Friday, April 21, 2017
Being married to a soldier has never been easy, especially when the soldier is deployed overseas and the spouse stays home with children. In an era when long-distance communication was rare and tenuous at best, a wife whose soldier-husband was abroad could be all but abandoned. This was Catherine Whitney's situation when she gave a deposition in early 1778.
She was born in Abbey Holme, a parish in Cumbria not far from the Scottish border. When she was born is not known, nor is the overall timeline of her life, but the pieces that we have show that she moved around a lot. By 1758 she was old enough to have gone to London and taken a job at a coffee house in the parish of St. George the Martyr just outside the city (the parish church, pictured here, still stands). She left after only eight months.
In the 1760s she was in Limerick, Ireland. There she married a soldier, Walter Whitney of the 10th Regiment of Foot. He had traveled farther to get there; the child of a soldier, he was born in Gibraltar while the 10th Regiment was posted there between 1730 and 1749.
The regiment moved north to Galway. There Walter and Catherine had a daughter, Ann. The military profession was not always conducive to a stable family life, and in 1767 the 10th Regiment sailed from Ireland for Quebec. Walter Whitney did not take his wife and child with him, either by choice or due to the limitations in shipping capacity afforded space on transports for, typically, only about 60 wives in each regiment (this limitation in shipping is often misconstrued as indicating that only six wives for each company were allowed to be present with a regiment, which was not the case).
What Catherine Whitney and her daughter did in her husband's absence is not known, nor where they lived. She heard from him in 1771, that he was in Quebec. But that was the last time. In 1774 the 10th Regiment was finally due to come home, but rising tensions in the American colonies caused it to be diverted to Boston. Perhaps she knew that.
By 1778 she was in Worcester, England, where she was brought to court at the Easter quarter-sessions. The court heard her story, at least the parts of it related above, and ordered her and her daughter to be taken by a constable to St. George the Martyr. Why this judgment was made is not stated; perhaps it was thought that she still had some obligation to her former employer there. What actually became of her is not known.
She mentioned to the court that "her husband was posted to America & she has not heard of him for 7 years when he was at Quebec." She certainly wouldn't hear from him again. The 10th Regiment had departed Boston in March 1776 and gone to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There Walter Whitney died on 20 May, as close to his wife and daughter as he had been in the last nine years.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
The region around the village of Sedgley in Staffordshire was a hotbed of industrial development in the second half of the eighteenth century. South of Wolverhampton and northwest of Birmingham, it was a natural place for young men seeking work to take jobs in the iron industry. For Edward Webb, that meant following the trade of a nailor, a specialized metal worker who made nails. By the time he was nineteen years old, in late 1772, he decided to change careers and enlist in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. At 5' 11" tall, with dark brown hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion, he was a good specimen for a soldier, albeit with little prospect of advancement because he'd never learned to write.
Unlike the regular infantry regiments in the army, the Foot Guards had a permanent headquarters, and it was in London. In times of peace, the Guards regiments were never deployed overseas, so the young soldier may have expected to spend a long career in his nation's capital city. Things changed in early 1776, however, when the military buildup for the American war necessitated creative ways to send experienced troops overseas. As had been done in prior wars, a brigade of 1000 men was formed of volunteers from each of the three Foot Guards regiments (which were considerably larger than other infantry regiments). The Brigade of Guards arrived in America in the summer of 1776, joining the army on Staten Island.
The Brigade of Guards was at the forefront of several campaigns, including the one that captured Philadelphia in late 1777. While the army wintered in Philadelphia, duty was harsh, building and maintaining fortifications, foraging in a snowswept countryside, keeping watch during bitter cold nights. Somehow, in spite of this, soldiers found time to socialize. At the city's Gloriea Dei Church, the number of marriages more than doubled during the few months that the British army was in town; many of the brides may have been refugees from the surrounding region rather than inhabitants of the city or widows of soldiers; unfortunately, the church's marriage records record only the names of the brides, not their circumstances. Among the men who married was Edward Webb, who wed Eleanor Deley on 14 May 1778. A month later they left the city together and marched to New York with the rest of the British forces.
For the remainder of 1778 and into 1779, the Brigade of Guards stayed in the New York City area, but remained active, participating in a number of expeditions into New Jersey and Connecticut. As 1779 wound down, they moved from tent camps to huts, structures of boards or logs with thatched roofs, often built into the sides of hills. A dozen or so men and their wives might live in each one-room hut, cramped but cozy quarters for the cold season.
