Men Of The Revolution: 15. Frederick Mackenzie

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Of the British officers who served in America during the Revolution, the names Howe and Clinton, Burgoyne and Cornwallis, are the ones that echo across the years. There is some irony to this, since none of those captains—with the possible exception of Cornwallis—had any notable claim to posterity’s attention for their accomplishments on this side of the Atlantic. Yet just as they had in their day the perquisites of rank, so they were accorded the privilege of fame.

The system of which they were a part virtually ensured that high-ranking officers would be aristocrats and men of considerable wealth—the sons of peers, the relatives, friends, and protégés of the rich and powerful. In the British army there were two routes to the top: one was influence, and the other was money. In fact, the route to the top began at the top, with His Majesty George in. The king, as captain general, might or might not appoint a commander in chief of the armed forces, and George— who took considerable pride in exercising his military prerogative—chose not to appoint one. As commander in chief he controlled the price of officers’ commissions, and commissions came dear. An ensign, for instance—the lowest rank in a regiment of foot—was obliged to pay £400 for his commission at a time when it was possible to maintain a family and two servants on £40 a year. Promotion was available as vacancies occurred—either in a man’s own regiment or in another—but all officers had to serve in grade for a period of time before they were entitled to advancement. Then, when opportunity was finally within reach, came the rub. Unless an officer possessed independent means, there was no way to purchase the next higher rank, since it was impossible to save money on the niggardly pay he received.

All of which meant that advancement went to the wealthy. A lieutenant colonelcy in the infantry went for £3,500, and for the same rank in the elite foot guards £6,700 was the going rate—a sum nearly equivalent to the combined salaries of the first lords of the Admiralty and the Treasury. As a result wealthy officers advanced fastest. Lord Cornwallis, for example, who had money, was a lieutenant colonel at the age of twenty-three and a lieutenant general at thirty-eight.

In that army, to be sure, there was another type of officer altogether. Unsung, given only a paltry reward for his services, he made up the backbone of what was for a time the finest fighting force in the world. He knew his limitations in terms of rank and accepted them as best he could, hoping for the one rare exception to the ironbound rule of purchased commissions—an opportunity to draw his superiors’ attention by distinguishing himself in battle.

 
 
 

The best of these officers were trained not only as soldiers but as observers. A man of this stripe had learned from experience the meaning and value of terrain and usually could draw a creditable map or sketch. Years of proximity to the men in the ranks gave him an insight into their capabilities under fire, their limits of endurance, their capacity for improvisation. He knew, or tried to know, his enemy; he discovered quickly enough the shortcomings and weaknesses of his superiors.

Happily for our knowledge of the Revolution, the eighteenth century was a time of abundant letter-writing and journal-keeping, and the historian may be grateful that some of these competent professional officers kept a record of their service in the American colonies. To them, as much as to anyone, we are indebted for insights into the minds of the Howes and Clintons and for our knowledge about the British conduct of the war.

A superb example of the breed is Frederick Mackenzie, who began writing his observations and thoughts in a diary in 1748 and kept at it faithfully until 1791. Alas, only eight volumes of that record survive—many, including all those antedating 1775, having been lost—but what remains is a remarkable account of some of the critical battles of the Revolution, as well as an astute, revealing commentary on eighteenth-century military life, on Mackenzie’s fellow officers and the rebels who opposed them. Spiced with philosophical asides, it is engaging, readable, and highly informative. Written with soldierly precision, his notes are clear, direct, knowledgeable, and consistently fair, for among his other qualities Mackenzie seems to have held no rancor toward the Americans. He related the facts impersonally, giving considerable thought to the problems confronting both his own army and that of the enemy.