Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Edwards, 38th Regiment, has the knee buckles

Muster rolls, ideally prepared every six months for British regiments, provide a lot of information about each soldier's career. Looking at one roll after another, we can see when a man joined a regiment, which companies he served in, and when he left. For some changes, a specific reason is given; for example, when a man left a regiment the rolls usually included an annotation of "discharged," "died," "drafted," "deserted" or what have you. But these are reasons only in a high-level administrative sense; that is, they tell us that a man was discharged (for example), but not whether it was due to long service, infirmity, reduction of forces, or some other reason.

As we've seen in other cases, it is risky to make assumptions about reasons behind changes. A frequent occurrence was for private soldiers to be appointed as corporals, and later being "reduced" back to private soldiers. For some men this happened several times. When I mention this to people, they often wryly respond that the soldier must have run afoul of military discipline, but there are many other plausible explanations. The man might have been incapacitated by injury or illness, and reduced temporarily so that an able man could fill his place; or he himself may have been a temporary replacement. He may have proven unsuited to the job - there are even examples of soldiers requesting to resign from non-commissioned roles. An overall force reduction could change the number of corporalcies available. The man have had a trade that was valuable to the army, and given up his corporalcy to fill some other role.

But, were cases where disciplinary action was, in fact, the cause. Because very few regimental orderly books or regimental court martial records survive, we seldom know the reason behind a reduction in rank. But occasionally information surfaces in other places that provide answers. Such is the case with John Edwards of the 38th Regiment of Foot.

The 38th Regiment arrived in Boston from Ireland in the summer of 1774 with the 27-year-old Edwards in its ranks as a private soldier in the light infantry company. He may have been wounded either during the expedition to Concord on 19 April 1775, or at Bunker Hill on 17 June; muster rolls seldom indicate wounded men, but Edwards was transferred out of the light infantry on 15 September, usually an indication that he was no longer capable of the rigorous service of the light infantry.

The regiment left Boston with the rest of the army in March 1776, and after a sojourn in Halifax, Nova Scotia, landed on Staten Island in June. It was here that Edwards, after ten years in the army, was appointed corporal on 4 August. The 38th was active in the campaigns around New York and in New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, and on the campaign to Philadelphia in 1777. After Philadelphia was evacuated in 1778, the 38th Regiment was sent to reinforce the British garrison in Rhode Island, arriving just before the place was besieged for three weeks in August.

After the siege was lifted, life in the Rhode Island garrison calmed down a bit, but within months a cold winter set in and both provisions and firewood were in short supply. Rations were cut severely in the struggle to apportion limited supplies of food and fuel to the military and civilian inhabitants of the island.

The harsh conditions led to some desperate behavior. Depredations by soldiers against inhabitants were a persistent problem any time an army encamped - no matter what army it was - but times of deprivation generally made things worse. On 22 February 1779, a prominent Newport merchant and distiller made an entry in his memorandum book. Cooke had already suffered a great deal of losses to the war as soldiers helped themselves to produce, livestock, fowls and fence rails from his farm - soldiers from both sides, as the rural parts of the island changed hands during the 1778 siege. Now, though, for the first time, his own home in Newport was robbed. He wrote:

Feb. 22, 1779 at ye Neight of ye above day I had my house Robed, I suppose by ye 38 Ridgement, of vize - 1 Silver Tankard Marked ScR; 1 Silver Cann Marked only with ye Makers Name on ye Bottom, S. Casey; 1 Silver Porrager ScR; 1 Silver Pepper Box Marked R. W. or ScR; 1 Silver Tabel Spoon; 1 Silver Tea Spoon; 1 pr Silver Sugar Tongues; 1 pr Silver Shooe Buckels; 1 pr Silver Neay Buckels; 1 Blew Cloke; 1 Surtute; 2 Beaver Hatts; 1 Tea Chist with 10 or 12 Dollars in it; Several Hanchifers, aprons, Stockings &c.
N. B. their was a Coart Marshel held to Enquire Concerning this Theft - my Neay Buckels was found upon one Jack Edwards of ye 38. I have all the Reason in ye World to Suspect very foul play in ye affaire.