One night in late October, three soldiers of the Guards arrived at the door of the hut that Eleanor Webb shared with her husband and others. They asked for something to drink, an offer that she obliged. Then they asked if they might leave a bundle there for a while, which she also allowed. The next day the men returned, to open the bundled and divvy up the contents; one of the soldiers said he'd found the bundle in the street. It contained an assortment of cloth and three pairs of women's stays. They parceled out the contents, giving a pair of stays to another woman who was present, and giving Eleanor Webb a pair of stays, two pieces of calico cloth, and one piece of plain cloth. She hesitated to take them, saying she was afraid they'd been stolen, but the soldiers assured her they'd been found. Some of the goods remained in the hut, and one of the soldiers took the remainder.
A day later, more people arrived at the hut. This time it was a shopkeeper, a constable, and some men assisting them. They searched the hut and found some of the things from the bundle. Those goods had been stolen from the shopkeeper's shop, and she'd received a tip that they'd be found in the Webbs' hut. Other things had been found in the camp of a Hessian regiment, where soldiers and wives had bought them from a British soldier. A few days later the constable and his men returned, and this they dug into the ground under Edward Webb's bed. They found still more of the stolen goods. Edward and Eleanor Webb, and four other soldiers of the Guards, were put under arrest.
The Brigade of Guards held a general court martial in early December. Three soldiers were tried for breaking into the shop and stealing an assortment of goods. The key evidence was provided by another soldier who had participated in the crime and agreed to turn "King's evidence," that is, to testify on behalf of the prosecution in return for immunity. When that trial concluded, Edward and Eleanor Webb, along with one other soldier, were tried for "receiving and secreting of goods stolen" from the shopkeeper. The testimony was straightforward, about the goods being found in the hut, some buried under a bed. Soldiers described leaving the bundle in the hut, then returning and dividing up the contents. They mentioned Eleanor Webb receiving cloth and a pair of stays, and her reluctance to take them for fear of their having been stolen. The stolen goods were shown to the court, and the shopkeeper identified them.
Eleanor Webb testified honestly, about her concern that the things had been stolen, and the reassurance she'd been given that they were not. The court, however, did not accept this as an excuse. Plundering, and the distribution of stolen goods, had been a rampant problem in the British army in America, and many similar trials had been held even during the eighteen months that Mrs. Webb had been with the army. Edward and Eleanor Webb were found guilty; he was sentenced to receive 500 lashes, while she was sentenced to be "drummed out of the lines with a rope around her neck."
We don't know whether the punishment was carried out or pardoned. If Mrs. Webb was indeed drummed out of the lines, that left her in a difficult situation. She could try to return to the Philadelphia area, if she had a place there to go, but the very circumstances that led her to marry a British soldier may have also prevented her return. If she had proof of her marriage, she was entitled to reside in her husband's home town of Sedgley in England, but getting there would be profoundly difficult. Without further information, we can only guess what became of her.
Edward Webb now had two predictors of his future behavior: he had married in America, and he had been sentenced to lashes. Many soldiers who'd had either of these experiences subsequently deserted - to stay with their wives, in the former instance, and in disgruntlement, in the latter instance. If Edward Webb's wife was indeed turned out of British lines, that gave him even more incentive to abscond. He did not, however, desert. He remained a soldier in the 1st Foot Guards for a total of nineteen years and one month, taking his discharge on 4 January 1792 at Whitehall in London. Because of "the rheumatism contracted on service in America, during the whole campaign," the thirty-eight year old soldier was awarded an out pension, meaning that he could return to his place of residence and collect a semi-annual payment from the government.
Instead, he remained in London and joined the Royal Westminster Regiment of Middlesex Militia. He remained in that corps until October 1796, when he requested and received a discharge, and returned to the pension rolls.
Pensioners had an obligation to serve in garrison battalions if they were fit enough to do so, that is, capable of doing the sorts of light duty required in a fixed post, even if they were no longer able to march and encamp like they had done in the infantry. Webb was among those called up at the end of December 1802, but after only fifty-one days he was discharged again after being "found incapable of doing garrison duty;" he was then "exempted from attendence upon any further occasion when the out pensioners may be called on."
Two years later, however, he was once again in a garrison battalion in London. In spite of the medical assessment he'd previously received, he served for two years and nine months, taking his discharge on 30 November 1807 and returning to the pension rolls one final time, having "disorders contracted in the service and found unfit for garrison duty."
Saturday, February 4, 2017
From some people, we'd expect an attractive signature. That's exactly what John Hawkins put on his discharge when he left the army in 1786, having spent eleven years as a soldier. He had been a writing clerk before he enlisted in the 37th Regiment of Foot at the age of twenty-four, in May 1775. Hawkins was from the coastal village of Shankill, Ireland, just south of Dublin where the 37th Regiment was stationed.
