"Give Me a Wench and a Bottle!": What to Make of Guards' Reluctance to Serve in America

Just how "motivated" were the Guards to fight in America? It's a topic that frequently comes up (most recently in our podcast with Robbie MacNiven).

And indeed, a February 1776 excerpt from The St. James Magazine would seem to imply they weren't all that excited, as it stated:
Orders are given for augmenting the three regiments of foot guards 15 in a company, to reinstate the draughts for America...Several officers of the foot guards have desired leave to sell their commissions, since an order has been given for their embarking for North-America.
Four years or so later, a cartoon published in London gives an even worse impression of Guards officers by portraying them as utterly morose at the prospect of being posted to fight Washington's rebel army.

"The desponding hero of the Coldstream - a military madrigal", depicting Coldstream Guards officers seated at a banquet table bemoaning possible assignment to America. Published in London by Tommy Coldstream, Pennyfrance, (178-)

In the early 1780s depiction, several Coldstream Guards are drawn with the following exclamations:
Damn the Spanish gold mines, give me a wench and a bottle in St. James's Street!
Tis a shameful thing to puzzle a man in this manner - yes, yes we'll be food for the Indians to a certainty.
Curse it, if I was not in love I should not mind it.
By-damn it, I would blow my brains out! Tis worse than a flogging in the Tilt yard.
To be sent the Lord knows whither, far from my adorable Kitty; my dear angelic S_____ Yea! The nocturnal Revels of King's Place, the Balls, the Opera; Oh! I would cry like a child with vexation.
So what are we to make of these publications and those Guards officers who hoped to avoid American service? Were they principled objectors to an unjustified war? Were they cowards? Were they simply afraid of losing their luxurious lifestyles in London?

Well, it helps first to place these within the larger framework of the British Army at the time. We do, after all, know that American service was not popular with ALL officers eligible to serve. For example, when the British government selected Major Generals William Howe, John Burgoyne, and Henry Clinton to serve in America in 1775, it did so from a list of officers reduced by disqualifications from "political opposition to the war, or their refusal to serve in America." (O'Shaughnessy p. 83) Howe himself has been described as "ambivalent" toward the war, having opposed the Coercive Acts and assured his constituents (he was a member of Parliament for Nottingham) that he would refuse a command in America. He eventually reversed this position, citing loyalty to his duty and likely motivated by his own ambition. But other generals including Lord Frederick Cavendish, Sir George Howard, Sir John Griffin, and Henry Seymour Conway maintained their refusals. (O'Shaughnessy pp. 90-91) The latter, in a speech to Parliament, famously stated that:
A military man, before he drew his sword against his fellow-subjects, ought to ask himself, whether the cause was just or no?...if [he thought as he did that the war was unjust], all emoluments, nay the sacrifice of what people in his situation held dearest, their honour, all this would be nothing in the scale with his conscience: he never could draw his sword in the cause.
Clearly then, the idea of refusing to serve was not an alien concept altogether. And for those officers who truly wanted out, selling their commissions was a sure fire way to avoid being sent overseas. One can also imagine these feelings being more acute as the war dragged on. By the time the cartoon in question was published, the war had reached a stalemate in the North and, by mid-1781, was headed toward disaster in the South.

Yet, those Guards who did come to America evidently arrived with plenty of zeal. In fact, when the Brigade landed on Staten Island in August 1776, they:
desired to be led on directly to action, in resentment of the atrocious insults to their King and country. Their impatience was beyond expressing, when they were told of some indignities lately offered to the statue of their royal sovereign in New York. (Moore p. I:289)
Clearly, according to this unidentified correspondent, they were anxious to defend the honor of their sovereign that had been recently maligned by the destruction of his statue on Bowling Green; being the King's foot guards no doubt placed them much closer in connection to him, and therefore may have amplified the feelings of antipathy toward the rebellion that Matthew Spring highlights as a key motivator to the British units serving in America. In a more general sense, those who opposed the war and service in it were the minority; the majority of British officers and men saw the rebellion as an "unnatural rejection of benevolent and lawful British authority". (Spring p. 126)  One can only imagine how much stronger this might have manifested itself among those men charged with guarding the sovereign himself.

"Pulling down the Statue of George III by the 'Sons of Freedom' at the Bowling Green, City of New York July 1776" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1859.

Closely connected to this notion of antipathy to the rebellion was a firm sense of national pride. As Michael Stephenson explains, the British sense of "national virtue" had been built up over centuries and had been aggrieved by the rebellion. (Stephenson pp. 79, 87) Alongside it, as both Spring and Stephenson (as well as Sylvia Frey) highlight, was the equally or more powerful regimental "esprit de corps". (Stephenson p. 87; Spring pp. 104-105) Again, being among the most senior units of the British establishment, the Guards found themselves in a somewhat unique situation concerning their unit's honor.

As many of us are fond of saying, history is complicated. One must be careful never to generalize the motivations and behavior of an entire unit based on select evidence available to us over two centuries after the fact. Clearly some officers sought to avoid service in America, but their personal beliefs varied significantly from one another and from the rank and file. The latter in particular is hard to characterize. Not only did they have fewer opportunities to avoid service (they could not so easily sell commissions they didn't have), but as Don Hagist is so good at highlighting, we have scant records of their thoughts and feelings.

What we can do is judge the Guards in America by their actions. And as we recently highlighted in the their crossing half a mile of river under heavy fire and will continue to do so in the future, their service was very much one filled with zeal and bravery.


Moore, F., ed. (1860), Diary of the American Revolution: From Newspapers and Original Documents (New York: C. Scribner), Reprint (New York: New York Times, 1969)

O'Shaunessy, Andrew Jackson (2013), The Men Who Lost America (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Spring, Matthew H. (2008), With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press)

Stephenson, Michael (2007), Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought (New York: HarperCollins)