Thursday, December 10, 2020

Reviews of Noble Volunteers: the British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution

The new book Noble Volunteers: the British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Noble Volunteers: the British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution

 It's finally here.

It took two years to compile and organize information collected over several decades, followed by two years of writing, revising and editing. Now the most authoritative book on British soldiers in the American Revolution is available in stores and from online retailers.

Noble Volunteers: the British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution tells about how soldiers were recruited and trained in times of peace and war, how they prepared for hostilities and adapted to warfare, where they lived, what they ate, what they earned, the illness, hardships and punishments that they suffered, how their careers evolved, and what became of them when the war was over. Rather than characterize the army as a mass of homogeneous men, this book emphasizes the individuals and their broad range of experiences. Read the review in the Wall Street Journal!

The book is available from major retailers, but please obtain it from your local independent bookseller, or from a historic site book shop - these organizations need your support.

For a good price, we recommend the Fort Plain Museum.

Signed, personalized copies can be ordered from Books on the Square in Providence, Rhode Island.


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Mary Kiddy, 43rd Regiment, knows what is owed to her

Mary Kiddy was on her own in New York in January of 1783. Some money was owed to her, and it is because of this that we know of her existence. But the brief summary that was recorded leaves mostly questions about her life and experiences.

Mary Kiddy was married to William Kiddy, a soldier initially in the 34th Regiment of Foot and later in the 43rd Regiment of Foot. Thanks to muster rolls for these regiments, we do know a lot about him. He joined the 34th Regiment some time between 1761 and 1768 (a gap in the regiment's rolls prevent knowing when or where). In 1768 he was a private soldier in the 34th Regiment in Philadelphia. The following year, the 34th returned to Great Britain, spending the next several years at various posts in Ireland. By April of 1776 he was a corporal in the regiment's light infantry company, preparing to return once again to North America, this time part of the force bound for Quebec to dislodge American force besieging the city.

After a highly successful 1776 campaign and a winter in Canada, in the summer of 1777 the the 34th's light infantry was part of the expedition under General John Burgoyne that set out from Canada towards Albany. By the time this campaign ended in October, Kiddy was a prisoner of war, and spent the winter of 1777-1778 in a crude barracks outside Boston. From there the prisoners were moved inland to Rutland, Massachusetts. It was here that he fell ill, so much so that he was sent to New York in a cartel rather than going with other prisoners to Virginia.

In the summer of 1780 he was sufficiently recovered to return to active service. With most of the 34th Regiment still in Canada and his own company still prisoners of war, Kiddy was drafted into the 43rd Regiment of Foot. Muster rolls for the 34th Regiment's light infantry company end in early 1777, and the rolls for the 43rd record Kiddy as having "enlisted"in June 1780, with no indication that he had been in the 34th Regiment; if it were not for his wife, nothing about his time as a prisoner of war, or that the man in the 34th was the same man who joined the 43rd, would be known.

In April 1781 the 43rd Regiment sailed to Virginia, part of a reinforcement of British forces operating in the Tidewater area. Also that month William Kiddy was appointed corporal again, returning to the rank he had held for years in his previous regiment. During the summer they joined up with General Charles, Lord Cornwallis's army in Yorktown. It was there that William Kiddy died. The 43rd's muster rolls record his death as occurring on 24 October, but the 24th of the month is often used on muster rolls when an exact date is not known, so we cannot be sure exactly when he died. The cause of death is also unknown; he may have fallen ill in the deprived conditions when Cornwallis's army was besieged, been wounded during the intense artillery bombardment they endured, or fallen to some other cause.

Mary Kiddy was left a widow, which meant that she was entitled to her late husband's estate. In January 1783 a board of officers in the city of New York was hearing claims from soldiers who had been prisoners of war, escaped or been exchanged, and then joined different regiments, leaving their accounts with their previous regiments unsettled. Mary Kiddy went before the board and petitioned for her late husband's back pay and clothing due from the 34th Regiment, and she knew exactly what was owed: "three suits of Cloathing for 1776, 1777 & 1778 & a balance of 1.9.4 ½ due from the 34th Regt on the 17th Novr 1778, she also claims her husbands intermediate pay from the 17 of Novr 1778 to the 24th of June 1780, amounting at 8 per day to L19.10". Soldiers received a new suit of regimental clothing each year, and William Kiddy had not received his for the last three years that he was in the 34th; on the last day that his company's accounts were settled in 1778, he was owned one pound, nine shillings, four and a half pence; and he was also owed pay from the day of that last settlement and until the day he joined the 43rd Regiment. She computed the pay at the rate owed to a private soldier, which may be a simple error on her part, or may mean that her husband was reduced to private soldier after the last available muster roll in February 1777 and before accounts were settled in November 1778.

