- Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC
- The Indians of Northeastern North America
- The Northern Approaches to Canada
- The Atlantic Region
- New France, 1524—1713
- The Administration of New France
- The French Forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War
- The British Forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War
- The Acadians
- The Integration of the Province of Quebec into the British Empire, 1763—91
- The Colonial Office and British North America, 1801—50
- Provincial Justice: Upper Canadian Legal Portraits
The British Forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War
The Seven Years’ War inaugurated a new phase in the history of warfare in North America. It was characterized by the large-scale intervention of regular military forces from Europe. On the British side particularly there was a great deployment of military power in America, which for the first time was Britain’s main theatre of operations. In the crucial year 1759 no fewer than 23 British regular infantry battalions were employed in continental North America, as compared with only six in Germany. In the course of the war a large and complex British military machine was created in the American theatre.
In earlier phases of the long duel with France the American colonies saw little of the British army. Its first appearance in them seems to have been occasioned by Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia (1676), when a force including a mixed battalion of the Guards was sent from England to restore order. Subsequently certain colonies which were considered particularly important or exposed were given small and usually inefficient garrisons. New York was garrisoned throughout its history as a British province – for a long period by four independent companies which the British government shamefully neglected. In 1717 a number of independent companies in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland were formed into a regiment (later called the 40th Foot) which garrisoned Nova Scotia for many years. In general, however, it is clear that the British colonies were normally expected to provide for their own defence, apart from the contribution to their security made by the Royal Navy.
In 1746, after the New Englanders’ capture of Louisbourg, the crown authorized the raising of two regular regiments (their colonels being William Shirley and Sir William Pepperrell) from among the provincial troops holding the fortress. These regiments were never completed to strength and were disbanded at the peace of Aix‑la‑Chapelle in 1748. Nevertheless, after the founding of Halifax in 1749 there were three regular regiments in garrison in Nova Scotia, the 40th, 45th, and 47th Foot.
The British army appeared more actively in North America in 1755. To counter Governor
The Royal Navy
The British triumph in North America was in the last analysis primarily due to command of the sea. The Royal Navy outnumbered the French roughly two to one in ships of the line. Its main strength was retained in the European theatre throughout the war. The French considered that their best strategy was a blow at Britain itself; such an invasion was specifically planned in 1759, and had always to be guarded against. In any case, British success in North America depended upon the maintenance of general naval superiority in the North Atlantic, and this was best assured by blockading the French fleet in its own ports and bringing it to action if it left them. Nevertheless, increasingly large British naval forces were dispatched to the American war zone season by season as the conflict proceeded: to protect troop convoys and supply ships on passage to North America, to intercept French vessels which had succeeded in leaving France on similar missions, to deal with the French naval squadrons on the American station, and to support the military expeditions sent against the French fortresses and islands. These operations were greatly facilitated by the possession of the new base at Halifax, with its splendid harbour and its dockyard [see Philip Durell].