The "Jack Edwards" who had Cooke's knee buckles was none other than corporal John Edwards of the 38th Regiment. Cooke's statements are borne out by the fact that Edwards was reduced to private soldier on 11 March 1779, a typical result of a non-commissioned officer being found guilty of a crime. We have no record of the charges brought against Cooke or the trial itself. He may not have participated in the robbery, but the Articles of War forbade soldiers from taking or purchasing items from other soldiers; a non-commissioned officer in particular was expected to recognize the possibility that goods were stolen. Whether other soldiers in the regiment were implicated is not known.

This disciplinary action did not, however, derail Edwards's career. On 19 August 1780 he was appointed serjeant, clear acknowledgement that he was in general a good soldier and had not been a ringleader in the previous year's crime. Soon after he was appointed to the grenadier company, where he spent the remainder of the war in the New York area. Early in 1783, before the peace was finalized and an overall force reduction occurred, he was discharged and returned to Great Britain. On 8 March 1783 he appeared before the pension board in Chelsea outside of London, where he was granted a pension because he had been wounded during the war; the action in which he was wounded, however, is not stated in the pension records.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Evan Davis, 23rd Regiment, spends a while in Ipswich

Among the soldiers who marched from Boston towards Concord on 19 April 1775 was Evan Davis, a grenadier in the 23rd Regiment of Foot. A ten-year army veteran, he was may have been expecting this to be another routine march into the countryside similar to others that his regiment had undertaken in recent months. All-day marches kept the soldiers fit and active, especially important during the largely-dormant winter months. Davis and his fellow soldiers probably knew, however, that this was something different. Instead of an individual regiment marching out, this time it was the grenadier company and light infantry company from each regiment, companies that hadn't routinely operated together during the gradual military build-up that had been taking place in Boston over the previous year. The troops also didn't carry their knapsacks and blankets, burdens that were usually carried on fitness marches but not on operational missions. We don't know if the rank and file soldiers were aware of their mission to seize military stores, and they certainly weren't expecting to marching into battle that day.

But battle they did, as is well known. The British grenadiers suffered many casualties that day, both killed and wounded. Among the men who didn't return to Boston was Evan Davis. The muster rolls list him as "died" on 23 April.

But he wasn't dead. He was taken prisoner, perhaps wounded. On 17 May word of his suvival reached his regiment in Boston, and he was restored to the muster rolls; as a formality, he was transferred to another company in early 1776 so that another man could be put into the grenadier company in his place.

By that time Davis was being held in Ipswich, a coastal town some distance north of Boston. He was in good company. A number of other prisoners had been taken under various circumstances; in October 1776 there were sixteen British soldiers being held in Ipswich, along with of three their wives and four children. But good company invites collusion. At dusk on 7 May 1777, after two years as a prisoner of war, Davis escaped with two fellow prisoners. It was almost three full weeks before they were advertised in the newspapers:

Deserted from the town of Ipswich, on Wednesday the 7th inst. between day light and dark, three prisoners of war, viz. Donnel McBean, a highland volunteer, of a sprightly make, dark hair, and ruddy countenance, about 21 years of age, 5 feet 8 inches high. Ewen Davis, of slim stature, has lost the sight of one of his eyes, about 5 feet 10 inches high. And one Lile, a Highlander, a shoemaker, dark complexion, about 5 feet 6 inches high. Whoever shall take up said prisoners, and convey them to any goal within this State, shall have Five Dollars reward for each of them, and all necessary charges paid by Michael Farley, Sheriff.
[Boston Gazette, 26 May 1777]

Somehow, Evan Davis made his way back to his regiment. Most likely he was able to get to the British garrison in Rhode Island and from there sail to New York, but we have no details on his journey. On 24 August he was placed back into the grenadier company, just in time for British campaign to Philadelphia. The muster rolls have no annotations to suggest that he wasn't present on that campaign, in spite of his apparent lack of sight in one eye.

The rigors of campaigning, however, apparently caught up with this soldier who'd endured captivity and made his escape. He died in Philadelphia on 27 February 1778.

A new book, coming in March 2015!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Benjamin Nevil is drafted into the 17th Light Dragoons

Those familiar with the British army know that only two cavalry regiments were sent to serve in the American Revolution, the 16th (Queen's) Light Dragoons and the 17th Light Dragoons. Seldom discussed is how those regiments were changed for American service, and the diversity of individual soldiers who served in them.

