Review by Herb Meeker, Staff Writer
On this morning 235 years ago, the Royal Welch Fusiliers were recovering from a disastrous fighting retreat from Concord back to Boston.
In one day, the British in Boston had gone from confident hunters of rebel weapon caches to the bedeviled and besieged.
In his insightful and entertaining book, Mark Urban tells how the 23rd Regiment of the British Army in North America eventually extracted vengeance numerous times for that humiliation on April 19, 1775. But the Fusiliers would end their role in the American Revolution as captives after the siege of Yorktown six years later.
Urban, a British journalist skilled in diplomatic and defense coverage, provides more than the viewpoint of the British soldiers and officers fighting for King George III, a version of history rarely offered to Americans. He also shoots down popular myths on why the British lost the war.
For the past 200 years, many American students have been taught the British lost because they would not change their parade-ground fighting tactics against Americans fighting “Indian style.”
Urban shows how the heavy losses after the retreat to Boston and the Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill weeks later convinced British Gen. William Howe, a veteran of the French and Indian War, to adopt light infantry tactics, providing a shock to George Washington’s troops during the battles for New York in 1776 and in Pennsylvania in 1777.
Many Fusiliers — a unit name derived from fusil, a type of early flintlock musket — were trained to perfect these shock tactics that combined quick movement with a volley followed by a bayonet charge overwhelming the enemy before they could reload their muskets.
While the Fusiliers and other Redcoats could outfight the Rebels, Urban writes of how the corrupt system of purchasing officer positions in British regiments hurt the leadership of units at key times during the war. Some officers held command positions for American regiments while staying for years back in England.
An inconsistency in military discipline also had most British officers refusing to mete out punishment for desertion or other serious crimes. Romances with American women helped take away more Fusiliers from the ranks than battles with the Continental Army.
But most Redcoats never backed down from their cause. The 23rd was part of the small army commanded by General Charles Cornwallis when he struck south in the Carolinas for a campaign that became more of a mini-civil war more than a rebellion in the final years of the war.
Urban writes of an aggressive, innovative Earl Cornwallis, not the stiff-necked plodder from popular histories. Years later, some Fusilier veterans of that grueling campaign against disease, reluctant Tories (Americans loyal to Britain) and an ever-growing rebel host would cherish the heroic, fatherly leadership of Cornwallis. They forgave him for the surrender at Yorktown even if history did not.
The legacy of the Fusiliers to the British Empire was not just about a defeat that turned the world upside down, Urban argues. When France overthrew and killed off its king and queen, the British Army suffered defeats on the European continent due to a mismatch of set-piece tactics against sharpshooters and French Revolutionary conscripts firing from behind fences and trees.
It took the influence of a former Fusilier officer, Henry Calvert, an aging Cornwallis and other British officers to reintroduce light infantry tactics. Urban says those changes and inspired leadership helped the British Army defeat Napoleon nearly four decades after that dreadful April day back in Massachusetts.
Contact Herb Meeker at email@example.com or 238-6869.