By the end of his first year in the army, he was preparing to sail to America. The 37th Regiment was among those sent to the southern colonies in early 1776 with the hope of keeping that region under British government control. The plans went awry and culminated in a failed attempt to take Charleston, South Carolina. The soldiers spent much of their time on board ships or encamped on a sandy Carolina coastal island. Finally the entire force went north and joined the British army encamped on Staten Island.
The 37th Regiment participated in rapid campaign that wrested New York City from rebel control, then sailed for Rhode Island where British troops landed unopposed. Having secured that place, the regiment and others returned to New York, leaving a smaller force to garrison Rhode Island. In February 1777, the 5 foot 9 1/2 inch tall Hawkins was put into the regiment's grenadier company. That company was part of a grenadier battalion composed of companies from about a dozen regiments, and spent much of the first half of 1777 in New Jersey. Various skirmishes and one pitched battle occurred there before British troops pulled out of most of the colony in June.
Hawkins' next campaign began with the British landing at Head of Elk, Maryland in August 1777. Their objective was Philadelphia, but they had to first get past an American army. The two forces clashed at the Battle of Brandywine on 11 September. In this action, the grenadiers were hotly engaged. Hawkins was wounded in the head, but the wound was not serious enough to require a long recovery that would've caused his removal from the grenadiers.
Hawkins was appointed corporal in the grenadier company in October 1779. In June 1783, he advanced again to serjeant. His writing skills no doubt helped in his advancement, for literacy was usually required for non-commissioned officers. He may have earned considerable extra money doing clerical work for the regiment.
The 37th Regiment was sent to Canada in 1783, and Hawkins continued to serve for three more years. By 1786, health issues had begun to affect him; he was reduced from serjeant at the end of September and discharged on 14 October in Halifax. The army generously paid him through 24 December, ample funds to get him back to Great Britain. He was recommended to the pension board due to “being wounded in the head in the action at Brandywine the 11 of September 1777 and Melancholy.” His discharge bears his well-practiced signature.
Hawkins saw one more brief stint of service in 1796, when pensioners were called to serve in garrison battalions defending posts along the English coast. After nine months, he was discharged once again, "being old and worn out."
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
In early 1775, the 54th Regiment of Foot sent 29 men to serve in America. These men were transferred to other regiments already on service in Boston, and to regiments about to embark for that place; with tensions building in America, the army saw the advantage of bringing the regiments there up to strength with experienced men rather than new recruits, so the 54th and other regiments in Ireland each contributed a share. Then they began recruiting to make up for the losses.
In May, a 24-year-old tobacconist named Thomas Cook from St. Mary's Parish, county Limerick, Ireland, joined the ranks of the 54th. Before the year was over, the 54th Regiment was ordered to America, and filled out its own ranks with equal portions of new recruits and experienced soldiers drafted from other regiments.
The 54th Regiment was part of the expedition that sailed in January 1776 to secure the southern colonies, which culminated in the failed attempt to take Charleston, South Carolina. The 54th and other regiments spend some time on shore encamped in hot, sandy coastal areas. In the summer they sailed north and joined the army on Staten Island, a verdant paradise compared to the places they'd recently been. After the campaign that drove American troops out of the New York area and into New Jersey, the 54th boarded ships once again and landed in December in Rhode Island, which would be their home for the next two and a half years.
The regiments in the Rhode Island garrison spend the winter quartered in buildings left vacant by inhabitants who had fled before the troops landed. In late spring, when roads were firm and ground was dry enough, encampments were established in the countryside. Rhode Island (the name for the island that today we call Aquidneck, or Newport) had points that were particularly close to the mainland; it was at those locations that redoubts were built for defense, and the encampments were usually within easy reach of these earthen fortifications. While encamped, the soldier's daily ration (served out not directly to individuals but to groups of five soldiers called messes) consisted of one and a half pounds of meat and a similar amount of bread each day. This diet was expected to be supplemented by vegetables purchased or foraged locally. The island's bountiful farms provided ample supplies, which British soldiers became quite proficient at obtaining both legally and illicitly. Thomas Cook may have become proficient at foraging. Or he may have decided he'd had enough of military service.
