Monday, May 2, 2016
John Smith enlisted in the 36th Regiment of Foot on 25 December 1770. For a 21 year old tailor, joining the British army offered prospects of travel and adventure unlike anything he might experience in his home town of Monkwearmouth in County Durham on the northeast coast of England. The 36th Regiment was in Jamaica when Smith enlisted, and he may have been enticed by the prospect of voyaging to that exotic location, or by the extra bounty and income sometimes offered to soldiers who served on that wealthy but disease-ridden island. It is not known whether Smith made the journey to join his regiment, or waited with other recruits in Great Britain until 1773 when the regiment returned from its nine-year tropic deployment.
Regardless of when Smith joined his regiment, he joined it in peaceful times. He probably followed his profession, learning the details of fitting and finishing the regimental uniforms that were issued annually, cutting and assembling supplemental military garments like overalls, watchcoats and winter leggings, and producing clothing bespoken by officers including garments for their soldier servants. The 36th Regiment served in Ireland from 1773 into the 1780s, where soldiers were occasionally called out to fight smugglers and quell civil disturbances, but army life consisted for the most part of military routine.
The 36th Regiment was not sent to America when war broke out there. Many of its soldiers, however, were. Regiments sent overseas needed to be brought up to strength, and this was accomplished by both recruiting and by transferring seasoned soldiers, a combination that insured war-bound regiments were not burdened with too many new recruits. In 1775 and 1776, the 36th provided over 100 men to regiments preparing for service in America. John Smith and many of his comrades went to the 53rd Regiment of Foot, one of six British regiments that sailed to Quebec in the first half of 1776. Whatever comfort and ease Smith had experienced so far in the army came to an abrupt end.
An Atlantic crossing in a transport ship, which usually took two or three months, was rigorous enough. Immediately after disembarking in Quebec, the troops went into action, chasing a collapsing American force up the Richelieu River towards Lake Champlain, retaking posts along the way that had fallen the previous autumn.
The 53rd and other British Regiments spent the winter of 1776-1777 distributed in posts along the Richelieu, isolated from each other by ice and snow, quartered in buildings but nonetheless fighting the harsh weather. As a tailor, it's possible that Smith stayed in Quebec or Montreal, but more likely he was with his regiment. Normally the regimental tailors spent the early months of the year fitting and altering the annual clothing, received late the previous year, for the upcoming campaign season. The regiments in Canada received the disappointing news, however, that their annual clothing had been captured at sea, and they would have to go on the 1777 campaign wearing the same uniforms they'd worn throughout 1776. Instead of preparing new clothing, the tailors got busy altering and repairing the uniforms that the men already had, making them as serviceable as possible for what they knew, from the previous year's experience, would be an arduous campaign.
Whatever tailoring work John Smith did during the winter months while the roads were impassable came to an end when the army received orders to march south in June 1777. Setting their sights first on the fabled fortress of Fort Ticonderoga, where British forces had suffered massive casualties two decades before, British and German troops under General John Burgoyne moved up Lake Champlain by water, then plunged in to the wilderness to invest the area surrounding the fort and its companion position on the opposite shore, Mount Independence.
Finding that Fort Ticonderoga was untenable, the American garrison retreated to the east side of Lake Chaplain during the night, and then abandoned Mount Independence as well. British light infantry and grenadiers made a rapid pursuit and caught up with their quarry at Hubbardton, Vermont, where a fierce clash occurred on 7 July 1777. Although the regiment's muster rolls don't make this clear, it appears that John Smith was in the 53rd Regiment's light infantry company at this time, for he was wounded in the neck during the fighting.
Perhaps due to this wound, Smith did not continue south with the light infantry. The 53rd Regiment remained in the area to garrison Fort Ticonderoga and the posts between there and nearby Lake George. For a while this was a safe, rear-area duty, but as Burgoyne's advance bogged down near Saratoga, American forces grew in strength and began threatening Burgoyne's supply lines.