Generally speaking, the British enjoyed unquestionable naval superiority in American waters during the Seven Years’ War. The most striking exception is the case of Louisbourg in 1757, when the French succeeded in concentrating there a squadron somewhat larger than that available to Rear-Admiral Francis Holburne for the attack on the fortress then projected. This, and the lateness of the season, led to the abandonment of the enterprise. Next year Admiral Boscawen, supporting Jeffery
The largest British naval force to operate against New France was that commanded by Charles
It is unnecessary to dwell upon the contribution of sea power to the last campaign in 1760. In this year – unlike 1759, when a large number of French supply ships reached Quebec – British ships were in the St Lawrence before the French. The appearance of Robert Swanton’s squadron at Quebec in May, and the destruction by it of the small French naval force that was supporting the Chevalier de
The power of the ocean navies could not reach the inland waters of the continent; but control of these waterways, the best and often the only means of moving troops and supplies, was vital. Naval support, like water transport itself, had largely to be improvised. John
Command on Land
The office of commander of the forces in North America, introduced with the arrival of Braddock in 1755, may be said to have had a virtually unbroken existence until the withdrawal of the imperial forces from Halifax and Esquimalt in 1905–6. It was held successively during the Seven Years’ War by Braddock, Shirley (acting), Lord Loudoun, James
The appointment of the commander-in-chief’s senior subordinates, as of the commander-in-chief himself, was a matter for the decision of the king as advised by his ministers. King and ministers might be influenced in turn by the advice of the commander-in-chief of the army in London. It is apparent that service in America was not particularly popular; Wolfe was presumably not being merely jocular when he wrote of his own appointment in 1759, “The backwardness of some of the older officers has in some measure forced the Government to come down so low.” A natural and desirable tendency was for the government to employ and promote officers, often of relatively junior rank, who had already distinguished themselves in the American theatre. The case of Wolfe himself is typical. He became a colonel in 1757, and never held any higher substantive rank. He fought at Louisbourg in 1758 as “Brigadier in America”; he retained this local appointment for the Quebec expedition of 1759, plus the temporary rank of major-general (and the appointment of commander-in-chief) with respect to that expedition only. His instructions provided that when Quebec fell he would place himself under Amherst as brigadier in America. Amherst himself conducted the expedition against Louisbourg as colonel and “Major General in America”; he was given the substantive rank of major-general only in June 1759. Most officers in America above the regimental level held local rank. It is worth noting that an officer could hold a regimental rank and simultaneously a higher rank in the army at large. Thus George Scott was a lieutenant-colonel commanding light troops in Robert
Much has been written on the baneful effects of the system of purchasing commissions, and of those of family and political influence on military appointments. That these were grave evils there is no doubt. In spite of them there were a surprising number of active and efficient officers. General J. F. C. Fuller has written, perhaps without complete justification, that Wolfe in 1759 was “supported by probably the finest body of English officers which has ever taken the field.” That the British officer corps was far superior in professional competence to the French is beyond question.
The basic weapon of the foot soldier on both sides was the smooth-bore “firelock” (flint-lock) musket. Contrary to a fairly widespread belief, rifled weapons were little used in this war by the British colonial forces, even the rangers. The rifle was not unknown, however; Henry Bouquet obtained some rifled carbines for his battalion of the Royal Americans. The British musket commonly called “Brown Bess” underwent some modifications between its introduction in the 1720s and its official supersession in 1794. The French seem to have considered their own 1754 pattern musket quite satisfactory. Nevertheless, several references indicate that British officers felt that experience in the Quebec campaign showed that the British weapon was more effective. George
The guns used by the French field artillery in this war were criticized as unduly heavy and awkward to move. On the British side the Royal Artillery had the advantage of having at least a small number of light brass guns which did good service in America; the two 6-pounders that played an important part on the Plains of Abraham afford perhaps the most striking example. As the war proceeded the British in America had an increasing superiority in the artillery arm. Wolfe’s three artillery companies at Quebec had a most imposing “train” of guns. Twenty-nine guns and mortars bombarded the town from the Lévis heights across the St. Lawrence; some 50 pieces were emplaced to fire at the left flank of Montcalm’s positions from the British camp at Montmorency; and in four days after the battle of the Plains the British brought 118 pieces up the cliff path at the Anse au Foulon.
The French lost most of their ordnance in North America with the fortresses of Louisbourg and Quebec. When Lévis tried to recover Quebec in the spring of 1760 he simply did not have the guns for a proper siege.