Compared to an infantry regiment, a dragoon regiment was small; infantry regiments consisted of ten companies each with three officers and 44 serjeants, corporals, drummers and private soldiers, while dragoon regiments consisted of six troops each composed of three officers and 36 serjeants, corporals, trumpeters and private soldiers. When the 17th Light Dragoons was ordered to America in early 1775, each troop had only about 24 of that number on its actual strength. Besides having to add the men to meet its normal establishment, a serjeant and 17 private men were added to the desired size of each troop. But later in 1775 when it became clear that this would be a long war requiring a stronger army, even more changes were ordered.

For infantry regiments, the size of each company was increased by half, adding a serjeant, a drummer and 18 private soldiers to each company. The 16th Light Dragoons was ordered to America, and both the 16th and 17th were increased substantially in size. The number of troops remained the same, but the size of each troop was increased by one officer and thirty private men - in addition to the increase that had been made the previous year. These new men were dismounted, that is, they were to fight on foot rather than on horseback (although the term "dragoon" originally described soldiers equipped to travel on horseback but fight on foot, by the time of the American Revolution dragoons were, in general, the same as other cavalry and configured to fight on horseback).

All these men had to come from somewhere, and filling the ranks with new recruits would be counterproductive; the purpose of the size increase, after all, was to make the regiments more effective on campaign. For both the infantry and cavalry regiments, men were drafted (that is, transferred) from other regiments to fill the ranks of those going to war; for the two cavalry regiments bound for America, almost all of the required men were drafts rather than recruits. One man drafted into the 17th Light Dragoons was a trooper from the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, Benjamin Nevil.

When Nevil joined the army has not been determined. It is our good fortune to have a detailed description of him, because at the beginning of 1774 he was advertised as a deserter:

Deserted, on the 2d of January, 1774, from a Party of his Majesty’s First (or Royal Regiment of Dragoons) commanded by the Earl of Pembroke, quartered at Boston, Lincolnshire,
                Benjamin Nevil, five Feet eight Inches high, thirty-one Years old, long brown Hair, grey Eyes, dark Complexion, gloomy Countenance, marked with the Small-Pox, strait and well-made, has lost the first Joint of his Left Thumb; born at or near Arlington, in Berkshire, by Occupation a Labourer. Went off in his Regimental white Jacket, laced Hat, and Leather Breeches, and has a Woman with him who passes for his Wife.
                Whoever secures the above Deserter, shall receive Twenty Shillings Reward above the Allowance by Act of Parliament, for apprehending Deserters, on Application to the commanding Officer of the Regiment; or to Mr. Lamb, in Golden-Square, London.
[St. James’s Chronicle (London), 29 January 1774]

The circumstances of this disciplinary digression are not known. What is clear is that Nevil was back with his regiment in time to be drafted into the 17th Light Dragoons in March 1776. He probably arrived in America six months later, when a large convoy carrying recruits and reinforcements arrived in New York in late October. Whether he fought on horseback or on foot is not known, but he appears to have gone quickly into the fight. His regiment was very active in the campaign across New Jersey in late 1776 and the many skirmishes there throughout the early months of 1777.

Service in New Jersey in the first few months of 1777 was very hard on British troops. Quartered in a number of small towns stretching from Fort Lee to Trenton, they spent nights in barns and outbuildings; days were occupied with procurement of desperately-needed forage from the countryside, and protecting the fragile string of outposts from attack by American troops. Soldiers succumbed to illness and wounds, including Benjamin Nevil. He died on 11 March 1777, but the cause of his demise is not known.

A new book, coming in March 2015!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ambrose Fox, 24th and 23rd Regiments, puts in 28 years

When we think of escaping prisoners of war, we most often think of World War II. During the American Revolution, British prisoners of war were just as wily and troublesome for their captors as their descendants two centuries later. Many hundreds escaped from American captivity, often returning to British lines and falling back into their army's ranks. The most famous of these is Roger Lamb, first of the 9th Regiment and then of the 23rd, who twice made his way through hostile territory to rejoin the British army. Lamb's fame is due not to his being unique, but to his having penned a detailed account of his flights to freedom.

