The state of the British Army at the start of 1778, including the forces in America

“Particulars of the State of His Majesty’s Forces, January 1778, or according to the latest Returns”. [England?], January 1778.

Ms in ink on laid paper with large watermark of Britannia. Bifolium (12”h x 8 ½”w). 3pp, docketed on outer leaf. Minor staining and some wear along folds and edges with partial loss of a few numbers.

A fascinating manuscript compiling the numbers of men available to the British Army worldwide in the Winter of 1777-1778, drawn up just three months after the surrender of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga. The document pays particular attention to the state of the forces dispatched to North America, suggesting it played a role in emerging debates about the efficacy of the hugely-expensive campaign to put down the American rebellion.

The document provides a valuable snapshot of British military readiness at a transitional moment in its military approach to the American rebellion.  It purports to get its data from “returns,” meaning 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 as 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 three tables, each on a separate page. The tables are broken into three columns. The left-most column, “Total Establishment”, is the total number of men authorized by the government, i.e., the notional unit strength, which due to casualties, desertions &c would rarely be achieved. The precise meaning of the other two columns, “Effective Officers and Men” and “Rank & File Wanting” are a bit of a puzzle: One would think that “Effectives” are those men available to send into battle, and that those “Wanting” are all others, whether detached to other duties, wounded, dead, deserted, on leave, or perhaps retired. On this understanding, “Effectives” + “Wanting” should equal “Total Establishment”, but in this document this is not the case. There is clearly some nuance here that I will leave for a future researcher to tease out.

In any event, the table on the first page summarizes the numbers of combined British and “Hannoverian” troops (the latter of course subjects to George III, of the House of Hanover), which total 56,111. It goes on to list their allocation to defense of the home country; garrisons in Gibraltar, Minorca, the West Indies, and Africa; and the war effort in North America. The chart on page 2 carries over the 56,111 total and adds to these other forces serving in North America, including 1709 “Artillery”, 2266 “Provincials”, and 19,853 “Foreign Troops” (the so-called “Hessians”, who were in fact hired from a number of German states). These bring the total forces serving in North America to a whopping 52,942, as against a “Remainder for Great Britain and Garrisons” of merely 26,997.

The figures are straightforward enough, though the author’s intent is unknowable. But the table clearly articulates how a huge percentage of Britain’s global force was occupied in North America, perhaps with an eye toward questioning whether the American war was unduly sapping the Empire’s finances and/or its military might. The ever-present possibility of a Franco-American alliance, which would widen the scope of the war, would only have amplified these anxieties (This alliance was ultimately concluded by Ben Franklin in Paris in February 1778, just a month after this document was compiled.)

The third table, on page 3, provides a detailed look at the allocation of forces in North America at the end of 1777, “agreeable to the Returns laid before Parliament”, in each case differentiating between “British” and “Foreign” troops. Nearly half (25,892) are with Howe occupying Philadelphia, with substantial concentrations in New York (6586), Rhode Island (4450), Florida (1718), Halifax (1039), and Canada (5722). The table also notes 7135 men “with Burgoyne”, a reference to the army captured at Saratoga in October 1777. After Burgoyne’s surrender his army, known as the “Convention Army” after the surrender terms detailed in the Convention of Saratoga, was marched to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it was imprisoned for a year before being marched further south. The surviving officers and men were only freed after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

It is worth noting that the figures in the tables differ from at least some of the numbers discussed in Parliament as members of the House of Lords debated future military allocations.[1] Without knowing the source of this material, it would be difficult to ascertain why it differed in this way.

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.[2]

Context and significance
The document appears to have been compiled in the middle of a tumultuous winter in British politics. Parliament was debating the next step in a war that had been frustrating to Britain in 1775 and 1776 and concerning and humiliating in 1777.  Britain had poured ever more resources into the military response to the rebelling colonists that year, with indubitably 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.  Of interest in this context is the note on page 2 of this document that “33,000 is nearly the entire peacetime establishment”, suggesting perhaps that the maintenance of a 54,492-strong army in North America was either unaffordable and/or disproportionate relative to what was actually at stake.  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.[3]

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
There seems to be no way to determine who might have written or compiled the data in these charts, other than that the underlying source is the returns submitted by senior military officers to the Ministry.  The use of the phrase “laid before Parliament” at the head of page 3 suggests that the document was compiled by an official in Great Britain, rather than North America.  But even that is not for certain, as colonists would have had access to newspapers and other accounts of Parliamentary debates.

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 writer got his information and work backwards from there.

Given the timing of this document’s compilation in early 1778, I have a hunch that it might have emerged in the moment when Parliament was debating whether Britain should continue to engage the new United States in war.  This is only a guess, and there is little in the document to directly substantiate it.  But that debate would have politicized the troop numbers, the expense that Britain was already paying to sustain them, and the argument from the ministry that more troops (at greater expense) were needed.  In particular, politicians would have been mindful that in the still-recent Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Britain’s national debt doubled, but with little resulting financial benefit. Thus, these figures would have been of interest to a wider-than-usual circle of Members of Parliament and politically-engaged Britons, rather than just War Office officials and the Secretaries of State.

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, an informative and most interesting 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.  

Cowans 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] See for example the numbers discussed on February 19, 1778 in the House of Lords, in Cobbett’s Parliamentary History of England, edited by William Cobbett, vol. 19 (1777-1778) (London:  T.C. Hansard, 1814), 744-46.

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

[3] 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.