The Regular Army
The war in America was primarily an affair of infantry. Most foot regiments had only one battalion, though some had two or more. In practice the words “regiment” and “battalion” are virtually interchangeable. Each regiment normally had a colonel, frequently a general officer or a peer. Colonelcies of regiments, though still lucrative, were tending in other respects to become honorary, as they now are. It cannot be said that the colonel never exercised active command, but it was becoming increasingly exceptional for him to do so. When Wolfe was lieutenant-colonel of the 20th Foot (1750–57) he was de facto commanding officer, but the colonel occasionally visited the regiment and took command, and interfered constantly by correspondence. After Wolfe himself became colonel of the 67th Foot he had comparatively little to do directly with that regiment; it was not in America during his two campaigns there, but he visited it in England in the winter of 1758–59. The reform of 1751, by which regiments were designated by numbers instead of by their colonels’ names, was a useful step away from the old system under which regiments were regarded virtually as their colonels’ private properties; yet that tradition still affected even tactics in the Seven Years’ War. In both the British and French armies, when it was necessary to detach a force from the main army in the field, the invariable practice was not to send a complete battalion or portion of a battalion, but to follow the militarily less efficient method of making the detachment a composite force drawn from a number of units, thus spreading the risk and presumably avoiding the possibility of a disaster to one regiment which would be embarrassing to its colonel.
A British infantry battalion of the Seven Years’ War period was usually composed of ten companies, in most cases theoretically each 100 strong. In practice battalions, as always, tended to be considerably under strength. One company, made up of the tallest and strongest men, was designated the grenadier company. It was no longer armed with hand grenades, as it had been in Marlborough’s day, but it was intended to take the lead in such operations as attacks on fortified positions. Frequently the grenadier companies of an army were “brigaded” together to form a special assault force. This was done by Wolfe in the battle of Montmorency.
On both sides the tactics of the period were based upon strict discipline, exacting drill and precise linear formations. It was the superiority of Wolfe’s army in these European battlefield techniques that won the battle of the Plains, just as it was mainly European siege techniques that captured Louisbourg from Drucour [Boschenry]. Nevertheless it is far from true that the British army failed to adapt itself to American conditions. Its development of light infantry organization and tactics is a striking feature of its performance in this war. At a slightly later period every British infantry battalion had a light company, designed for scouting and skirmishing. In the Seven Years’ War similar results were obtained by improvisation. Provisional units of light infantry were formed from the most active soldiers and best marksmen in the regular regiments of a force. At Louisbourg the light infantry were commanded by Major George Scott, at Quebec by Lieutenant-Colonel William Howe. In addition however an actual “Regiment of Light Armed Foot” was formed in the British army in America in 1758 on the suggestion of Thomas
Considerable recruiting for regular units was done in America, though the colonists in general were not enthusiastic about joining the regular army. One important regiment was raised in the colonies in 1756: the 62nd (shortly the 60th) or Royal American Regiment of Foot. It was of four battalions; the commander-in-chief in America for the time being was colonel-in-chief, and each battalion had a colonel commandant who was a senior officer serving in America (and who in most cases did not exercise actual command of the unit). Many of the officers were “foreign Protestants” appointed under a special act of parliament, and it was originally expected that the ranks would be filled with German settlers from Pennsylvania. In fact, the regiment’s final composition was extremely mixed. Unlike Gage’s Light Infantry, it survived the reduction of the army in 1763, and as the 60th Rifles (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) became one of the most celebrated British regiments.
Other arms and services were engaged in the struggle for North America. In forest warfare there was little scope for mounted troops, and no British regular cavalry served in America in this war. The Royal Artillery, however, played a great part in the American campaigns, though as late as 1757 its strength in North America was only 339 all ranks. Late in that year four of its 23 companies were in North America. Two years later the regiment had grown to 30 companies; nine were in North America, in addition to one at Guadeloupe. No attempt seems to have been made to use colonial units of this technical arm in the field. The engineer officers as a group (the Royal Engineers as such did not yet exist) were rather less professionalized than the artillery, and there was always a shortage of qualified officers for this work [see William Eyre]. There was a moderately efficient army medical service, consisting of a general hospital with branches at several points and surgeons and surgeons’ mates with individual regiments. In the absence of any army supply and transport service the forces in America had to be fed in the main by English civil contractors, the supplies being moved within the theatre by means hired either by the contractors or (in more forward areas) by the commander-in-chief. The execution of contracts was checked and supervised by the commissariat, a civilian service. Enormous sums of money were spent for transport in the colonies. Much military labour was also used for transport. Cumbersome though the system was, the British forces in general seem to have been pretty adequately fed and supplied.