Lamb absconded from his captors in late 1778 when the prisoners from General Burgoyne's army were marching from Rutland, Massachusetts to Albemarle, Virginia. Some 600 prisoners made their break during this march, particularly when they were relatively close to British-held New York City. Among them was Ambrose Fox of the 24th Regiment of Foot. 

Fox, from the city of Lancaster in England, was a seasoned campaigner. A tailor by trade, he had joined the 24th Regiment in 1759 when he was 21 years old; during the Seven Years War, he fought in Europe, and was wounded in the left leg on 16 August 1762 during a river crossing in Germany. This didn't put him out of service; he continued with his regiment through the peace of 1763 and then during the interwar years while the regiment was in Great Britain.

In early 1776 the 24th was ordered abroad again, this time to Canada. With several other regiments they landed in Quebec in May, relieving that city from an American siege. The reinforced British army quickly retook the possessions they had lost in 1775 along the waterway from Quebec to Lake Champlain.

1777 brought the campaign under General Burgoyne that sought to secure the entire route from Quebec to Albany, but which ran afoul of concerted resistance along the Hudson River at Saratoga, New York. In October, Ambrose Fox became a prisoner of war along with the rest of his regiment and his fellow soldiers in Burgoyne's army. By the terms of the surrender treaty they were to return to Great Britain, and marched to the environs of Boston where they spent a miserable winter in hastily-built barracks. In the meantime, negotiations for their release broke down. In April 1778 they were sent inland to Rutland where they were held in a stockade.

The coming of another winter brought another change of location. This time the beleaguered prisoners were marched over land to Albemarle, Virginia. The route brought them closer to British-held New York than they'd ever been. Many of the prisoners took the opportunity to slip away, making their way through the lines at great hazards to their lives, as the region was filled with American military posts protecting the Hudson river and New Jersey interior from British incursions.

In spite of the hazards, Ambrose Fox succeeded in reaching the British garrison. To protect himself against charges of desertion, he first obtained permission from his company commander to escape. In mid-December, after a 19-day trek, he came into the British post at Paulus Hook in New Jersey. Soon after, he was drafted into the 23rd Regiment of Foot where he met up with Roger Lamb and a few other escapees from Burgoyne's army.

The beginning of 1780 brought a new campaign: The 23rd Regiment was part of a substantial force that besieged and captured Charleston, South Carolina. This initiated a series of campaigns that began successfully but culminated in the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Ambrose Fox was taken prisoner once again.

It appears that Fox waited out his captivity this time. When hostilities ended in the first half of 1783, he and other prisoners were repatriated; he returned to New York where he met up with men from his regiment who had escaped and others who had not been on the southern campaign. He appeared before an examining board to claim back pay still due to him from the 24th Regiment, and gave the following brief deposition:

Ambrose Fox private soldier in the 24th Regt. says that he made his escape with the approbation of Captain Jamison, to whose Company he belonged, who gave him a sixty Dollar bill to carry him forward - that he surrendered himself upwards of four years ago to Major McLeroth of the 64th at Paulus Hook, and was immediately drafted into the 23d Regt. with which Regt. he has served ever since; he claims three years Cloathing from the 24th Regt. but no pay & intermediate pay for 19 days.

The claim for clothing refers to the annual entitlement to each soldier of a new coat, waistcoat and breeches, none of which he'd received for the years 1776, 1777 and 1778 (the annual clothing usually arrived in America near the end of the year; the 1776 clothing for the 24th Regiment was captured at sea). With his regiment, he left America late in 1783 and continued to serve in Great Britain for another four years. He finally took his discharge in March 1787; after 28 years and two wars, "being old and worn out in the service," the army's pension board determined that "he is rendered unfit for further service" and granted him a pension.

A new book, coming in March 2015!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

John Gilroy, 10th Regiment, leaves Newburyport

                John Gilroy, a corporal in the 10th Regiment of Foot, was captured by the enemy shortly before the British evacuated Boston in March 1776. The date and circumstances of his capture haven't come to light yet, but the 30-year-old soldier from Fermanagh was held in the region north of Boston.

                Initially there weren't many other British prisoners in the towns north of Boston, but that soon changed. Not long after the British army left Boston, three transports carrying soldiers of the 42nd and 71st Regiments, both highlanders, sailed into Cape Cod Bay. They had come from Great Britain and hadn't gotten word that the port was no longer in British hands. American ships engaged them and took over 200 soldiers prisoner. These men, too, were sent to towns in Massachusetts.

