Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Crowded with soldiers, sailors, and civilians of all sorts and under siege by a large rebel army, security was a major concern in Boston in 1775. Soldiers patrolled the streets at night alert for signs of disorder and sentries were posted at store houses and other places holding goods that might be stolen. On the evening of 11 November, a corporal posted William Shields of the 40th Regiment of Foot as a sentry at Stoddard's store house on Pitt's Wharf. The corporal shook the padlock on each of the store's three doors, and gave explicit instructions to Shields to let no one in two of the doors, and at the third door to admit only a lame man in a red stocking cap. The corporal then marched on with a party of soldiers to be posted at other locations.
An hour or so later, around 6:30PM, a patrol of men belonging to the North British Volunteers, a loyalist corps recently formed of Boston residents, made their rounds past Pitt's wharf. At a place where they knew a sentry was normally posted they were surprised to find only a firelock with fixed bayonet leaning against the wall of a building. Assuming that the sentry had stepped away for a moment, they waited; when no sentry appeared after ten minutes or so, they started to look around in the darkness. They called to the next sentry, posted about a hundred yards away, asking if he knew the whereabouts of the missing man, but he did not. They discovered that the store had no lock on one door but the door seemed to be locked from the inside; nearby a piece of silk and a piece of woolen yard goods were found. Two men remained at the store while the remainder of the patrol took the fabric and firelock to the guard house.
The two North British Volunteers continued to look around when they heard a noise in the store. Suspecting thieves but not knowing how many, they hailed the next sentry who came to them; the three pointed their fixed bayonets towards the unlocked door and waited. Suddenly the door opened and William Shields, wrapped in his watch coat, came out confused and fearful. Accused of breaking into the store, Shields claimed that the lock had fallen open and that the corporal who posted him had said he was allowed to go inside, but he also asked the other sentry why he hadn't been warned of the coming patrol, and looked around for his firelock. Within moments the other members of the patrol returned with the officer, serjeant and corporal of the guard; as they approached, one of them found the missing padlock on the ground. Shields was immediately taken into custody.
A general court martial tried Shields on Monday, just two days after the crime had occurred, charging him with quitting his post, breaking into the store and stealing goods. Testimony was given by the corporal, serjeant and officer of the guard, all of whom corroborated that Shields was posted on the wharf that night with explicit instructions, and that the firelock and bayonet found at his post did indeed belong to him. The members of the patrol described what they had found and Shields' emergence from the store. The keeper of the store did not recognize the specific goods presented as evidence but testified that he had locked the doors securely and that goods such as those were kept there. The evidence and testimony left little room for doubt about Shields' guilt.
Shields gave a defense that sounds almost comical but at least gives a non-malicious explanation for the highly incriminating evidence:
The Prisoner being put upon his defence declared, that as he as walking backwards and forwards before the Warehouse door, he just touch’d the Padlock with his hand and it fell down at his feet, that he thought he heard the foot step of somebody in the upper floor and he went up stairs with his firelock in his hand, and fell over a trunk, the lid of which flew open at the time, and he saw the pieces of Camblet and Taffetta which he brought down, to shew them to the other sentry; and still thinking that he heard somebody in the store, he laid down the goods and his firelock, and went in again, when he heard somebody go by, and hearing them call the other sentry, he suspected that it was the Officer of the Main guard, and was afraid to go out, and therefore held the door to. As to breaking open the lock, he absolutely denied it, and concluded with begging that the Court would treat him with as much mercy as it was in their power.
The court did not treat him with mercy. On Wednesday, 8 November, William Shields was sentenced to be "hanged by the Neck ‘till he is dead." This seems like a harsh punishment for such a crime, but it was important to send a clear message to the rest of the garrison that such disorderly behavior would not be tolerated. Lenience would invite chaos in the crowded, besieged city. Sometimes condemned men were pardoned at the moment of execution, but not always. Shields did not wait around to find out. The Friday after he was sentenced, he somehow managed to escaped from the jail in Boston. An advertisement was placed in the next issue of the Massachusetts Gazette:
Five Guineas Reward!
Broke out of the Provost’s Custody last Evening, William Shields, a private Soldier in the 40th Regt. He is about 21 Years of Age, five Feet five Inches and three Quarters high, brown Complexion, round Visage, grey Eyes, and brown Hair. He was born in Glasgow, in the County of Lenrick, and is by Trade a Butcher. As it is by no means likely that said Person has got out of Town, whoever will secure him so that he may be again restored to the Custody of the Provost, shall have Five Guineas Reward from W. Cunningham, Provost Martial.
