One central insight is that "there was no 'typical' British soldier." British regulars encompassed "such a range of nationalities, ages, skills, and socioeconomic backgrounds" that we are better off "appreciating how they were different rather than how they were the same." What, for instance, motivated them to enlist? The reasons were as many as the men who joined, with neither unemployment nor impoverishment ranking high on the list. Most were between the ages of 20 and 25, but little else united them. Some sought new careers. Others to escape overbearing mothers, or wives. Others still were moved by wanderlust or boredom."
Mr. Hagist concentrates on the particular. We follow the British soldiers in America from Boston in 1773, before hostilities break out, to Yorktown in 1781. But it is not the battlefield that is most intriguing here; it is instead Mr. Hagist's wealth of detail about all other aspects of a British soldier's life. Recruitment in Britain (and elsewhere); monthslong transport in private vessels across the Atlantic, its trials and wonders ("flying fish, sharks, sea turtles, seals, and icebergs"); soldiers' wages, within and without the army; literacy rates; training exercises; living arrangements in barracks, huts, wigwams and encampments; what they wore, ate and drank; the diseases they contracted; their desertions; "the plunder problem" ("the army's Achilles' heel," says Mr. Hagist, because of its effect on the "hearts and minds" of the local populace); soldiers' prizes, promotions and demotions; drafts and impressments; punishments and courts-martial; entertainments; religious dispositions; injuries, imprisonments and, occasionally, deaths; and, for some, their postwar lives. It is all here."
"When we attempt to see the American Revolution through the eyes of its British soldiers, we are reminded that thinking historically about the war is difficult. It requires us not only to forget how events turned out, but also to recapture very particular moments from the participants' perspectives. "Standing sentry on a storm-swept shoreline in the middle of a winter night, fending off a rising fever while fearful of imminent attack by assailants unseen, may have been one man's most difficult hours of an eight-year war," writes Mr. Hagist, "but histories focused on pivotal campaigns are unkind to such personal experiences, trivializing or entirely overlooking most of the hardships endured by most of the soldiers."
Mr. Hagist, the managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, also overturns the notion that British troops steadfastly held to European ways, marching into battle in close-order formations. They were remarkably fleet of foot, brave and resourceful. They "continued to prevail against superior numbers by using zealous speed and steadiness," even when coming to battle "pretty much fatigued, marching & halting far above 20 hours & little to eat or drink," as one combatant reported. The author posits that "the ultimate loss of the American colonies was not caused by inability of British soldiers to adapt to warfare in America but to challenges of logistics, manpower, and especially the lack of a clear strategic vision of how to win a war against a popular insurgency."
From Washington Independent Review of Books, washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/features/5-outstanding-new-books-about-the-american-revolution
"The preponderance of books on the Revolution are written from an "American Patriot" or Rebel perspective. As a result, historians regularly repeat misleading myths about British soldiers acting as rapacious and brutal "bloody-backs" or "lobsters." Through years of detailed research of regimental muster rolls and orderly books, Don N. Hagist dispels these myths. First, a substantial percentage of soldiers in the British Army were not British but hailed from other parts of Europe and the Americas. Hagist provides another myth-busting clarification: British soldiers were predominantly literate and often read classical literature for recreation. Further, his book demonstrates that the Brits fought valiantly for the cause they espoused, and the experiences of British soldiers are just as interesting as those of the Continental Army."
From Kirkus Reviews, kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/don-n-hagist/noble-volunteers/
"An eye-opening account of the redcoats.
Hagist, the managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, emphasizes that his subjects are not officers but private soldiers who, unlike sailors in the Royal Navy, were volunteers. Earning 8 pence per day--minus deductions for uniforms and food--it was a subsistence livelihood but secure. Soldiers usually enlisted for life, retiring with a pension when no longer physically able. The British soldier usually receives bad press in popular American histories, often depicted "as little more than a caricature," as Rick Atkinson notes in the foreword. However, writes Hagist, "contrary to popular misconceptions, few were pressured to join in order to avoid jail or escape poverty." Some were farm laborers, but most were from the trades--e.g., tailors, barbers, blacksmiths. Their reasons for enlisting were similar to today's: a search for adventure or to escape an unsatisfactory civilian life. Training was intense, and discipline was often barbaric. Although few complained at the time, there was no shortage of misbehavior, crime, and desertion, but the result was a surprisingly content and skilled army who "were seldom bested on the battlefield, even in the face of much greater numbers." The author's research in American and British archives turns up a great deal of technical, statistical, and organizational details as well as personal writings of the large percentage of enlisted men who were literate. Readers will enjoy many revealing stories of soldiering in that distant era ..."
A video review: youtube.com/watch?v=xvuDNt6_LdA&feature=youtu.be
Don N. Hagist is managing editor of the Journal of the American Revolution. An expert on the British army in the American Revolution, he is the author of many books and articles, including British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution (Westholme 2012) and The Revolution’s Last Men: The Stories Behind the Photographs (Westholme 2015). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.