Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Charles Stevens, 21st Regiment of Foot, Goes to the Dogs

 Charles Stevens was a cordwainer from the town of Airth in County Stirling, Scotland, a few miles up the River Forth from Edinburgh. He joined the army in 1758 at the age of twenty-five, enlisting in the 21st Regiment of Foot, called the Royal North British Fusiliers and composed largely of men from the Scottish lowlands. His regiment soon traveled to North America, moving around through various colonies from Quebec all the way to West Florida, before finally returning to England in 1773.

It would be a short stay. War broke out in America in 1775, and in early 1776 the 21st was crossing the Atlantic again, one of nine regiments sent to relieve the siege of Quebec City. There, joined by another regiment already in America, they helped to drive invading rebel Americans away from the city and all the way back into New York. The onset of winter prevented an assault on Fort Ticonderoga that year, and the 21st went into quarters in Canada for the winter.

The following year saw the regiment on the ill-fated campaign up Lake Champlain toward Albany, that culminated in surrender at Saratoga. It is not clear whether Stevens was on the campaign or not, but later events suggest that he may have been a servant to Lieutenant George Brody. By June 1781, when many soldiers of the 21st were still languishing in American prisoner of war camps, Charles Stevens was back in Great Britain, on recruiting service with now-Captain Brody. He attained the rank of sergeant.

After serving twenty-five years, Stevens was discharged from the army in late 1783 at the age of fifty. He went before the pension examining board at Chelsea Hospital outside of London in December, and again in January 1784, where he was granted an out-pension. He then settled far north of his home town, in the counties of Moray and Nairn. As an out-pensioner, he went to the nearest excise office twice a year to collect his pension, roughly five-eighths of his sergeant's pay. But he didn't show up to collect in the second half of 1786, nor at all in 1787.

In June 1788, Stevens went before a justice of the peace in Cupar, County Fife, to explain his absence and collect the pension funds due to him. In July 1786, he had gone to Ireland with his old commanding officer, Captain Brody, who presumably was there recruiting. Brody, now back in Edinburgh, wrote a letter of support. He explained that Stevens' long absence was "intirely given to the poor Old Soldiers attachment to me, as His Captain formerly"; Stevens had "been in Ireland with me, for two years taking care of my Dogs." Captain Brody was, in his words, "bound by Honour to see the Old Soldier paid for this strong attachment."

This installment is based on the muster rolls of the 21st Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3778/2, the pension admission book, WO 116/8, and the letters by Captain Brody and the justice of the peace, WO 121/138/624, all in the British National Archives.

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Sunday, July 9, 2023

William Nowland, 46th Regiment of Foot, serves from 18 to 62

 When he set foot on a sandy barrier island near Charlestown, South Carolina in the first half of 1776, William Nowland was already a seasoned soldier. The Enniscorthy, County Wexford native had joined the 46th Regiment of Foot on 22 April 1769 at the age of eighteen; now, having completed seven years of soldiering, he was barely beginning his army career.

The 46th Regiment spent several weeks encamped on the hot, barren Carolina coast as part of an expedition that was supposed to bring the region into British control, but which ended in failure. The seven regiments and the naval fleet that brought them to America then proceeded north to Staten Island, joining in August the large British army gathered there. In preparation for a new campaign, Nowland was transferred into his regiment's light infantry company. This company joined the light infantry companies from the other six regiments from the Charlestown expedition, forming the 3rd Battalion of Light Infantry. This temporary formation operated independently of the companies' parent regiments, instead working with two other light infantry battalions to form the vanguard of the army.

At the end of August, the army, led by the light infantry, successfully seized Long Island. In September they took New York City, and in October proceeded with a campaign to wrest the region surrounding Manhattan from rebel control.

The light infantry figured heavily in the campaigning in Westchester County, New York, but Nowland didn't remain long in that company. At the end of October he was appoint corporal in another company of the 46th Regiment. In his new role he probably took charge of a "squad of inspection," ensuring that about a dozen men were always fit for duty, their clothing and equipment clean, their diets and discipline properly managed. When on guard duty he posted pickets and sentries. In February 1778, when the regiment was in Philadelphia, he called the roll one evening and discovered a soldier missing; following normal procedure, the next morning he checked to see whether the man had taken anything with him. "Upon examining his knapsack yesterday morning," Nowland testified at the soldier's trial for desertion, "he found that all his necessaries, except a pair of shoes & a piece of an old Shirt had been taken out, & he was informed that he had taken away a Shirt of his Comrades."

