Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Thomas Swift, 37th Regiment, and his wife come to America

The village of Thurcaston in Leicestershire has a primary school that was founded in 1715. It is quite possible that Thomas Swift, born in the village in 1749, attended this school before pursuing the trade of framework knitting, making stockings in the rapidly-mechanizing British textile industry. He left the trade behind at the age of twenty to become a soldier.

He joined the 37th Regiment of Foot, probably just after its return from six years in Menorca. This afforded him several years to learn his military trade while the regiment was posted in England, Scotland and Ireland. By 1775 he was in the regiment's light infantry company, and by the time the regiment embarked for America in early 1776, he had gotten married. The couple sailed from Ireland with a fleet that aimed to open a southern theater in the American war in 1776.

By June, the 37th Regiment was encamped on Long Island, not the well-known place in New York but a sandy barrier island just north of Charleston, South Carolina. In spite of the hot weather, the army had remained healthy in the sea breezes. Late in the month the soldiers watched helplessly as British frigates futilely bombarded Fort Moultrie, the army's plans to attack foiled by the depth of the channel between Long Island and the fort's island, which they had intended to wade across. The army remained on Long Island into July, then sailed north to join the troops already on Staten Island preparing for the campaign that would capture New York City.

The light infantry companies of seven regiments that came from South Carolina to Staten Island were formed into the 3rd Battalion of Light Infantry for the campaigns that ran from August 1776 through June 1777.

For the campaign to Philadelphia in the second half of 1777 the light infantry was reorganized into two battalions, with the 37th's company in the 2nd. Thomas Swift was certainly involved in these campaigns, but nothing remarkable is known of his individual service until September 20, 1777, the date of the battle of Paoli. Swift was among the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry that marched for hours through the night to surprise an American brigade in their encampment, descending with bayonets upon the sleeping American troops in the darkness.

As the mayhem subsided, a man wrapped in a blanket emerged from tall grass near a fence and surrendered himself to Thomas Swift and a fellow soldier of the 37th. The man wore a Continental Army uniform, blue with red facings. He offered his musket, pointing out that it had not been fired. And he explained that he had deserted from the 23rd Regiment of Foot in Boston back in 1774. He was now serving in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, and said he had tried several times to desert and return to British service. As he was pleading his case, a sergeant from another British regiment came by and wounded him with a bayonet.

McKie, who had in fact deserted from the 23rd Regiment on 9 December 1774, was tried by a general court martial a week later in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia, where the light infantry battalions were encamped. Two sergeants of the 23rd Regiment testified at the trial, and Swift and his colleague related their capture of the man now charged with "having had correspondence with and bourne Arms in the Rebel Army." McKie was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Five days after the trial, Thomas Swift was fighting for his own life. At dawn on 4 October an onslaught of Continental soldiers routed the light infantry from their camp. During the course of a fierce battle British forces turned the tide and won the day. Somewhere in the fray Swift was wounded in the left arm. The injury was not severe enough to end his service, though; he continued on in the 37th Regiment’s light infantry.

The muster rolls prepared in Philadelphia in February 1778 record Swift as a prisoner of war; by the time of the next rolls, August 1778, he was back with his company in the New York area. No details have yet surfaced about his captivity or exchange.

In early 1781 the light infantry, now operating as a single battalion given the reduced numbers of regiments in New York, was sent on an expedition to Virginia. In the summer they joined with the army under General Cornwallis that had come to Virginia through the Carolinas, and settled in to the post at Yorktown. By October they were under siege from American and French forces.

On the night of October 15-16, British light infantry conducted a sortie into the American trenches and put several cannon out of action. It may have been during this action that Thomas Swift was wounded “in the belly,” or he may have been wounded the following day, the last day that shots were fired. A cease-fire was called on the 17th, and the British troops surrendered on the 19th.

Probably because of his wound, Swift was not among those who spent the next eighteen months imprisoned. He returned to New York, and to duty with the 37th Regiment. On June 15, 1783, after peace was negotiated and the fellow soldiers of his company were released, Swift was appointed corporal. He and his regiment returned to Great Britain later that year.

The man who had been twice wounded and spent time as a prisoner of war stayed in the army. H was reduced to a private soldier in November 1785, but at some point after that was appointed corporal again. He served until the end of 1790, taking his discharge in Canterbury on December 23. Besides his wounds, his discharge recorded that he was “rheumatic and worn out in the service.” He received two extra weeks of pay, and made his way to Chelsea where he went before the pension board and was granted a pension early in 1791. In 1798, he spent a few months in an invalid company.