On the night of September 13 and 14, a raid led by Col. John Brown captured over fifty men of the 53rd Regiment, including Smith. This made him a prisoner of war, but not one of those subject to the Convention of Saratoga that would be signed in October. Smith and the other prisoners from the 53rd nonetheless followed a similar path as those captured at Saratoga.
It didn't take long for the prisoners to find ways to abscond. Smith and three of his comrades, John Wishart, John Duncan and John Drury, managed to join up with a group of British sailors who were prisoners of war and were due to be exchanged. The exchange was effected, and the supposed sailors were sent to the British garrison at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they arrived on 12 January 1778 after less than four months as prisoners of war. There they revealed their true identities, and arrangements were made to return them to the British army. The detachment of British Marines in Halifax took care of them, providing clothing and provisions which they charged to the account of the 53rd Regiment. For some reason they were sent towards New York rather than to their regiment in Canada; perhaps it was convenience due to the season, or because the exact status of the 53rd Regiment was not known (portions of the regiment had been captured, but the bulk of it returned to Quebec and served in Canada for the remainder of the war).
Smith, Wishart, Duncan, Drury and fifteen or twenty other soldiers who had effected their exchange left Halifax on a British frigate, HMS Orpheus. While at sea they were transferred to a transport ship bound for Rhode Island. They landed in Newport, Rhode Island on 30 March 1778. Able-bodied soldiers were always useful to a British garrison, so these men from Burgoyne's army began doing duty with the regiments in the Rhode Island garrison; John Smith and a dozen of his fellows from the 53rd Regiment served with the 22nd Regiment of Foot, a corps that had been in Rhode Island since December 1776. In its ranks was another tailor named John Smith, this one a year younger and hailing from Yorkshire.
The 22nd Regiment conducted a successful raid on the mainland towns of Bristol and Warren in May 1778, destroying boats and military stores that were intended for an assault on the British garrison. The Americans, with the support of the French navy, were nonetheless able to attack in August, and the garrison endured a three-week siege that culminated in a fierce battle. The 22nd Regiment suffered twelve men killed and over fifty wounded, something over 20% of its strength. It is not known whether any of the men from the northern army serving with the 22nd were part of the battle or among the casualties.
In December 1778, John Smith and his comrades in Rhode Island from the 53rd Regiment were formally drafted into the 22nd Regiment of Foot, with which they'd been serving for months already. Among them was one of the men with whom he had served in the 36th Regiment, Christian Fisher. Transferring them was much more expedient than sending them to Quebec, and they'd probably received clothing from the 22nd Regiment by this time to replace what was lost when taken prisoner and discarded to facilitate their escape.
The 22nd left Rhode Island in October 1779 and spent the rest of the war in New York City. Christian Fisher died in May 1780; John Smith served in one more major engagement, the fighting at Connecticut Farms, New Jersey that occurred in June of that year.
By 1782 the war was winding down, and it was time to catch up on paperwork. A court of inquiry heard the claims of prisoners of war who had escaped and rejoined the army, and who were due arrears of pay and clothing. Smith, Wishart, Drury and Duncan made claims for three years' worth of clothing from the 53rd Regiment. They also claimed leggings and blanket coats that they'd left behind when captured, having learned that those items, which they'd paid for themselves, had been sent back to Montreal and resold. John Smith also was due £1.13 Sterling for unspecified reasons, perhaps back pay or perhaps fees due for tailoring.
The 22nd Regiment was among the last of the British troops to leave the United States, embarking from New York in November 1783. They returned to England, where many war-weary soldiers were discharged. John Smith continued to serve until 8 June 1789, when he was discharged from the regiment at Dover Castle. Unable to sign his own name, he marked an X on his discharge form. In the usual fashion, he received extra pay to allow him to return to the place of his choice. Before returning home he went to Chelsea, near London, where he appeared before the out-pension board to make a claim for benefits. He was awarded a pension due to "having served during the whole of the American War, being wounded in the Neck at Hubbertown, and Worn out in the Service." After nineteen years of service, three regiments and one wound, the tailor from Monkwearmouth had the comfort of knowing he would receive a modest income from the government for the rest of his life.