Tuesday, November 27, 2012
This blog has featured many stories of deserters, some recaptured, some not. Occasionally deserters turned up in the in highly unexpected places.
A man named Alexander Robinson enlisted in the 57th Regiment of Foot in March 1769, and deserted the following year while the regiment was in Dublin. This in itself was not unusual, nor was the fact that Robinson was never apprehended in Ireland. The 57th Regiment continued serving on the Irish establishment until the beginning of 1776 when they embarked for America as part of the expedition against Charleston, South Carolina. They then sailed to Staten Island and participated in the campaign that gained control of New York city and the surrounding area. The summer of 1777 found them settling in to garrison New York where they would remain for the rest of the war, engaging not in major campaigns but in numerous foraging expeditions and other incursions in the region. Deserters, however, were not forgotten...
Among the expeditions in which the 57th Regiment participated was the October 1777 capture of Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery on the Hudson River. This venture was intended to provide some relief to General Burgoyne's beleaguered army, bogged down north of Albany, but it was too little, too late. It was nonetheless a bold action, with a violent struggle for control of the forts in which the British forces prevailed. Nearly 300 American prisoners were taken. Among them was Alexander Robinson, who was recognized by some of his former comrades in the 57th Regiment.
It is no surprise that Robinson was put on trial for desertion. During the war a number of other British deserters were taken up while serving with the enemy; bearing arms with the enemy was a much more severe crime than desertion alone, and most of these men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Several aspects of Robinson's trial, however, indicate that his case was not so clear cut.
Although witnesses at the trial testified that Robinson was "taken prisoner at Fort Montgomery" he was tried only for desertion and no evidence was presented that he was armed, in uniform, or in any way acting with the American army. The only testimony was that he had, in fact, enlisted in 1769, deserted in 1770 and was taken again on 6 October 1777 at the fort. He offered nothing in his defense except to acknowledge his crime and throw himself on the mercy of the court. Indeed, the brief trial seems to be almost a matter of form rather than a detailed inquiry into a severe crime.
Robinson was found guilty of this capital crime, but instead of death he was sentenced to 1000 lashes, a typical punishment for desertions when soldiers were gone for only a short time and surrendered willingly. Given the circumstances, this punishment suggests that the court was privy to information that does not appear in the trial record - perhaps Robinson surrendered himself and offered a plausible story about why he had deserted and how he came to be in America. Unfortunately we have no record of it, or any indication of why he was at Fort Montgomery on that fateful day.
The muster rolls for the 57th tell us simply that Alexander Robinson "returned from desertion" on 6 October 1777. He continued to serve in the regiment after that for several years until he died in New York on 28 August 1782. There is no indication of any other remarkable events in his military career, and typical of muster rolls there is no indication of the cause of death.
Friday, November 16, 2012
If you like the material in this blog, you're sure to enjoy my book.
The featured soldier this week came to my attention because of the plight of his wife, brought to my attention by colleague and blogger J. L. Bell who does an outstanding job of ferreting out details on the individuals who formed the society of 1770s Boston and environs. We learn of Elizabeth Royal (or Royall) from a resolution by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress's Committee of Safety dated 21 June 1775:
That Joseph Adams, driver of the stage from Newbury, be, and he hereby is directed, to transport back to Newbury, Elizabeth Royal and her child, who, as she says, is wife to William Royal, first sergeant in the 63d regiment of foot, now in Boston, and deliver her to the care of the selectmen of said Newbury, who are hereby directed to provide for her and her child, at the expense of the colony.
The 63rd Regiment of Foot had arrived in Boston only a few weeks prior to this resolution. The regiment's muster rolls confirm the presence of William Royal in its ranks; he was already in the regiment in January 1775 and sailed with them from Ireland to America, but we have not traced his career to determine when he joined the army (another published version of the Committee of Safety's resolution gives the name as "Rogers" but there was no man by that name in the 63rd Regiment). The rolls note that he was "British" as opposed to "Irish" or "Foreign", indicating that he was from either England, Scotland or Wales. Clearly he was already married to Elizabeth before the regiment left Ireland, because by June 1775 they had a child. And he was no serjeant - the rolls list him as a private soldier.
