Unlike conventional European linear warfare, on American battlefields it was common for the companies within the battalion to operate as semiautonomous tactical entities, each one under the direction of its captain or senior subaltern. Indeed, individual companies were not infrequently detached from the battalion during combat to perform particular tasks. Although this phenomenon was most marked in the case of the light infantry, line battalion companies also sometimes acted almost independently in action, particularly in woody country. For example, Captain the Honorable William Leslie recorded of the battle of Long Island that, as Major General James Grant’s and Brigadier General James Agnew’s Fourth and Sixth Brigades deployed on the British left, “my company [of the 17th Regiment] was sent as a reinforcement to the advanced guard, who were much incommoded by riflemen.” Similarly, when Sergeant Roger Lamb found himself separated from the 23rd Regiment during the attack on the Virginia militia at Guilford Courthouse, he suddenly espied a single company of the Guards advancing to the attack. He later commented: “The reader may perhaps be surprised at the bravery of troops, thus with calm intrepidity attacking superior numbers, when formed into separate bodies, and all acting together; but I can assure him this instance was not peculiar: it frequently occurred in the British army during the American War.” The Irishman was well placed to comment on this theme, for he not only participated fully in Cornwallis’s southern campaigns but also served in the northern wilderness with Carleton and Burgoyne in 1776 and 1777. He was therefore involved in some of the most confused and fiercely contested engagements of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps the earliest explicit expression of the unconventional degree of tactical independence that companies had to be able to exercise in action in America is contained in a series of tactical instructions that Major General Phillips issued to Burgoyne’s army in May 1777, shortly before the opening of the Albany expedition. The thrust of Phillips’s message to the captains was that Burgoyne required “that every company may form a respectable body singly, and though attached to its place in battalion, yet always ready to act separate from it, as the nature of the ground may require, or the nature of local service they may be sent on make necessary.” Having recommended that officers drill their own companies (to ensure that they were “perfectly acquainted” with their men and the latter were “accustomed to the sound of their [officers’] voices”), Phillips observed, “It is well understood, that all regiments exercise by companies; but it is usually done with a view of joining in battalion.” By contrast, he warned, the expected nature of the forthcoming campaign made it necessary “that each company should be led to consider itself as a small, distinct body, and [to] exercise in various evolutions independent of the battalion, with every possible view for single companies being taught to depend upon themselves.”

Phillips’s instructions also made it clear that, even when joined in battalion, each captain would have to exercise considerable tactical latitude in handling his company. This was because the companies were expected to draw up “with small intervals of distance” between them to enable them to exploit good defensive ground (trees, fences, banks, and such), to negotiate obstacles (enclosures, ravines, ditches, marsh, small rises, brushwood, and such), to facilitate changes of position and facing, and to traverse difficult ground. To facilitate command and control and to enable companies to act coherently, Phillips recommended “the commanding officer of a battalion to put himself at the head of one company, and to maneuver that company; while the other companies . . .  follow the evolutions so given by the commanding officer.” Presumably this unconventional arrangement (which to modern eyes would resemble a cross between “follow my leader” and a “Mexican wave”) was intended to address the problem that a field officer at the center of the battalion could hardly have controlled all its companies (spread out over two hundred yards or so) simply by verbal command, particularly on wooded ground.

Although Phillips intended these company-level instructions to confer tactical flexibility on the battalion in action in close country, he acknowledged that even a single company would occasionally be too unwieldy a tactical entity to execute some maneuvers. He therefore indicated that, when it was necessary for the battalion to furcate in order to negotiate multiple obstacles, the officers might have to tell off their companies into even smaller maneuver divisions, each commanded by no less than a sergeant (curiously, Phillips did not simply recommend that the company should break up into two platoons). But as soon as the separated maneuver divisions had negotiated the obstacles in question, and as soon as the ground permitted, they were to reform: first into companies, then into battalion.