Provincial and Local Forces
Not only was the Seven Years’ War particularly marked by the appearance in America of large British regular forces; in the main the war was won by these forces. But the British colonies, responding to the leadership and financial encouragement of William Pitt, made a greater military effort than ever before, placing large forces in the field.
From a very early period the various British provinces in America had militias based on universal service, every citizen of military age being liable to serve when required. These militias were called upon in the Seven Years’ War only in emergency. British commanders would have been glad to make more use of them, for they represented the solid citizenry of the colonies. As it was, the provincial forces employed in the war were usually ad hoc units enlisted by the various colonial governments for the occasion and drawn from what may be called the floating population. This did not make for reliability or efficiency.
The conditions on which provincial units were raised varied from time to time. The two battalions raised in New England in 1755 for the attack on Beauséjour (near Sackville, N.B.) and commanded by John
The response to the requisitions for troops varied widely. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York always responded particularly well; the southern colonies did little. The northern colonies as a whole voted 17,480 men for 1758; the number actually enlisted was somewhat smaller. Roughly similar results were achieved in the next two years. Provincial regiments thus made up a considerable proportion of the British forces in America in 1758–60. Few Americans, and no provincial regiments, took part in the crucial campaigns against Louisbourg in 1758 and Quebec in 1759. On the other hand, Abercromby reported the strength of his army that advanced against Carillon (Ticonderoga) in July 1758 as “amounting to 6367 regulars, officers, light infantry, and rangers included, and 9024 provincials, including officers and batteau men.” It was the regulars however who made the tragic and costly assault on the French entrenchments; Abercromby gives the losses in the operation as 464 regulars and 87 provincials killed. Generally speaking, the provincial regiments in this war have few striking feats of arms to their credit. (One success achieved largely by provincials was Bradstreet’s capture of Fort Frontenac in 1758.) In the main these units acted as pioneers or labour battalions, working on defences or roads, or on transport work as waggoners or boatmen.
British officers made many complaints of the inefficiency of these amateur regiments and of their officers’ lack of military knowledge. Ignorance of the rudiments of camp sanitation was a recurring charge. One of the most extreme comments was Wolfe’s in a letter of 7 Aug. 1758: “The Americans are in general the dirtiest most contemptible cowardly dogs that you can conceive … They fall down dead in their own dirt and desert by battalions, officers and all.” Wolfe himself can have had comparatively little contact with provincial troops, and he was doubtless repeating the snobbish gossip of the regular messes. There was considerable hostility between Englishmen and Americans, and particularly between those who wore the king’s red coat and those who wore the provincial blue.
Relative rank was long a source of contention. In the beginning, under a regulation of 1754 made before the employment of large numbers of provincials was envisaged, provincial field officers (i.e., major and above) serving in conjunction with regulars were limited to the relative status of junior captains, that is, they were subject to the orders of all regular captains. In 1756 this was liberalized by giving provincial general and field officers in such circumstances rank as most senior captains. In other words, they outranked all regular captains, which made them subordinate only to a much smaller number of senior regulars, usually officers of experience. In 1757 Pitt, by a famous new regulation, gave all provincial officers rank immediately below regular officers of the same rank. This was duly appreciated by the colonists; but S. M. Pargellis has pointed out that its effect was reduced by a virtually simultaneous grant of local rank (“colonel in America”) to all British lieutenant-colonels serving in the colonies.
When Lord Loudoun arrived in America as commander-in-chief in 1756 he found himself confronting the question of his authority over provincial troops in the field. A force raised entirely by the New England colonies on the initiative of Shirley, and commanded by John Winslow, was holding the forts facing Canada; and many of its officers were inclined to dispute Loudoun’s right to control this army. There was a potential crisis, but Loudoun had a powerful weapon in the fact that the New Englanders needed ordnance and ammunition which he controlled. He acted tactfully, and Winslow finally agreed that he and his officers would “act in conjunction with His Majesty’s troops and put themselves under the command of your Lordship who is commander in chief, so that the terms and conditions agreed upon and established by the several governments to whom they belong and upon which they were raised be not altered.” No precisely similar confrontation seems to have arisen later in the war, though various difficulties with the colonial governments continued.
