A Brief Look at Common Recruiting Practices Both Then and Now

By Mark Tully

Recruiting Then...

During the American Revolution, both Armies often suffered from a severe shortage of manpower. The King tried to augment his armies from the very start of the conflict by adding companies to existing regiments as well as raising completely new regiments for service abroad:

"November 28, 1775: His Majesty having been pleased to direct that an augmentation consisting of 16 Serjt.s 6 corp.es 14 drum.rs & 292 private men should be made to the several Regiments of Foot mentioned in the margins hereof from the 25th. August 1775 inclusive, I am to signify to you His Majesty's pleasure that although Patterns may not have been exhibited nor the Cloathing viewed for the said additionals, the Assign't of the Ofrecks be passed and allowed notwithstanding any former direction to the contrary.
I am Sir Your Most Humble Servant

[The regiments mentioned in margins of this document were the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 22nd, 23rd, 26th, 27th, 28th, 35th, 37th, 38th, 40th, 43rd, 44th, 45th, 46th, 47th, 49th, 52nd, 55th, 63rd, 64th, and 65th regiments of foot].(1)

This augmentation was accomplished (or rather attempted) by sending various recruiting parties out into the countryside. Each British Regiment typically had one company in Great Britain on recruiting service. Recruiting parties usually consisted of a subaltern (ensign) plus a few non-commissioned officers privates and a drummer.(2) These recruiting parties mostly tried to recruit from a specific town or county, but would often travel great distances in search of qualified recruits. In one such case, an officer of the 9th Regiment (originally raised in Norfolk, England), traveled from Ireland, where he was stationed, to Shepton Mallet (in Somerset, England) looking for recruits. He then went to the neighboring towns and villages until he eventually ended up in Worcester and Kiddermeister, covering a total distance of almost 100 miles.(3)

The King's specific instructions for these recruiting parties were somewhat vague:

"George RX, These are to authorize you by Beat of Drum or otherwise to raise so many men in any county or part of our kingdom of Great Britain, as are or shall be wanting to recruit and fill up the respective companys of our regiment of foot under your command, to the number allowed upon the establishment and all magistrates, justices of the peace, constables and other civil officers whom it may concern are herby required to be assisting unto you in providing quarters, impressing carriages and otherwise as there shall be occasion. And for so doing, this our order shall be and continue in force from the date hereof until the 25th day of March next.
Given at our court at St. James's this 4th day of August 1775 in the 15th year of our reign.

[A copy of the above order went to the 15th, 17th, 27th, 28th, 37th, 46th, and 55th regiments, then serving in Ireland. A second, almost identical letter was sent out to various additional regiments on 11 December, 1775].(4)

The qualifications for new recruits were not very strict; he had to be five feet, five inches tall, a protestant and between 17 and 25 years of age--though recruits of up to 35 years old could be accepted if they met all of the above-mentioned criteria plus had previous military experience. It was also directed that the recruit should be free of any rupture and not be "troubled by fits." He also had to "have perfect use of his limbs and not be a runaway, indentured servant nor militiaman."(5) The term of service for British recruits was normally five, seven or ten years, depending largely on the persuasiveness of the recruiting serjeant.

British regiments obtained recruits from other sources as well. Regiments that were under strength were often drafted into other regiments to bring them up to their full compliment. The officers of the drafted regiment were usually then sent home to re-raise it.6 The British regiments were rarely up to their full strength, and the Crown resorted to enlisting troops from their German allies to fill out the British army serving in America.(7)

Despite all the troubles the British had in raising men, the Americans often had an even harder time of it. The Colonists were not accustomed to the rigors of army life, and it was difficult to entice recruits to leave their families and farms to take up arms for more than a just few months at a time.(8) Recruits for the Continental army were enlisted in much the same manner as the British. The activities of the local militias served to stir the imagination of many a young lad, and before he knew it, he had been coerced into signing the enlistment papers.9 One recruit described the process thus:

