Monday, June 19, 2017

How Far did the Average Mid-Eighteenth-Century Soldier March in a Day?

A reenacted British Soldier from the American War of Independence
(Photo Credit: Lee Charles Gugino)

Dear Reader,

Historians of other eras often assert that: ""In general, an ancien regime [eighteenth-century] army was a slow and unwieldy mass of disgruntled and terrorized soldiers led by untrained and unimaginative officers."[1] By doing so, they prepare the way to discuss how armies in the era of Napoleon were fast moving, lithe, killing machines led by professional soldiers promoted on merit alone. Leaving aside the fact the Ilya Berkovich as destroyed the notion that eighteenth-century soldiers were "disgruntled and terrified," we should turn our attention to the question of whether an eighteenth-century army was a "slow and unwieldy mass." 

It has now been almost thirty-five years since Christopher Duffy first began to contemplate the marching speed of armies in the eighteenth-century. He noted that,
"I must say that I am impressed, almost disconcerted by the very high level of mobility of the monarchical armies. The invention of the sheet-copper pontoon enabled these old warriors to take a river barrier in their stride, as Frederick rightly claimed; they pushed and hacked their way through gloomy forests; they and their guns passed over the merest hillside tracks; they were halted by nothing short of genuine mountains, of the kind which have their peaks capped with snow for most of the year. In other words, before the advent of the railway and the internal combustion engine, the physical improvements in mobility were ones of degree rather than kind."[2]
A mixed war-party with men from the King's Regiment in North America
(Photo Credit: Tommy Tringale)
Duffy also addressed this issue in some detail in his book Military Experience in the Age of Reason. He asserted that an eighteenth-century soldier could perhaps move as fast as 12 miles a day during "urgent phases of a campaign" and that this speed was sustainable for two weeks.[3] It is at least clear that eighteenth-century armies gave nothing in terms of speed to their Napoleonic counterparts:

It would appear mistaken to claim that recent wars [the Napoleonic Wars] are the only ones which have demanded great physical exertion, or that these exertions were greater than those of our ancestors. We would be just as wrong to suppose that the soldiers of those times, most of whom were probably aged between thirty and forty, could not have been a match for our present soldiers, the majority of whom are between twenty and thirty.[4]
This point is also taken up by Carl von Clausewitz in On War. Clausewitz did not believe that the Napoleonic era represented a watershed in speed of movement, but rather that:
"[T]he Seven Years War produced marches that have still not been surpassed: Lacy's for instance, in 1760, in support of the Russian diversion toward Berlin. He covered the 220 miles from Schweidnitz through Lusatia to Berlin in ten days-- a rate of 22 miles a day, which would be astounding even nowadays for a corps of 15,000 men... Bonaparte, when pursuing the Prussians and trying to cut off their retreat in 1806 and Blücher, intending to do the same to the French in 1813, both required ten days to cover only 150 miles or so. That was a rate which Frederick the Great achieved, baggage and all, when marching from Saxony to Silesia and back."[5]

Clausewitz comments, further, arguing that the reduction of baggage in the Napoleonic era did little to increase the speed of marching. He comments on the fact that reducing the amount of baggage in an army rarely accelerated movement.
"Once tents had gone out of use and troops began to be supplied by requisitioning food on the spot, an army's baggage shrank considerably. One would expect the most important result to be an acceleration of mobility, and as a consequence, an increase in the range of a day's march. But this will only occur under certain circumstances. The change did little to accelerate marches in the theater of operations. The reason is the well-known fact that whenever in earlier times the situation called for an exceptional amount of marching, the baggage had always been left behind or sent ahead, and in general, separated from the troops for as long as movements of this kind were still in progress. Baggage, in point of fact, rarely had any influence on movements[.]"[6]
So, how far did soldiers march in eighteenth-century campaigns? To answer this question, I have drawn together data on marching from a number of armies between 1755 and 1781. For this project, I looked at around 420 individual days of marching, and the distances of covered by soldiers on those days. Of those days, around 249 represent troops marching without impediment, and 170 of them represent troops cutting a trail through wooded terrain. For now, just looking at the 250-odd days of marching, how far did the average soldier march in the mid-eighteenth century? 

According to the data which I gathered, the average mid-eighteenth-century soldier marched around 15.51 Miles, or 24.96 km per day.[7] While Duffy's figure may be more accurate for the entirety of the eighteenth century, I argue that my sample size is large enough to push for a slight revision upwards for the era between 1755 and 1781. At the very least, this difference is worth further investigation. 

With that in mind, let us look at the averages by army, from lowest to highest: 

A (not completely accurate) depiction of Prussian soldiers on the march, by Carl Roechling.
 The Seven Years' War Average: 15.9 Miles per day (25.5km) 

The French Army in the Seven Years' War: 11.7 Miles per day (18.9km) 
(14-day average) 

The Russian Army in the Seven Years' War: 12.9 Miles per day (20.85km) 
(7-day average) 

The British Army in the Seven Years' War: 14.1 Miles per day (22.7km) 
(35-day average) 

The Austrian Army in the Seven Years' War: 17.48 Miles per day (28.1km)
(36-day average) 

The Prussian Army in the Seven Years' War: 17.74 Miles per day (28.6km) 
(44-day average) 

These numbers are interesting in their consistency. None of the armies fall within Duffy's proscribed 6-8 mile estimate, and most even go beyond his assertion of 12 miles per day during intense campaigning. 