Of his wife, far less is known. She was certainly with him on Staten Island in 1776. And in the New York area in late 1778, she earned four shillings eight pence for making a shirt and a pair of leggings for the 37th Regiment’s light infantry company. Her first name is not recorded.


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Jacob Margas, 54th Regiment, leaves spectacles for soldiering

People ask why men chose to join the army, and my usual answer is that we don’t know, except for the few men who wrote down their reasons. For example, why did twenty-four-year-old Jacob Margas join the army instead of carrying on his family business? 

Born in 1743 in the London suburb of St. Martin’s, Margas apprenticed as an optician under his father, John Margas, at their shop “at the sign of the Golden Spectacles,” operating at different locations near Long Acre in London. Jacob’s grandfather, also Jacob Margas, had been a goldsmith of some note in London. John Margas and son Jacob worked through a bankruptcy in 1758 and moved to Dublin the following year, where they went into business on Chapel Street. John Margas died in 1767 and Jacob, rather than continue as an optician, enlisted as a soldier in the 54th Regiment of Foot. Was he distraught at the loss of his father and mentor? Did he fear the prospect of another bankruptcy? Did he feel liberated from a line of work that he never liked in the first place? Without a record of his reasons, we can only guess. 

Margas exhibited such skill as a soldier that he was appointed corporal after only two years, and sergeant four years after that, a quick rise in a profession where most men spent their entire careers as private soldiers. Standing five-foot-six-inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes, a round visage and fresh complexion, his business background surely gave him the skills needed to easily master the paperwork that was part of a sergeant’s routine. 

The 54th Regiment came to America in early 1776, part of the expedition that was intended to open a southern theater of war. The failure of that endeavor brought the 54th to join General Howe’s army on Staten Island in the summer. After that army secured New York City, the 54th was part of the expedition that seized Rhode Island in December. Once the island was secure, one British and one Hessian brigade was left there as a garrison. 

The 54th remained in Rhode Island until the summer of 1779. After General Robert Pigot took command of the garrison in the summer of 1777, Sergeant Margas was appointed provost martial because of “his Attention and Alertness,” a post of significant responsibility that also earned additional pay. Margas remained in this post until the 54th left the island; he had the option to remain, but opted to go with his regiment. 

Somewhere during his service in America, the optician lost sight in one eye. This may have been during the battle of Rhode Island in August 1778, or the storming of Fort Griswold in September 1781, and action in which the 54th Regiment was hotly engaged. But no record survives of the circumstances of his loss. 

In spite of his impaired eyesight, Margas continued in his role until November of 1791, having served a total of twenty-three years. He received a pension, based on a memorial written by an officer of the 54th who called him “a vigilant, honest and meritorious Soldier and non-commissioned Officer.” His being “very much afflicted with rheumatic Complaints,” and blindness in one eye, made him an object of compassion for the pension board. Margas moved to Berkshire to live on the estate of a retired officer. 

Soon after, he was contacted by political publisher William Cobbett. Cobbett, who had been a soldier and non-commissioned officer in the 54th Regiment with Margas, was pressing charges against some of the regiment’s officers for various forms of misconduct, and wanted Margas to come to London to testify on his behalf. Margas and a several dozen other witness duly appeared at the trial in London in March 1792, but Cobbett himself was nowhere to be found. The charges were read and all witnesses given the opportunity to voice their opinions, but none of the charges were substantiated and the case was thrown out. 

Jacob Margas still had more to give to the army. He was brought off the pension rolls to serve with the 47th Regiment for a time, and discharged back onto the pension rolls in December of 1803. The man who had walked away from three generations of family business had done well for himself in his new profession as a soldier.



Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Cornelius Killegrew, 34th Regiment, a man of the sincerest integrity

Many men spent their entire military careers as private soldiers, but intelligent, literate men could advance quickly. The army needed capable non-commissioned officers, and was quick to recognize those who had the skills and capacity. Cornelius Killegrew was one such man.

Born in Edgeware just north of London, Killegrew learned to be a comb maker. Instead of pursuing this trade, however, he enlisted in the army when he was seventeen years old in 1765. What drew him to the army is not known, given that he had a trade that was probably in some demand in a metropolitan area, but he soon proved to be capable of leadership.

After just three and a half years, the 5-foot 9-inch tall soldier was appointed corporal, a significant step up in responsibility that also brought higher base pay and more opportunities for extra earnings. In 1775 he was appointed sergeant, the pinnacle of advancement for most enlistees.