Even more explicit evidence as to the degree of tactical autonomy allowed for companies in action in America is provided by a set of tactical instructions that Lieutenant Colonel Henry Hope drew up for the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers in August 1780. These guidelines incorporated the same basic unorthodox, staggered manner of operating in battalion that Phillips had prescribed three years earlier:

Whatever company or division in the battalion may be first ordered by the commanding officer to perform any movement, the same is always to be immediately followed by the two next on their right and left, and so on through the whole battalion without waiting for further directions — the men receiving the word of command from their own officers. . . . When the battalion is ordered to march in line, the whole is ordered to march by that particular division in front of which the commanding officer marches; the officer of which will give the greatest attention to keep the direction in which he moves, that the same file continue to cover him as when first put in motion.

Like Phillips, Hope clearly envisaged that when the battalion was in line, the various companies could not all be expected to take their dressings from one particular point of the battalion, as was usual in conventional linear warfare. Consequently, each company was to dress itself on one of the two officers posted on its flanks: “In marching by companies or division[s], the officers commanding each should at all times caution his division to which flank he would have his men dress . . .  remembering always that they should never be required to look in a different direction from that which [it] is intended they should incline to. And to facilitate this still more, there should be always either an officer or sergeant on each flank when the battalion breaks off into companies or divisions (as far at least as the numbers will admit of their being so distributed), [so] that the men may have some superior to look to for regulating their movement and [to] dress by.” Although the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers may never have employed Hope’s command-and-control method in action (the last occasion on which the grenadier battalions were hotly engaged was the battle of Monmouth), it is interesting that it appears to echo Phillips’s instructions to Burgoyne’s army. Once again, since it would have been impractical for a field officer to bellow oral commands to the battalion’s companies over an extended frontage, particularly in woodland, it is tempting to speculate that Hope’s instructions may simply have represented an explicit codification of the method of operating in battalion that was already in widespread use.

If the companies within line battalions often performed as semi-independent tactical entities in action in America, particularly in broken country, then light infantry companies commonly enjoyed even more tactical freedom. For example, as Knyphausen’s column approached Chad’s Ford at Brandywine, Captain Patrick Ferguson’s riflemen cooperated with the companies of the Queen’s Rangers in dislodging strong rebel delaying parties from successive prepared positions: “they remained planted like cabbages whilst our parties divided, gained their flanks, [and] turned their breastworks.” Once the Queen’s Rangers had successfully crossed Chad’s Ford, Private Stephen Jarvis’s company and one other were detached to occupy an eminence upon the left; from whence “we saw our brave comrades cutting them [i.e., the rebels] up in brave style.”

Perhaps the most striking example of the kind of tactical freedom enjoyed by companies of a light battalion was the role of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry in the attack at Birmingham Meetinghouse, also during the battle of Brandywine.62 The account that one of the officers who participated in the attack penned later is so dramatic and striking that it deserves to be quoted at length:

As soon as the [first] line [of Cornwallis’s division] came to Dilworth Church [i.e., Birmingham Meetinghouse], the enemy opened a fire from five fieldpieces [on Birmingham Hill]. The churchyard wall being opposite the 17th [Regiment’s] light company, the captain [William Scott] determined to get over the fence into the road; and calling for the men to follow, ran down the road and lodged the men without loss at the foot of the hill on which the guns were firing. The hedge on the left side of the road [was] much cut with the grape shot. By a bend of the hill, [we] had a view of a part of the enemy’s line opposite the [two battalions of] grenadiers [to our right] and opened a fire from about half the company on it, no more being able to form on the space. Presently, [we were] joined by the 38th [Regiment’s light] company. Some of their gallant soldiers wanted to ascend the hill immediately; [which was] objected to as too imprudent. The 33rd [Regiment’s light] company joined immediately afterwards, and the men of [these] three companies . . .  ascended the hill. . . . Their [i.e., the rebels’] line advancing on us, we were compelled to throw ourselves on our knees and bellies, and keep up a fire from the slope of the hill. [The] enemy repeatedly attempted to come on, but were always drove back by our fire, although their General (Lincoln) [sic, Major General Sullivan] very much exerted himself. At this time a most tremendous fire of musketry opened from both lines. Looking back to see how far the grenadier line was off, from which alone we could receive immediate support, to my surprise I saw close to me Major [the Honorable Charles] Stuart of the 43rd [Regiment]. . . . Recollecting the 43rd [Regiment’s] grenadier company was the left of their line, we persuaded Major Stuart to run down the hill and prevail on that company to hasten to our support. He did so, but before he could return, to my inexpressible joy, [I] saw Captain [Charles] Cochrane of the 4th [Regiment’s light] company on my left throw up his cap and cry “Victory!”; and, looking round, [I] saw the 43rd [Regiment’s grenadier] company hastening to our relief. We dashed forward, passed the five pieces of cannon which the enemy had abandoned, and made some few prisoners — the enemy running away from us with too much speed to be overtaken.