"[Boston, 1780] All means were resorted to, which ingenuity could devise, to enduce the men to enlist. A recruiting officer, bearing a flag and attended by a band of martial music, paraded the streets, to excite thirst for glory and a spirit of military ambition. The recruiting officer possessed the qualifications requisite to make the service appear alluring, especially to the young. He was a jovial, good natured fellow, of ready wit and much broad humor."(10)

An excellent example of how a recruiting officer of the period operated can be found in the play The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar (1677-1707). This classic was originally performed in London in 1706, and was popular well into the 19th century -- in fact it is still being performed in theaters all over the world even today. In the opening scene of the play, Serjeant Kite is addressing a mob of potential recruits:

Drum beats the Grenadier March.

Enter Sergeant Kite followed by the mob.

KITE: If any gentlemen soldiers or others have a mind to serve her Majesty [Queen Anne] and pull down the French King [Louis XIV], if any ’prentices have severe masters, any children have undutiful parents, if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife, let them repair to the sign of the Raven in this good town of Shrewsbury and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.

Gentlemen, I don't beat my drums here to ensnare or inveigle any man; for you know gentlemen, that I am a man of honor, besides, I don't beat up for common soldiers, no, I list only grenadiers! Grenadiers, gentlemen. Pray, gentlemen, observe this cap. This is the cap of honor; it dubs a man a gentleman in the drawing of a tricker [trigger]; and he that has the good fortune to be born six foot high was born to be a great man. Sir, will you give me leave to try this cap upon your head?

MOB: Is there no harm in it? Won't the cap 'list me?"

KITE: No, no, no more than I can. Come, let me see how it becomes you.

MOB: Are you sure there be no conjuration in it, no gunpowder plot upon me?

KITE: No, no, friend; don't fear man. ... (11)

What makes this account particularly interesting is that Farquhar was himself a recruiting officer during the reign of Queen Anne [1702-1714], and the play-- a comedy--is largely based upon his own experiences, so the recruiting speech above is a not only a primary source, but more than likely typical to the period.

Note that in Serjeant Kite's speech he asks the potential recruits to see the recruiting officer at "the sign of the Raven." Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the lower and even middle classes could not read, so many shopkeepers and tavern owners had signboards featuring distinctive pictorial symbols (which didn't necessarily reflect the business they were in) hanging above the door of their shops to help potential customers find them. Several of these symbols became so universally recognized that some are still known to us today--the three balls of the pawn broker for example.(12)

Portable signboards in the shape of a soldier were used to indicate the presence of a recruiting serjeant as well. At least two such signboards survive today and are shown here (at left). The first example probably dates from before the 1768 warrant and is currently in the collection of the City of Kingston-Upon-Hall Museums and Art Galleries in Humberside, England. (13) It stands almost six feet high and depicts a soldier of an unknown regiment. The second example is from George Neumann's collection and is shown on page 231 of his Collector's Illustrated. Though its exact origins are not indicated, the styling of the uniform on this example seems to indicate that it dates from the late 1600s or early 1700s. The third example shown (below right) is a conjectural reconstruction of what a British recruiting signboard may have looked like during the American War for Independence. The construction details are based on a similar wooden figure in the collection of the Germantown Historical Society in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The Germantown example is not a recruiting piece but a surviving party decoration from General Howe's extravagant going-way party--the Mischianza--and depicts a man in Turkish dress. This piece has been attributed to Major John Andre and is made of several wooden planks joined together at the back by horizontal cross-braces. The outer edges of the figure have all been mitered from behind at about a forty-five degree angle. This makes the edges of the piece thinner, which serves to enhance the three-dimensional effect of the painted figure. This is a common technique used in making stage scenery even today.

Our reconstructed recruiting signboard was built using this same technique and is painted to depict typical private soldier's dress as specified by the Royal Warrant of 1768. "Private Woody," as he is affectionately known, stands five feet, eight inches high--the average height of soldier in the period.(14) Private Woody is more for demonstration purposes than for recruiting, but he does draw the interest of the tourists--especially the kids, who line up too see how they "measure up" as a potential recruit.

