Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Meeting Notes: November 14, 2018

'"To Bring the American Army under Strict Discipline': British Army Foraging Policy in the South," Greg Urwin

Our speaker, Greg Urwin (c.), with Penny Page and Mark Lender

Despite efforts by British army commanders during the American Revolution to discourage their troops from committing crimes against American civilians, the commanders’ efforts were usually unsuccessful.

Military historian Gregory J. W. Urwin outlined some of these crimes and the attempts to curb them at the November 14, 2018 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. Urwin is a history professor at Temple University and is currently working on a social history of the campaign conducted by General Charles Cornwallis during the Spring and Summer of 1781 in Virginia.

“Shortly after the war many American newspapers were filled with accusations about Cornwallis’ army stealing property,” said Urwin. “He actually tried to exercise a policy of restraint because he knew it was important to try and win the hearts and minds of American civilians. His foraging parties in Portsmouth were largely respectful of private property and their treatment of women, and at Yorktown he invited the local people to bring food to his army and get paid for it.”

Unfortunately for many American civilians, British troops routinely stole from them--and worse. In fact American civilians first protested the plundering by British troops shortly after the war began at Lexington/Concord when the British retreated from these battles back to Boston. 

“Even when the British later won their military campaigns in New York and New Jersey, there was indiscriminate looting and rape of American civilians,” said Urwin. “This made even moderate Americans very angry with the actions of British soldiers.”

Urwin said that the bad British behavior continued in New Jersey through early 1777. Finally Sir William Howe tried to curb the looting and to portray his troops to New Jersey civilians as “liberators”. However according to Urwin, Howe’s orders against plundering “fell on deaf ears”. For example a British soldier chopped off a woman’s fingers in order to steal her rings.

After Sir Henry Clinton replaced Howe as the British army commander in Philadelphia he appointed Patrick Ferguson and John Andre to study how to curb plundering by British troops. The two aides quickly learned that the British army had a serious problem and a daunting task ahead of it to change troop behavior. In addition the senior officers feared that the troops who disobeyed their orders to stop plundering would later disobey other orders from their officers.

According to Urwin, the British logistical system failed to provide its troops with incentives to stop plundering and as a result, British foraging parties brought back smaller quantities of fresh food to their commissaries. In addition the British system would not allow its commissaries to reimburse Loyalists who were victims of British plundering as well.

Ferguson and Andre made various recommendations which British officers implemented to a certain extent. These recommendations included attempts by the British to purchase cattle from Loyalists, and to purchase supplies from American civilians with promissory notes which were backed by gold---not Continental dollars.

Another new policy sometimes implemented was the prohibition of foraging parties from entering American homes unless they were under the supervision of a British officer. In some cases British officers also posted sentries to protect public buildings and individual houses.

When Cornwallis took command of the British army in South Carolina, he appealed to his subordinate officers’ sense of duty when it came to disciplining their troops. After hearing mounting complaints from South Carolina civilians about the behavior of his troops Cornwallis not only urged subordinate officers to clamp down on crimes committed by their troops, but he personally assisted in the execution of two Loyalist soldiers who were found guilty of committing rape.

During Benedict Arnold’s British raid on Richmond in January 1781, he told Richmond’s civilians that they would receive half the market value of their supplies if they voluntarily turned them over to his army. He also allowed Virginia’s Loyalists to apply for full reimbursement. When William Phillips replaced Arnold as the British commander in Central Virginia, he issued an anti-looting proclamation to his troops.

Did these attempts by senior British officers to change the behavior of their troops make any difference as to how the British troops treated American civilians?

“In South Carolina, not at all. The civilians couldn’t be neutrals,” said Urwin. “However nothing toward civilians reached the horrors as it did in New Jersey earlier in the war.”

Gregory J.W. Urwin is the author of nine books and numerous articles and essays covering the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Indian Wars and World War II. He has lectured at the U.S. Military Academy, Naval Academy and Air Force Academy. Urwin also assisted Hollywood in the making of the Civil War movie classic "Glory."

Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond covered the following topics:

1. President Bill Welsch made several announcements regarding upcoming American Revolution conferences. 

2. Election Chairman Rob Monroe presided over the nominations of officers and at-large members to the board of directors for the two-year term beginning January 1. After the nominations were closed the membership voted unanimously to support the slate of officers and directors who are shown on a separate posting on this website.

--Bill Seward

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