The British army departed Philadelphia in June 1778, returning to the area around the city of New York. Late that year, the 46th and nine other regiments embarked on an expedition to the West Indies to defend British interests there against the French. They landed in St. Lucia in December, and soon drove away an attacking French army. Some time before the end of 1779, William Nowland was appointed sergeant.

Service in the West Indies meant spending a lot of time on ships, often on warships rather than the transports that usually moved soldiers from one place to another. Several times, British soldiers participated in naval battles. One of these was the Battle of Martinique on 17 April 1780, an inconclusive action that prevented a French fleet from reaching British-held Jamaica. Casualties on both sides were light, but Sergeant William Nowland was wounded in the leg during the fighting while on board the 60-gun ship Medway.

A career soldier, he continued to serve in the 46th Regiment. He stayed in the army until November 1794, when he was discharged due to "old age, being worn out in the service" in addition to having been wounded. His discharge paper noted that he had been wounded in the right leg. He was granted a pension. But he didn't stay away from the army for long.

In December 1795 William Nowland joined an invalid corps, composed of soldiers who were not fit for campaigning but could help defend Great Britain's coast. He stayed in that corps until December 1802, when he joined the 3rd Royal Veteran Battalion, a similar organization. With them he served another six years, taking his discharge in December 1808 after almost forty years as a soldier. His discharge mentioned that he had "an old ulcer," included the note, "the mark of his wound is in his left leg."

But he still had more to give to the army. He took a job in the Barrack Office on the Isle of Jersey. He finally resigned from that post on 3 August 1813 "on account of ill health."

Information for this post comes from the following documents in the British National Archives:

Muster rolls of the 46th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5796 and WO 12/5797

Discharges of William Nowland, WO 121/21/230 and WO 121/170/179

Acknowledgement of William Nowland's resignation, WO 121/176/105

Court Martial of James Garraty, WO 71/85, p. 281–283

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Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Donald McPherson, 71st Regiment, gets two stabs and a slice

The surgeon looked over Donald McPherson's right arm. It was a bayonet wound, no doubt. There, on McPherson's left arm, was another. As if the two stab wounds weren't enough, McPherson had a saber cut on his head. This man had done some hard, close-quarters fighting.

Donald McPherson hailed from Boleskine Parish, at the southern end of Loch Ness in Invernes Shire. Born in 1746, he took up the trade of tailoring. But in 1775, after war broke out in America, McPherson was one of over two thousand highlanders who answer the call for recruits in a new regiment, the 71st Regiment of Foot, called Fraser's Highlanders after their commanding officer, raised specifically for the North American conflict. McPherson was new to the army, as were many of his comrades, but the enlistees also included many veterans of the previous was that ended in 1763. The regiment was new, but in the ranks there was much military experience.

The 71st, organized into two battalions of ten companies each, with 100 private soldiers in each company, sailed from Scotland in April of 1776. They made for Boston, not knowing that city had been abandoned by the British army. Some of their transports ran afoul of American privateers; about a quarter of the regiment became prisoners of war before even making landfall. The rest of the regiment, including McPherson, put in to Halifax, Nova Scotia, only to find that the army had recently departed from that place. The highlanders finally caught up with the British army on Staten Island, where they landed at the beginning August 1776.

Just three weeks later the army was on the move. Over 20,000 British and German soldiers crossed from Staten Island to Long Island. Several days later, part of the army made a feint towards American lines in Brooklyn while the rest, including the 71st Regiment, made a long nighttime march east, then north, and finally back to the west, around the flank of the American defenses. The Battle of Long Island, or Battle of Brooklyn, began in the morning of 27 August and ended in a total rout of American forces. 

In some places the defenders put up a determined if futile fight. Individual companies of British grenadiers, light infantry and highlanders fell into close combat as they rapidly overtook surprised and retreating Americans. In some places the fighting was hand to hand. Donald McPherson, in the army for less than a year and in his first battle, suffered three wounds, two from bayonets (or perhaps from the same bayonet) and one from a saber.

Careful comparison of British casualty returns to regimental muster rolls reveals something counterintuitive: most wounded British soldiers survived their wounds. McPherson was among those survivors. In spite of receiving three wounds on the same day, he not only recovered, but rejoined his regiment and served for the remainder of the American War. The 71st Regiment suffered many casualties during their seven years in America, but McPherson was among those who returned to his native Scotland at the end of hostilities.