In addition to signboards, notices or "broadsides" were also posted in towns telling people when the recruiting party would be in their area. Two such recruiting notices are shown here. Many similar notices survive, indicating that they were apparently quite common. Most of these recruiting notices feature similar language and phrasing and offer us some idea of what the typical recruiting speech may have been like. In fact, considering the somewhat limited literacy of the populace in the late-18th century (see above), these notices were probably read aloud to an assembled crowd before being posted.

Recruiting Now...

Recruiting new members for our recreated units can be a very difficult task. It is a necessary one, however, if we are to continue to teach, learn and grow. All of us were "recruited" at one time or another, and when considering obtaining new members for your unit, think about what it was that attracted YOU to the hobby and think of ways of sharing this experience with others.

Perhaps the best way we have of bringing in new members is through the NWTA's Loyal Irish Volunteers program. The LIV allows a potential recruit to try out the hobby and get to know a variety of people from several different units before making a big investment in clothing, weapons and accouterments. All of us have lost members to other units over the years, in fact many of us started out in other units or even on the other side. Some folks joined a unit because they liked the uniform, then later found out they just don't fit in with that particular group. The LIV avoids this situation by helping a unit to find new recruits that fit their distinct personality with minimal effort and expense. No one wants a recruit that isn't going to stick around, and through the LIV you stand a better chance of finding qualified recruits that have the same goals and ideals as the rest of your unit. Of course, you need to get involved with the LIV program if you want to enjoy the benefits associated with it, and turning out to help LIV chair Laurie Phillips hand out brochures is a also great way to meet potential recruits. Contact Laurie at: 414 762-9084 to sign up to participate in the LIV program.

Bypassing the LIV program and recruiting directly from the public at NWTA events is another option for gaining new members. You already have an interested audience—all you have to do is come up with a way of getting them interested in joining.

One way of informing the public is to strut our stuff for them. When most of us were new to the hobby we wanted to participate in everything--marching, parade of uniforms, competitions, etc. But, after we've been at it a while it's easy to slip into the routine of sitting around camp relaxing or jawing with our buddies. There's nothing wrong with wanting to catch up with our friends, but there are not a lot of folks who are anxious to plop down hundreds or even thousands of dollars just so they can sit around chatting with the people in funny clothes on the "authentic" side of a piece of twine. The best way to get the public interested in joining your unit is to do things that are interesting: drill demonstrations, pay call, mock kit inspections, marching maneuvers, posting guards, holding a (short, well-planned) court martial trial, or even staging a recruiting scenario! These activities draw people in, hopefully making them say to themselves; "Hey, that looks like FUN. I'd like to do that."

Case in point. Colonel Vincent J-R Kehoe, RLRAAC, raised the 10th foot--quite possibly the biggest and best of all recreated units--in the mid-1970s (below). At the unit's peak (during the bicentennial years) the 10th was outfitting three soldiers a month and ultimately fielded over 90 soldiers (not members, soldiers). The unit eventually fielded two battalion, a grenadier and a light infantry company. How did Col. Kehoe do it? Simple. By offering what potential recruits were looking for--a top-notch military impression. From the very start, Col. Kehoe set out to raise the best unit possible. This philosophy was even taken to the point that every soldier was required to wear the appropriate hair style and be clean-shaven--something most of us wouldn't even dare to suggest to our members! Yet even with this hard-line approach, Colonel Kehoe STILL had possibly the biggest and best unit our hobby has ever seen. This would seem to indicate that, at least in Col. Kehoe's case, a quality impression leads to growth.*

Of course, timing and location play a big role too. The 10th was raised largely in the vicinity of Lexington and Concord--and right before the nation's bicentennial. Finding people to recreate the regiment that fired the first shots--and in the area where those shots were fired—made things considerably easier for the 10th! Even so, the Midwest saw its share of action during the revolution (see the May 1997 Courier), and all we have to do is get out there and show the general public what we do to make them aware of that fact.

