A British Tradition—Purchasing Rank

Linkedin Long-Form Post #3

Excerpt from his book, Irish in the American Revolution
By James Francis Smith
Author of the “Irish-American Story”

In this day with Social Security, pensions, etc, many may find it impossible to grasp the British officers’ retirement pay—there wasn’t any.
The tradition at the time was called for an officer to purchase a promotion. Here’s the bind they found themselves in. If they didn’t come from money, they had to either borrow or to achieve their spurs by reckless abandonment on the battlefield. Because his family couldn’t sell the rank following the officer’s demise, many refused to risk being killed in battle. Others had run out of cash, sold their commissions, and returned to England. Promotions ran into the thousands of pounds, however, one Lieutenant was so in debt, he needed a £100, which enabled a general to purchase the rank for a nephew for £500.
Let us follow the careers of two officers both assigned to the 23rd Welsh Fusiliers:
Lieutenant Colonel Bernard:
Bernard born of the Anglo-Irish gentry had his leg shattered on April 19, 1775 at Concord. Although too incapacitated from his leg wound to take an active part, Captain Bernard refused to resign his commission for fear his family would starve on the half-salary pension he’d receive. Currently, his full salary was a pittance compared to the skyrocketing costs of Boston. Because Bernard refused to resign, his replacement, Blunt, couldn’t move up and was finally forced to sell out and leave the army.
Captain Lieutenant Thomas Mechan (McCann):
Since his family had no money to purchase a promotion, McCann craved for action in order to rise in rank. McCann married to his job, a soldier’s life with meager pay, supporting a wife in Boston with her 3rd child, tried to turn heroics at Breed’s Hill into a promotion. Finally a letter writing campaign earned him several assignments and an assistant engineer’s acting title and pay. He still received a lieutenant’s pay although he commanded a company.
None stands out more than the Swiss family who did a favor for King George. This enabled them to send their teenager off as an officer to fight the American rebels. The lad had no military experience—worse yet, he couldn’t speak English.


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