Monday, December 16, 2013

John Irwin, 9th and 40th Regiments, raises his family

Many of the British soldiers who served in the American Revolution had years of experience, if not in combat then at least in the army. As professional soldiers, they enlisted during a time of peace and learned the fundamentals of their trade. By the time they were deployed to America these soldiers with three, five, ten or more years of experience were well-versed in the basics of hygiene, maintenance of clothing and equipment, handling firearms and military discipline; this allowed them to adapt quickly to conditions in the new conflict in the new land.

The backbone of the army was composed of men like John Irwin, an Irishman who enlisted in 1771 when in his early twenties. As a young soldier in the 9th Regiment of Foot, he spent his first years in the army in his native land; in 1774, knowing that war was looming in America, the 9th Regiment was among those trained in fast-moving, open-order fighting. It wasn't long before the wisdom of this training was borne out by the outbreak of hostilities, and in early 1776 the 9th embarked with several other regiments to reinforce the British army in Canada.

John Irwin crossed the ocean not only with his comrades in arms but also with his wife. The regiment hit the ground running, fighting at the battle of Trois Rivieres within days of disembarking at Quebec, and pushing a retreating American army out of the colony and down to Lake Champlain; John Irwin served in his new role as a corporal. Whether Mrs. Irwin accompanied her husband on this campaign or remained in Quebec is not known, but their first child, a son named Samuel, was born in Canada that year.

The following summer saw the regiment, and Corporal Irwin's family, on campaign again. The 9th was involved in some of the heaviest fighting in the campaign that culminated in the Convention of Saratoga. The family made the transition from being part of a conquoring army to being prisoners of war. They spent the next four years in captivity, walking with their fellow captives first to Boston, then to Virginia finally to Pennsylvania. It's difficult to imagine a family doing this, but they were one of many that did.

They were released in late 1781, and joined the British garrison in New York city. Corporal Irwin joined the 40th Regiment of Foot in October, a regiment sorely in need of soldiers after suffering heavily at the storming of Fort Griswold the previous month. When the war ended he was given the unusual choice of being discharged and taking a land grant in Canada - unusual because this option was usually offered only to men who had enlisted after 16 December 1775, or men who had served at least twenty years, long enough to be eligible for discharge under any circumstances. Perhaps it was because he had served with particular merit, or suffered particular hardship. Or perhaps it was because he now had three children, two daughters having been born in America.

The family settled in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, with hundreds of other discharged soldiers. They settled there (instead of moving farther into Nova Scotia like many former soldiers did), had two more children, and lived out their lives. Some time in his later years John Irwin wrote a brief memorial of his life, summing up with modest brevity all that he'd endured:

    This is to certify that I enlisted in the year 1771, in the city of Dublin, Ireland, under the command of Lord Langanier, 9th regiment of foot, he being full colonel, it being commanded by Lieut. Col. Taylor, and I done duty for several years through Ireland, and I Embarked early in the year 1776, for America under the command of Lieut. Col. Hill, and landed at Quebec, Canada; from thence proceeded on a heavy campaign under the command of General Charleton and suffered greatly therein, having wintered in Canada.

    Next summer proceeded on second campaign under the command of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, and suffered there greatly by reason of several engagements - everything but death itself; became a prisoner to General Gates by capitulation and remained a prisoner for 4 years in a dreadful state of confinement, having a family with me all this time, which increased my suffering; being released came into New York and joined the 40th regiment of foot, under the command of Lieut. Col. Musgrave; being discharged in October, 1783, came to Nova Scotia and settled in the county of Shelburne, where I remained, having done military duty since I came to Shelburne until age rendered me unserviceable.

    [Signed] John Irwin.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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