                British prisoners in America made it their business to try to escape. Gilroy may have tried at least once, for by June 1777 he was being held in the Newburyport jail rather than barracks or other accommodations more typical for prisoners of war. Among his fellow inmates was a 19-year-old officer of the 71st Regiment, Collin Mackenzie. The young officer must have gotten along well with the seasoned corporal who had nine years in the army, mostly in Canada prior to the war. On 26 June 1777, they escaped together.

                Their captors searched for them, and published a newspaper ad describing them and offering a reward:

In the Evening of the 26th Day of June, 1777, the following Persons made their Escape from the Goal in Newbury-Port, in the County of Essex. Collin Mackenzie, a Lieutenant in the 71st (British) Regiment of Foot, 19 Years of Age, short thick-sett, 5 Feet 5 Inches high, fair Complexion. Had on when he went away, a short Linnen Coat, Trowsers, and a Highland Bonnet. Also, John Gilroy, a Corporal in the 10th Regiment, 25 Years of Age, sandy hair, 5 Feet 8 Inches high, strong, well made, thin Visage, fair Complexion. Had on when he went away a Regimental Coat of the 10th Regiment, faced with Yellow, Buttons No. 10. Both Prisoners of War. Whoever shall take and secure either of the above Prisoners in any Goal in the State of the Massachusetts Bay, shall have Twenty Dollars Reward for the Lieutenant, and Ten Dollars Reward for the Corporal, and all necessary Charges Paid. Michael Farley, Sheriff.
[Boston Gazette, 30 June 1777]

                The ad understated Gilroy's age considerably. It was also to no avail. The pair managed to make their way to the British garrison in Rhode Island, and then to their respective regiments in New York.

                Gilroy's time in prison did not have a detrimental impact on his career. He soon was appointed serjeant in the 10th Regiment's light infantry company. In this capacity he fought with the 1st battalion of light infantry on the Philadelphia campaign, taking an active role in famous battles like Brandywine, Germantown and Whitemarsh, and numerous lesser actions. The following year brought the march from across New Jersey and the battle of Monmouth, as well as a vigorous raid on New Bedford, Massachusetts.

                Back in New York in the late summer of 1778, the army prepared for a new expedition against the French in the valuable islands of the West Indies. The 10th Regiment had been on service in Canada and America since 1767; it was time for them to go home. The regiment's able-bodied soldiers were drafted into other British regiments bound for the West Indies expedition, but the officers and non-commissioned officers, including Gilroy, went back to Great Britain to recruit and train new soldiers.

                John Gilroy continued to serve. Even after being discharged from the 10th Regiment long after the American War, he was not done being a soldier. He joined the Mayo Militia in his native Ireland, where he continued as a soldier until 1807. At the age of 62, he finally too his discharge after 39 years in the army, and received a pension. The fifteen or sixteen months he spent as a prisoner of war in Massachusetts were just a small facet of a long and varied career.

A new book, coming in March 2015!

Monday, December 1, 2014

John Clancey, 47th Regiment, dupes a tempter

By March 1775, tensions in Boston between soldiers and civilians were running high. The people of the Massachusetts Bay colony sorely resented having British soldiers in Boston, troops they saw as instruments of a Parliament they no longer trusted. The soldiers believed in their mission to maintain peace among people they perceived as unwilling to follow the laws of Great Britain. That's a simplification, but makes the point that the populace and the army were at odds and members of both groups went out of their way to aggravate the other. It was in this setting that a man named Thomas Ditson traveled from his farm in Billerica to the city of Boston to make some purchases.

Whether Ditson was naive or deliberately attempting to bait British soldiers is not clear. Inhabitants of outlying towns had been using various means to tempt British soldiers to desert, and Ditson's actions made him appear to be doing just that. He approached a private soldier of the 47th Regiment named John Clancey and asked, “Soldier, have you an old Soldier’s Coat to sell?”

