18th-Century Field Maneuvers.
Submitted By Stephen Gilbert, 3rd NY Reg’t
In the course of our demonstration of battle tactics before the public, the thought sometimes arises, what exactly did the troops do in the field? How close is what we do to the real thing? What was the real thing? Though firsthand battle accounts add detail to our understanding of the period, much can be misunderstood or not fully grasped if we do not have a clear idea of what troops had been already trained to do on the parade ground before they ever smelled
gunsmoke in action.
Luckily, a sense of the actual maneuvers made by British troops before they were sent to America survives in the Review Maneuvers. Each British Regiment throughout the Army completed a required annual review every spring, usually in May or June. The scope was broad. Under the watchful eye of a local General Officer, regiments stationed throughout the British Isles underwent an inspection not only of their uniforms, the nationalities, ages and heights of their personnel, the officer’s ages, nationality and commissioning dates back to ensigns, their proficiency with the ‘64 manual of arms, and also in executing Field maneuvers.
These reviews can be found in Great Britain, Public Record Office, War Office, Series 27. Though previously printed in books and articles, the modern mind has been focused on paraphrased comments about the uniforms. Unfortunately, these reviews do not seem to have been conducted in North America either before or during the war; at least as of yet no one has found them.
Alliance military personnel might consider rehearsing such maneuvers verbatim (or slightly adapted) not only to develop field skills and consistency but also to demonstrate what the British public of 225 years ago might have actually seen. How could one imagine that rebels might thwart such fine soldiers? This in turn might lead to battle presentations that reflected the reality of American-theater tactics from year to year.
All reviews were slightly different from year to year and location to location. The
variable factor may have been the inspecting General himself. Sometimes the regiment might be part of a very large garrison, such as that which was reviewed in Dublin on 14 May 1774. Six regiments (the 22nd, 42nd, 54th 55th, 62nd, and 63rd Regiments of Foot) cooperated in a large review before their inspecting General. It is interesting to remember that all of these regiments would see active service in North America by 1776.
The following maneuvers were conducted by the 42nd or Royal Highland Regiment of Foot during their annual review in Ireland on 30 May 1775. The 42nd was inspected by itself that year; their garrison-mates the 22nd, 55th, and 63rd Regiments had already
departed for Boston.
Most of these thirty-odd maneuvers can be found in the Manual Exercise of 1764, though not in the exact same order as portrayed here. Only the street firing maneuvers are not found in the Manual.…, It looks like a good checklist of competency skills for all military units using the 1764. At the review all ten companies of the 42nd were present and participating.
“Movements, Evolutions Firings and Maneuvers; Received the General. General Salute. Marched by Grand Divisions. Fired by Companies Rear from Center to flanks. Advanced in Slow time. Fired in Grand Divisions from flanks to Center. Advanced in Slow time. Fired by Wings. Fired by Right and Left hand Companies Retreating. Advanced by files from the Right of grand Divisions. Formed Battalion. Retreated from the Right of Grand Divisions. Changed front to the Left. Wheeled by Companies to the Right. Street Firing Advancing and Retreating. Formed Battalion to the Left. Changed front to the Right. Formed a Solid Column. Charged in Column. Formed Battalion and Fired by Companies from Center to flanks. Retreated in Solid Column. Advanced from the Center of Wings by single files. Formed Battalion and retreated by files from the Center of Wings. Formed Column from the Center. Formed the Square and fired by Companies. Formed Battalion. Retreated in Column from the Center. Fired a Volley. Charged [bayonets]. Volley and a General Salute. In all 20 rounds. The Maneuvers were well done, and through the whole the men were Steady and Attentive.”1
The third part of documented 18th-Century battles concerns opposed mock battles,
fought with blank cartridges. Mock battles were quite stylish and drew large numbers
of spectators. Some even were commemorated by artists (Phillipe De Loutherbourg’s
“The Mock Attack at Warley Camp”, sketched in 1778 and finished in 1779, is a well-known
oil painting of such an event.). Light Infantry Captain Martin Hunter of the 52nd
Regiment, sent back to England in autumn 1778, recalled twenty years later that in
1779 “Sham fights were were then much in fashion, which interfered with my shooting...”
