The best source of primary sources: Revolutionary Imprints
Monday, December 9, 2013
John Tom was an Irish blacksmith born in 1757 who joined the British army as a teenager. By June of 1775, he was a private soldier in the 21st Regiment of Foot, the Royal North British Fusiliers. This was one of the regiments sent to Quebec in 1776, initally to relieve Canada from the threat of rebel takeover and then to go on the offensive towards Lake Champlain. The 21st participated in the 1777 campaign that started with a flourish, driving American forces from the region of Lake Champlain, seizing Fort Ticonderoga, and pressing towards Albany. The effort floundered in October at Saratoga, and the army including private John Tom of the 21st Regiemnt became prisoners of war.
The prisoners were sent first to barracks outside of Boston, and the following summer father inland to Rutland. Somewhere along the line John Tom absconded; the circumstances of his escape aren't known, nor exactly where he had been held, but he was advertised in a Connecticut newspaper in June 1778:
Run away the 26th of May, inst. one John Tom an Irishman belonging to the 21st British regiment, taken at the Northward in September last by trade a Blacksmith, had on when he went away a short blanket coat striped vest tow cloth trowsers, about 5 feet 6 inches high, light complexion 21 years of age fore teeth rotten. Whoever will take up said runaway, and secure him in any goal or return him to the subscriber, shall have 5 dollars reward and all necessary charges paid, by Ez’l Williams Dep. Commiss. Prisoners.
[Connecticut Courant, 9 June 1778]
However he managed to escape, it was effective: before the end of the June he was already in New York and had joined a new regiment, the 23rd Regiment of Foot, or Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Many British soldiers made daring escapes, risking life and limb to make their way through hostile territory and rejoin their comrades, either finding the regiment they'd originally belonged to or joining one in the place where they found safety. After putting so much at risk, we can only wonder why some of these men didn't stay. After only fifteen months in his new regiment, John Tom deserted from the British army, never to return. He and another man with whom he absconded gave a brief intelligence report to an American officer:
Two deserters from the Welsh Fusileers, which they left last Thursday was a week are arrived but give little information except that the recruits which arrived for theirs & the 7th regiment, which lay together did not exceed one hundred & ten men for the two several whereof were sick many of them old and pressed men. Every thing had been moved out of Fort Independance, the platforms taken up but the works not destroyed. The two regiments, which lay at Spiking Devill Hill; with the Yagers in front at Courtlands house had orders to move within their new lines. Every hill on York island is fortifyed as strong as possible.
The information they gave about recruits was reasonably accurate at least as to numbers: the 7th Regiment had just received 55 recruits, and the 23rd had received 49. Illness had broken out among the some 1300 recruits that had just arrived for the army, and by this stage of the war some recruits were indeed in 30s and early 40s. But only 13 of the recruits for the 7th and 23rd were "pressed men", all of them put into the 23rd Regiment.
It is unfortunate that John Tom gave no reason for abandoning the army he'd worked so hard to rejoin only a year before.
The best source of primary sources: Revolutionary Imprints
Monday, December 2, 2013
It's frustrating sometimes to find an interesting anecdote about a British soldier, but to have no additional information on the man to add some substance to the story - his age, where he was from, and so forth. Equally frustrating, and much more common, is to have very informative demographic data with no hint at all of the man's individuality. Frederick Fisher provides an excellent example.
The 34th Regiment's muster rolls tell us very succinctly that Fisher joined the regiment some time between April 1776 - shortly before the regiment left Ireland for Canada - and January 1777. The rolls prepared on the latter date give no indication of where Fisher and a large number of other new men came from. We can follow him through the semi-annual rolls and see that he served as a private soldier until he was discharged at Fort Niagara in June 1774.
Fisher's name, and some knowledge of the 34th Regiment, leads us to suspect that he was German. Some 2000 men were recruited by the British army in the German states in late 1775 and early 1776 for service in the ranks of British regiments; for the most part, these men joined their regiments in America in late 1776. The 34th received over 100 of these German recruits. A description list of men in the 34th prepared in 1783 correlates with this assumption, listing Fisher's country of birth as "Foreign" (as opposed to English, Scottish or Irish); there's an outside chance that he was from some other region including America, but given the large number of Europeans, mostly Germans, that joined the regiment in 1776, it's a pretty good bet that he was German.
