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Lowering the Bar – British Army Recruiting Practices During the American Revolution

Lowering the Bar – British Army Recruiting Practices During the American Revolution


Image of a press gang, circa 1780

Before the American Revolution, Great Britain maintained a rather small standing army that was made up of volunteers.  While the British navy routinely “pressed” or drafted sailors when they needed them, there was strong resistance to the idea of granting the army such authority.  Some able-bodied petty criminals were allowed to volunteer for the army as an alternative to jail, but they could not be compelled to do so.  Army enlistment practices changed  in 1778 when the British defeat at Saratoga and the entry of the French into the war caused Parliament to pass the Recruiting Act of 1778, a law “for the more easy and better recruiting of his Majesty’s Land Forces.”  In reality this was a conscription act that allowed “all able-bodied idle, and disorderly Persons” to be enlisted in the army against their will.  This act also reduced the minimum acceptable height for an army recruit from 5 feet, 6-1/2 inches, to 5 feet, 4 inches.

The soldiers obtained under the Recruiting Act of 1778 proved to be much poorer physical specimens than were the pre-war volunteers.   As one British officer lamented, “The magistrates … sent in wretched objects totally unfit for service.”  Such was the need for soldiers though, that these “wretched objects” were still herded aboard transports sailing to America.  The mortality rate among army conscripts was very high.  In the case of one British regiment serving in America, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, more than half of the men sent to the regiment in 1779 were to die in less than two years, principally from disease.

2 thoughts on “Lowering the Bar – British Army Recruiting Practices During the American Revolution

  1. Brendan Morrissey says:

    Further to Don’s post, is it not also possible – given the long “lead time” between men being recruited and being sent across the Atlantic (up to two years in some cases) – that the majority of impressed men arrived the following year, and not in 1779?

  2. This is a great post, but it makes some assumptions due to a lack of quantitative information – as, indeed, does most literature. It is true that disease broke out among the recruits sent to America in 1779, but in spite of the newly-instituted laws very few of those men had been pressed. A return of these recruits in the Sir Henry Clinton Papers at the William L. Clements library reveals that, of 1329 recruits sent to New York in 1779, only 70 were “impressed men”. These 70 were distributed among only six regiments; the 23rd Regiment of Foot received 13 (out of 49 recruits total to this regiment), and no regiment received more than 16. So, although there were impressed men among these recruits, they were few.
    The common assumption is that, because it became legal to press men, most men were pressed, but that’s simply not the case. The press acts were unpopular with the army as well as with the general population, and were repealed by the end of 1780 after contributing very little to the overall composition of the army.

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