Late in the afternoon of 30 July 1777, Cook showed up at the advanced guard post on Common Fence Point, a neck of land at the northern tip of Rhode Island that juts eastward, creating a narrow but turbulent channel between the island and the mainland. The point itself was too close to the mainland to be safe, so the advanced sentries were posted well back from the shoreline, out of cannon shot from the mainland, with a number of arable fields and orchards between them and their opponents. Some distance behind the sentries was a redoubt where some fifty soldiers were posted. Cook asked a corporal of the advanced guard, who happened to be from his regiment, for some water, and the corporal noted that he was "seemingly a little in liquor." Cook wore a haversack, a canvas bag slung over his shoulder designed for carrying three or four days of rations on a march. He wandered away after getting his water.
Cook walked on towards Common Fence Point. Someone called to him, from behind. He began to run. Suddenly there was gunfire. Fearful of being shot, he ran into a field of Indian corn, then lay down for cover. The shooting stopped, but suddenly two soldiers appeared and seized him. They asked if he intended to desert, to which he answered no.
He was brought back to the redoubt, where he asserted that he had only gone to gather greens. The corporal's guard had fired at him, though, because there was a strict order against anyone passing the advanced sentries without a pass. Examining Cook's haversack, the men of the guard found a pair of shoes, a pair of stockings and some biscuit, signs that Cook had planned a journey rather than a brief foraging walk. And he was wearing two shirts, a further indication of trying to sneak away with essential extra clothing.
When brought before a general court martial on 7 August and charged with desertion, Thomas Cook had little to offer in his defense. He said that he went to gather greens, and ran into the corn field to avoid being killed when the corporal's advanced sentries fired on him; that he had no intention of deserting, and didn't know that the clothing and food were in his haversack. The court did not believe a word of this, and sentenced him to death.
Cook was held in confinement, awaiting the execution of his sentence. He waited. And waited.
In the meantime, the commander in chief of the army in which the 54th Regiment served, General Sir William Howe, received a copy of the trial proceedings and the sentence. He had to approve capital punishments, and it was his prerogative to grant stays of execution. He could also defer to a higher authority, namely, the king himself. A royal pardon was a way of communicating to the troops that their sovereign was merciful, that being tried and sentenced was punishment enough and that the life of a soldier was valued by the monarch. So General Howe sent a letter to the king recommending clemency for Cook and another soldier who'd been tried in New Jersey in April 1777. In January 1778, a letter was sent from the War Office in London indicating that pardons had been granted. It took some time for the letter to reach Rhode Island, but when it finally did, Thomas Cook was a free man.
Or, rather, a free soldier. He returned to the ranks of the 54th Regiment and resumed his duties. Some soldiers who endured such an experience of being tried, convicted, and confined for many months became bitter and deserted, but not Thomas Cook. He served in the regiment for twenty-one years, after which he joined the 63rd Regiment of Foot. He was discharged from the army in 1797 when the 63rd was posted at Spanish Town in Jamaica. In typical fashion, he was given two extra weeks of pay "to carry me to the place of my abode" on the document that he signed by making an X. The army also provided passage for his return to Great Britain, where he was awarded a pension for "being worn out" in the service.
Sunday, January 1, 2017
Most British soldiers enlisted in their early twenties, after they were fully grown and had tried their hands at other professions. There were exceptions both younger and older; among the former were those "born in the regiment" who could be put on the muster rolls as soon as they were old enough to perform useful service for the army. An extreme - and rare - example is Robert Mason who was put onto the muster rolls of the 23rd Regiment of Foot as a drummer on 5 September 1767. Two unrelated documents prepared in 1786 list his age as twenty-six; if that's correct, then he began playing the drum (or the fife - muster rolls often list both drummers and fifers as "drummers") at the age of just seven years.
There was a serjeant John Mason in the regiment at the time Robert Mason joined, making it safe to conclude that the young drummer was the serjeant's son. The boy must have been accomplished in his endeavors, for not only did he begin at this extraordinarily young age, but he remained a drummer for the next nineteen years at least. This was not an unusual career path; while not all British drummers began their careers at a young age, most served as drummers for their entire careers.
The 23rd Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, came to America in 1773, disembarking in New York and moving to Boston the following year. The regiment, or portions of it, served in many of the war's most famous battles and campaigns, from Lexington and Concord in April 1775 to Yorktown in October 1781. In America during the war, he grew up, reaching a slender five feet eight inches. In May 1776, when the British army under General Howe was reorganizing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he was put into the regiment's light infantry company, where he almost certainly used a hunting horn rather than a drum to signal advances, retreats and other movements. The light infantry company joined similar companies from other regiments to form the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, a corps that was at the forefront of the campaigns in New York and New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, and the marches to and from Philadelphia in 1777 and 1778. In August 1778 the 23rd's light infantry company was put on board the warship HMS Isis as part of the intended relief of Rhode Island; after the fleet was scattered by a storm, Isis fell in with a larger French warship, and the soldiers of the 23rd, Mason among them, participated the battle in which the British ship bested its larger French foe. Somewhere in the course of these years of fighting Mason was wounded by a musket ball in his left upper arm. And he acquired an interest in women, which began to affect his performance as a soldier.