The brief record of Mary Kiddy's statement to the board explains that her husband was in the 34th, was left sick at Rutland, was exchanged and went to New York, that he joined the 43rd Regiment and died in Virginia. It says nothing of her experiences. When did they marry? Was she with him in Canada? Was she on the 1777 campaign, and among the prisoners in Rutland? Or did they meet and marry in New York? Did she accompany him to Virginia? Her statement reveals much about her husband, but little about her - including what became of her after January 1783.

Learn about British soldiers, from the most comprehensive work ever published!

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Massacre Men: Soldiers of the 29th Regiment charged for the events of 5 March 1770

Eight soldiers of the 29th Regiment of Foot were directly involved in the Boston Massacre on 5 March 1770. Their names are well known, because they all stood trial: Corporal William Wemms (or Wemys), and privates John Carroll, James Hartigan, Matthew Kilroy, William McCauley, Hugh Montgomery, William Warren and Hugh White. Considering how much notoriety they got from the massacre and trial, surprisingly little is known about them as individuals. For five of these men, we have nothing more than their service records as indicated in surviving muster rolls, and even that information is incomplete.

All of them were in the regiment when it arrived in Boston in 1769; no muster rolls survive from before that time to indicate when any of them joined the army. Cpl. Wemms, in a battalion company at the time of the massacre, was appointed sergeant in May 1771, but just six weeks later he was reduced to private again. This may have been due to illness or disciplinary issues, but whichever it was, he recovered sufficiently to be appointed sergeant once again some time in 1772. He was still in that capacity at the end of July 1775 while the regiment was in England, but was no longer in the regiment when the next set of rolls was prepared in Canada; his fate is unknown.

John Carroll was in the grenadier company, was appointed corporal in December 1770, and sergeant some time between July 1775 and February 1777. His company went on the ill-fated expedition under Gen. John Burgoyne that ended at Saratoga in October 1777. Because the company was among those captured, there are no muster rolls after February 1777, and no further record of John Carroll.

James Hartigan, another grenadier, married Elizabeth Henderson in Boston in September 1769. When the regiment was in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, he died on 4 November 1771.

William McCauley, a grenadier whose wife Mary had come with him to America, was appointed corporal some time before May 1771 and was still in that capacity when the regiment was in Canada in February 1777; like Carroll, McCauley's fate is unknown.

William Warren also was a grenadier in 1770, but later went into a battalion company. He continued with the regiment during the American Revolution, serving in Canada as late as October 1783, but once again a gap in the muster rolls leaves his fate unknown after that.

Matthew Kilroy and Edward Montgomery were the only two men convicted for the events of 5 March 1770. Both men continued to serve in the regiment, right up to the time that it was ordered to America in 1776. Perhaps in light of their conviction, both men were discharged rather than send them back across the Atlantic. They both went before the army pension board in Chelsea, outside London, on 22 February 1776, where the examiners duly recorded some details about them. Kilroy, a native of Mountmellick in County Laois, Ireland, was twenty-eight years old and had served thirteen years in the army; he was granted a pension because of a lame knee. His trade is listed as "labourer," meaning that he had not learned a trade before enlisting. Montgomery, from Antrim in Ireland, was forty-one years old (meaning that he was about thirty-five in March 1770), had served twenty years in the army, and was also a labourer. He and his wife Isabella were frequently mentioned by deponents recounting violence between British soldiers and Boston inhabitants in the months leading up to the Boston Massacre, she being recalled as saying that "the town was too haughty and too proud."

The man who remained in the regiment longest, and about whom we know the most, was Hugh White. Town records indicate that he had a wife and three children in Boston in 1770. A copy of his discharge, the document that says he had legally completed his service in the army, was lodged with the pension office when he received a pension, and remains in the British National Archives to this day. From this, we learn that he was born in the town of Killyleach, County Down in Ireland, in 1740 (more specifically, he was forty-nine years old when he was discharged on 10 November 1789). Like Kilroy and Montgomery, he was a labourer. He joined the army in 1759, a likely age for an enlistee, and served his entire career in the 29th Regiment. The regiment's muster rolls show that he served in Canada during the American Revolution. And he was able to sign his own name on his discharge, suggesting that he was a literate man.
Of eight soldiers who were caught up in such an important moment in history, we have only these sparse details about them as people, shedding real light on only three of them. Research continues; perhaps some day we'll know more.

Friday, November 22, 2019

John Ward, 74th Regiment, wins back his Pocketbook

When John Ward boarded the warship HMS Iris in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 16 February 1779, he probably thought he had fought his last fight. He was going home to Great Britain, having spent seventeen years as a soldier and suffered a wound somewhere along the way. At the age of fifty-four, his soldiering days were over, but he was heading towards one last conflict.