Doing lecture/demonstrations in your area is a great way to draw potential recruits. Part of the NWTA's whole reason for being is to educate the public. We can't rely solely on events to draw potential recruits. Each of us has to do our part to spread the word and make people aware of our hobby--if they don't know about us how can they be interested in joining up? During the off-season, try taking your impression to local schools, clubs, scouting events or historical societies.** You'll be amazed at how easy it is to impress an audience simply by describing your uniform to them. Take it another step by making a hand-out from pages six and seven from the Winter SPY (or come up with your own) and you have an instant "road show." If you can get a few other members from your unit (or even a different unit) together to help with your presentation, so much the better.

Schools are perhaps the best place to start--don't underestimate the possibilities! Most teachers will jump at the chance to have a live presentation come in to talk to their class. Even though school kids may not seem like prime candidates as recruits, they are the reenactors of tomorrow, and we need to get them hooked today! Besides, they may go home and talk their parents or older siblings into joining up--so be sure to hand out a card or sheet with information on how you can be contacted!

There are many more ideas for recruiting new members and every unit has its own way of doing things and its own recruiting criteria and procedures. However, in getting new people interested in joining the NWTA all boils down to one thing: if we want to attract quality recruits, we have to put forward a quality impression. Perhaps Thomas Simes said it best:

"A recruiting party should always appear remarkably clean, and very neat and smart in their dress, hats well cocked and worn in a soldier-like manner; for experience proves that nothing contributes more to engage the attention of the country people; and that a regular good conduct and never engaging in quarrels is the sure path to cultivate a friendship among them and ensure success." (15)

1) WO 26/29 (Public Records Office, Kew)
2) Houlding, J. A., Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army, 1715-1795 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981)
3) Rogers, Colonel H. C. B., The British Army of the Eighteenth Century, (London: George Allen, 1977) pp 60-62.
4) WO 26/29 (Public Records Office, Kew)
5) ibid. Houlding, p 117 (quoting from PRO, T 1/572, folio 100)
6) ibid. Houlding, pp 120-125.
7) Curtis, Edward, E. The British Army in the American Revolution (New York: AMS Press, 1969) p 52.
8) Martin, J. P., Private Yankee Doodle, George Scheer, editor (Eastern Acorn Press, 1995) p 15.
9) Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, (Bowie, Maryland: Heritage Books) 1995 ISBN 0-7884-0214-5, pp 57-58.
10) ibid. pp 16-17)
11) Farquhar, George, The Recruiting Officer, Drama Restoration Service (Lincoln:University of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp 10-11.
12) Heal, Sir Ambrose, Sign Boards of Old London Shops, (London:Portman Books, 1988) ISBN 0 7134 5983 2, pp 1-15.
13) ASI, 1776, The British Story of the American Revolution, (Greenwich: National Maritime Museum, 1976) ISBN 0 7230 0147 2
14) Average height calculated from the 55th Regiment's inspection returns, WO 12/6471, 99.
15) Simes, Thomas, A Military Course for the Government and Conduct of a Battalion... (London, 1777) p 157, (Cuthbertson makes an almost identical statement on p 63 of his work).
* The 10th received international recognition for their efforts, and in October of 1970 Vincent J-R Kehoe was made honorary Colonel in the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment Association (the regimental association of the modern-day 10th) and granted the title honorary Colonel of the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment Association American Contingent (RLRAAC). Col. Kehoe has documented his experiences in raising the 10th in a four-volume work titled A Military Guide, The British Army of 1775. This work is full of patterns, tips and advice of benefit to reenactors from both sides. The series is available through RCMA inc. P.O. Box 850, Somis, CA 93066. Write for current pricing and a list of other works available.
** Be sure to check with the school's Principal before bringing weapons onto school grounds! Some municipalities are touchier than others, but u usually all you need to do is make a few phone calls to the school or the local police well in advance of your presentation.