The British military authorities always recognized the need for experienced forest fighters, and one of their complaints against the provincial regiments was that few such men were found in their ranks. As we have seen, they sought to meet the need in part by developing regular units of “light” infantry fitted for woods warfare. They also relied upon special American light units, the ranger companies. These companies were on the whole the most effective colonial units on the British side.
Ranger companies are heard of from the beginning of the war. There was one such company in Nova Scotia in 1754. One, commanded by the celebrated if enigmatic Robert
The rangers did much more fighting than the provincial regiments. Robert Rogers in particular was active in the no-man’s-land around Lake Champlain, and groups of ranger companies served under Amherst at Louisbourg and under Wolfe at Quebec. The rangers have become the subject of something like a cult in the United States in recent years, the result in part perhaps of the writings of Kenneth Lewis Roberts. They were probably not quite so formidable as they have been made out to be. They were frequently but not invariably successful in their encounters with the French. As with the provincial units, their discipline and general efficiency were criticized by British officers – Wolfe cheerfully called the six companies given him in 1759, four of which were newly raised, “the worst soldiers in the universe.” The rangers had a rough reputation. That they regularly scalped their enemies is not surprising, since Shirley in 1756 had promised them £5 for every Indian scalp they brought in. But they made a larger contribution than any other American troops to winning the war.
Of great value is S. M. Pargellis, Lord Loudoun in North America (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1933), a scholarly account and analysis of colonial military problems before and during the Seven Years’ War. See also Military affairs in North America, 1748–1765 (Pargellis). Other items, of varying value, are: Army list, various dates. Correspondence of William Pitt (Kimball). Knox, Historical journal (Doughty). Logs of the conquest (Wood). Battery records of the Royal Artillery, 1716–1859, comp. M. E. S. Laws (Woolwich, Eng., 1952). G. L. Beer, British colonial policy, 1754–1765 (New York, 1922). W. L. Clowes et al., The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to the present (7v., London, 1897–1903), III. Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War. J. W. Fortescue, History of the British army (13v., London, New York, 1899–1930), II. J. F. C. Fuller, The decisive battles of the western world and their influence upon history (3v., London, 1954–56). Gipson, The British empire before the American revolution, VI, VII. Lee Kennett, The French armies in the Seven Years’ War: a study in military organization and administration (Durham, N.C., 1967). A. T. Mahan, The influence of sea power upon history, 1660–1783 (6th ed., Boston, 1894). H. L. Osgood, The American colonies in the eighteenth century (New York, 1924). S. M. Pargellis, “The four independent companies of New York,” Essays in colonial history presented to Charles McLean Andrews by his students (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1931). Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe. Stacey, Quebec, 1759; Canada and the British army, 1846–1871: a study in the practice of responsible government (London, 1936). Rex Whitworth, Field Marshal Lord Ligonier; a story of the British army, 1702–70 (Oxford, 1958). Beckles Willson, The life and letters of James Wolfe … (London, 1909). Malcolm MacLeod, “Fight at the west gate, 1760,” Ontario History (Toronto), LVIII (1966), 172–94. R. Scurfield, “British military smoothbore firearms,” Society for Army Hist. Research (London) Journal, XXXIII (1955), 63–79. C. P. Stacey, “Halifax as an international strategic factor, 1749–1949,” CHA Report, 1949, 46–56.
C. P. STACEY
Professor of history, University of Toronto, Ontario.
C. P. Stacey, “The British Forces in North America during the Seven Years’ War,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3. University of Toronto/Université Laval, 1974, http://admin.biographi.ca/en/special.php?project_id=49&p=24.