Remarkably detailed accounting of the British Army after Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga

[Docketed on verso:] “Particular State of the Army acting in the Field on the Coast of Atlantick at the Close of the Campaign 1777. Also General State of that in Canada”. [America? England?, late 1777/early 1778].
Ms in ink in two different hands on laid paper with large crown-and-shield watermark. Bifolium (12 ¾”h x 8”w). 3pp, docketed on final page. Minor soiling and staining and minor wear along folds and edges.

A fascinating manuscript compiling the numbers of men available to the British Army in the Winter of 1777-1778, likely drawn up just within weeks after Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga. The document is particularly dramatic in its treatment of Burgoyne’s army, the entirety of which is listed as “prisoners” or “sick & wounded”, but whose condition “is only guessed at”.

The document provides a wonderfully-detailed snapshot of British military readiness at a transitional moment in its military approach to the American rebellion. The data is presumably from “returns,” the official submissions of military numbers from the commanders on the ground.  These charts would include statistics on the number of men at each rank in each unit, how many fit for duty as opposed to ill or wounded, and so on. From these, officials would compile the statistics for the full army. The official versions of these returns sent back to Britain in the 1770s are today held at The National Archives in Kew, London, United Kingdom among the War Office files at call number WO 17.

The document consists of tables listing British troops in the Colonies, down to the regimental level. For each unit, it reports the numbers of men “Present [and] fit for Duty,” “On Command Absent &c,” (i.e., detached for other duties), “Prisoners”, “Sick and Wounded,” and the “Total Effectives,” including these men temporarily missing or indisposed. In the final columns, the list gives the numbers needed to return the unit to its full “Establishment,” meaning the full complement as defined at the unit’s inception (In a few cases, the page shows “supernumeraries” meaning a surplus of men enlisted over that establishment number.) The establishment figure would have determined the need for reinforcement, budgeting for the unit, the amount of supplies it needed, and so on, so officials looking to make big-picture decisions for the army from London would have relied on such figures as a baseline.

The first two pages of the report are both rendered in two different hands, one a fine copperplate hand, the other rather rougher. These pages address General William Howe’s army, situated “on the Coast of the Atlantick.” The first page describes Howe’s “Division at Philadelphia”, helpfully differentiating between light dragoons, light infantry, grenadiers, foot guards (i.e., infantry), artillery, and the Queen’s American Rangers, the last a regiment of American Loyalists. The second page adds the large contingents at New York and Rhode Island to the count. In sum, the total army on the East Coast numbered 31,214 “effectives”, of which 19,328 were British and the rest German.

The third page of the folio, rendered in the rougher hand, recounts the “General State of the Canada Army.” The notetaker conceded that “the state of that Division … under Lt. General Burgoyne is only guessed at from the Newspaper accounts,” though he had more detailed information on General Guy Carleton’s division, which had remained in Canada while Burgoyne marched south in the summer of 1777. Of particular note, after their October surrender at Saratoga, the British and German units under Burgoyne all list zero “Present [and] fit for Duty” and “On Command Absent &c”. Instead, those units contained “guessed at” totals of 3,150 prisoners and 1,700 sick or wounded. The large number of “Rank & File wanting to complete”, some 1655, presumably reflects deaths and desertions in the course of the campaign.

The “Hessians”
The large numbers of German troops make clear just how heavily Britain relied on the King’s hereditary possessions in Hanover and its Prussian and German allies to supply troops for the American Revolutionary War. These troops were not “mercenaries,” strictly speaking, because rather than enlisting with a foreign power (Britain) for pay, they were instead conscripted into service in their home countries in Germany. The local rulers, then, rented out units to the British under German commanding officers in exchange for funds and perhaps other treaty arrangements. Given that these troops were sent as units from their home states, they remained intact under their own officers when added to the British army in America.

Of the roughly 30,000 German troops to serve in these hired units during the war, the largest number, some 13,000, came from Hesse-Kassel, where the Landgrave (the local ruler) had been one of the first German princes to hire out his military units. Though several other German principalities sent multiple units, the preponderance of Germans in the British army during the American Revolution came from Hesse-Kassel or Hesse-Hanau, and hence “Hessians” came to be a kind of shorthand for German soldiers serving in the British Army.[1]

Context and significance
The document appears to have been compiled in the middle of a tumultuous period in British politics. Parliament was debating the next step in a war that had been frustrating to Britain in 1775 and 1776 then humiliating in 1777. Britain had poured ever more resources into the military response to the rebelling colonists that year, with mixed results: the capture of Philadelphia, of dubious strategic value, more than balanced by the loss of John Burgoyne’s entire army at Saratoga and the growing prospects of a Franco-American alliance.

Some Whig politicians, including Charles James Fox and the Duke of Richmond, seized on these failures to call into question the military misadventures of Lord North’s ministry and to oppose any additional spending or allocation of troops to North America. Fox and Richmond had opposed the war from the beginning; now they argued in part that the high volume of troops sent to North America would sap Great Britain of its own troops for defense, or at least of its potential to raise a domestic army if needed. Richmond in particular pushed the idea that the more prudent course would be to concede America’s nominal “independence” while agreeing to treaties that would keep the thirteen colonies in a “friendly league” with Great Britain, ensuring the continuation of profitable ties.[2]

In the end, not only did Richmond, Fox, and their allies in Parliament fail to wind down the American war, but British officials agreed on a plan to radically increase the size of their army in America for 1778. Beginning with the Recruiting Act of 1778 in the spring of that year, Parliament authorized increased monetary incentives to boost enlistment and increased the use of impressment to compel military service. By November of 1778, Britain had a military establishment of 121,000 men, including 24,000 foreign troops, much higher than the 1777 establishment as shown in these documents. Over the course of the war these numbers crept even higher.

Authorship, readership, and archival sources
As mentioned earlier, the document was compiled in two different hands. But there seems to be no way to determine the identity of the authors, other than that the underlying source is the returns submitted by senior military officers. All that can be said with some confidence is that the breadth of information and the degree of detail indicate it was compiled by persons relatively senior in the British military establishment, or by their aides. Whether they were located in North America or England, I cannot say.

One avenue to gain at least additional clarity into the exact timing of the document’s creation, and perhaps generate some theories as to its authorship, would be to find a version of this data, perhaps in Kew’s WO 17 files, that matched the numbers in this document precisely.  A researcher might then be able to determine where the writers obtained their information and work backwards from there.

As noted above, the source material for these documents would likely be in British archives, particularly the files of the War Office and the Secretaries of State. Parliament handled similar, if not identical, data, so troop numbers are contained within its papers as well. Given the prevalence of the debate and the general prominence of the American war in public consciousness in the winter of 1777-78, collections of private papers might also contain similar documents.

In all, fascinating record of the enormous British investment in putting down the revolt of its American colonies, which by the end of 1777 had produced little by way of return.

Cowan’s auctions, June 25, 2021, consignor not known.

Thanks to David Flaherty of Charlottesville, Virginia for compiling an earlier draft of this document, the great majority of which has been retained in this version.

[1] Alan Axelrod, Mercenaries:  A Guide to Private Armies and Private Military Companies (Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Reference, 2014), 63-68.

[2] William C. Lowe, “Lennox, Charles, third duke of Richmond (1735–1806), politician,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2004).  Eliga H. Gould, The Persistence of Empire:  British Political Culture in the Age of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 166.