His regiment, the 34th Regiment of Foot, sailed to Quebec in 1776 as part of the expanded British commitment to the American war. During the famous 1777 campaigns that attempted to split the colonies, Killegrew was among 100 men of the 34th with the detachment under his own regiment’s lieutenant colonel, Barrimore St. Leger, who held the local rank of brigadier general. They made their way to Lake Ontario, then along the Oswego River, and over land to Fort Stanwix.

Sergeant Killegrew was “appointed provost Martial at 2s-6d pr day for the Expedition and to be obeyed as such,” meaning that it was his job to receive and provide guards over all prisoners. This included enemy prisoners of war and soldiers on the expedition who had committed disciplinary infractions, including apprehended deserters. He probably had to pay expenses of his duty out of this stipend, which was in addition to his regular pay as a sergeant, but he nonetheless stood to profit from this posting. It was one of the myriad ways that British soldiers and non-commissioned officers earned more than their base pay, allowing them to live better than the subsistence-level base pay would allow. This extra earning potential that was pervasive in military duty may have been a factor in so many men choosing the army as a career.

And Killegrew had a long career. He spent thirteen years as a sergeant, and another six years as the 34th Regiment’s sergeant-major. He finally took his discharge in April of 1792 when the regiment was posted on the Isle of Guernsey.

Rather than return to his native London, Killegrew went to Ireland. In 1793, when the City of Limerick Militia was formed, he was appointed sergeant-major, bringing his twenty-seven years of experience in the regular army to the job.

The City of Limerick Militia had its moment of glory in the 1798 rebellion.  They were sent north to help repel a French invasion. On September 5, a force consisting primarily of some 200 infantry from the militia, supported by a few cavalry and others, was posted at the village of Colooney five miles from Sligo. Orders had come to abandon the village, but the militia instead took post at a critical defile. They held the position against an attack by five times their number, repelling French forces supported by Irish rebel militia in a four-hour engagement. So important was their stand that a silver medal was struck and awarded to each of the participants, bearing the inscription “to the Heroes of Colooney.”

At this writing, it is not known whether Sergeant-Major Killegrew was at the battle. He may have been in the thick of the fight, or he may have been back in Limerick handling administrative tasks. Either way, he soldiered on for another twenty years. He is one of very few soldiers to have an obituary posted, in the 16 September 1818 edition of the Limerick Chronicle:

Died - This morning, in Mary-street, aged 74, of gangrene in the leg, which baffled professional skill, Mr. Cornelius Killegrew, Serjeant-Major of the City of Limerick Militia since its first formation, and formerly of the 34th regiment; a man of the sincerest integrity. His remains will be interred with military honors to-morrow, at four o’clock afternoon.



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Monday, March 4, 2019

Cavalrymen in the 17th Regiment of Foot

The British army sent only two cavalry regiments, the 16th and 17th Light Dragoons, from Great Britain to fight in the American Revolution. Some Loyalist cavalry regiments and legions (regiments that included both infantry and cavalry) were formed in America, but only two cavalry corps were sent from the British Isles. Many horse soldiers, however, left other British cavalry regiments to serve in the American War as infantry.

Throughout 1775, when regiments were ordered to America - initially for a military buildup that was intended to prevent war, later because war had broken out - they were brought up to full strength with approximately equal numbers of recruits and drafts. Drafts were soldiers already in the army, serving in regiments that were not deploying overseas; they were "drawn" from one regiment to another. In this way, the regiments going on foreign service did not have too many inexperienced men in their ranks.

The infantry regiments that came to America in the first half of 1775 received drafts only from infantry regiments. But in the second half of the year five more regiments received orders to embark, and a call went out for volunteers from cavalry regiments to join the infantry. Due to logistical problems, only the 17th, 27th and 55th Regiments sailed in late 1776, and all included a few drafted cavalry troopers in their ranks. Ten were in the 17th Regiment of Foot.[i] When more regiments were sent to America in 1776, more cavalry drafts filled their ranks, over two hundred in all.

None of the troopers who "went volunteer for America" (to use the terminology on some of the cavalry muster rolls) left an account of his reasons for volunteering. It was quite a career change. The difference in pay between the cavalry and the infantry was significant. The army's adjutant general at the War Office wrote, “What is this Mystery of the willingness of Troopers, to serve as private Grenadiers? I can’t Decypher it: however it’s done.”[ii] The best guess is that overseas service in a war was preferable to the usual duties of the cavalry, policing the English and Irish countryside, occasionally battling smugglers and ruffians.