Whether Clancey was naive or deliberately attempting to bait Ditson is also not clear. British soldiers owned their uniforms, paid for by stoppages from their pay; Clancey, having joined the regiment four years before, had received several annual issues of clothing by this time. But that doesn't mean he had leave to sell them. Regardless, he responded that he did, and took Ditson to a building that was being used as a barracks. There, Clancey asked his wife to fetch some old clothes while confirming with his serjeant that it was ok to sell them. After some haggling, they struck a deal for a regimental coat and waistcoat for which Ditson paid two Pistareens.

One of these two, Ditson or Clancey, had gained the confidence of his mark. Ditson asked if there was any liquor to be had, and when someone said there was spruce beer available, Ditson ordered a bowl to share with Clancey. As they imbibed, Ditson leaned into Clancey and asked if he had a firelock - a musket - to sell. Soldiers did not own their weapons, but Clancey brought forth an old, rusty piece. Finding that it did not spark well - that is, the flint didn't create satisfactory sparks when it struck the steel on the weapon's lock - Ditson asked for a better one. Clancey then produced a nicer firelock, for which they agreed on a price of four dollars. In the course of the bargaining Ditson decided to purchase both weapons, as well as a set of acoutrements - bayonet, scabbard and cartridge box - using a mix of dollars, shillings, and pistareens that was typical of the coinage circulating in colonial America.

The next challenge was to get these military weapons out of the city. As a resident of Billerica, northwest of the city, Ditson wanted to take the ferry from Boston to Charlestown, but knew that he couldn't simply walk past the sentry carrying a couple of five-foot-long muskets. Clancey said that he knew the sentries and agreed to go along, carrying one of the weapons himself. Somewhere along the way, Ditson drew out a knife with which to cut the slings off the muskets, to make them look a little less military; Clancey stopped him and carefully removed and pocketed the slings. Was this a sign that Clancey was setting Ditson up, or Clancey simply showing habitual respect for equipment?

Feeling very familiar with Clancey now, Ditson explained that he was part of a colonial battalion, and in fact was their flugel man - the man who demonstrated the manual of arms to other men - but if Clancey would come along with him into the country, his military training would be very valuable. He'd get whatever money he wanted, and become an officer and a gentleman. Ditson was attempting to entice Clancey to desert, as several British soldiers had done during the previous year. Clancey, however, may have suspected this all along: while they were drinking at the barracks, he'd managed to slip out and alert the officer of the guard of the proceedings.

On the way to the ferry, Ditson was arrested and put into confinement by officers of the 47th Regiment. The next morning, he was stripped down to his breeches, covered with tar and feathers, tied into a chair on a cart, and paraded around Boston as "A villain who attempted to entice one of the

Soldiers of His Majesty’s Forty Seventh Regiment to desert, and take up Arms with Rebels against his King and Country.” A crowd gathered and grew, and began to press in, but there were some fifty soldiers escorting Ditson with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets. Before things got out of hand, Ditson was released and sent on his way.

Thomas Ditson wrote a deposition telling his side of the story - that he'd gone into Boston explicitly to purchase a gun, and had been directed to Clancey after asking around as to where he could purchase one. That Clancey's wife had questioned whether it was allowed to sell the weapons, after which Ditson had tried to back out of the deal but Clancey would not allow it. The thrust of the complaint, though - sent to the British colonial governor who was also the commander in chief of the army, General Thomas Gage - was that the soldiers and officers had acted lawlessly and abusively by tarring and feathering Ditson and parading him around town. The general mood of the colonists towards the military is reflected in the fact that Ditson's deposition was published in several newspapers around the colonies, but John Clancey's deposition telling his side of the story appeared only in a Boston paper.

This incident in March 1775 was soon overshadowed by the outbreak of war the following month. Ditson served in several campaigns during the war. John Clancey's career as a soldier, however, soon came to an end. Somehow the twenty-five-year-old soldier broke his thigh while serving in Boston; this may have been a wound from the Battle of Bunker Hill, or an accident incurred during other duty. By the end of 1776 he was discharged, no longer fit for service due to his injury. He returned to Great Britain where he received an out pension, and there is no evidence that he served again in the army.

