Army and Empire: British Soldiers on the American Frontier, 1758-1775

By Michael N. McConnell | Go to book overview
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“As there is a ship to embark from here some time next week therefore [I] take this opportunity of enclosing a few lines to you of my safe arrival at Quebec.” Thus did eighteen-year-old Jeremy Lister, newly commissioned ensign in the 10th Foot, inform his father in July 1771 that he had reached America. Despite the matter-of-fact style, young Lister must have been overcome with the mixture of excitement and anxiety experienced by new soldiers before and since: how would he be received by the regiment— especially his fellow officers? What would his duties be? Would he be able to carry himself honorably and professionally? On the first matter, at least, Lister was relieved to discover “all my Brother Officers very agreeable, sober gentlemen”; he counted himself “very lucky in coming into this Regiment.”1

Had Lister been more candid, he would have conceded that luck had much less to do with his posting than did family connections and the networks of patronage and clientage that ran through the army as well as British society at large. Lister, like many sons of Britain’s gentry, chose the army as a path to preferment and place in society. And like many of his peers, Lister may have seen the army less as a career than as an investment: by purchasing his commission he could look forward to promotions as far as lieutenant colonel, with each step in rank offering opportunities to enhance the initial investment through perquisites allowed by the crown. Indeed, Lister’s choice of regiment seems to have been made with such a scheme in mind: the 10th was an “old” regiment, a prestigious corps in which commissions were expensive but where opportunities for profit were equally great.2

When Lister joined it, the 10th had been in Quebec since 1767. It had come out from Britain as part of the regular scheme of troop rotations designed to avoid long overseas duty. Such rotations were also planned to ensure that troops entering the colonies had sufficient time to adjust to new climates and conditions.

Lister’s own “seasoning” began soon after his arrival. While Canada was “very fine” and a land of great agricultural potential, he soon found the society sterile and Quebec City “nothing extraordinary.” Faced with


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Army and Empire: British Soldiers on the American Frontier, 1758-1775


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