N. B. All Persons are hereby cautioned against harbouring or concealing said Shields, as they would be answerable for the Consequences. Boston, November 11, 1775.
The ad gives a good description of the young soldier, and it is the last word that is known of him. There is not indication that he was ever found, and nothing more is known of him after his escape.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Monday, July 22, 2013
Military service produces heroes, but many acts of heroism are quickly lost without being recorded; others are mentioned only briefly in sources that become obscure. Some soldiers' acts of heroism occur off of the battlefield and outside of the scope of warfare; such was the case for William stone, a private soldier in the 23rd Regiment of Foot, who performed a gallant act that was barely noticed even in its day.
In his early life Stone followed the path of many Britons by becoming a weaver, the a widely-practiced trade in the island nation. In 1764 he changed careers by enlisting in the 23rd Regiment, known by the honorific title Royal Welch Fusiliers (during that era, both "Welch" and "Fuziliers" were spelled in various ways; the spelling used here was standardized by the regiment in the early 20th century). With this corps he served at various locations in England and Scotland before embarking for America in 1773.
The 23rd Regiment arrived in New York that summer. The colonial governor of the colony was William Tryon, recently relocated from North Carolina. His residence was within the walls of Fort George, an installation that stood on the southern tip of Manhattan in the area of present-day Battery Park. In the middle of the night on 29 December 1773 a fire of unknown origin broke out in the house and spread quickly. Whether William Stone was part of the fort's garrison or was following the typical soldier's duty of responding to a fire, he was soon on the scene.
Governor Tryon and his wife escaped the conflagration through a side door, but their 12-year-old daughter Margaret and her governess Ann Patterson were trapped on the second floor. The quick-thinking governess urged the girl to jump, and she was able to do so because William Stone was there to catch her. Mrs. Patterson followed and was also caught by Stone. Although some later sources claim that Margaret Tryon was badly burned in the fire, newspaper accounts published at the time indicate that she "received no injury" while Mrs. Patterson "though considerably bruised, is since much recovered." A 16-year-old servant named Elizabeth Gartet died in the fire and the material loss was great, but the flames were contained to the house thanks in part to snow on the roofs of adjacent buildings; further tragedy was averted. Governor Tryon sent a letter of thanks to the citizens of New York by way of the mayor for their response to the fire. William Stone's act of heroism was mentioned in the newspaper, but there is no indication that the governor recognized him personally in any way.
Stone continued serving in the 23rd Regiment for the entire war, from being part of the relief force sent out of Boston on 19 April 1775 to being among those who surrendered at Yorktown in 1781. He was appointed corporal, a clear indication that he was a competant soldier. He was taken prisoner in 1777 and spent a year or so in captivity followed by another 18 months after the surrender at Yorktown. When a peace treaty was signed in 1783, Stone returned to New York with other repatriated prisoners. The end of war brought a reduction in the size of British regiments, and William Stone was discharged after having served nearly twenty years. The date of his discharge suggests that he took a land grant in Nova Scotia, but this is not certain. It is unfortunate that we know no other specifics of his military career besides his dramatic role in the rescue of Governor Tryon's daughter.
Margaret Tryon lived in New York for the duration of the war, then went to England and became an attendant to Queen Charlotte. She was noted as a chatty woman, but by the age of 30 she remained unwed. She had caught the fancy of an officer in the Life Guards regiment, and the two planned to elope. On a summer night in 1791 her suitor arrived beneath her window, and she dropped a rope ladder. As she climbed out, she slipped, fell, and was fatally impaled upon a fence. Her life was ended by a fall from a window, a tragedy that the soldier William Stone had averted 18 years before.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Monday, July 15, 2013
Sources disagree on when Abraham Pike was born, giving years ranging from 1747 to 1752. This is a plausible range for the Irishman who enlisted in the army in December 1775; most men who enlisted in the army did so in their early twenties after having pursued some other occupation. Pike enlisted during the feverish recruiting effort made to accomplish the augmentation of 18 men per company ordered earlier that year for regiments on service in America. He and other recruits raised in the ensuing months boarded transports in the summer of 1776, finally arriving in New York in October. Here Pike joined the main body of his new regiment, the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers.