The 71st Regiment was disbanded at the end of the war, it's soldiers sent home and mustered out in Scotland. When war with France was declared in 1793, he returned to soldiering, spending six years in a regiment called the Strathspey Fencibles, a corps that served only within the boundaries of Scotland. He served for the entire six-year existence of that regiment, which was disbanded in 1799.

His military career was not yet finished. After leaving the Fencibles, he joined the Argyleshire Militia as a substitute - that is, serving instead of another man who was obliged to serve. He was finally discharged from that regiment on 1 May 1802 at the age of forty-six, having spend sixteen of those years as a soldier. An army surgeon noted on his discharge that the scars from his wounds were still evident. He was awarded an army pension.

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[Information in this post is from the discharge of Donald McPherson from the Argyleshire Militia, WO 121/53/289, in the British National Archives, and from general information about the 71st Regiment of Foot]

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Joseph and Mary Whitaker, 17th Regiment of Foot, make their claims

A few miles southwest of Dublin is a village called Kill, in County Kildare. In 1736, Joseph Whitaker was born there. He grew up to pursue the trade of a whitesmith, crafting metal into products with shiny surface finishes. This was a good trade, but for some reason not enough for the young Irishman; at the age of twenty he enlisted in the army.

His skill and education served him well as a professional soldier. After nine years, he was a sergeant, the highest rank that most common soldiers could expect to achieve, and one in which afforded numerous opportunities for earning extra money over and above the base pay. By 1772 he was in the 17th Regiment of Foot, a regiment that had spent ten years in North America, first participating in the sieges of Louisbourg in 1758, Ticonderoga in 1759, Montreal in 1760, then in the West Indies, and on the American frontier during Pontiac's Rebellion. It is not known whether Whitaker was in the 17th during this time, or served in a different regiment before joining the 17th. Whether he had been to America before or not, in late 1775 he embarked with his regiment for Boston to reinforce the British garrison that was besieged there.

The 17th Regiment of Foot disembarked in Boston in December 1775. Joseph Whitaker served in the regiment's grenadier company. Detached from the regiment and joined with other grenadier companies to form a grenadier battalion, Whitaker's company was in the forefront of many of the war's most fierce and famous battles. He came through it all unscathed. And his time in America brought more good fortune to him.

The British grenadier battalions spent most of the second half of the war quartered in the area of New York City. Probably during that time, he met Mary Williams, a widow who had lived in the city "prior to and during the troubles." She ran a business "in the public line" - probably referring to a public house or tavern - and did well enough to purchase property "in her own right for ever." Her holdings amounted to between four and five hundred pounds, a testament to her enterprise. She married Sergeant Whitaker, who by this time may have accumulated a fair amount of cash from his work for the army. In terms of prosperity, their future looked bright.

No amount of marital optimism, however, could overcome the tide of events for the British military and Loyalist citizens in America. By 1783 the war was lost. The army and a large number of inhabitants were forced to abandon the city of New York. Joseph and Mary Whitaker left their property "to the mercy of the rebels," and sailed with the 17th Regiment to Halifax, Nova Scotia. They didn't stay there long. A reduction in forces afforded Sergeant Whitaker the opportunity to be discharged. 

The couple went to England, where Joseph Whitaker went before the army pension examining board at Chelsea, near London, in February 1784, and was awarded a pension. This would afford a modest but sufficient income for them. Mary Whitaker made a claim to have her losses compensated by the British government, but hers was one of thousands of such claims. Whether she ever received any payment is not known.

Information in this installment come from the muster rolls of the 17th Regiment of Foot (WO 12), the army out-pension admission books (WO 116), and Audit Office records (AO 13), all in The National Archives of Great Britain.

Learn more about British Soldiers in the American Revolution

Saturday, September 10, 2022

John Bartley, 31st Regiment, knows the war is over

The terms of enlistment were very clear to John Bartley: service would be over “at the end of three years, or at the end of said Rebellion, at the option of His Majesty.” These were the terms prescribed by the British War Office for enlistments after December 16, 1775. The British government had committed to using military force to quell a rebellion in thirteen British colonies in North America. This required a significant increase in the size of the army. The established strength of regiments deployed to America was increased by 50 percent, an increase met partly by transferring men from non-deployed regiments and partly by new recruits.

John Bartley was one of those recruits. The five foot nine-and-a-quarter inch tall Scotsman enlisted in the 31st Regiment of Foot in early 1777 at the age of twenty-four. Later that year he was on a transport with other recruits, bound first for Quebec and then going on to the regiment's post at St. Johns on the Richelieu River between Lake Champlain and Montreal.

