Review: Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution by Don Hagist

Don Hagist is one of our foremost American authorities on the common British soldier during the American Revolution. His latest book, Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution, is an institutional portrait of the British army that fought the American Revolution. Hagist has walked this ground before, most notably in British Soldiers, American War, which dedicated a chapter to a specific individual as a way of illustrating the experience of the common soldier. Noble Volunteers extrapolates on that, using soldier accounts, regimental paybooks, muster rolls, pension applications, and any other available material to give us an integrated picture of the entire army and how it functioned. It’s an extraordinarily valuable book.

Part I examines the British army in peacetime, how the men posted in America were treated by colonists, how they were enlisted, what their duties were like, and how men trained on their weapons.  What Hagist finds in the pre-war army of occupation:

“mostly men in their twenties, thirties and forties, a few younger and older; mostly from the British Isles, with a few from other places; all volunteers, in the army as a career, having joined in search of adventure or stability or objectives unknown perhaps even to them; some in the army barely a year, some veterans of decades of service, most with more than one and fewer than ten years in uniform; in a land of English-speaking British subjects who seemed in some ways foreign and in most ways hostile.”  

A significant number were artisans, tradesmen or skilled laborers with earning potential outside the army, who supplemented their pay by continuing to offer their services when off duty.  

Part 2 shows us how the army performed and changed in response to the war.   What he finds at the pointy end of the bayonet is an extraordinarily lethal force with a high degree of flexibility and adaptability.  The notion of a rigid group of automatons marching smartly to their doom in the face of American courage created on the road between Concord and Boston and Breed’s Hill disappears under Hagist’s close examination.  If anything, we’re more likely to see British commanders making mistakes due to their overconfidence of the army’s well-earned tactical superiority and successes. The Duke of Wellington famously said of his troops, “Our army is composed of the scum of the earth—the mere scum of the earth.”  (He also admitted that his men often rescued the army from his mistakes.)   But that did not apply to the British soldier who fought the American Revolution, who was more skilled and militarily effective than his American counterpart.  Hagist concludes, “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.”   Chapters on different aspects of logistics, wartime recruiting, discipline, and army life round out the section.

Part 3 deals with an army demobilizing.   MacArthur famously declared that old soldiers simply faded away.  Hagist tells us what that meant for the men of the British Army after the Revolution.  There were any number of reasons, and ways, a man might leave the army.   Noble Volunteers covers the gamut, from capture or desertion to death, disability, and discharge.    Some went back to lives they had left, started over in the United States or Canada, collected a pension or disability as eligible, or did indeed, simply fade away, lost to history.  We have Don Hagist’s latest work to remind us that such soldiers were anything but common.  

Don Hagist, Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2020) 392 pages, $34.00

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