Perhaps his wife inflated his rank in an attempt to impress her detainees. When the 63rd arrived in Boston the town was already under siege; in fact, the Committee of Safety's resolution suggests that Elizabeth Royal was taken up while trying to get into Boston from Newbury. But what were the wife and child of a British soldier, particularly one who had only just arrived in Boston, doing in Newbury at that time?
We can only speculate. The likely answer is that she had not been allowed to accompany her husband on the transports that brought the regiment to America, and booked her own passage on another vessel. When shipping was allocated for British regiments deploying to America, an allowance was made for 60 women to accompany each regiment. This allowance is widely, and incorrectly, interpreted to mean that only 60 wives were allowed to be with a regiment at any time. Quite the contrary, most regiments in America had more than 60 wives with them; it was only the passage to America that posed a problem and many women found their own ways to make the crossing. Elizabeth Royal may have landed at another American port and then proceeded over land towards Boston.
There are other plausible explanations. William Royal may have been a long-serving soldier who had gotten married in America during a previous deployment, then transferred into the 63rd Regiment in order to return to his family. Or Elizabeth Royal could've arrived with the regiment in May and left Boston for any number of reasons, expecting to be able to return.
It is not known why the Committee of Safety didn't simply allow this mother and child to enter Boston, but instead sent her back to Newbury to be subsisted at public expense. We also do not know whether she was ever reunited with her husband. Even if she was, they were not destined for a long and happy future. The muster rolls show that William Royal continued to serve in the 63rd Regiment until he died on 6 October 1777; as is typical for these documents, no cause of death is given. The fate of his wife and child who dutifully tried to get to him in Boston remains unknown.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Monday, November 5, 2012
A great challenge in researching the careers of British soldiers who served in America is that there is no comprehensive source of information - no catalog of records indexed by individual that tells a full story. Instead, we are left to piece information together. For many soldiers, we have only a name on a muster roll. The (usually) semi-annual muster rolls sometimes have gaps for spans of a few years, and sometimes are not fully annotated; in the best case, the rolls tell us something about when a man joined the army and when he left it. We can infer more from the service of his regiment in general, but occasionally individual soldiers were not with the rest of the regiment for varying periods of time, so it is very difficult to be sure whether an individual served in a specific location at a particular time based strictly on the muster rolls.
For some soldiers we are fortunate to have additional documents, but those sources do not always seem to agree leaving us with puzzles to be solved. A good case in point is John Mayell, a soldier in the 22nd Regiment of Foot.
The muster rolls of the 22nd show us that Mayell (also spelled Meyell, Mayle, and Mail) joined the 22nd Regiment on 9 April 1766. The regiment had recently returned to Great Britain from service in America and was recruiting to refill its depleted ranks. Mayell served initially as a fifer, but by 1770 had become a private soldier. The obvious conclusion is that he enlisted at an early age, possibly the son of a soldier, and played the fife until he was old enough to shoulder a firelock. But the muster rolls tell us more, and cast doubt on that theory.
In December 1776 Mayell transferred into the 63rd Regiment of Foot. In that corps he served as a drummer. In October 1779 he transferred back into the 22nd Regiment, and there also is listed as a drummer until 1784 when again became a private soldier. He was discharged in 1786. It was fairly common for men follow this pattern of appointments, from drummer to private soldier and back to drummer again, sometimes several times during their careers. Muster rolls give no reasons for such appointments, only the dates on which they occurred. Occasionally it was due simply to a change in the established number of drummers in a regiment, but in most cases we are left only to wonder.
The reason for Mayell's transfer to the 63rd Regiment is also a mystery. The dates correspond exactly to the time that the 22nd Regiment was in Rhode Island; the 63rd initially also served in the Rhode Island garrison, but returned to New York early in 1777. Perhaps Mayell held a useful office in New York. Transfers of soldiers often correspond to transfers of officers, and we can deduce that the soldiers were officer's servants, but this is not the case with Mayell. Again, we can only wonder.
