Military Society on the Frontier
The infantry regiment was the basic unit of Britain’s army in America. Composed, on paper, of roughly 450 officers and men divided into nine, then ten, companies, regiments in the West were most often scattered among a number of garrisons, seldom serving together. To look at the army on the frontier strictly from this organizational perspective, however, would be to miss a great deal about military life as experienced by those in the ranks.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the army was both more and less than the sum of its parts. It was not yet an institution in the modern sense; loyalties and identities within the army were closely tied to individual regiments, some with long histories reflected in titles, traditions, and a range of other “tribal” idiosyncrasies. Soldiers belonged to a regiment more than to the army as a whole, and officers sought rank in regiments associated with family, friends, or patrons.
These regiments were also complex small societies that in a number of ways reflected the larger civilian world of Britain and its empire. In this, the British army displayed a tendency among armed forces that had developed at least since the fifteenth century, when mercenary bands and state-paid forces began to replace knights and their feudal levies as society’s first line of police and defense.
More out of necessity than design, these emerging armies accumulated large civilian followings: soldiers’ wives and children, servants, skilled workers, as well as those, including prostitutes and sutlers, whose livings depended upon the soldiers. So numerous were these “followers” that an early modern army on campaign took on the aspect of a “walking city,” with dependents often greatly outnumbering the men in the ranks. As they continued to grow in size and destructive power, the notion of armies as mobile societies took on a new meaning. Composed of men who had taken up arms as a profession, individual regiments and the armies of which they were a part tended to develop their own peculiar identities that set them apart from the larger civilian world that paid and feared them. By the eighteenth century this distinctly military identity included not only the unique expe-