The list also tells us that Fisher was 41 years old in January 1783 and had served 7 years in the regiment. So he was born in 1741 or 1742 and enlisted at the age of 34 or 35. That's an unusually old age for enlistment, albeit not unprecedented. Many of the German recruits who joined in their 30s had had prior military service in European armies, but we don't know if that's true of Fisher. We also learn from the desciption list that he was 5 feet 5 and one half inches tall.
Fisher appears again as having applied for a land grant of 200 acres in Ontario in June 1797. He wrote a brief but well-composed petition in which he explained that, having enlisted after 16 December 1775, he was entitled to the grant. He was correct: in a move to stimulate recruiting when it became apparent that an all-out war had begun in America, the King proclaimed that men who enlisted after 16 December 1775 were entitled to be dischaged at the end of the war, as long as they'd served at least three years, and could take a land grant in America if they wanted it. Fisher met these criteria and claimed his land, but gave no indication of why he'd waited so long to do so or where'd been in the mean time. Included in his petition was a copy of his discharge, which indicated that he was (in June 1784) 43 years old and had a swarthy complexion, brown hair and grey eyes.
Also revealing from this petition is that Fisher was able to write, and write lucidly, in English. When he'd learned this skill is not known. His German roots are perhaps confirmed by his spelling his name "Frederick Fisher" in the body of the petition but signing it "Fredrich Fischer."
This is a lot of information about the man. We know about his entire military service, and his general physical characteristics - more than we know about so many people of the era. But that's all we know. In eight years of service he certainly experienced many things, perhaps participated in dangerous military actions and contributed to the construction of fortifications that survive to this day. In over 30 years of pre-military life and over 13 years of post-military life, he was occupied at something or another every single day. It appears that he mastered two languages. And yet we know nothing of any specific thing this man did, other than write one petition. We don't even know if he got the land he asked for.
Ideal gifts for historians and researchers: Revolutionary Imprints
Monday, November 25, 2013
When the British outpost at Stony Point on the Hudson River was taken by surprise on the night of 15-16 July 1779, most of the British garrison was taken prisoner. Among the two companies of the 71st Regiment of Foot captured there was a private soldier named William Dinsmore. With his fellow prisoners he was sent into Pennsylvania, where he was held in the New Jail in Philadelphia.
Like many British soldiers, Dinsmore was married, and like many army wives, his wife dutifully accompanied him into confinement along with their two young children. We have seen before that a soldier's pay was insufficient to support a family, and that it was therefore common for army wives to hold jobs either within or outside the army. This did not change while in prisoner, and in fact conditions there could be more challenging than in garrison. Many wives of soldiers in the Philadelphia jail were allowed to find work in town - and with a war on, there was plenty to be found - but Mrs. Dinsomore's full attention was required by her children which made it difficult for her to find work. In this difficult situation, Dinsmore wrote an eloquent petition to the colonial official in charge of British prisoners in Pennsylvania:
Philadelphia, 10th August 1779
Unto Thomas Bradford Esquire Commissary for the Prisoners of War at Philadelphia.
The Petition of William Dinsmore Private Soldier in the 2nd Company 71 British Grenadiers now Prisoner of War new Goal.
That your Petitioner is a Married Men has his Wife and two Children with him in the Goal. That the rations allowed, is not Sufficient, to maintain or support them. That he has no money or any thing to raise money in order to purchase any thing for his Family. And tho’ your Honour so Charitable as to allow the Prisoners Wives to go out to the Town to Earn their livelihood; yet tho’ your Petitioners Wife had the same offer, and has good hands, it could not be expected that she could get any Family that would admit her with the trouble of her, with her two Children, as She can do very little more than take care and attend her own Children. In this manner your Petitioner is distressed with a Family that can neither work nor want, and situated in a place where he can do nothing for himself or them; Your Petitioner is by Trade a Rope maker, bred to that business with the best of that branch of Trade in Scotland. With regard to himself as to his honesty, fidelity and ability in his profession, he refers to Mr. John Lang from Glasgow, Rope maker in this City, who knew him from his Infancy and wrought with him at the Rope work and also knew his Parents and People. Therefore he humbly begs that your Honour would allow him to go out to work at his Trade under the care and Inspection of any Gentleman in Town so that he could earn something for his helpless Family in their present Condition.
May it Therefore please your Honour, to take the Tenor of ye above Petition into your Consideration, and Grant such a deliverance thereon as Shall Seem to you good, and your Petitioner will ever humbly Pray
Dinsmore's petition reveals him to have been educated, intelligent and skilled. He even had a reference from his home country living in Philadelphia; perhaps they had met when the British occupied that city for part of 1777 and 1778. His petition is a valuable source of insight into the hardships faced by wives of soldiers. At this writing, unfortunately, we've found no further information on this family - whether Dinsmore was allowed to practice his trade in Philadelphia, or whether he was eventually exchanged and returned with his family to New York and eventually to Great Britain.
