Thursday, May 25, 2017

British Soldiers in the Upper Country: The King's (8th) Regiment in the American War of Independence

Two British Soldiers at Montmorency Falls in 1781
Dear Reader,

A mix of American bias and scholarly emphasis is whittling away at the presence of the British empire in the upper country of Revolutionary North America. Books such as Daniel Ingram's British Outposts in Eighteenth-Century North America, and a host of scholars such as Katherine DuVal, Daniel Richter, and Micheal Witgen are accurately showing that Native Americans controlled almost all activities on the ground in territory west of Pennsylvania. These scholars are pointing us towards statements such as the following, from Major Arent Schuyler Depeyster, an officer in the King's (8th) Regiment, in October  of 1782:

"You must be sensible that my soldiers are little acquanted with wood fighting and illequiped for it withall. I have therefore only ordered to take post where they can secure ammunition and provisions,"[1]
And who can blame these scholars? Demographically, Native Americans and white settlers far outnumbered any military contribution that the British Empire could project into the upper country. However, despite these challenges, this post argues the men and in particular the officers of the King's Regiment played a vital and successful role in the maintenance of British power in the upper country throughout the American War of Independence.

Background to Service: 

Before diving into the sources, a brief description of the service of the King's (8th) Regiment in North America may be useful. First of all, by the time of the American War of Independence, the regiment had already been on a long deployment. In 1768, the men of the King's Regiment were sent to garrison Canada, at that point recently acquired after the Seven Years' War. From June of 1768 to 1774, the regiment guarded fortified positions around Montreal and Quebec City. Although the soldiers had hoped to be deployed home after this tour, the British government, facing a rising tide of dissatisfaction in colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America, sent the King's Regiment into the Upper Country posts.

Black: Oswegatchie/Carleton Island (1 Company)  Red: Fort Niagara (4 Companies) Green: Detroit (3 Companies) Blue: Michilimackinac (2 Companies) 

The men of the King's Regiment would spend 11 years in these posts, for a total 17 year deployment to North America. Even when close to full strength, the regiment numbered less than 500 individuals. The largest garrison at Fort Niagara was composed of less than two hundred men from the 8th, although soldiers from other units also supplemented the defenses. At their lowest strength, in 1770, the regiment numbered 379 men. They reached their highest strength of 603 near the end of the war.[2] However, even more impressive than the spread out nature of the garrisons are the distances that King's Regiment soldiers traveled to fight the American enemy.

Actions involving King's Regiment soldiers stretch from the Battle of Cedars southeast of Montreal to St. Louis, a distance of around 1,000 miles. 


In almost every one of these actions, a small group of soldiers from the King's Regiment joined forces with larger groups of Native Americans and/or Anglo/French militia in order to attack the enemy. For a regiment that supposedly did not have experience or the ability to fight in a woodland environment, the King's Regiment certainly performed the task a great deal. They conducted numerous successful interception of rebel forces or raids on rebel towns and outposts throughout the upper country, including:

1776 The Battle of the Cedars (Near Montreal, Canada)
1778 Cherry Valley Raid (Upstate New York)
1779 Siege of Fort St. Joseph (Western Michigan)
1780 Martin's Station and Ruddle's Station Raid (Northeastern Kentucky)
1780-81 Mohawk Valley Raids (Upstate New York)
1782 Hannastown Raid (East of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

There were failures too, such as the abortive Siege of Fort Stanwix,  or the capture of thirty men of the King's Regiment by George Rogers Clark at Vincennes, Indiana, in 1779.

A reenactor portraying a King's Regiment soldier during a New York Valley Raid, 2016


The King's Regiment in the Upper Country: 

Fortunately, we have somewhat detailed accounts regarding the actions of King's Regiment soldiers in the upper country, focusing around the expeditions of men such as Governor Henry Hamilton surrender at Vincennes in 1779 and Captain Henry Bird's invasion of Kentucky in July of 1780. Despite Depeyster's dour warning above, the men of the King's Regiment undertook many of the necessary preparations for wilderness warfare. In 1770, the regiment engaged in what Mark Odintz has called, "realistic wilderness training," including, "engaging in the woods, rowing in boats, landing and walking on snow shoes[.]" [3]

