A recent post on another blog discussed the British government's 1778 decision to allow men to be impressed into the British army. Prior to this, the army had been an all-volunteer force. The unidentified blogger accurately recounts some of the basic aspects of the press acts, but, like many other authors, runs afoul of assumptions and generalities that overstate both the reach of the press acts and their impact on the army.
It is true that, in 1778, a law was passed allowing justices of the peace and tax commissioners to force enlistment of “able-bodied idle and disorderly Persons” who did not “exercise and industriously follow some lawful Trade or Employment” or have some other way to sustain themselves. But the law applied only to the London area and clearly stated that pressed men must be fit for military service. In 1779 a revised law was passed with broader scope but still with strict limitations. Details are given in Chapter 6 of my book British Soldiers, American War. The incorrect assumption is that, because it was now legal to impress men, that's how most recruiting was done for the remainder of the war. In reality, the press acts were unpopular with the army as well as with the population, and ultimately provided only a small portion of the recruits raised in 1778, 1779 and 1780, the only years that the laws were in effect. Of the small number of men raised by impressment, only a few were sent to America.
My book presents quantitative information illustrating the overall limited impact of the press acts, but since writing it a piece of information has come to light that very clearly quantifies the number of pressed men sent to America. Historian Paul Pace discovered a document in the Sir Henry Clinton Papers at the William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan, listing recruits sent to America in 1779. By this stage of the war, recruits were sent to America once a year in large convoys to protect the transport ships from marauding privateers and foreign navies.
The "Embarkation Return of the Additional Companies Embarked from Chatham Barracks to compleat the Regiments in North America 26th March 1779" enumerates the men sent to each of fifteen regiments serving in the New York area. It also denotes the numbers of those who were "impressed men". 1329 recruits were embarked (distributed on eleven transports); among them were only 70 impressed men. These impressed men were allotted to only six of the fifteen regiments; specifically:
7th Regiment: 92 recruits, including 9 impressed men
23rd Regiment: 49 recruits, including 13 impressed men
37th Regiment: 89 recruits, including 15 impressed men
42nd Regiment: 45 recruits, including 6 impressed men
44th Regiment: 147 recruits, including 16 impressed men
63rd Regiment: 133 recruits, including 11 impressed men
Other regiments received similar numbers of recruits, but no impressed men at all. The established strength of regiments in America was, at this time, 700 private soldiers. Clearly, impressed men formed only a minuscule portion of the soldiers in America that year. Unfortunately no return has yet been found identifying the impressed men by name and therefore allowing us to trace their careers.
As discussed here before, there was another issue with the 1779 recruits: disease broke out among them, perhaps scurvy brought on from an unusually long time on board the transports. Many of the recruits died within their first year in America; for example, a third of those sent to the 22nd Regiment were dead within 12 months of disembarkation. The presence of impressed men and the outbreak of disease among the recruits was probably just a coincidence, but the two have nonetheless been linked in some literature, further adding to the stigma of impressment and its impact on the British army in America.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!