Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fate of 416 soldiers who landed in Boston, 1775

The American Revolution lasted for 8 years (1775 to 1783), and many British soldiers were in America for the entire war. Each man had his own distinctive career, but sometimes an overview gives a useful perspective. Let's look at the men of one regiment who arrived in America just as the war was beginning, and see how they fared over the following years.

The 22nd Regiment of Foot embarked in Cork, Ireland in early May 1776. Hostilities had begun, but they didn't know that yet - they had been ordered to America simply to reinforce the army already there, along with the 40th, 44th and 45th Regiments. The men of the 22nd were divided among four transport ships. Originally bound for New York, they were met off the America coast by a British warship that redirected them to Boston. The transports trickled in to Boston harbor during the last week of June and the first week of July, encountering the aftermath of the battle of Bunker Hill and a fresh new war.

416 serjeants, corporals, drummers and fifers of the 22nd Regiment disembarked in Boston (along with about 30 officers, 60 soldiers' wives, and some soldiers' children, but we won't be discussing them here). Over the next years many more men came into the regiment, but for now we'll discuss only this initial 416. During the next 8 years:

4 became officers. In general it was unusual for a man to "cross over" from the enlisted ranks to the officer corps, so this low number is no surprise; it may even be deceptively high because some of the four may have been qualified for a commission but enlisted because there were no vacancies (there were several "tracks" for men to follow becoming officers; this is discussed in some detail in my book British Soldiers, American War).

14 were killed in battle in America. The 22nd Regiment was involved in fighting on Long Island in 1776, Rhode Island in 1777 and especially 1778, and in New Jersey in 1780; the Grenadier and Light Infantry companies were in many other actions. The regiment suffered more killed than this, but only 14 of the initial 416 died in battle.
4 died as prisoners of war. A few men of the regiment were taken prisoner here and there over the course of the war, including at least one in Boston; 18 men were taken in New Jersey in 1780, and the light infantry company of 50 men was part of the army that capitulated at Yorktown in 1781. Many prisoners died in captivity; again, this number reflects only those of the initial 416, not the total for the regiment during the war.

2 were executed in America after convictions for military crimes. One was convicted of robbery and desertion; it was his second offence for robbery, and he was executed in Rhode Island in 1778. The other man murdered his wife on Long Island in 1781.

7 never returned from captivity. Officially counted as deserters, the actual fate of many of these men is not known. Most probably succumbed to the temptations of land ownership and a new life in the colonies.

92 died in the service. During times of peace most British soldiers enlisted in their early 20s with no expectation of leaving the army until they were no longer fit for service; typical careers spanned 20 to 40 years. Wartime enlistment was different, but for the 416 men who arrived in Boston the American war was only a portion of their career. Some died in America, while others died years later, some as late as the 1790s. Muster rolls do not give the cause of death; we assume that most of these men died of illness, but accidents and post-1783 warfare may have claimed some.

30 deserted and never returned. This includes those who deserted in America and those who deserted in other places after 1783; it does not include those who did not return from captivity. Reasons for desertion were many and varied, so much so that we dare not suggest generalities!

176 were discharged and received pensions. Men who did serve 20 or more years, or who were disabled in the service, could apply for a pension; this, too, is discussed in detail in my book. After factoring out the men who died or deserted (and therefore could not received pensions), we see that the odds of getting a pension were fairly good! And few careers during this era offered anything like a pension.

22 were discharged and received land grants. Those men who were eligible for discharge at the end of the war could opt for a grant of 100 acres of land in Nova Scotia instead of returning to Great Britain and applying for a pension. Considering that land ownership was only a dream for most British citizens, this was a very tempting offer.

55 were discharged but received no known reward. When a man was discharged from the army, it was his own choice whether to return to Great Britain to apply for a pension. Once the muster rolls shows that the man was discharged, there is no way to know his fate unless he happens to show up later on the pension lists.

10 unknown. And a few men disappear from the muster rolls of the 22nd or subsequent regiments with no indication of why. In some cases the muster rolls themselves are missing. For the moment, we simply have no way of knowing what became of these soldiers.

Overall, we see that about half of the 416 men who landed in Boston completed their military careers and received either pensions or land grants. Considering the number that did not complete their careers, it becomes clear that military service, although arduous, was an attractive career because of the possibility of a pension or land grant, something that almost no other career could offer.