Monday, November 18, 2013
We've seen examples of soldiers who found jobs while they were prisoners of war. Some soldiers retained their jobs in spite of their captivity. British regimental officers were allowed to employ a soldier as a servant (officers above the rank of captain could have two), and men employed in this capacity earned a good wage over and above their usual soldier's pay. Servants who proved trustworthy and reliable could spend much of their military careers in the service of a single officer, and their job took them where ever their master went.
And excellent example is William Goldthorp, born in the Lambeth district of London in 1731. He learned the taylor's trade before joining the army; it appears that he served for a few years during the Seven Years' War and was discharged before reenlisting into the 22nd Regiment of Foot in 1766. By 1775 he had been taken as a servant by Captain Christopher French of the regiment's light infantry company. When the 22nd embarked for America in May 1775, Captain French and his servant Goldthorp stayed behind in Ireland (French's native land) for another month while the regiment's new clothing for the year was prepared. They sailed for America in the summer on the ship Hope.
When the Hope left Great Britain, the situation in America was changing rapidly and was not at all clear across the ocean. The 22nd and three other regiments had been directed to New York, but upon arrival off the American coast were redirected to Boston. When the Hope reached the coast two months later she made for Philadelphia, unware that the British army was by this time concentrated in Boston and the other cities were in rebel hands. The Hope, her cargo of uniforms for two regiments, Major French and his servant, and a few others were captured as soon as they set foot in America.
French was sent into captivity in Connecticut, and Goldthorp was allowed to accompany him. As the senior ranking prisoner of war (he had been promoted to major while still at sea), Christopher French was responsible for the well-being of all British prisoners in Connecticut; having served in America in the 1750s and 1760s, French also knew many American officers personally. From captivity he wrote countless letters to American officials from the local committee responsible for Connecticut prisoners to General Washington himself.
While a prisoner of war, William Goldthorp continued to do the same work for Major French that he had done while on regular service. One of these tasks was delivering letters written by his master, and he was allowed to call on various people in the Hartford area to deliver messages and receive responses. He also delivered tracts to the printer of the Connecticut newspaper, who did not print most (if any) of them.
Christopher French escaped from jail in late 1776 and made his way into New York. William Goldthorp was exchanged and returned to the service of Major French. At the end of 1777 French was promoted to the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 52nd Regiment. Entitled to two servants, he brought with him Goldthorp and another soldier of the 22nd who had been a prisoner in Connecticut with him into his new regiment; the 52nd sent two men into the 22nd Regiment in exchange.
French, having had a long career, retired from the army in late 1778. It was no coincidence that William Goldthorp once again followed his master, taking his discharge from the 52nd Regiment at the age of 47. He returned to Great Britain and went before the examining board of Chelsea Hospital to request a pension because he suffered from "fitts." He received an out pension; although nothing is known of his subsequent life, he may well have remained a servant to Christopher French, now a private citizen at his family estate in Ireland.
The best source of primary sources: Revolutionary Imprints
Sunday, November 10, 2013
There's a popular perception that British regiments recruited from specific regions in Great Britain during the 1775-1783 era. They didn't. The county titles for which British regiments are so famous - the Cheshire Regiment, the Staffordshire Regiment, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment, and so forth - weren't given until 1782, much too late to influence the recruiting practices of regiments in the American war. But, like many things that were institutionalized, the assignment of county titles reflected a practice that had already begun in the 1770s. Regiments that maintained a long-term recruiting presence in a particular region tended over time to be successful at recruiting there. The war accelerated the trend when some cities endeavored to raise regiment from within their own populations, and some counties did the same.
Among the trend setters was the 33rd Regiment of Foot, among the best disciplined and most distinguished of the war. In 1782 they acquired the title The West Riding Regiment, after a region of Yorkshire, but it is clear (from surviving pension records which give mens' places of birth) that the regiment had been recruiting predominantly in Yorkshire for some time. But not exclusively in Yorkshire. Like all British regiments early in the war, officers of the 33rd Regiment recruited where ever they could best find suitable men. For Captain William Dansey of the 33rd, this men in the area of his newly-adopted home in Hereford near the Welsh border.