Ward was Irish, a Belfast native born in 1725. Most of his military career has not been determined. He probably enlisted during the Seven Years War, maybe before, and then was discharged. Part way through the American Revolution he answered the call for volunteers to join the 74th Regiment of Foot, a new regiment authorized in December 1777 and raised largely in Argyllshire. Like many new-raised regiments, its ranks were filled by a mix of new recruits and experienced veterans; men like Ward, with prior military experience, insured that the corps would quickly be ready for the demands of foreign service in spite of being newly created.

The regiment recruited throughout the first half of 1778, and sailed for Nova Scotia in August of that year. Once in Halifax, Ward’s age and injuries apparently caught up with him; he may have been wounded somehow during his brief time in the 74th Regiment, or had a lingering disability from a wound received in the past. Before the regiment went to a war zone, he and a few others from the 74th were “invalided” - discharged because they were not deemed fit for service. In February he and the other invalids, still in Halifax, embarked for the journey home.

Ward and his comrades disembarked from Iris in Portsmouth on 20 March, and by 25 March were in London. They took rooms for the night at a tavern in Westminster where “we laid down our knapsacks, and drank pretty heartily.”

Lodging in the same place was John Close, a soldier in the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards. He ate and drank with the veterans, and said he was an Irishman like Ward. The next morning, Ward and his comrades went to the War Office and received billets for quarters in Chelsea, where they would go before the pension board. Returning to the tavern, they met up with Close again, who accompanied them to Chelsea that afternoon.

After finding the billets at Chelsea, Ward and Close went to a local tavern, ate, and drank some beer. Ward drew out his leather pocketbook which contained about two months’ pay that he’d received when he was discharged, and paid the bill. He then left Close and returned to the previous night’s tavern where he wanted to spend some of his money, as the owner had given him a free meal the night before. Close arrived later on. Some time and two pots of beer later, Close agreed to walk Ward, now somewhat tipsy, back to Chelsea.

Along the way, Close pulled Ward off the road. In the darkness, he grabbed Ward’s lame arm, which had no strength due to its wound, leaving Ward unable to effectively resist. Close reached into Ward’s breast pocket and took the pocketbook full of cash that he had seen earlier that day. Ward, with the coolness of a veteran soldier, asked for the pocketbook back, but chose not to pursue or cry out when Close went off into the night. He knew where Close lived, knew he could identify him, realized that he might leave town if he feared pursuit, and recognized that his own lameness and inebriated state rendered him unable to best Close in a confrontation. Ward knew his best chance at recovering the pocketbook was to remain calm.

John Close returned to his quarters early the next morning, and went to his room to prepare for his duties as a soldier that day. Soon after, John Ward and several of his comrades arrived and told the tavern owner what Close had done. The owner summoned Close, who denied the charge, but while Close talked with his accusers the owner went to his room and found the pocket book hidden in a closet.

John Close was brought to trial at the Old Bailey in London the following week, on April 4, 1779. John Ward told his story and described exactly how much money was in the pocketbook. The keeper of the tavern where Close lodged testified, as did the keepers of two other taverns where Close had spent money freely on the night of the theft. The pocketbook was shown to the court.
Close offered only a brief defense, claiming that Ward had given him money but offering no explanation of how he came to possess the pocketbook. He called on his sergeant as a character witness, but the sergeant said only that Close had been in the regiment for a year, and that he knew nothing else of him. This was no defense at all, and the court found Close guilty of theft. He was sentence to “navigation,” a year of hard labor dredging the Thames River to improve its navigability.
The court records don’t state whether John Ward recovered all of his money, but he did go before the pension board on 17 June and received a pension.

The trial transcript contains two errors, which show the challenges of relying even on primary sources when piecing together historical events. Ward sailed from Halifax to Portsmouth on HMS Iris, as confirmed by that ship’s muster books, but the court recorder wrote that he came from America on the ship Halifax - an easy mistake to make. The transcript also says that Ward called himself “a soldier in General Burgoyne’s regiment.” This statement is difficult to interpret, since General Burgoyne was colonel of the 16th Light Dragoons and had no connection with the 74th Regiment. The tavern keeper said that “John Ward, with several others belonging to the 74th regiment of foot” lodged at his place, and the Iris muster books and the pension board examination records list Ward as belonging to the 74th Regiment. The 74th Regiment’s muster rolls are incomplete for this time period, but there is no apparent connection between General Burgoyne and the 74th Regiment, or any indication that men were transferred from Burgoyne’s regiment to the 74th. For now, the discrepancy is a curious quirk in the historical record.

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.