Reenactors portraying North Carolina militia working on Forbes Road in 1758
Cutting Trail during the French and Indian War: 2.75 Miles per day (4.42km) 
(170-day average) This total comes from work on Braddock's and Forbes' roads during the French and Indian War. Braddock moved much faster than Forbes, who steadily approached his target (Ft. Duquense) at a crawling pace of 2 miles per day. On the other hand, Braddock's army was annihilated as a cohesive fighting force. 

Reenactors portraying American forces during the War of Independence

The American War of Independence Average: 16.15 Miles per day (26.01km) 

The American Army in the American War of Independence: 14.77 Miles per day (23.77km) 
(84-day average)

The British Army in the American War of Independence: 19.6 Miles per day (31.5km) 
(29-day average) 

Much of this data comes from the experiences of the Delaware Regiment of the Continental Army. During 1777, the Delaware Regiment covered 796 miles in 57 marches, or roughly 14 miles per day. Once again, these totals are surprisingly higher than Duffy's estimate of 6-8 miles per day, and even if they represent a particularly intense phase of the campaign, it is a phase worth considering.

Reenactors portraying men of the 8th Regiment of Foot on the march
Obviously, this is a very small sample size compared to all distance/days marched by soldiers in the eighteenth century. Soldiers did not march this far every day, as armies took occasional rest days after moving long distances. It seems, then, that we should update our evaluation of how fast eighteenth-century armies could move. Or, at the very least, call for more detailed and thorough research on the subject. The myth that eighteenth-century armies were slow and unwieldy is simply untenable. Napoleonic armies were certainly capable of moving quickly; the 70-mile march to action at Austerlitz comes to mind. However, when the armies of the eighteenth-century were capable of moving 145km (approx 90 miles) in 3 days, as Prinz Henri's army did in the Seven Years' War,  does the Napoleonic era truly represent a watershed in army movement?

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Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1]Andrew R. Wilson, "Master's of War: History's Great Strategic Thinkers" (lecture, The Great Courses, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island).
[2] Duffy, The Fortress in the Age of Vauban and Frederick the Great, 291-2.
[3] Duffy, Military Experience in the Age of Reason, 160.
[4] Lossow, Denkwürdigkeiten zur Charakteristik der preussischen Armee, 10-11.
[5] Clausewitz, On War, (Michael Howard and Peter Paret edition), 320.
[6] Ibid.
[7] While I am not going to provide an itemized list of where this information comes from (I hope to publish it in paper format someday), many of the totals come from commentaries by authors such as Clausewitz and Jomini, primary sources cited in the works of Christopher Duffy (the majority come from By Force of Arms), The Journal and Order Book of Captain Robert Kirkwood, the Papers of George Washington, in addition to manuscript sources.


  1. Just did some math. My ancestor's IR13 fought against Napoleon on Oct 14 1806 in Jena and his battalion was surrendered after retreating 420km to Stettin in exactly 20 days. That's 13 miles per day. Fits your numbers perfectly. :-D

    1. That is really cool, Joerg! Thanks for sharing the story! I had thought your ancestor served early in the 18th century.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Actually 1785-1806. However his father in law (who is a direct ancestor too) served in the same IR13 and enlisted ~1775 (when his daughter was already 6 years old!). I doubt there were any earlier Prussian musketeers in my family tree, but who knows. :-D

  2. Here's another small sample. I have my patriot ancestor's travels (by horse, batteau, and foot) mapped from 1775 through 1781.

    Conditions mattered, and could restrict any mode of travel to about six miles in a day. For marches, good conditions and need pushed the upper end to 37 miles.

    Out of 320 days marching, the mean was 14.7 miles/day with a standard deviation of 7.75 miles.

    On horseback a single rider could easily top 50 miles in a day, and I found one instance of doing so starting at midnight from the camp at Wyoming PA (in 1775) back to Easton PA by 8AM the same morning.

    1. I am glad to see that he matches the average from these armies so closely.

  3. That should be Wyoming in 1779, not 1775.

  4. That is really interesting! Was he in the PA state militia, or another formation?

  5. That was an interesting read. I wonder if it is possible that the Continental army figures are inflated due to the need to "get out of dodge" so many times? Meaning, were they really "faster" or did they need to move quicker out of necessity.

  6. How did allotment soldiers travel from their croft farm in northern Sweden (like Bygdeträsk area) to fight i the Pomeranian war? Did they march so far and then board a boat or ship to Stockholm or some other staging port? Was there known muster points along the way? Thank you.

    1. I have actually read a little on this, in a primary sources. Soldiers in the "Karolinska Krigares Dagböcker" describe men being transported by ship from various ports to Stockholm.

  7. The current rate in the U.S. Army "Rangers" is 15 min miles kept by a paceman. A stop, or rest break occurs every hour for 15 mins.