Bartley served uneventfully enough that no mention of him has been found other than his name on muster rolls throughout the rest of the war. The 31st's grenadier and light infantry companies went on the 1777 campaign towards Albany and were captured at Saratoga that October, remaining in captivity for the rest of the war. In 1781 the regiment selected suitable men from the eight remaining companies to create new grenadier and light infantry companies; Bartley was among those chosen to be a grenadier.

Early in 1783 a peace treaty was signed. The war that had been winding down for months was now officially over. There were now innumerable administrative and logistic tasks involved in reducing the army to a peacetime footing. The 31st Regiment was in Quebec, so it didn't need to go anywhere, but around half of the soldiers were eligible for discharge because of reduced manpower needs. Officers awaited orders for how to proceed with this, but John Bartley decided for himself that his military career was over. In April, probably soon after news of the finalized peace treaty reached Quebec, he refused to do any more duty. As far as he was concerned, he was done.

His officers, not surprisingly, had a different point of view. Bartley was tried by court martial on May 1, found guilty, and sentenced to be punished with 500 lashes. The commander in chief in Quebec reviewed the case and chose to forgive Bartley "in consideration of the Prisoners good character, his confession of having been misled and acted through ignorance." In general orders the commander proclaimed that he hoped Bartley's case would "be a warning and prevent any other soldier from falling into the like error."

Those soldiers awaiting discharge did not have to wait too much longer. Later in the year large numbers of soldiers were discharged, with the option of remaining in North America or returning to Great Britain. Gaps in the muster rolls make John Bartley's fate unknown.

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Monday, August 29, 2022

What became of Sarah McPike, 62nd Regiment?

Thomas McPike enlisted in the British army at the young age of sixteen in the year 1759. A native of Ballinderry parish in County Antrim, Ireland, he had learned no trade and as such fell under the general category of "labourer". In the army he fared well, rising to the rank of serjeant within only four years, suggesting that he was well-educated and highly capable, perhaps someone who aspired to become an officer but lacked the patronage or social standing achieve such a goal. By the beginning of 1776 he was a sergeant in the 62nd Regiment of Foot's grenadier company, the tallest, most fit men in the regiment.

The 62nd was among the regiments that sailed from Ireland to Quebec, driving off American forces that had besieged that city and chasing them all the way to Lake Champlain before the end of 1776. The following year they were in the army led by General John Burgoyne that advanced from Canada towards Albany.

Soon after landing in Quebec in 1776, the 62nd's grenadier company joined grenadier companies from nine other regiments to form a grenadier battalion. This battalion was part of the advance guard on the 1777 campaign and saw heavy fighting at the Battle of Hubbardton in July, the Battle of Freeman's Farm in September, and the Battle of Bemis Heights in October. Somewhere on the campaign, probably in one of these battles, McPike was wounded in the leg; in period parlance, this referred to the part of the leg below the knee, the upper part being called the thigh. When the British army capitulated at Saratoga in October, McPike became a prisoner of war.

The prisoners - presumably including Thomas McPike - were marched first to the Boston, Massachusetts area, then a year later to Virginia, and finally to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1781. In the meantime, his wife Sarah and child Samuel had found their way to Newport, Rhode Island by January 1779. How they got there has not been determined. Most likely they had stayed behind in Quebec when Burgoyne's army marched south in June 1777, and then taken a passage from Quebec to Newport. From Newport they boarded the armed victualling ship Maria on January 31 and sailed to the city of New York, disembarking there on February 9. From there Sarah and Samuel's whereabouts are unknown until June 1781, when the British prisoners of war arriving at Lancaster included "Sjt. McPike & Wife". Somehow Sarah had joined her husband in captivity. And young Samuel was now old enough to be Drummer Samuel McPike.

The prisoners were finally freed in the first half of 1783, after a peace treaty formally ended the war. From Lancaster they walked to the City of New York, still a British garrison, and in June Sergeant Thomas McPike and Drummer Samuel McPike along with about forty soldiers and fifteen of their wives boarded the British sixty-four-gun warship Lion. They boarded on June 21, and disembarked at Portsmouth, England on July 24. Thomas McPike accepted his discharge from the army after twenty-four years of service and received an army pension; Samuel continued as a drummer in the 62nd Regiment.

