Captain Robert Mathew's
Company of Light Infantry
8th (King's) Regiment of Foot
Recreating the life of the uncommon British soldier, c.1779.
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[ Genealogy ]
members of The Burning of the Valleys Military Association
as well as The British Brigade.
Anomalies at the Edge of an Empire
If you belief conventional wisdom, the American Revolution was won by a few fearless frontier marksmen over legions of red-coated soldiers who cared more for spit-and-polish, and never adapted to the wilds of America.
Unfortunately, this all too commonly held view is a product of mid-19th Century mythology. Any careful reading of the original documents from this period show that the British soldier of the 1770's was quite adaptable, and anything but spit-and-polish.
One of the best examples of this can be found in the men of Captain Robert Mathews' Company of Light Infantry (King's Regiment). Eighteen years in North America, including eight before the war had started, made the King's Regiment well acquainted with life on the frontier.
When the shooting began, the 8th (King's) Regiment occupied a string of isolated posts guarding the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. This made the officers of the regiment ambassadors to the powerful Iroquois Confederacy and Indian nations to the west. Constant contact with native people made their men familiar with the skills of his native allies.
When Montgomery attacked Canada in 1775, it isolated these "upper posts", and the small garrison at Quebec barely survived siege. The only British troops on the continent to take offensive were those of the King's Regiment Light Company. Just 60 men strong, but aided closely by 200 native warriors, they succeeded in capturing 600 Americans at the Les Cedras, and interrupted the American line of communications just in time for Quebec to be relieved by sea. Benjamin Franklin described this as "the greatest embarrassment to American arms."
Burgoyne's Campaign in 1777 was accompanied by an attack on the Mohawk Valley. It was hoped that American strength would be diverted, loyalists would be rallied to fight, and the American headquarters at Albany would be captured, splitting New England from the other colonies. Unfortunately, the transport and equipment needs of Burgoyne's column stripped St. Leger's force outside Ft. Schuyler (Stanwix) of the artillery necessary to breach the defenses that stood at the gate of the valley. Helping to man the few guns they had were men of the 8th.
Meanwhile, Henry Bird, Lieutenant of the King's Regiment, led the Crown Forces to victory at the battle of Oriskany. In that engagement, British regulars, loyalists, and natives executed a classic frontier 'ambuscade' (ambush).
While many are familiar with the name of Walter Butler, few are familiar with his status as an officer of the King's Regiment, possibly even of its light company. Butler had chosen to continue into the valley to rally and recruit loyalists regardless of St. Leger's failure, and it was as an officer of the 8th, that he was captured and imprisoned in Albany. He wasn't commissioned in his father's corps of rangers until he had been there several months, and never gave up his regular commission in the 8th.
While major engagements in the north were rare after 1777, the frontier saw war waged in its most brutal forms. At the heart of the British effort was Ft. Niagara, headquarters of the King's Regiment, and the home of its light infantry.
Raids authorized at Niagara struck points from the Hudson to the Mississippi, and south to the Ohio. The most famous was probably the November 1778 attack often called the Cherry Valley Massacre. Walter Butler led a combined force of British regulars of the 8th, loyalists, and Indians against this important agricultural region of New York. It was in no way a massacre, as the heavy American casualties can be clearly attributed to poor leadership, and that no non-combatants were in fact harmed.
A similar raid down the Susquehanna River reached the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania with similar results. These intrusions forced more and more troops to be diverted from the main American army to defend the frontier.
Another attack against the Wyoming Valley resulted in the capture of Forts Freeland and Wallace by a force of Butler's Rangers, Indians, and men of the King's Regiment. This same group had marched from Niagara, through the Mohawk Valley, and down the Susquehanna, and then reached Newton (Elmira, NY), in time to participate in the single largest engagement of the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign. From their departure from Niagara on or about June 20th, till the Battle of Newton, they had lived in the forest for 80 days, and marched more than 750 miles. They then returned to Niagara following the battle.
Within two weeks they were all in the filed again, making a forced march to reach Sullivan's army as it tried to cross the Genessee River at Cuylersville, NY
But what is most remarkable, is that the men of the King's Regiment, Light Infantry Company, is that they did all these things with diminishing support. The usual clothing issues never arrived, the quality of their rations deteriorated, and their isolated bases kept them from the social opportunities available to units with the main British army in America.
Mathew's Company spent its summers in camps in the forest, living and working with their loyalist and native allies, and it is this impression of the company we hope to portray today. From its historic record, we can see that Captain Robert Mathews' Company of Light Infantry represents an ideal subject for re-creation. These were truly the most irregular of regulars. We try to emphasize the camaraderie of a small detachment, isolated and independent from traditional military authority, yet still professionals capable of fighting a conventional battle when required.
The Enchanted Bridle
The conduct of war has gone through few major revolutions since the dawn of man. The first arrow fired was little different from the first stone thrown. The first sword was just a harder stick. Technological innovation has made war a constant challenge, but the greatest struggle has been with the spirit of man. War began with anger and frustration. Then followed thousands of years dedicated to harnessing emotions into creative destruction. The great revolutions in weaponry during the lat Renaissance required a degree of discipline in war that had only been foreshadowed by the great ancient armies. The success of Gustavus Adolphus in the 1630's served to yoke European soldiers to the point that any outlet for what the British called 'enterprise' was vanquished. The result was a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of those less restrained.
For centuries the British Army relied on foreign auxiliaries to provide it with skirmishers and scouts. But the Seven Years' War (French & Indian in North America) showed the War Office a need for something better. In Germany, the various Frei Korps proved ill-disciplined and untrustworthy. In America, the native warriors were unable to grasp the requirements of a European army in the field, besides their political inclinations were unpredictable. While the Royal Highland Regiment (42d) had been formed with the idea of providing 'home-grown irregulars', the influx of Scots officers and men into every facet of the army made them no more than exotically dressed regulars. Provisional ranging corps in the colonies were brilliantly led, and performed extraordinary feats in the late war, but the French had been beaten. Without a threat in the New World, all eyes were focused once again on continental Europe. Thus, in 1770, the British Army acted to provide itself with a professional contingent of light troops.
Subject to the same discipline as the army, trained to fill the scouting and skirmishing in co-ordination with the line of battle, but able to act with the sort of initiative it could not, the British Light Infantryman was created. Every regiment was to have its lights, formed from the most intelligent, the most agile, and the quickest of the men. Unfortunately, the earliest companies formed only a dumping ground for the disruptive elements of the battalion.
One could argue however that these may have been just the sort the job required. How often we have seen that the unruly and ill-disciplined are simply the most creative minds been shackled by an oppressive bureaucracy? No society from our past worked so hard as that of the British to keep people in their place, and the army was its chief proponent.
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