Sunday, April 6, 2014

James Gilmour, 82nd Regiment, survives a shipwreck

James Gilmour enlisted in the 82nd Regiment of Foot. It was a new regiment, raised in 1778 because there was a war on. The war in America had been going on for three years, and now France had declared war on Great Britain, necessitating a massive military buildup. Throughout the spring and summer of 1778 the 82nd Regiment was recruited; for a year the new corps, consisting of a mix of men previously discharged from the army and men new to military service, trained in Great Britain. Early in 1779 they were ready for deployment overseas, and boarded transports for America.

The regiment went first to Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there, most of the companies went on to Penobscot, Maine, where they would fight in a great siege. But the Grenadier company and the Light Infantry company, the latter including James Gilmour, were sent to join the British army in New York. Most of the 82nd's men were on the transport Mermaid. The ship rounded Cape Cod and made for New York, but instead of getting safely past Sandy Hook and into New York harbor, she ran aground off the New Jersey coast. What happened next is described in a newspaper article published in Philadelphia on 7 April 1779:

Since our last came to this city sundry prisoners saved from the Mermaid, stranded near Egg-harbour. From them we learn, that the said ship sailed from Halifax, in company with six other transports, having on board all the flank and light companies of that garrison; on board the Mermaid was the flank company and half the light company of the 82d regiment. That on the 22d, at five o’clock in the morning, the Mermaid ran ashore, when she soon bulged, and the people on board were obliged to take to the tops and shrouds, where, for 35 hours, those who were saved bore the severest cold, snow, &c. and while they had light, the survivors were almost every minute shocked with the falling of some of their unhappy ship-mates, who died with the cold, from the tops and other parts of the rigging, where they had endeavoured to secure themselves from the sea, which continually rolled over the ships deck. After having been in this miserable situation from five o’clock on Monday morning till noon on Tuesday, a boat came off to their relief, and saved about 42 of them, many of which are much frost bitten in their feet, and some of them were not able to help themselves on board the boat that came to their relief so that a few hours more must, in all probability, have finished the whole of them.

List of persons on board the ship Mermaid, Capt. Snowball, from Halifax to New-York: Perished, Capt. Snowball, master of the ship; Lieut. Snodgrass, of 82d light company; 112 serjeants, drums and privates; 13 women, seven children, 11 sailors. Total 145. Saved, five serjeants, 25 privates, seven sailors, and five officers, viz. Capt. Thomas Pitcairn, Lieuts. Andrew Rutherford, James Dunlap, of grenadiers, James Maxwell, and Robert Anderson, of light infantry of the 82d regiment. Total 42.

Among the 25 privates who survived the ordeal was James Gilmour. He got out of the water, but was also now effectively out of the war; he and the other survivors were brought ashore by their adversaries; the officers were put on parole in the interior of Pennsylvania while the private soldiers went into prison in Philadelphia.

A few months later one of the officers, Captain Thomas Pitcairn, made a plea to the American officer responsible for prisoners of war; he asked for Gilmour to be released, but for rather self-serving reasons. He wrote, 

   The Servant you was so good as to give us has taken the Oaths to the States, leaves us without any body to clean our Shoes and any other trifle we may want. I Should therefor be exceedingly obliged to you if you would allows us James Gillmour one of our own men now in Jail who having been always one of our Servants will be of greater use to us.
Cleaning shoes and attending to trifles doesn't sound like a glamorous life, but being an officer's servant could be a good life for a private soldier. The job paid well, sometimes officers provided additional clothing, servants obtained a measure of freedom and responsibility by being sent on errands for their officers - and in Gilmour's case, it was an alternative to jail.

It seems to have gone well for James Gilmour. He was released from captivity when the war ended, returned to Great Britain, and was discharged from the army on June 1784.

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