This account makes it perfectly clear that the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry’s companies (totaling together around five hundred men) did not fight at Brandywine as a single tactical entity under the close direction of its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Abercrombie. Nor even do they appear to have operated in the staggered manner laid down by Phillips and Hope (in other words, the individual companies did not remain loosely coupled and take their tactical cue from the company at the center). Instead each of the officers commanding the various companies exercised near-total independence in conducting his men, which enabled the companies to pick their way forward according to terrain and the strength of the opposition to their front. Indeed, most tellingly of all, at a moment of crisis the officers of the 17th Regiment’s light company were able to request the immediate support of the 43rd Regiment’s grenadier company. This was, of course, part of another unit altogether, namely, the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers (to the right of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry).

The letters of Captain William Dansey, who commanded the 33rd Regiment’s light company from 1776 to 1778, offer further evidence that the companies of a light battalion did not keep in formation and operate in a closely coordinated fashion in combat. Instead Dansey’s references to his company’s performance in action (like his verdict on the affair at Harlem Heights, that this was an engagement “in which the light infantry were chiefly concerned, and my company among the first of them”) tend to give the impression that the light companies were unleashed against the rebels rather like a pack of savage dogs. Occasionally one or more other light companies came to Dansey’s assistance when his men were hard pressed. For example, of the battle of Long Island, Dansey observed: “I led my company into the very thick of them [i.e., the rebels] and had a most miraculous escape. In about three minutes I had three men killed and six wounded out of thirty, [and] Mr. [Richard] Cotton my lieutenant got a graze upon the shoulder. We were well supported by three companies or there would not have remained a man to tell the story. I have to thank God for my safety under the heaviest fire of musketry ever people escaped from.” In his next letter he elaborated on this close scrape: “I was lucky in my escape, for I had my right hand man wounded and left hand man killed. I had three killed and six wounded in my company in about three minutes, having fallen in with about 400 riflemen unawares. They are not so dreadful as I expected, or they must have destroyed me and my whole company before we were supported by anybody else. Afterwards they were all either killed or taken. My company, though obliged to retreat (not having 20 yards the start and being only thirty men) killed two officers and two men before we gave way. We had got in among them.”66 In other engagements, however, Dansey and his men appear to have maneuvered and fought with almost no support from the rest of the battalion’s companies. This appears to have been the case at one point during the battle of Monmouth, of which he recorded: “I have only to tell you I had a very narrow escape from being taken prisoner with my whole company. We were obliged to run up to our middles in a bog to get away from the rebel light horse, and I had only one man taken.”

Because light companies appear commonly to have enjoyed near-total tactical independence in action, their captains required a high degree of individual initiative and skill. As might be expected, Dansey’s letters give a fascinating insight into his personal role in directing his company in combat. For example, in recounting his part in a major skirmish that developed during a foraging expedition in New Jersey (on 23 February 1777), Dansey explained how he had employed an elementary ruse de guerre to induce the enemy to retreat:

I faced two hundred of the rebels with my company only in a wood, for two minutes, myself not twenty yards from some of them, and received all their fire. Our friends thought we were cut to pieces. Another company joined me, and I drove the rebels and had only one man wounded in the arm. We killed six and wounded sixteen of them. I was so near as to call to them, “By God, my lads, we have you now” in the hopes they would be bullied into surrender, but that would not do: they answered me with a heavy fire. However, when I got my men to the trees round about me, and the other company coming up to my support, I bullied them another way. Seeing them snug behind the trees and showing no disposition to run, and too many of them to charge (as we were rather too thin), I cried as loud as I could hollow, that they might be sure to hear me, “By God, soldiers, they run, have at them my brave boys” which had the desired effect. One thought the other [had] run, and they all set off as if the Devil drove them. We cleared the wood of them and they never [showed?] themselves within shot again that day.