Even more importantly, the men of the King's Regiment practiced marksmenship while on campaign. As Lt. Govenor Henry Hamilton's forces traveled towards Vincennes in late 1778, his troops repeated practiced firing at marks, or targets. On November 12th, Hamilton recorded: "Exercised the cannon and small arms at Marks-- The arms in very good order-- the savages expressed great surpize to see a mark of a foot sqaure struck from the 6lbr . at about 300 yards distance." Again on November 19th, after an abortive meeting with Indian leaders, Hamilton took offense at the Indian suggestion that the French would reclaim the upper country. He wrote, "I broke off the meeting abruptly, and told them I was going to exercise my young men, and gave orders for the men to turn out and fire ball at a mark, which they did, and shewed great dexterity firing very quick and making excellent shots." Norman MacLeod, a militia officer accompanying the British on the campaign, also recorded this occurence on November 19th. He wrote, "the troops was ordered to fire three rounds, each man at Targets in the Presence of the Indians. And the Indians was Very will Pleasd at their Performance." [4]

The benefits of these firing at marks are two-fold. First, they kept the soldiers on Hamilton's expedition proficient in the use of their firearms. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they demonstrated British military power to Native Americans, who might contribute addition soldiers and supplies. Thus, on Hamilton's expedition, firing at marks possessed both a military and a political objective.

In 1780, Henry Bird and the King's Regiment launched an invasion of Kentucky, supported by around 900 Native Americans and Anglo/French militiamen. Henry Bird and the men of the King's Regiment operated effectively in the upper country, capturing two forts, and taking three hundred prisoners. Through use of waterways, Bird was able to cover 90 miles in four days, the last 50 of which he covered in one day alone. [5] By pushing his men to these extremes, Bird was able to avoid contact with larger American forces trying to run him down.

However, the most interesting aspect of the King's Regiment's expeditions is that they were conducted by volunteers. The letters and pay accounts of the King's Regiment make it clear that the soldiers who went on both Hamilton's march to Vincennes and Bird's invasion of Kentucky were volunteers.[6] Although he is probably also speaking rhetorically for Indian benefit, Hamilton may while be accurately describing the situation when he stated, "I told them I was going to exercise my young men."

A Seargent of the King's Regiment "exercises his young men," at Fort Niagara in 2016.

So, while Depeyster may have seriously thought that his men were ill-prepared for wilderness warfare, he may also have been exaggerating the situation. Indeed, in a subsequent letter to Lt. General Haldimand, he makes it clear that the lack of cold weather gear, not ill-preparedness, was the reason for his refusal to take part in the winter campaign of 1782.[7]

The King's Regiment served in an adverse environment, long after their expected deployment. They utilized realistic training in order to achieve battlefield success, they were able to move with a speed that confounded American forces, and they effectively utilized volunteers to get the most out of their limited resources. It's almost as if the borders of Canada correspond to where the posts of the King's Regiment stood.

Thanks for Reading,


Alex Burns

[1] Depeyster, Miscellanies, pg. xxxvi
[2] William Potter, Redcoats on the Frontier, MA Thesis, unpublished, pg 40.
[3] Mark Frederick Odintz, The British Officer Corps. University of Michigan, Dissertation, unpublished, pg 88. Gage Papers, Letter from Guy Carleton to Gage, July 4th, 1770.
[4] John D. Barnhart ed, Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution with the Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton. William Evans ed, From Detroit to Fort Sackville: The Journal of Norman MacLeod, pg 81. 
[5] Haldimand Papers, Henry Bird to Arent S. Depeyster, July 1st, 1780.
[6] Ibid, Hamilton to Haldimand, October 7th, 1778. This letter indicates that all Kingsmen on the expedition were volunteers. Haldimand Papers, "Volunteers on the expedition of Captain Bird with their Pay", March 24th-August 4th, 1780.
[7] Haldimand Papers, Arent S. Depeyster to Haldimand, November 21st, 1782.

2 comments:

  1. BTW Alex, a group of fifteen Kingsmen, probably the same who were at Newtown, had earlier been at the attacks on Forts Freeland and Wallace in the Wyoming Valley. Their presence, and steady behavior is noted in Capt. John McDonald's (Butler's Rangers) report to Bolton (this is in Haldimand Pprs. as well).

    ReplyDelete
  2. At least one Kings man who wrote an obscure Celtic dialect was sent to Drive of St Louis (Kaioka) to send intelligence to Depeyster at Michili

    ReplyDelete