Monday, March 18, 2013

William Newton, 4th Regiment of Foot

In studying the American Revolution, a war that lasted eight years, it is easy to forget that it spanned only a portion of the career of many of the British soldiers who fought here. Men enlisted as a career, usually in their early twenties after having tried their hand at some other career first. Many were seasoned veterans when they arrived in America, and many continued in the army long after they departed America. There are many examples on this blog; indeed, it would be impossible to profile British soldiers without featuring many such men.

When William Newton came to American with the 4th (King's Own) Regiment of Foot, he was an experienced soldier. The weaver from Ashton under Line in county Lancaster, Newton had joined the army in 1768 at the age of twenty. Between 10% and 15% of British soldiers were weavers, the most common trade among soldiers, a reflection of the textile industry being the backbone of the British economy.

Newton, 5' 9" tall and illiterate, arrived in Boston with the 4th Regiment in 1774. He saw the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, the city's evacuation the following March, and the New York campaign of 1776. In April 1777 his regiment was among those that landed in Connecticut and destroyed American supplies at Danbury. During the retreat from that place, he was wounded in three places: the right arm, left leg and neck. But he recovered and soldiered on, serving on the campaign that took Philadelphia, spending the winter in that city, and then retreating across New Jersey back to New York in 1778.

Late in 1778 the 4th Regiment was among those sent to the West Indies. Here the regiment, with William Newton in its ranks, served in a number of other actions. Early in 1780, after such long and arduous service in North America, the 4th Regiment was ordered back to Great Britain; first, however, the remaining able-bodied soldiers were transferred to other regiments in the West Indies. William Newton joined the 15th Regiment of Foot. With that regiment, he was among the defenders of Brimstone Hill on St. Kitt's when it was besieged by the French in early 1782. The burst of a shell wounded him in the chest. After a month-long defense, the garrison surrendered and Newton was imprisoned.

When peace came the following year, William Newton soldiered on. He continued in the army until June 1789 when he was discharged in Limerick, Ireland, having been "rendered entirely unfit for any further service" by his wounds. His long service and sacrifice earned him a pension.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Henry Mitchell, 10th Regiment of Foot

Some military careers were short, like that of Henry Mitchell. He first appears on the rolls of the 10th Regiment of foot with an annotation that he "enlisted" on 26 August 1776. The regiment had long been in America at that time, having spent several years in Canada before moving to Boston in 1774. In August 1776 the 10th was part of a large army on Staten Island preparing for a campaign that would capture the city of New York, a prize that would remain in British hands until the last troops evacuated the colonies in 1783. Logic would suggest that Mitchell was a recruit sent from Great Britain, but he is the only man annotated as having enlisted on 26 August; because recruits from overseas usually arrived in groups on the same day, they typically are represented on the muster rolls as having the same enlistment date. It is possible, then, that Henry Mitchell was one of an uncounted few men recruited on Staten Island to serve in British regular regiments instead of in the Loyalist corps that were being raised there. But this is only a guess.

Just ten months after joining the regiment, Mitchell was transferred to the grenadier company. This too was not typical; most men had at least a year of service before being sent to the light infantry or grenadiers. At 5' 10", Mitchell was tall enough for the grenadiers, but he must have either learned quickly or had some prior experience to warrant being sent into an elite company so quickly.

Whatever his qualifications, he did not distinguish himself. He deserted on 23 June 1777, only a month after joining the grenadier company. The company was part of a grenadier battalion, formed by combining the companies from several regiments, on campaign in New Jersey at this time; Mitchell was among several of the battalion who took advantage of the rapid movement and chaos of campaigning to abscond.

In terms of the historical record, most deserters are never heard from again. Henry Mitchell, however, made his way into Pennsylvania where his name soon appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper:

West Caln, Chester County, July 15, 1777.
The following articles were last night stolen from the subscriber, viz. a brown regimental coat, faced with yellow; two jackets, one white, the other striped with red and white; a pair of buckskin breeches, almost new; a pair of shoes; a beaver hat, bound with silk ferret; a silver hatband, and a silver watch. The thief is a deserter from the English army, named Henry Mitchell, near 5 feet 10 inches high, about 25 years of age, much pitted with the smallpox, and short black hair, tied behind; he had on him a Regular coat of the Tenth regiment, faced with yellow. Whoever secures said clothes and thief, shall have Eight Pounds reward, or in proportion for any of the clothes. Patrick Shields.
[The Pennsylvania Gazette, 23 July 1777]