The opportunity to exercise this level of personal initiative and tactical skill in combat made the light company captain’s battlefield role markedly different from that of captains of the battalion companies. Indeed, in March 1778, after one of his brother officers was rewarded with the post of aide de camp to Major General William Tryon, Dansey grumbled with obvious frustration about the limited recognition that fell to successful light company officers like himself, especially when they faced the added danger of professional disgrace in the event of mishap:

I am almost wishing for a smug [illegible: berth?] of that kind, for I find there is nothing to be gained by fighting with light infantry but — Lord knows — broken bones. And as to the honor of it, if it was not for self-satisfaction it is all a farce. Merit goes by favor, and we are only tools for the favorites to work with, [so] consequently generally fall into ignorant, unskilful hands. And like the mechanic’s tools, we suffer; and if the work does not succeed we are blamed, [while] if it does [succeed] we have no more merit than the carpenter’s axe or saw. In short, an officer of the light infantry’s character is always at stake; and if he does ever so well, the merit becomes other people’s, whose impudence or sycophancy gains them the ears of people in power. But I’ll persevere. I may be lucky, [and] therefore will not draw from the lottery of preferment yet.

Other examples can be cited to show the level of initiative that light infantry officers had to display in action. For example, at the action at Spencer’s Ordinary, teenaged Lieutenant Charles Dunlop of the Queen’s Rangers “led on his division on horseback, without suffering a man to fire, watching the enemy, and giving a signal to his men to lay down whenever a party of theirs was about to fire.” Similarly, in September 1776 Lieutenant Loftus Cliffe, a subaltern in the 46th Regiment, marveled at the coolness and flair with which Captain Mathew Johnson conducted the regiment’s light company at the affair at Harlem Heights: “Johnson and his . . .  company behaved amazingly. He goes through his maneuvers by a whistle, for which he has often been laughed at. They either form to right or left, or squat or rise, by a particular whistle, which his men are as well acquainted with as the battalion [companies of the 46th Regiment are] with the word of command. He (being used to woods fighting, and having a quick eye) had his company down in the moment of the enemy’s ‘present!,’ and up again at the advantageous moment for their fire, killed several, and had not one of his company hurt during the whole time he drove the enemy before him.” The 46th Regiment was Howe’s own corps, and it may be that the commander in chief himself influenced Johnson to adopt his sensible command-and-control system. Howsoever the case, that Johnson was able to practice such a system, and that his less imaginative brother officers derided him for it, signifies not only how much latitude the light infantry captain exercised in “fighting” his company in action but also that not all officers were fit to be entrusted with so demanding a situation.

In conventional linear combat, the captain and subaltern were likely to be involved in four main activities: motivating their men, keeping them in good order, engaging in personal combat (occasionally), and directing their men. This latter role especially was at a premium in America, where conventional methods of command and control were not always feasible. Because it often proved unnecessary and even impracticable to maintain a well-connected line of battle during the advance, field officers were compelled to exercise a far higher degree of tactical initiative in “fighting” their battalions than was usual in European campaigns. To enable the field officers to synchronize the actions of the battalion’s loosely deployed companies in combat, particularly in woody country, some corps appear to have adopted an innovative, staggered method of maneuvering. Finally, in the case of the light battalions, the field officers nominally in command seem commonly to have exercised little overall direction over the companies in action. Once these latter engaged, they appear to have cooperated only loosely, the respective captains enjoying the kind of tactical independence that demanded flair far in excess of that expected of the officers of the line infantry.