But Sarah was not with them on the voyage. What became of her? Nothing more has been found about her after her arrival in Lancaster in June 1781. It would be nice to hope that she survived and found her own way back to England and her family, or at least made a new life for herself in America. But probably not. She probably died in captivity, the same fate that befell many of the Saratoga prisoners, one of many whose fate is unknown.

Learn more about British soldiers in America

[Information for this article comes from the muster rolls of the 62nd Regiment of Foot, army pension admission books, and muster books of HMS Maria and HMS Lion, all in the British National Archives; and the list of prisoners sent to Lancaster, in the Peter Force Papers, Library of Congress.]

Saturday, April 16, 2022

John Fletcher, 54th Regiment, far the most witty

Various military records provide details on British soldiers' ages, places of birth, trades, and sometimes even physical attributes like their height, hair color, eye color, complexion, and "visage" (the shape of the face - round, square, long, etc.). This sort of information gives a sense of who each person was, but tells nothing about his personality; it is extremely rare to find anything about what type of person a soldier was, what they thought, whether they were articulate.

William Cobbett enlisted in the 54th Regiment of Foot in 1783 when he was twenty years old, and served for eight years. Like many soldiers, he used his time in the army to better himself, becoming an avid reader and writer. He became a journalist, pamphleteer and political activist, lobbying hard for reforms to benefit soldiers and the working class. His time as a soldier had left a strong impression on him that guided his life and career. Cobbett did not serve in the American Revolution, but his regiment had done so, and he met many soldiers who had served in that war. One of them left such an impression on Cobbett that twenty-six years after leaving the army, in 1817, he wrote of him to a colleague:

I have had, during my life, no little converse with men famed for their wit, for instance; but the most witty man I ever knew was a private soldier. He was not only the most witty, but far the most witty. He was a Staffordshire man, he came from Walsall, and his name was John Fletcher. I have heard from that man more bright thoughts of a witty character than I ever heard from all other men, and than I have ever read in all the books that I have read in my whole life. No coarse jokes, no puns, no conundrums, no made-up jests, nothing of the college kind, but real sterling, sprightly wit. When I have heard people repeat the profligate sayings of Sheridan, and have heard the House of Commons roaring at his green-room trash, I have always thought of poor Jack Fletcher, who, if he could have put his thoughts on paper, would have been more renowned than Butler or Swift.

This was high praise from Cobbett, who had by this time indeed met many famous men. Cobbett followed his praise of Fletcher with with a statement about the importance not just of acquiring knowledge but of "communicating that knowledge to others." He wrote, "Jack Fletcher's wit, for instance, went no farther than his red-coated circle. But, if he had had my capacity of putting his thoughts upon paper, he would soon have made the world participate in our pleasure."

Cobbett implied that Fletcher could not write, but it may be that Fletcher simply lacked a venue for his writing. When he was discharged from the army he signed his discharge form. This document confirms that Fletcher was born in Bloxwich Parish, Walsall, Staffordshire in 1748, and that he was five feet five and a half inches tall, with a dark complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. He pursued the trade of buckle making before joining the 54th Regiment in 1770 at the age of twenty-two. The regiment's muster rolls show that he was with the 54th Regiment when that corps sailed to America in early 1776, first to the Carolina coast and then to Staten Island. The regiment participated in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, and the campaign that took the City of New York. From there they went to Rhode Island where Fletcher spent three years before departing in the summer of 1779. The 54th spent the rest of the war in the environs of New York, taking part in raids on the Connecticut coast in 1779. When a peace treaty was signed in 1783, the 54th was one of several British regiments that voyaged from New York to Nova Scotia, remaining in Canada for several years. It was there that Cobbett joined the regiment as a young recruit (having been enlisted by a recruiting party in England) and met Fletcher.

John "Jack" Fletcher was discharged from the 54th Regiment in June 1792, six months after Cobbett, becasue he was “consumptive and rheumatic, and worn out in the service." He obtained a pension but, like many British soldiers, soon enlisted again. He served in the 86th Regiment from 1794 until July 1799, this time attaining the rank of corporal. He was discharged again in July 1799. Thanks to the strong impression he made on William Cobbett, we know something of what kind of man he was.

Information from this article comes from the following sources:

William Cobbett: Selected Writings, ed. Leonora Nattrass (London: Routledge, 2016) 

Discharges of John Fletcher, WO 121/14/455 and WO 121/148/410, National Archives of Great Britain

Muster rolls, 54th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6398 and /6399, National Archives of Great Britain