A new book, coming in March 2015!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thomas Pickworth, 23rd Regiment, repeats his behavior

I sometimes get inquiries from descendants of men who deserted from the British army. Usually the family story involves their ancestor being pressed or conscripted into service, and then deserting in America because he had no desire to fight the Yankees. While it is often possible to find the man on regimental muster rolls, determine the exact day that he deserted, and get some insight about when he enlisted, some facets of the family lore can usually be discounted. With the exception of a brief period in 1778, 1779 and 1780, it was not legal for the British army to conscript or press men; even during the period that it was legal, few such men were sent to America. Almost every British soldier who served in the American Revolution had joined the army voluntarily, something that gets lost for obvious reasons when these men settled in the new nation and told their stories to later generations.

Reasons for desertion are not so easy to categorize. It is true that the war was not universally popular in Great Britain. Soldiers who deserted, though, were far more likely to be motivated by an overall distaste for military service (or, more specifically, wartime service) than for any specific concerns about who they were fighting. Some deserters prove this to us by their exploits subsequent to deserting from British ranks.

A fine example is that of Thomas Pickworth (or Peckworth). He joined the 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in April of 1777. The circumstances of his enlistment are not known; the Englishman probably arrived in America with a body of recruits for the regiment, having enlisted in Great Britain during the previous year, but there's a chance that he was already in America when he enlisted - the muster rolls do not make it clear.

He was not a typical recruit in that he was in his early thirties when he joined the regiment. This was rare but not unknown; most men enlisted in their early twenties, but regiments could take on any man who they deemed physically capable. It's possible that he had prior military service. He was by trade a shoemaker, a fairly common profession among soldiers.

The 23rd Regiment went with General Sir William Howe's army on the campaign to Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777. Perhaps it was the hard campaigning and fighting that turned Pickworth away from the army. Or perhaps he had a roving disposition and was inclined to disciplinary trouble. Muster rolls prepared in February 1778 show that he was "sick," a catchall term that covered every malady from battle wounds to injuries incurred from lashings as well as the usually diseases. Regardless of his malady in February, by the beginning of May he was well enough to abscond from the British army; he deserted on 1 May. Many men deserted at this time when the army was preparing to leave Philadelphia. We can only guess which ones had formed local attachments and which ones simply saw the opportunity afforded by the army marching away.

Opportunity seems to have been on Pickworth's mind. Just days after deserting, he enlisted again - this time in the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Continental Army. Such an act could be interpreted as sympathetic to the American cause, but it clearly was not. Within days of enlisting - which itself was within days of having deserted from the British - Pickworth absconded yet again. In early June the commander of his company placed an advertisement for him:

Twenty Dollars Reward.
Deserted from Captain Jacob Mauser’s company, of the sixth Pennsylvania regiment, on Monday the 11th instant, (May) a recruit named Thomas Pickworth, says he was born in England, about five feet eight inches high, dark complexion, middling thick, about thirty-five years of age, says he is a shoemaker by trade and lived in Philadelphia: It is thought he made towards Virginia with some people moving that way, and perhaps may change his name: Had on when he went away, a brown coat, long blue breeches, and a little hat. Whoever takes up said deserter and secures him in any gaol so that he may be had again, shall have the above reward, paid by the subscriber in Maxatawny Township, Berks County.
Jacob Mauser, Capt. 6th P. R.
[Pennsylvania Packet, 3 June 1778]

He doesn't seem to have rejoined the 6th Pennsylvania. He doesn't even seem to have changed his name, or gone to Virginia. Instead, he enlisted yet again, this time into a company of Marines in Pennsylvania, some time in August or early September 1779. By the end of September, though, he had deserted yet again:

Deserted from Captain Robert Mullan's Company of Marines, in Philadelphia, the following men, viz. Thomas Peckworth, about 37 years of age, 5 feet 9 inches high, dark complexion; had on when he went off a light coloured cloth coat, his other clothing not remembered, a shoemaker by trade.
[Pennsylvania Gazette, 6 October 1779]

This ad, dated Philadelphia, Sept. 29 1779, also listed a number of other men who'd deserted from the Marines.

Why would a man repeatedly enlist and desert? Without explicit testimony from Pickworth himself, we can only guess. It was common for recruiters to offer a cash enlistment bounty, and Pickworth may have deemed it worth the risk to take the money and run even though desertion was a capital offense. If he did tell his descendants about his service in the American Revolution, he probably left out some details, changed some others, and hoped no one in his family took a liking to reading old newspapers.

A new book, coming in March 2015!