One of these recruits was James Wilcox. In February of 1775, at the age of 19, he enlisted with Captain Dansey. The 33rd was posted in Ireland at the time, but ; it is not known when Dansey and his Hereford recruits made their way to Ireland and joined the regiment, but they made it in time to leave Cork harbor for America in early 1776. Captain Dansey took command of the regiment's light infantry company, and Wilcox, although still an inexperienced soldier, joined him in it. Dansey described him as "a fine spirited lad."
Two companies of the 33rd including the light infantry were on a tranport named the Golden Rule when their convoy carrying nine regiments left Cork on 12 Februay 1776 bound for Charleston, South Carolina. By April they were off the American coast. It was here, still at sea, that the 33rd's light infantry had their first activity of the war. Their transport came upon an American merchant ship and, after firing a few shots and a half-hour chase, captured the vessel. This was a trivial contribution to the war but surely raised the spirits of the British troops.
In early May the British regiments landed and encamped at Cape Fear, North Carolina. It was here that young James Wilcox had the dubious distinction of being the 33rd Regiment's first battle casualty. Around the 24th he was posted as an advanced sentry one night when a violent thunderstorm came on, the worst the British soldiers had ever seen. Lightening illuminated the camp, strong winds knocked down some tents and carried others away, and intense rain began to fall. In the midst of this, three American soldiers crawled towards Wilcox on their hands and knees, stalking him as they would a hunted animal. Wilcox fired once and began to reload, but the assailants, now only ten yards away, fired back and then fled. Wilcox was hit in the wrist, but one of his attackers lay dead.
Taken back into camp and then put on a hospital ship, it was at first feared that Wilcox would lost his hand. Dansey "went on board the Hospital Ship several times to see him 'till he was out of Danger." It wasn't long before Wilcox's spirits had improved and he hoped to recover sufficiently "to do his Duty again and have his Revenge."
It was not to be so. The hand did not recover sufficiently for him to remain an effective soldier. He was discharged as an invalid and returned to Great Britain. In April 1777 he appeared before the examining board of Chelsea Hospital and received an out pension. He had served a total of two years and two months in the army.
A remarkable new book on the American Revolution
Friday, November 1, 2013
Before presenting the story of John Sturgess, please allow me to immodestly mention a new book that I was privileged to collaborate on, Journal of the American Revolution Vol. 1. This is a compilation of articles from the first half year of the web magazine Journal of the American Revolution and includes a strikingly interesting range of subject matter.
Many of the soldiers studied on this blog had some form of employment that they pursued while serving in the army - either working directly for the army as tailors, carpenters, wagoners or in a plethora of other roles; or outside the army during their time free from military duties. A job that was available within the army that is often overlooked, at least in terms of being a source of supplemental income, is that of being a servant to an officer. My book British Soldiers, American War devotes a chapter to this work that could employ more than 5 percent of the soldiers in a regiment during wartime, and nearly ten percent at the reduced peacetime strength.
Each company in a British regiment included three officers, each of whom was allowed at least one servant drawn from the ranks. Being a servant didn't exempt the soldier from routine military duties, but it often afforded him a higher standard of living: lodging in his master's quarters (albeit often in attics or other incommodious spaces), extra clothing provided by his master, a measure of freedom while purchasing or delivering goods for his master, and above all a supplemental income of about 35 percent of his regular soldier's wages. There was also the possibility of being retained in his master's service when that officer retired from the army.
An officer could dismiss a soldier from being a servant, or retain him as long as his work was satisfactory. Some soldiers spent much of their careers in this capacity, including John Sturgess, servant to Captain William Glanville Evelyn of the 4th (King's Own) Regiment of Foot. When the 4th Regiment arrived in Boston in 1774, he was a corporal in Evelyn's company, aparently capable of holding two roles of significant responsibility.
On the evening of 17 June 1775, reacting to the heavy toll taken by the Battle of Bunker Hill, Captain Evelyn wrote his will. He left all of his money and possessions to his mistress Peggie Wright, but added that
I desire her also to pay my servant Sturgess, two Guineas, which Legacy should have been more proportioned to what I owe him for his attachment & fidelity to me, but that what I give to Him, I must take from her. If he should be in my debt upon the Books I desire He may be forgiven.
Captain Evelyn came through that battle unscathed, but a few months later he took a post of greater danger when he assumed command of the 4th Regiment's light infantry company. In typical fashion, Sturgess transferred into the company with his master, forfeiting his corporal's knot but staying in the service of his officer. After Boston was evacuated in March 1776, the army was reorganized in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Light infantry companies has already been detached from their regiments and formed into temporary wartime battalions; in Halifax these battalions were reorganized and increased in size as more regiments arrived in America.