After less than a year, he was in trouble. With two fellow fusiliers, near Head of Elk at the start of the Philadelphia campaign, Pike was spotted by soldiers of Captain Patrick Ferguson’s rifle company coming towards the sentries, one on horseback, carrying fowls and a spy glass. The British rifle men made the trio prisoners and they were put on trial for disobedience of orders (because they had been beyond the army’s advanced posts) and plundering. The trial was brief: Ferguson and a serjeant testified that the prisoners had been taken with the horse, spyglass and poultry; the fusiliers stated that when posted as advanced piquets they’d caught a stray horse, and found the poultry and spyglass in an abandoned house that was in fact within the lines.
The three soldiers were found guilty and sentenced to 1000 lashes each. Such a punishment would strike fear into the prisoners, but immediately after the trial an unusual thing happened. General Howe, although recognizing the men’s guilt, deemed the sentence “inadequate to their crimes” and did not approve it. This meant that the men were free to rejoin their regiment without any punishment at all. One would think the relief might instill a sense of loyalty into these soldiers; if it did so for Abraham Pike, the sensation was short-lived. He deserted on 8 May 1778 as the army was preparing to evacuate Philadelphia.
We lose track of most deserters after they abscond from British service, but Pike is an exception; it was after his desertion that the most memorable events of his life occurred. By some accounts, he joined the American army and fought at the battle of Wyoming on 3 July 1778 and was a scout on Sullivan’s 1779 expedition against the Six Nations; we have not attempted to verify this. More certain is that he made his way to Plymouth, Pennsylvania, a frontier town across the Susquehanna River near Wilkes-Barre. By March 1780 he had married a woman named Mary Alden and the couple had an infant daughter not yet half-a-year old.
Pike was surely intent on a domestic frontier life, but the war ranging throughout the colonies touched his young family with an unsympathetic hand. On 29 March 1780 they were in the wilderness about 10 miles northeast of Plymouth making sugar at a log cabin when a party of native American warriors fell upon them. Ten in number, these Indians had over the previous few days made a number of attacks on settlers, killing half-a-dozen and taking three likely teenagers as prisoners. Unlike previous adults they’d met, the Indians did not kill Pike outright. Whether through intelligence gleaned from the frontier community, from recognizable attributes of his clothing or behavior, or from his own exhortations in the moment, they knew that Pike was a British deserter and therefore a valuable prize. They took him and his wife as prisoners, but tossed the swaddled infant onto the roof of the sugar cabin before hastening away. After some distance the insistent please of Mrs. Pike convinced them to release her; she recovered her infant and then made her way to alarm the nearest settlement.
With the three teenagers and Pike as prisoners, the war party made their way along the Susquehanna towards the borders of their own territory. Pike was keenly aware of his precarious situation and, with nothing to lose, initiated a bold scheme. He’d observed that the youngest prisoner, a fourteen-year-old, was not bound like the others and was required to sleep under the same blanket with the leader of the party. When the group ventured to cross a creek, Pike took the lad over his shoulder and used the opportunity to whisper a plan: stay awake that night and carefully slip the leader’s knife from his belt while he sleeps, then cut Pike’s bindings. Pike would take care of the rest. Pike managed to communicate to the other two prisoners to stay awake that night, 1 April 1780. When darkness fell the party kindled a fire, ate, and then spread their blankets with five on either side of the four prisoners.
Deep in the night, by the faint light of a partial moon and glowing embers, the plan was effected. The young prisoner deftly procured the knife and slipped from under the blanket. Pike held his bound hands up and was cut free; he then carefully stole the firearms away from the sleeping warriors. There is some dispute among the survivors about how the ensuing events unfolded, but it is clear that Pike and the older two prisoners used their captor’s tomahawks to kill at least two and disperse the rest; they shot another who was fleeing. When the melee ended, the prisoners were unscathed and free. On 6 April a Lieutenant in the garrison at Fort Wyoming in Wilkes-Barre recorded in his diary that Pike and the others had come in to the fort after freeing themselves.
Abraham Pike was reunited with his wife and daughter. The following year they had a son they named Abraham, followed by another daughter and three more sons over the next 15 years. The story of his escape was told and retold. Pike the deserter, Pike the family man, was known throughout the region as “The Indian Killer.” His family and his exploits, however, did not sustain him later in life. A person who knew him in his later years lamented, “…he became extremely intemperate in his old age, and his mind was impaired and his eye wandered in vacancy… His habits of extreme intemperance in his old age had blasted and destroyed a mind quick, discriminating, and very sensitive to honor; and utterly prostrated a stout and well-knit frame, which in its hour of development had undergone great hardships and endured the most oppressive fatigues.” Pike met the loneliest of ends, “a wandering mendicant, going from door to door for charity, and finally died a pauper, by the roadside, November eleventh, 1834, with no kindly hand even to close his eyes after his spirit had departed.”