On 28 July 1779, Mason and two fellow soldiers were absent from the light infantry battalion's encampment near New York City. The next morning, following standard procedure, a serjeant examined their knapsacks to see what they had taken with them: men who planned to desert often took spare clothing with them. The knapsacks were empty, so the men were reported as deserters and light infantrymen on horseback were sent to search for them.
In the mean time, around one o’clock in the morning, before their knapsacks were examined, the three missing men knocked at the door of a house in Throg's Neck, New York, which the British referred to as Frog's Neck. The woman of the house answered the door, and the men asked how to find the road to East Chester, farther away from British lines than they already were. The woman directed them, and the three travelers went on their way. The man of the house, however, was suspicious; he got out of bed, took up his gun, and followed the strangers into the night. The three soldiers stopped at another house, this time asking "if there were not any Rebels near at hand." Once again they were sent on their way. Then the first homeowner, gun in hand, arrived at the second home and told the owner, whom he knew, that he suspected the other men were deserters. The two local residents, both with guns, went off together in pursuit.
The two parties soon encountered each other, and the soldiers submitted to being taken to a nearby military post. The officer there determined to take them to the British lines at Kingsbridge, and off they went, the officer, the two local inhabitants, and the three soldiers of the 23rd Regiment. About two miles short of Kingsbridge, however, the soldiers turned on their escorts, wielding bayonets that they'd had concealed in spare clothing slung over their shoulders. In the ensuing scuffle, the soldiers managed with some difficulty to seize both of the guns. But when the officer severely wounded one of the soldiers, the other two backed down.
The party continued their trek towards Kingsbridge, leaving the wounded man behind. The next person they met was the captain of the 23rd Regiment's light infantry company, the soldiers' own commanding officer. He asked the two remaining soldiers what induced them to desert, to which Mason gave no reply, but his colleague attributed it to liquor. The third soldier, who had been left on the road, died of his wounds.
The two men were brought before a general court martial on 16 August. When the 19-year-old Mason asked the captain to provide a character reference (bearing in mind that the officer had known Mason for most of the young man's life), the officer replied, "you have lately been rather inattentive, owing to an attachment to two Women of the Regiment." In their defense, the two accused soldiers tried to explain their absence and why they’d taken clothing with them, claiming that "they had no intention to Desert, but that they had left the Camp, the preceeding Evening to wash their Necessaries, and in the night they went to gather some Vegetables, and lost their way. The reason that they took the Arms from the Refugees, is, that they on their March to Kingsbridge had used them ill." The court found them guilty, and sentenced them "to suffer death, by being hanged by the Neck, until they are Dead."
This sentence was never carried out. Robert Mason was instead discharged from the regiment in February 1780. This may have been some sort of plea bargain, for Mason enlisted again the very next day and became a private soldier in the 23rd Regiment. He apparently was not with the portion of the regiment that was captured at Yorktown in 1781, and his behavior must have improved, for he was appointed corporal in 1782. At the close of the war, he returned to Great Britain with the regiment, where he continued to advance. His skill with martial music was again recognized when he was appointed drum major in January 1785.
But Mason's mind was still not fully focused on military discipline. For reasons not known, he disappeared from the regiment's quarters at Tynemouth Barracks in Northumberland on 23 July 1786. A month later, he was advertised in the Newcastle Courant:
Deserted, on Sunday the 23rd July last, from his Majesty's 23d Regiment of Foot, or Royal Welsh Fusileers, now quartered in Tynemouth Barracks, Northumberland, ROBERT MASON, Drum Major, aged 26 years, five feet eight inches high, fair complexion, long visage, light brown hair, grey eyes, born in the parish of Oundle, in the country of Northampton, and by trade a labourer. The said Robert Mason had on when he went away a scarlet jacket, with silver lace down the breast, no lappels, blue cuffs and collar, with wings and silver fringe upon each shoulder, white linen waistcoat and breeches, regimental hat with three white feathers, regimental sword and belt, black stock and half gaiters; he slender made and walks very upright, has been wounded in the left arm a little above the elbow, by a musquet ball.
Another drummer, also a veteran of the American war, absconded at the same time. It is not currently know whether either of them returned, or what became of them.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!