The enlistment, the desertion and the theft suggest that Henry Mitchell was an opportunist who knew how to take advantage of situations. It is unfortunate that we know nothing more of him.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

John Murray, engraver, 57th Regiment of Foot

One chapter of my latest book is devoted to how British soldiers spent their free time. This is a challenging subject because there were innumerable ways for these men to pass time but relatively little information on the subject; not many soldiers left writings, and even those who did seldom wrote much of their day-to-day activities. From a variety of primary sources, however, we know that some soldiers made gainful use of their free time by finding employment outside of the army. So common was this that some military textbooks devoted paragraphs or chapters to the subject, instructing officers to insure that jobs did not interfere with the soldiers' duties and that working soldiers had alternative clothing so as not to damage their uniforms.

One particularly enterprising soldier was John Murray of the 57th Regiment. He recognized that his skill as an engraver had a ready market in the crowded garrison city of New York, where officers of all standing needed their military and personal accessories marked for both fashion and identification. In February 1778 he placed an advertisement in The Royal Gazette, the city's premier newspaper (some sources incorrectly give the year as 1776, quite impossible as the city was not yet in British hands in February of that year):

John Murray, Engraver, in the 52d regiment, from Edinburgh, takes this method to inform the Public, That he engraves all manner of silver plate, ornaments, gold and silver watch cases, cyphers upon silver and steel seals, ladies' visiting and company cards, message cards, &c. Coats of arms upon copper, for gentlemen's books, office seals, officers gorgets and sword-belt plates, neatly engraved, and the above John Murray promises to perform his work by the greatest dispatch, and also at the Old Country price. 
N. B. He is to be found at Mr. M'Kenzie's, Barrack-Master, Tryon Row, or at his own room in the 57 Regiment, back of the Provost, or at the Printer hereof.

The advertisement contains a typographical error; Murray was in the 57th Regiment, not the 52nd. Although there was a man of the same name in the 52nd Regiment, that regiment was in Philadelphia in February 1778; the mention of "his own room" allows us to determine the correct regiment.

In addition to obvious items like watch cases and gorgets (ornamental crescent-shaped metal plates worn by officers when on duty), Murray mentioned pieces that required reverse images for printing: personalized calling cards, seals, book plates and such could be made using an engraved plate for either printing or embossing on paper. Because goods were expensive in the wartime economy, Murray was careful to note that his prices were the same as those charged in Great Britain.

In describing where he could be found, Murray makes it clear that he was doing his regular duty as a soldier while also working as an engraver; he may have worked in the Barrack Master's office on a no-longer-extant street where the Municipal Building now stands, and perhaps he engraving copper printing plates for the newspaper's publisher, James Rivington.

John Murray was a fairly common name in the British army. When the 57th Regiment embarked in Cork, Ireland for service in America at the beginning of 1776, there were two men of this name in its ranks. Both were still serving in 1778, one in a battalion company and one in the grenadier company. I guessed that the man who placed the ad was the battalion soldier, because the grenadiers were detached from the regiment and were in Philadelphia when the newspaper ad was placed. But that's not proof; a grenadier could've been on duty with the Barrack Master in New York, away from his company.

I'd hoped to find a pension record for one of the men that would list his trade; if a John Murray received a pension and was an engraver, I'd know it was the right man; if he wasn't an engraver, I'd know the other man was. But neither one made it to the pension office; grenadier John Murray died on 26 May 1780, and battalion soldier John Murray died on 1 March 1782, both in New York. The newspaper ad appeared only in 1778, so again no conclusion could be drawn.

Luckily, the advertisement gave a clue that could be correlated with the muster rolls. Muster rolls prepared in Ireland noted the nationality of each man with a "B" for British (which included English, Scottish and Welsh), an "I" for Irish or an "F" for Foreign. Grenadier John Murray was Irish, whereas battalion soldier John Murray was British. The engraver was from Edinburgh (the ad's awkward syntax suggests that the regiment itself was from Edinburgh, which clearly was not the case). John Murray, engraver from Edinburgh and soldier in one of the battalion companies of the 57th Regiment of Foot, was an industrious and enterprising soldier, clever enough to advertise in the newspaper and earn extra money in his free time - until he died in a garrison after the major hostilities had ended.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!