Not all of the cavalry men who joined the 17th Regiment are explicitly denoted as such on the muster rolls, but because a few are, the others can be determined by comparing names on the 17th's rolls with the names of drafts on the cavalry rolls. Five of them joined the 17th's grenadier company, an apt assignment because grenadiers needed to be experienced soldiers and the cavalry generally recruited taller men than the infantry. John Campbell was thirty-one years old with eight years of service when he left the 5th Dragoons to join the grenadier company of the 17th Regiment. The native of county Sligo in Ireland was discharged in April 1779 because he had been wounded in the leg; he received a pension, a useful benefit because he had never learned a trade.[iii] A fellow trooper from the 5th Dragoons, Bartholomew Reynolds, joined him in the grenadier company, but deserted in New Jersey on 19 June 1777.

Also in the grenadiers were James Lorimer, a twenty-eight year old Irish weaver from county Antrim who had joined the army when he was only fifteen years old. A trooper in the 2nd Horse Regiment, he joined the 17th Foot and served the entire war, taking his discharge in December 1783 and receiving a pension because he had been wounded in the left arm during the war.[iv] James Carlisle, a trooper in the 3rd Horse from county Tyrone, went into the 17th's grenadiers at the age of twenty-nine after five years in the army, and continued to serve until 1799 when he was discharged and pensioned because he was “superannuated & rheumatic;” although a "labourer" with no trade, he was able to sign his own name, and was granted a pension.[v] And Patrick Cunningham of the 9th Dragoons initially joined the 17th's grenadier company, but soon after was transferred to the battalion; he was wounded at Stony Point in 1779, and his subsequent fate is not known.[vi]

William Armstrong was a private trooper in the 14th Light Dragoons, but was appointed corporal a year after joining a battalion company in the 17th Regiment. In 1782 he was appointed sergeant, but he didn't get to enjoy that elevated post for long; he died on 25 April 1783. Also from the 14th Light Dragoons came Robert Quin, who was appointed corporal in June 1778. He was among the unfortunate men of the 17th who was captured at Stony Point, released, and captured again at Yorktown; when prisoners were repatriated at the close of hostilities in 1783, he did not return and was written off the rolls.

From the 5th Dragoons came John Shorthal, whose career with the 17th was cut short when he died of unknown causes on 20 March 1777. John Guthrey volunteered from the 3rd Horse Regiment and served in the 17th Foot for the entire war, but there is no record of him receiving a pension after his discharge in 1783. Thomas Newenham of the 5th Dragoons was taken prisoner soon after joining the regiment; his name appears on a list of prisoners with the rebels dated 29 December 1776. He was released, only to be captured once again at Yorktown. He appears to have been an officer’s servant, as he was given leave to return to Great Britain rather than remaining in captivity. He was discharged in September of 1783.

And there were others. In October of 1778, the 16th Light Dragoons, one of the two cavalry regiments sent as a whole to America, was sent back home. Following the usual practice, men who were fit for service were drafted into other regiments remaining in America. Most of these dragoons went to the 17th Light Dragoons and to Loyalist cavalry regiments, but eleven of them were drafted into the 17th Regiment of Foot. It’s possible that these men had served as dismounted troopers in the 17th Light Dragoons; the muster rolls do not distinguish between mounted and dismounted men. Their careers in the infantry could be traced through the muster rolls of the 17th Foot, but we’ll leave that for another day.

When men were drafted, they typically retained their uniforms from their old regiments, which they owned, having paid for them through pay stoppages. But they received new uniforms with their new regiment’s next clothing issue, if not sooner. It is possible that among the men in the 17th Regiment at Princeton in January 1777 were a few private soldiers in cavalry uniforms, but by the summer of 1777 they had surely been replaced. A few old garments and buttons may have continued to be seen here and there. The more important takeaway is in understanding that many of the “new” soldiers in the regiment were in fact quite experienced, and knew more of the army than just the infantry.

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[i] Muster rolls, 17th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3406, and muster rolls of other infantry and cavalry regiments in the WO 12 series, The National Archives of Great Britain (TNA). Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent information about individual soldiers in this article is drawn from this collection.
[ii] Edward Harvey to Lt. Col. Smith, 7 September 1775, WO 3/5 f41, TNA.
[iii] Pension admission books, WO 116/7, TNA.
[iv] Pension admission books, WO 116/8, TNA.
[v] Discharge of James Carlisle, WO 121/35/153, TNA.
[vi] "List of the Wounded Prisoners left at the Kakial on their March from Stoney Point and who were wounded in attempting to make their Escape from the Guard on the night of the 16th July 1779," http://cdn.loc.gov/master/mss/mgw/mgw4/060/0400/0450.jpg.