Gambling Man: The "Million Dollar Loss" and the Guards' New Light Company

The 4th Company of the Brigade of Guards, in its historical context, was a unit of change. While it originally arrived in New York in 1776 as a the "brigade" company for the Guards (meaning it contained a mixture of soldiers from the 1st, 3rd, and Coldstream Regiments of Foot Guards), it was relabeled as the 3rd Company in 1777 and ultimately transitioned into the Guards' second light company in April 1779. For some time, we have wondered exactly why a "hat" or "battalion" (i..e, regular line) company like the 4th/3rd would overnight turn into "lights", which were frequently charged with screening the enemy, forming part of the army's vanguard, and being detached to cover ground quickly and engage smaller enemy forces independently. These light companies, along with the Brigade's grenadiers, comprised the "flank companies" of the Guards.

Well, the adventures (or misadventures) of the 3rd Guards' John Watson Tadwell Watson may offer some context and possibilities to explain the Company's change. For this, we are heavily indebted to the research by both Donald J. Gara and Marg Baskin, as published in a 2007 edition of Southern Campaigns of the Revolution. The extensive research and notes from Linnea Bass, a historian of the re-recreated 4th Company, also provide helpful insights into the officers and structure of the Brigade during its American Service.

Watson was not one of the original Guards officers assigned to American Service. Rather, he arrived in New York in 1777 as a lieutenant and captain after having accrued a significant gambling debt in London. As he himself writes (in a memoir that Gara argues was most likely intended for John Campbell, 5th Duke of Argyll):
...being weak enough to engage in play, I lost so much...I then applied myself with assiduity to those regimens which with justice are considered the elements of our profession. Just as the American War broke out, my affairs were on the point of being arranged, and would have being satisfactorily settled in a few months. But being amongst the number of those who by seniority were destined for that service, though my whole future welfare depended upon my staying in England for so short a time, I would not apply for leave, knowing that according to the arrangement then established, in two years if I lived, my rank would bring me home.

A late 18th century depiction of whist, a card game favored by gentlemen of the period. By James Gillray, published by Samuel William Fores in 1788.

Once in America, Captain Watson apparently managed to charm his way into the good will of certain senior officers. In May 1778, during the elaborate Mischianza party honoring the departing General Sir William Howe, Watson served as the "Chief of the Knights of the Burning Mountain." The 30 year-old officer also gained the favor the Guards' commander, General Edward Mathew. Having served as the second officer in the Guards' Light Company since his arrival in 1777, Watson received temporary command of the Pennsylvania-raised provincial cavalry unit of Bucks County Light Dragoons, which was attached to the Light Company at varying points from July 1778 to April 1779.

He subsequently rose to the rank of captain-lieutenant and lieutenant-colonel in November 1778, and by the spring of the next year, was preparing to return home after two years of service when:
Came an order from home, that [stated] all officers obtaining rank [i.e., being promoted] in America should remain there. This order was evidently for the good of the service, [but] it was inevitably my destruction...the heavy annuities under which [I] labored, were going on without the possibility of redemption; by which means the interest amounted to the [sum of the] capital and it made the difference in my circumstances of about £5,000.
Now needless to say, £5000 was A LOT amount of money in 1779. An algorithm developed by Professor Eric Nye at the University of Wyoming places this amount at over $900,000 in 2019. It's unclear whether this amount represented his outstanding debt, or if he had expected to earn said amount by returning to London to attend to his financial affairs. Nonetheless, it's fair to say that Watson lost either the direct value or opportunity to save nearly one million dollars in modern value by the extension of his American service.

A more raucous portrayal of 18th century gambling, this time with dice. As portrayed by Thomas Rowlandson in his "Kicking Up a Hazard", published by John Harris in 1787.

Interestingly, at least when writing his memoir, he stressed the fact that it was his stiff upper lip (for lack of a better phrase) that rewarded him with the formation of the Guards' second light company...just for him! As he explains:
Even under this pressure, in the face of an order, and being upon actual service, I would not ask for leave, but thus endure...The way in which I conducted myself had procured me the good opinion of General Mathew...he immediately formed another light company out of the Guards for me and, on the first occasion in which we were employed, he added another Grenadier Company to my command.
And so, are we to believe that the men serving in the 4th/3rd Company were essentially transformed overnight into an elite flank company on the whim of a generous commanding officer trying to assuage the pain of a favored subordinate?