Besides the muster rolls, another document sheds more light on Mayell. After his discharge he received an out-pension, meaning that he returned to the region where lived before joining the army and collected a semi-annual payment amounting to five pence per day. Mayell's army discharge, a document that survives for many pensioners, is missing; his name does, however, appear on a list of out pensioners that provides additional details. He was born in the parish of Milksham in the county of Wiltshire, and pursued the trade of a shoemaker before joining the army. Our theory that he enlisted at an early age is proven incorrect; he was 47 years old in 1786, meaning that he was about 27 when he joined the 22nd Regiment - not an unusually old age for an enlistee, but certainly only than his service record would have had us guess. Adding to the confusion is that he had served 27 years as a solder in 1786, meaning that he must have had service prior to joining the 22nd regiment.
Another document clarifies some aspects of Mayell's career. on 23 January 1766 he and his wife Jane were examined at the Quarter Sessions in the town of Kendal, Westmorland. The reason for the examination is not given; perhaps they were assumed to be vagrants or had somehow drawn suspicion to themselves. Mayell deposed that he was born in Milksham, Wiltshire (which agrees with the pension records) and served two years of a six-year apprenticeship to a shoemaker in Bradford, Wiltshire, and that he had been discharged from the army as "unfit for duty." This explains the length of service given in the pension records; he had indeed served in the army before, but unfortunately we do not know exactly when or in which regiment. We can guess that he was in his early teens when he left his apprenticeship - again, in unknown circumstances - and he may have enlisted any time between then and the age of about 19, to have had about 7 years of service by 1766. John and Jane Mayell were given a pass to go back to Bradford where he'd worked as a shoemaker, but within three months he was in the army again.
Having received a pension after his discharge in 1786, Mayell was obliged to return to active service in British garrisons if the need arose. In 1790, pensioners were called to serve. Due to ill health Mayell was unable to travel to Bristol for an examination to determine whether he was fit, but instead received an examination from a doctor in Devizes, Wiltshire, saying that he was unfit. His failure to appear in Bristol caused him to be dropped from the pension rolls, but he wrote a petition and included the doctor's endorsement which allowed his status to be restored. The petition survives, and reveals two details about Mayell: he could write (the deposition is written in the same hand as his signature), and that he had been wounded in the shoulder. No indication is given of when he received this wound.
Already we have more documents concerning Mayell than we have for most soldiers, and yet each one introduces more questions about his career. A final (so far) document does clarify one aspect of it. In October 1781 the 22nd Regiment of Foot was among those that embarked in New York to relieve General Cornwallis's besieged garrison at Yorktown. The fleet sailed too late and soon returned to port having effected nothing. The 22nd was, however, embarked on a warship, the Robust. Unlike the transports ships that were privately owned vessels operating under contract, warships belonged to the navy; as such, they maintained muster books recording who was on board and when, including passengers. These muster books survive, and that of the Robust lists each man in the 22nd Regiment who embarked. The 22nd embarked eight companies of soldiers (the grenadiers and light infantry were detached at this time) but included only four drummers. Also listed are six men who were "Musick", a term denoting the regimental band, among them John Mayell.
Regimental bands of music were not part of the regimental establishment and were funded at the whim of the officers. There was no regulated size or composition, and information on them is fragmentary. In 1773 the 22nd Regiment procured clothing for 11 band members, consisting of scarlet coats with buff facings and silver buttons, and cocked hats with silver lace. The only known instruments are French horns, clarinets and a pair of cymbals, but there were surely some others. Band members are not listed as such on muster rolls and so are difficult to identify; the six men on board the Robust are the only ones of the 22nd to be positively identified. Some are listed as drummers on the muster rolls for their entire careers, while others follow patterns similar to that of John Mayell albeit not on the same dates.
That Mayell was a musician offers additional possibilities to his unusual career path. It was fairly common for soldiers discharged after the Seven Years War in the 1760s to reinlist, and age was less a factor for a man with prior military experience than for a new recruit. That Mayell had been considered unfit for service when examined in 1766 suggests that he was allowed to reinlist specifically because of his musical talent. He may have transferred into the 63rd Regiment because his musical skills were desired in the New York garrison. But these are only speculations. Just as the initial assumption about his enlistment age, based solely on the muster rolls, turned out to be incorrect, so could other assumptions about the bearing of his musical skills on his career. And we know nothing of his shoulder wound, or whether his wife Jane accompanied him to America. Even with five separate sources of information to draw from, much about John Mayell remains a mystery. And yet we know more about him than most.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!