The following sham fight or mock battle also took place in Ireland, but in August of 1781. It was recorded by Almons’ Remembrancer for 1781. The combatants were Irish militia, who had just conducted a review. My thanks to Don Hagist, who first published this in THE BRIGADE
DISPATCH. As explained in the first portion of the text, the two sides essentially conducted an opposed tactical or war game, lasting twelve hours over two days. The general outline of the scenario and basic movements were pre-coordinated only between the two field commanders. Subordinate commanders were left to their own military skills, and adapted the battalion exercises to be useful in the field. Note the constant influence of terrain of troop dispersions and tactics. By 1784 The Volunteer’s Companion had been published in Ireland. This was an Irish copy of the ‘64 with additional military maneuvers heavily influenced by the experiences of North American Light Infantry.
A Mock-Battle, 1781
[Field reviews of British Regular and Militia regiments consisted, typically, of parade ground maneuvers followed by a mock battle. This description of such a sham fight, conducted in August, 1781, is taken from Almon’s Remembrancer, 1781. Notice how the battalion exercises are adapted to be useful in the field, and the constant influence of the
terrain. All of the the troops involved were Irish militia.]
On the 20th, consisted In an attack and defence of the town, on the south and west quarters, where it is defended by the river, the canal, and three draw-bridges. The out-lines only were given to the commanding officers, and those commanding detachments; they were left to fill them up according to their best skill. The assailants divided into four bodies, under the command of Lieutenant-colonel Brownlow, Major Richardson, Lieutenant-colonel Dawson, and Major Dobbs, defended slowly and cautiously from the heights which extended from the Dublin to a little beyond the Monaghan road. The besieged were commanded by Colonel Sir Richard Johnston, Captain Bristow, and Captain Barber, who were stationed, with the battalions they commanded, to protect the Dublin, Ballybought, and Armagh bridges. The principal attack was made on the Ballybought bridge, the attacks on the other two, being intended but as feints or diversions. Major Richardson, and Lieutenant-colonel Dawson, advanced to the Ballybought bridge; the former through the town of Ballybought, the latter by the Monoghan road. Captain Bristow, with part of his battalion, intrenched behind a breastwork, guarded the bridge; while a detachment from his left flank of light infantry riflemen, and some of the battalion, forming out-pickets, and lining old walls and every strength through which Major Richardson was to pass, in the town of Ballybought, galled him in his approach, and disputed every inch of ground; another strong detachment of the same kind, of troops from the right flank, opposing Colonel Dawson also at every post as he advanced by the Monaghan road. The light infantry of the latter detachment, lining the hedges of McNeill’s garden, on the left of the Monaghan road, obliged Colonel Dawson to halt till a strong party of his light infantry had dislodged those of the town, obliging them to retreat to the main body of their detachment, which was itself obliged to retreat under the cover of its light infantry, Colonel Dawson being now at liberty to advance; his light horse, which consisted of part of the Belfast troop, having dispersed an advanced party of the Newry troop, and his artillery having silenced a piece, which, from the Liberty markethouse, raked the road on which he advanced. Colonel Dawson here divided his force into two columns; One of them he sent down the road to the canal, with orders to flank Captain Bristow at the Ballybought bridge; with the other he obliqued through the fields to rejoin this column, and cooperate with Major Richardson in the attack on the bridge.
The out-posts and detachments from Captain Bristow’s right wing, having now, in their retreat, formed a line, the town-side of the canal back-drain, which runs in an oblique line from the Monaghan road to the bridge, and beginning a heavy fire from right to left, on Colonel Dawson’s right column, which was advancing on the west of the back-drain, the Colonel was obliged to form the line and return their fire from left to right. The officer who commanded the detachment, finding himself over-powered by Colonel Dawson, and his retreat nearly cut off by major Richardson, who had now begun a heavy fire on Captain Bristow at the bridge, and by Colonel Dawson’s left flank column, which, advancing along the canal, had nearly gained his rear, was obliged to order a retreat, which, for some time, was tolerably regular, the divisions firing from right to left, turning to the left, and retreating along the rear to the left of the line, where they again formed from right to left, firing and filing off in the same order, till they were quite overpowered by the junction of part of Major Richardson’s battalion, with Colonel Dawson’s right wing, and were obliged to escape over the bridge, under cover of Captain Bristow, who, finding his force unequal to the now united forces of Colonel Dawson and Major Richardson, attacking him in front and flank, ordered a retreat, and the bridge to be turned.
