Review of Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution
Fusiliers: The Saga of a British Redcoat Regiment in the American Revolution by Mark Urban should be required reading for all aspiring historians on the American Revolutionary War. Many older historians should also take note of this fine book. Mark Urban purports to tell the story of one British regiment, the 23rd, or Royal Welch Fusiliers, but it is really about the whole British expereince in the war that the book concerns itself. While focusing on this one illustrious corps the author provides us a means to evaluate the whole evolutionary process the British army went through in this conflict.
As the author points out in the introduction so much of the American perspective of the Rev War is riddled with myth and fable that even the better writers on the subject seldom give much effort to show the British side of things. To these writers the redcoat most often is seen as a mindless machine that stumbles about the Thirteen Colonies until finally defeated at Yorktown. Little more credit is given to his generals either. Here at last we get a Brit writing on the subject which is so dear to the American national mythology. Perhaps only a non-American author can approach this topic with anything resembling fairness. For certain many myths cherished by Americans are dispelled here. Yes, the colonists did surprise and outfight the British in the first battles of the war. Like most peace time armies the British were clanky and needed a jolt to get themselves moving again. The result was the rebirth of the Light Infantry which soon was beating the Americans at their own game.
The author spends a lot of time discussing the actions of the combined Light Battalions, of which the 23rd's Light Company formed a part. For it was here that the greatest tactical innovations were taking place. General Howe, who is often critiqued by American authors for his slowness in the New York campaigns, gets credit here for reinvigorating the army with the Light Infantry spirit as it had developed in the earlier conflicts against the French and Indians. Howe was an indifferent strategist, but he was a good reformer and tactician. The Light Infantry battalions became the cutting edge in the army's reforms to fight in a more open manner. Those clanky redcoat battalions at Lexington, Bunker Hill and Saratoga became the nimble, hard hitting victors at Camden, Guiford Courthouse and Green Springs. Few American authors wish to acknoledge this transformation, and in the process credit the British with overwhleming strength in the beginning of the war, and with total weakness toward the end. While this may seem true because of sheer numbers, in terms of quality and performance the British army of 1780 was much more efficient than that of 1776. Howe and Clinton's indifferent leadership has gone far to reinforce these impressions, but surely the aggressive Cornwallis and Lord Rawdon provided the counter to it.
One very important consideration also needs to be understood. The British could not afford heavy loss. While their army was impressive in size during 1776, Howe was keenly aware that he could not afford costly victories. The Southern Campaigns of 1780-81 amply show that the Americans could afford to lose any number of men and still wear the British down. This important distinction needs to be understood in evaluating the British army's performance in America. Few American sources bother to go to such lengths. Yet it is essential to understand this point which Mark Urban brilliantly makes.
This is not just the story of the Welch Fusiliers, but about the whole army to which that regiment belonged. We see how it changed and adapted to the point where it could beat any American force opposed to it in open battle, even if outnumbered. In the end it was the political divisions at home and the infighting between its generals in America that would undermine the prowess of the British soldier. Mark Urban shows us that the British did not consider themselves defeated in America, but rather undermined and betrayed.
The story goes beyound the Revolution where we see the lessons learned by the American school of generals vindicated in the tactical reforms that would beat Napolean and the French a few decades later.
A well presented and perhaps even brilliant work that all American writers on the subject should read before writing more books praising Washy, Greene, and the Minutemen. Let's hope a few Hollywood producers bother to look at it also so inaccurate films like Mel Gibson's The Patriot aren't made again.