Pike’s legacy, however, is not completely forgotten. His grave can still be seen in the Idetown cemetery in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. And the area where he was taken prisoner one day while making sugar came to be called Pike’s Swamp, and the stream that fed it Pike’s Creek. Today, in Luzerne County, you can stop at the intersection of state routes 29 and 118 and wonder whether the residents of the little village of Pike’s Creek know that their town was named for an Irishman who spent two years as a British soldier in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Monday, July 8, 2013
Often in these descriptions of soldiers we've seen the phrase "by trade a labourer" or similar words. Most men joined the army between the ages of 17 and 25, with a majority of those being in their early twenties; in an age when education for common people seldom continued past the age of 12, every man who enlisted in the army could be expected to have had some other type of employment prior to enlistment. Between half and two-thirds (with a great deal of variation between the English, Scottish and Irish) had pursued a skilled trade of some sort, but the remainder were classified with the catchall term "labourer."
So what, exactly, did a labourer do? In a primarily agrarian society, we'd expect that most labourers were agricultural workers, perhaps itinerant, earning a subsistence income by tending crops owned by others. This is the description given by most scholars and the one that I usually use as well, with the caveat that construction, dock work or other unskilled labor may have been sought by men without formal trades. Occasionally we find farmer, gardener and husbandman listed as trades, indicating that a few agricultural workers were specialized, but men with those trades were few compared to the legions of labourers.
"Agricultural work", although a tangible phrase, is nonetheless general. A document recently provided by researchers Todd Braisted and Cole Jones (each of whom provided a copy to me) offers precious clarity, invaluable because it was penned by a British soldier in America.
Born in the lowlands of Scotland, William Hambleton was a private soldier in the ranks of the 17th Regiment of Foot when that corps was ordered from Ireland to America in 1775. The 17th arrived in Boston late in the year and its soldiers served through a difficult winter under siege before the town was evacuated in March 1776. The regiment was hotly engaged in the campaign through New York and New Jersey in the autumn of that year, fighting that came to a climax for the 17th when they made a dramatic stand at the battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777. The regiment overcame a superior force but at considerable cost. Several dozen men were taken prisoner including William Hambleton.
As a prisoner of war, Hambleton literally farmed himself out to a local landowner; with so many able bodied men away serving in the Continental Army, local farmers were eager to hire British and German prisoners as laborers. Many prisoners were equally eager for the opportunity to work, earning extra money and escaping the dull confines of captivity. Some chose to remain, accepting the mantle of desertion from the British army and settling into a new life in the colonies.
But not William Hamilton. He was exchanged after a year or so and returned to the ranks of the 17th Regiment. Fate was unkind to him and his fellow soldiers, though. The 17th Regiment of Foot formed the majority of the garrison of the fort at Stony Point on the Hudson River when that place was boldly stormed by Americans in July 1779. Sent with other prisoners to the "New Gaol" in Philadelphia, Hambleton saw another opportunity for gainful employment. He wrote an eloquent and persuasive letter to Thomas Bradford, Commissary of Prisoners in Philadelphia:
I am a man that has been in the use of Farming from my Infancy according to the method practised in the South of Scotland, and also while I was prisoner of War here before I laboured for my bread, so that I can now Venture to promise for myself That I can cut Wood, Spleit Rails, make Fences, Plow, Harrow, break, Hoe, Thrash, and attend Cattle as well as most men that have been in the Country for a longer Space of time. It does not become a man to praise himself, but with regard to my Character, as to my fidelity, and Honesty, as there is no Commissioned Officer here of our Regiment, I refer myself as to Character to our Serjant Major and Quarter Master Serjant. And as you will See good, I hope you’ll do something for me. And I am with Esteem SirYour most humble Servant
Soldier in the Generals Company
17th Regt. Prisoner of War
18th Sepr. 1779
In his plea for employment, Hambleton provides a wonderful description of the type of work he was acclimated to, listing the various specific tasks that he knew how to undertake and giving texture to the general term "labourer." He also reveals a command of the written language which, as discussed in Chapter 4 of British Soldiers, American War, was not unusual among soldiers and which may have been enhanced if not learned while Hambleton was in the army.
