Redcoats were a fearsome force

February 11, 2000

History has done the redcoats a disservice. New research is sweeping away the outdated image of the British soldier who fought in colonial America as a poorly motivated mercenary handicapped by wholly unsuitable tactics.

Instead, Matthew Spring, a doctoral student at the University of Leeds, has found evidence that shows the British troops acquitted themselves remarkably well to hold the field in battle after battle in a war that was doomed to defeat before the first musket ball had been fired.

Although his research does not challenge the perception that the campaign to prevent the birth of an independent United States of America was virtually unwinnable - Britain's Vietnam, no less - it reveals how effective and flexible the king's armies had become.

"The British infantry enjoyed shattering battlefield success until late in the war, adopting tactics that were well tailored to local conditions," Mr Spring said. "They were also well-motivated - my research has uncovered a great body of anecdotal evidence that conveys the redcoats' considerable antipathy for the American rebellion."

Mr Spring's work indicates that the average British soldier possessed a hatred of his rebel opponent born from an explosive mixture of rabid xenophobia and a deep sense of loyalty to their officers and the king.

The troops' ardour for their cause sometimes led to acts of brutality not so common on the traditional battlefields of Europe, such as a refusal to grant quarter.

In addition, Mr Spring said that early in the campaign the British rapidly abandoned traditional infantry tactics, which involved slow-moving, shoulder-to-shoulder formations firing repeated volleys. Instead, they adopted an unorthodox dependence on speed and shock, with fast-moving, loosely formed groups and furious bayonet charges.

This had a devastating impact on the rather unsteady rebel troops, yet without the powerful cavalry forces needed to pursue a defeated foe they could not destroy the rebel forces.

The overall British strategy was to destroy the rebel armies to re-establish control and influence over the majority of uncommitted colonists. Ultimately, the British found themselves unable to rally the loyalist cause and, despite the calibre of their battlefield performances, the colonies slipped out of their hands.

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