The Pattern, The 33rd Regiment and the British Infantry Experience During the American Revolution, 1770-1783 by Robbie MacNiven

     The Pattern, part of the From Reason to Revolution series from Helion & Co, is a unique blend of traditional military history and modern social history focused on a microcosm of the British Army in the American Revolution. Author Robbie MacNiven focuses on the recruiting, training and equipping of the 33rd Regiment, diving deeply into primary sources to bring the image of the 33rd Regiment to life, and then launches the regiment into the maelstrom of Revolutionary War combat. Six of the book’s eleven chapters focus on the campaigns in which the 33rd fought, and the regiment’s role and contributions in each. Although it did not deploy to the American theater until 1776 and thus missed the war’s early battles, the Regiment fought in every major contest of the war from the 1776 attempt against Charleston, South Carolina through the end of major combat at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.

     What works so beautifully in MacNiven’s book is the fact that he writes as though he is a biographer. The 33rd becomes a living entity as MacNiven describes its formation, development and eventual, and eventful, combat career. His extensive use of primary sources in support of his observations regarding the regiment, such as the fact that its officers were professionals with long and varied service to their credit, enlivens his descriptions. MacNiven makes beautiful of the voices of the men themselves in the body of his book, quoting the regiment’s members at length where appropriate. Often, MacNiven’s conclusions fly in the face of the more common observations regarding the British Army of the 18th Century. As stated above, MacNiven early on establishes the bona fides of the 33rd’s officer corps, which flies in the face of the accepted wisdom that British officers of that era were amateurs possessed of courage, but little expertise or experience in military art.

     As the 33rd was a fighting regiment in wartime, it stands to reason that the bulk of The Pattern is devoted to the unit’s campaign history. MacNiven provides fantastic battle descriptions, based on both primary and secondary sources. Where secondary sources are cited, MacNiven chooses the best. He quotes the works on Don Haigst, one of the best historians of the 18th Century British Army currently writing, judiciously throughout the book, as well as experts on specific campaigns such as Mark Lender and Garry Stone when discussing the regiment’s participation at the Battle of Monmouth. MacNiven also ensures his readers have access to adequate maps to follow the sequences of the combat. The book contains a over a dozen maps, covering the battles around New York in 1776, Brandywine, Germantown and Saratoga in 1777, Monmouth in 1778, Stony Point and Verplanck’s in 1779, Camden in 1780, and Guilford Courthouse and Yorktown in 1781. The maps are well placed throughout the volume, accompanying the appropriate text, thus making it easier for the reader to follow the narrative. Often maps are included in one section of the book, necessitating a tedious thumbing through pages to find the appropriate one. MacNiven and his editors spare his readers this chore.

     The most interesting feature of The Pattern is the illustrations. The book contains a few contemporary drawings that reveal details of uniform and equipment of the Regiment’s officers and men, but these sketches are greatly outnumbered by black & white and full color photographs of men displaying the clothing and accoutrements as they would have been worn during the war. Before reviewing the book, this idea would have bothered me as an anachronistic gimmick, but a quick scan, followed by a thorough read have completely won me over. I am no expert on the material culture of the British Army of the 18th century, but the attention to detail seen in these photographs, coupled with the background settings, appearance of the models, and the quality of the photography itself display a sense of both time and place that make it seem as if MacNiven somehow did manage to travel back in time with a film camera to capture these images. He does make sure to credit the people in the photos, living historians from the United Kingdom with whom he reenacts the 33rd during the late 18th century. The photographs bring the book to life, as good living history brings the past to life, and are a marvelous inclusion.

     The 33rd Regiment earned its nickname “The Pattern” under the leadership of its colonel, Lord Charles Cornwallis, for being a model that all other infantry regiments could emulate for appearance, smartness and professionalism. Likewise, MacNiven’s The Pattern is the model of what a good regimental history should be, combining the best elements of traditional and social history, supported by a vast array of sources, and imaginatively illustrated to provide readers with both analysis and a fun read.

This book is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Casemate Publishing.