The greatly-strengthened army occupied Staten Island unopposed in the summer of 1775. In August, knowing that a campaign to take New York City was about to begin, Captain Evelyn wrote a memorandum revising his will. He directed that, in the event of his death, all of his possessions should be sold at auction (a typical practice of the era), and after various debts were settled Peggie Wright was to receive the proceeds,
excepting only Five Guineas which I desire may be paid to my Servant Sturgess, over & above what wages I may owe him, as a small but gratefull acknowledgement for his fidelity. I also desire that he may have all my silver Shoe and Knee Buckles & my Stock Buckles, and I would wish to recommend him to some good Master as Govr. Martin - or Lord Rawdon, who might be better able to reward his services.
Once again we see Evelyn hoping to provide for Sturgess if Evelyn himself would be unable to. It wasn't long before that became the case. Evelyn was severely wounded in battle on 14 October 1776, and died in New York three weeks later.
We've found no evidence that John Sturgess went into the service of any other officer. He continued as a private soldier in the light infantry company of the 4th Regiment at least until July 1778. That company was in the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, serving at the forefront of dozens of skirmishes and major battles. Sturgess, modestly enriched by his deceased master's guineas and silver buckles, appears to have escaped harm. Unfortunately there is a gap in the regiment's rolls beginning in the second half of 1778 when they were sent to campaign in the West Indies; Sturgess isn't on the next set of rolls prepared in early 1780, leaving us with no clues about his fate. He may have been discharged from the service before even going to the West Indies, or perhaps even been taken on as a servant by "some good Master," but it's also possible that he met his end in the harsh climate and fierce fighting that occurred in Caribbean.
Monday, October 21, 2013
For those who might be in the area, I will be speaking on 6 November (Wednesday) at the Washington, DC, American Revolution Round Table; and on 7 November (Thursday) at Fraunce’s Tavern in New York City. Both talks will be about my book, British Soldiers, American War.
Many of the soldiers we've discussed here had learned trades before joining the army. This should come as no surprise when one thinks of the ages and opportunities involved; young men who went to school usually studied only until they reached their teen years, and some didn't go to school at all (it would be a mistake, however, to assume that most didn't go to school). But the army didn't usually take recruits until they were fully grown, which meant at least their late teens, and the majority of soldiers enlisted in their early twenties. That meant spending at least a few years, and perhaps a dozen or more, at some sort of work - ample time to complete an apprenticeship or acquire a skill in some other way.
Sometimes those skills were useful to the army. Taylors, blacksmiths, shoemakers and others provided necessary maintenance for regimental clothing; bakers, butchers, brewers and victuallers prepared food for the army; carpenters, sawyers and coopers supported the military infrastructure. When the British army landed in Rhode Island, orders were given for the 22nd Regiment to send a printer to headquarters; although the purpose was not specified, he almost certainly prepared notices, handbills and other documents for the army.
It was not only the British army that took advantage of skilled British soldiers. Prisoners of war were put to work by their American captors, filling labor voids created by men being away in the American army and also keeping the prisoners gainfully employed rather than idle. One such man was James Gamble (also spelled Gambles, Gamiel and Gammel) of the 80th Regiment. He'd enlisted on 3 February 1778 when this regiment was being raised, part of the wartime expansion of the army.
The 80th Regiment arrived in American in August of 1779. By October of 1781 most of the soldiers were prisoners of war, having been taken as part of General Cornwallis's army at Yorktown. James Gamble was a prisoner of war after his first campaign. He and his fellow soldiers were sent to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Gamble's skills were noticed by the Committee of Safety. In March 1782 he was sent to Philadelphia to the Commissary of Prisoners, presumably because that officer had requested a printer from among the British prisoners. A letter informing the commissary of Gambe's impending arrival indicated some uncertainty about his suitability for whatever tasks were expected of him; the committeeman wrote that Gamble was "more of stationer than printer," and said he was told there was a printer among the prisoners of the 17th Regiment who might be more suitable (and, in fact, there was: Corporal John Waterman of the 17th, who survived the war and received a pension in 1791).
How Gamble worked out at his job in Philadelphia is not known. He must have liked his overall experience in America, though, as he was one of many British prisoners who did not return to his regiment when prisoners were repatriated in 1783. Like the others, he was written off as a deserter.
The best source of primary sources: Revolutionary Imprints