Monday, March 28, 2011

Life and Death in the Metropolitan Army

The French metropolitan army was the backbone of the French army – the “white coat” counterpart to the British “redcoat.” Americans familiar with the French role during the Revolutionary War are probably most familiar with the army commanded by Comte de Rochambeau that helped win a pivotal victory at Yorktown. However, a much larger proportion of the French army served further to the south, in the West Indies [1]. There, regiments were used to garrison important islands, to serve as shipboard marines [2], and to mount attacks on British-held islands. A few regiments (e.g., Auxerrois, Armagnac, and Dillon) were repeatedly used when the French took the offense. But for even those regiments that mainly spent the war in garrison, the West Indies was an extraordinarily dangerous place. The chief danger, it seems, was disease. Epidemics – which were not uncommon – could kill hundreds of men within a few months, and no army was spared.

Recently I spent some time examining transcribed records to get a better sense of the dangers faced by metropolitan army units serving in the West Indies. The records appear in Les combattants francais de la guerre americaine, 1778-1783 (1905), and include such information as when a soldier enlisted, when and where he died, and (if he survived) when he was discharged from the service [3].

Sample of the records for the grenadiers of Régiment Foix

I then charted the results from a small sample of four infantry companies in order to track life and death in these units over time. I expected to find a significant incidence of mortality in each unit, but I didn’t know how that mortality would be patterned. Would there be a sudden spike in mortality once the unit arrived in the West Indies? Would disease instead be a constant companion, leading to a steady loss of men over time? Or would mortality from disease be relatively unpredictable?

I found, in this small sample, no evidence that regiments began to suffer appalling casualties from disease upon arrival in the West Indies. Instead, disease outbreaks seem unpredictable, beyond perhaps an association with major troop movements (such as the return of d’Estaing’s force to the West Indies from Georgia in late 1779, and the assembly of a large army on Haiti in the Spring of 1782). For each company, the analysis spans the period from May, 1778, to January, 1784. The charts shows the number of enlisted men with each company on a month-by-month basis.

Fusilier Compagnie de Manoel, Régiment Hainault

  • A -- August 16, 1778: The company is in combat for the first time in an engagement between the British Isis and the French César in waters off Rhode Island. Four men are killed in action, and the company is at 94% of its original strength by the end of the month.
  • B -- December, 1778: The company arrives in the West Indies aboard the fleet of Charles-Henri d'Estaing. The company is present at the December 18, 1778, battle of La Vigie, but they are only lightly engaged (1 killed in action). In the following months, enlisted men begin dying at a rate of about 1 per month.
  • C -- October, 1779: The company participates in the siege of Savannah, including the bloody assault on the Spring Hill redoubt. Nine enlisted men die this month (including 5 on the day of the assault). The company is at 76% of its original strength by the end of the month.
  • D -- December, 1779: This month there appears to be an outbreak of sickness while the company is on Grenada. Five men die in December, 8 in January, 4 in February. By the end of February, the company is at 61% of peak strength. The 17 men who perish during this period represent 14% of the company's original complement.
  • E -- January, 1784: A number of men are struck from the company list this month. (Not clear to me is if these men were discharged or if their deaths during the war was belatedly acknowledged). This reduction brings the company down to 40% of its original strength.

Grenadier Compagnie de Pecomme, Régiment Gatinois

  • A -- August, 1779: The company occasionally gains new recruits during this period. Four enroll in August, 1779, bringing the company to a peak strength of 103 enlisted men.
  • B -- October, 1779: The company is spared from the horrific assault on Savannah’s Spring Hill redoubt. (The chasseur company, however, does take severe losses). One death is recorded this month.
  • C -- February, 1780: The disease outbreak that took a heavy toll on Régiment Hainault appears to have affected Gatinois as well. Four enlisted men's deaths are recorded this month.
  • D -- October, 1781: The company is present at the siege of Yorktown, and the grenadiers lose 4 men killed outright during the assault on Redoubt #9, and an additional 3 men at other points during the siege. Several deaths are also reported in Virginia in November -- probably from men that fell ill or that succumbed to their wounds. The losses reduce the company to 79% of its peak strength.
  • E -- August, 1782: Three enlisted men die during what is perhaps another period of illness. The company falls to 73% of peak strength.
  • F -- April, 1783: A number of enlisted men transfer to the French colonial Régiment du Cap (Probably it is their intention to remain in the West Indies beyond the conclusion of the war).
  • G -- August, 1783: The war is effectively over, and many of the enlisted men are discharged. The discharges occur in waves, with the largest number (13) occurring in August, 1783.

Chasseur Compagnie d'Artel de Veinsberg, Régiment Touraine

  • A -- July, 1781: The company reaches a peak strength of 125 enlisted men.
  • B -- October, 1781: The company is present at the siege of Yorktown, but no deaths are recorded among the enlisted men.
  • C -- January, 1782: Five deaths are reported this month; three occur on Martinique and are likely due to illness, the other two are combat fatalities on St. Kitts
  • D -- June, 1782: The company is transferred to Cap François (Haiti). En route the company is present at the battle of The Saintes (April 9 & 12), but the vessel carrying them is not heavily engaged and only 1 death is recorded. Severe illness strikes the company at the Cap starting in June.
  • E -- October, 1782: The main period of illness at Cap François ends. From May to November, the company suffered 28 deaths, reducing it to 68% of peak strength. Nearly 1/3 of the company died in a little more than 1 year, and only three or four of those deaths appear to be combat related.
  • F -- January, 1783: Five more deaths are recorded at Cap François in the first part of 1783. Other reductions in strength after this time are due to men being discharged.

Compagnie de Sigoyer Grenadiers, Régiment Foix

  • A -- March, 1779: The company reaches a peak strength of 98 enlisted men.
  • B -- October, 1779: Seven enlisted men die during the month of October. The company participates in the siege of Savannah (including the assault on the Spring Hill redoubt), but most of the deaths appear to be due to illness, including several among ill men that were left behind on the island of Martinique.
  • C -- December, 1779: Seven enlisted men die during the month of December. The deaths occur on the islands of Martinique, St. Vincent, and Grenada, and also at sea. Either the company has been divided among several posts, or the company has left sick men at each of several places it has been stationed. At the end of the month, the company is down to 81% of peak strength.
  • D -- April, 1782: Two enlisted die aboard the Magnanime during naval operations
  • E -- July, 1783: A handful of men are struck from the rolls or are discharged; discharges continue as the war winds down.



1. For an excellent history, see René Chartrand (1992). The French army in the American War of Independence.

2. Such troops were used to board enemy vessels, repel boarders from enemy vessels, and to fire on the gunners serving enemy vessels.

3. I was of course working under the assumption that these records are accurate and complete for these companies (a difficult point to gauge).

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