The troops now formed on each side of the canal, and a heavy, though unequal fire was kept up, till Colonel Johnston, having, by his superior force and artillery, repulsed Colonel Brownlow from the Dublin Bridge, and having been joined by the piece of artillery which was driven from the Liberty Markethouse, passed the bridge, with one of his field-pieces, and part of his force; and advancing on the right flank of Major Richardson, obliged him and Colonel Dawson to retire for shelter into the town of Ballybought The attack on the Armagh bridge, by Major Dobbs, who passed over the meadows from the head of the Monaghan road, and forced Captain Barber and his battalion, to retreat into Canal-street, and, at length, to turn the bridge, was given over by the Major, on his finding that his own success impossible, and his object of making a diversion gone, the attacks upon the other bridges having both failed. A few prisoners were this day taken on each side, they were treated with singular humanity, it is said; and, as neither party dreaded spies, they were that night allowed their parole, and next morning were exchanged before the battle.
Engagement, August 21.
In war it is dangerous to be too secure. The town of Newry has a weakness which escaped the eye of Twiss [a prominent military engineer], and the commissioners of navigation. One of its bridges turns on the outside! This the enemy learned from some of their prisoners. In their second attack, they, there- fore, gave Lieut. Colonel Brownlow a greater force and two pieces of artillery; he divided his force into two columns, one advancing strait to the bridge, as on the former day, but not till his artillery had silenced the piece stationed there by the besieged, while the other advanced along the line from the fathom side, and Major Richardson, instead of sending, as before, hi, whole forces to the Ballybought bridge, turned off with the greatest part of it to the right, and gaining the bank between the two bridges, advanced to cooperate with Colonel Brownlow Colonel Brownlow’s main body lay at first concealed in the Dublin road; when he moved forward, his advanced parties beat in the out-posts of the besieged, from the bridge under Mr. Ennis’s glen; Col. Johnston’s main body supported, but Colonel Brownlow obliged him to retire, street-firing, till the out-posts before beat in, having formed unperceived, in a lane reaching from Mr. Edward Courtney’s to the main road, attacked Colonel Brownlow in flank, and obliged him to retreat precipitately before Col. Johnston to the bridge, where the action began. The dispute was for some time obstinate, till Colonel Johnston perceiving Col. Brownlow’s and Major Richardson’s detached columns advancing from Fathom and Belly-bought to the bridge in his rear, thought it prudent to retreat instantly, least he should be surrounded and lose the town; it was now, however, too late. The bridge was attacked by a superior force in three columns, and, as it could not be turned on the inside, and the besieged had not time to cut it, it was carried much about the time that Captain Bristow and Captain Barber were, as on the first attack, obliged to retire and turn the other two bridges. Col. Brownlow and Major Richardson advanced over the bridge upon Col. Johnston, who retreated street-firing along the Liberty; they dislodged Col. Johnson’s light-infantry from the Orchard and Rope-walk, and Capt. Bristow finding Col. Johnston overpowered, and himself likely to be attacked in the rear, was obliged to retreat and join Colonel Johnston. The assailants were strong, and flushed with success, the continuance of which, however, would have been doubtful, had not the Ballybought bridge been thought secure, and left unguarded in the retreat. Some traitor, or spy of the enemy, seizing the advantage, turned the bridge, and gave the assailants another passage into the town, by Mill street. Colonel Johnston and Capt. Bristow were now attacked both in front and rear, and it was with difficulty that they secured the passage up Mill street into the Market-place, and made their way to Sugar-island, taking post on the Stone bridge. The enemy pursued in every quarter; the besieged were obliged to retreat by the Bason to Mr. Scott’s Walk, where they had scarce taken shelter, and shut the gate, when they found themselves attacked in the rear, by a party detached by Major Dobbs, by Violet-hill, which crossed over the Lock, with an intention of gaining the town or cutting off a retreat. Madness is not courage; the besieged beat a parley; and, as a reward for their valour, they were allowed to march out with the honours of war, and three rounds each man, for the feu de joye. All differences were now reconciled, prisoners were exchanged, and the troops being drawn up in a circular line, from the Armagh-bridge through the town, to the Castle-street Market-place, and thence continued through the Liberty, till the wings met at the bridge, the General passed along the line, and a feu de joye went three times around the circle. The darkness of the night, which had already set in, giving to this conclusion of the scene unusual grandeur and brilliancy. The troops were about twelve hours under arms.
2) Hunter, Anne, and Bell, Elizabeth, eds., The Journal of General Sir Martin Hunter.., Edinburgh: The Edimburgh Press, 1894, p. 46
Much thanks to Paul Pace of the 42nd Light Infantry Company, who has a book on the 42nd Regiment of Foot forthcoming, Royal Highlanders in Rebel America.
Thanks to Don Hagist, Paul Pace, and Tom S.Vilardi for uncovering and sharing this valuable information, and to Steve Baule for his comments on the W.O. 27 Papers.