There is certainly reason to doubt that Watson's own memoirs are an accurate representation of history. Rather than the officer being burdened with his initial service in America, for example, Robert Bass in his 1977 research alleges that Watson actually volunteered for American service as a means to save the funds to pay off his debts (although this blog author has been unable to uncover the reasons for Bass' assertions). Moreover, there are indications that Watson had quite a high opinion of himself, and therefore may have been over-emphasizing his importance and relationship to Mathew. Baskin points out that Lieutenant-General the Earl Cornwallis, in command of the 1780-1781 British expedition in the southern theater that included Watson, sent the 3rd Guards officer away from the main force so as not to cause friction with Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton. In doing so, Cornwallis wrote to Lord Rawdon (who would receive Watson under his command), "I know I am not making you a present. But, my Lord, at least you can make him obey you."

Nonetheless, there is likely some grain of truth in Watson's stories. The Guards officer clearly knew how to play the politics of 18th century British Army promotions and command assignments. After leading the Guards' light and grenadier companies in May 1779 raids of the Chesapeake-Tidewater regions, Watson was offered command of a post at Kingsbridge (north of New York City), which he declined on account that he would be unlikely to see action. Instead, in the winter of 1779-1780 he took a position as aide-de-camp for Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in North America. And the reason Watson ultimately found himself serving under Cornwallis in the south later that year was his assignment commanding the Provincial Light Infantry Battalion there. It is therefore believable, given this succession of different high profile positions, that the addition of both a light and grenadier company to the Brigade of Guards was at least partly to reward him for his extended American service. And not only would command of the more elite flank companies be viewed as a more significant reward, but Watson clearly had experience with "lights" during his time as their lieutenant and captain as well as during his command of the loyalist light cavalry troop.

Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, to whom Watson served as aide-de-camp in the winter of 1779-1780, as depicted by John Smart circa 1777.

Another factor contributes favorably to the theory that an extra light company was Watson's "special reward". By spring 1779, the Guards were desperately short of senior officers. Of the Brigade's ten companies, only four were commanded by officers ranking captain and lieutenant-colonel, the rank that had led each of the companies upon their arrival in America three years earlier. The 4th/3rd Company, for example, had by early 1779 lost its commanding officer Captain Thomas Collins to promotion (to Brigade Major, a staff position) and second officer Captain John Byron to England, leaving only the recently promoted Captain John Jones in "command". Yet, Mathew could have assigned the recently promoted Lieutenant-Colonel Watson to any of the first officer vacancies across the many under-officered "hat" or "battalion" companies. Instead, he quite literally provided him with a new light company.

Just as likely, though, is that Mathew already had the idea to form two additional flank companies, and it was merely his preference for Watson (or his seniority/rank) that led the gambler officer to be assigned command. After all, the existing light infantry company had performed well in varying actions in the New York and Philadelphia campaigns, and perhaps Mathew anticipated the need to swell the numbers of these flank companies for the Chesapeake-Tidewater raids. The 4th/3rd, as a "brigade" company, would have been a natural fit for a flank company, as these units were also "brigaded" by their nature. This theory is further supported by the fact that the Guards maintained two light companies (and four total flank companies) for nearly after a year after Watson departed to become Clinton's aide-de-camp. The Brigade would subsequently re-organize itself back into a two flank company structure (one light, one grenadier) in October 1780 due to its continuing officer shortage. The formation of another grenadier company under Watson's command also supports the idea that it was the flank companies that were prized above all else.

Ultimately, without further insights into Mathew's direct motivations, it's difficult to determine whether the 4th Company's life as a light company was part of a well-thought out military decision, or merely to placate an officer who lost out on a near-fortune. But regardless of the true motivation at play, the story of Watson and his "million dollar loss" makes for an interesting wrinkle in the evolution of the Guards' fighting capabilities from 1779 to 1780.

Now what his light infantry company would have looked like...well, that's a discussion for another day.