Whether or not Hambleton was allowed to work is not known, but he once again remained faithful to the army. He and the other Stony Point prisoners - with the exception of some who escaped back to British lines and others who deserted - were exchanged in early 1781. The regiment regrouped in New York just in time to be sent south to campaign in Virginia. Revealing yet another skill for this "unskilled laborer", Hambleton is listed as one of five wagon drivers with the regiment when it embarked for this campaign.
Once again the fortunes of war were unkind to the soldiers of the 17th Regiment; they were part of the army that surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781. For the third time since setting foot in America, William Hambleton was a prisoner of war. This time the hard-working soldier did not fare well; he died in captivity in the second half of 1782.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Monday, July 1, 2013
We recently discussed men who rose through the ranks to become officers, and provided a rare example of such a man. Looking only at muster rolls, one gets the impression that many men (fewer than 1%, but that works out to a large number in an army of tens of thousands) enlisted as common soldiers and received promotions strictly based on merit, but things aren't as simple as the rolls make them appear. My book British Soldiers, American War discusses at length men with the qualifications to become officers who lacked the influence or patronage to obtain a commission, so instead enlisted in the hope of gaining the necessary recognition to earn an officer's rank.
This career path was deduced after careful study of many men who enlisted and were appointed as non-commissioned officers almost immediately - instead of the more typical duration of many years as a private soldier - and then were promoted to commissioned ranks only a few years after enlistment. Some men received commissions after only a few months as private soldiers. Careers like these, along with a few first-hand accounts by men who expected promotions but did not received them, and several instances of men who deserted from the British army and quickly became officers in the American army, led me to conclude that not all enlistees expected to spend their lives as private soldiers, but instead enlisted with the expectation of becoming officers.
It seemed clear enough, but some aspects were nonetheless confusing. Young men hoping for commissions often went into the field with regiments to learn the military arts while they waited for a vacant position. These young gentlemen were volunteers (often called "gentleman volunteers" today, but that phrase rarely appears in period documents), and might spend years in that capacity waiting for a vacant commission. Why did some aspiring gentlemen enlist while others volunteered their time?
Recently a document provided by expert historian Todd W. Braisted spelled out the exact circumstances that led to one man's decision to enlist. Randall McDonell, Lieutenant in the 84th Regiment of Foot (whose name is given as Ronald in some sources), wrote a memorial (undated, but apparently from 1779 or 1780) explaining his conduct in a dispute with another officer. In it, he related his early career:
The Memorialist entered the service as a Volunteer about twenty years ago when very young with recommendations from two of the first Noblemen in his own Country he served in that station till the peace when the Regt. was reduced and he was left without the least inclination to follow any other than the Military profession his finances were so low in a strange Country that he had no other resource than to enlist as a private man in the 52d Regt. where he soon acquired the good will of his officers perticularly the late Major General Valentine Jones who showed him the greatest kindness but had no opportunity of doing any more than promoting him as Corporal & Serjt till the Royal Highland Emigrants were ordered to be raised by Genl Gage when he was recommended to Major Small who at first obtained an Ensigns Commission for him in consideration of his character and the wounds he had received in the service.
The Royal Highland Emigrants regiment was raised in 1775 and 1776; in 1779 they were established as a regular regiment, receiving the designation of 84th Regiment of Foot. McDonell served until the regiment was disbanded at the end of the war in 1783, settled in Canada, and saw additional sevice in the late 1790s.
For our purposes, though, it is his early career that is significant. He came to American during the French & Indian War, volunteering like many young men in hopes of obtaining a commission. The end of the war brought force reductions, though, and his regiment was disbanded. With vacancies hard to come by and lacking funds to remain a volunteer, this gentleman entered the ranks as a common soldier. The 52nd Regiment arrived in Quebec in 1765, and McDonnell probably enlisted soon after. A gap in the regiment's muster rolls prevents us from tracing his career, but when they pick up in 1774 on the regiment's arrival in Boston, Randall McDonell is listed among the serjeants in the regiment's light infantry company. This company participated in both the march to Concord on 19 April 1775 and the assault on Bunker Hill the following June; this may be where McDonell received the wounds he speaks of, as the company suffered casualties in both actions.
On 7 October 1775 Randall McDonell finally received the commission that he'd aspired to for some fifteen years, showing the lengths to which some men would go to follow their chosen profession. His example provides the clue that is probably the reason that many young men enlisted while awaiting their chance to become an officer.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!