Arts, Culture & Media

British Soldiers of the American Revolution

They were well-trained professional soldiers, sent to fight an unpopular war on a different continent.

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They were volunteers, who'd enlisted for a mix of reasons.

Some were seeking economic advantage; others were just in search of adventure.

Each soldier had his own hopes and fears and aspirations.

You could be forgiven for thinking we're talking about the veterans of America's wars of the 21st century.

But this is actually a portrait of British soldiers in the American Revolution, as painted in a new book, "British Soldiers, American War: Voices of the American Revolution."

"There are actually quite a lot of parallels," says author, Don Hagist. "It was an all-volunteer force of people who joined the army as a profession."

"There's a tendency to look at historical wars strictly in terms of good guys and bad guys," adds Hagist. "And so you assume that if America's enemy were the bad guys, then the people fighting in the army must have been bad somehow. So we lose sight of the fact that the armies are made up of individual people and they all had lives, they all had reasons for joining the army."

The common British soldier of the American Revolution has a certain image in the popular imagination, the kind of mindless automaton you can see in movies like "The Patriot."

That doesn't fit Hagist's research, which collects most of the written first-hand accounts of common soldiers from the period, together with years of archival research among military and public records.

Nor does the impression of constant brutal discipline.

"There were brutal punishments, but most soldiers had pretty clean records."

"The most surprising thing," Hagist says,"is the simple humanity of these people, in contrast to most of the literature."

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    Bunker Hill, by Howard Pyle. This 19th century picture is full of errors, just like much of the literature and most movie depictions of British soldiers in the American Revolution. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

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    Don Hagist's "British Soldiers, American War." (Photo: Westholme Publishing)

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    The faces of common British soldiers in the 18th century were almost never recorded. Here's one Grenadier who may have been drawn from life. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

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    A Marine has his hair dressed by a comrade aboard HMS Pallas, 1775. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

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    "The Soldier's Return" by Francis Wheatley, c.1785. (Photo: Wiki Commons)