Monday, June 1, 2009

Deserter: William Simpson, fifer, 29th Regiment

William Simpson was born in 1751, the child of a soldier in the 29th Regiment of Foot. There was a Victor Simpson serving in the 29th, who was discharged in 1771, but we do not know if they were in fact related. By 1765 William Simpson was serving in the regiment; on the earliest muster roll that we have available, covering the unusually long (for a muster roll) period from the beginning of 1765 through 1769, Simpson is listed among the private soldiers. At this time, fifers were not part of the establishment of a regiment. It is possible that Simpson was serving in that capacity, but was carried as a private soldier since there was no other way to keep him in pay. The 29th was in Boston when the roll was prepared in 1769, and Simpson was in Major Pierce Butler's company (the same Pierce Butler who later represented South Carolina at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 - quite a career change).
Beginning in 1770, two fifers were established as part of the grenadier company of each regiment, and Simpson appears in that capacity on the muster rolls for that year. On 6 September 1770, when the regiment was serving in the New York area, he deserted. He was replaced by a man who had been a private soldier - it was not unusual for men to be appointed from private to drummer or fifer, and back again, sometimes several times during their career.
Soon after his desertion, the regiment placed the following advertisement:

Perth Amboy, New-Jersey, Sept. 6, 1770.
Deserted from the 29th Regiment of Foot, William Simpson, Fifer, aged 19 Years, 5 Feet, 8 Inches high, born in the Regiment, straight and well made, fair Complexion, thin Face, long Visage, large Nose, large Limbs, short brown Hair, blue Eyes, speaks short, and pretty much of the Irish Accent, a large Hole or Hollow on the top Part of his Scull, occasioned by a Fracture received at Castle Island; no Hair growing on it; plays well on the Flute and Fife, and plays a little on the Violin and French Horn. Had on when he went away, a short yellow Coat, fac'd Red, red Fall-down Collar, red Wings and Lining, the Coat lac'd with Drummers Lace, white Linnen Waistcoat and Breeches, a black Cap, bound with white Tape, the Number of the Regiment in the Front, and a Scarlet Worsted Feather round the upper Part of the Front. Whoever apprehends and secures the above Deserter so that he may be delivered over to the abovesaid Regiment at Perth-Amboy, or to the Commanding Officer of the 26th Regiment at New-York, shall receive Ten Dollars Reward, on Application to either Commanding Officers.
N. B. It is supposed the above Deserter is gone towards Boston or Halifax, having a Brother in the 64th Regiment at Halifax.
[New York Gazette or Weekly Post Boy, September 10, 1770]

The detailed description of Simpson's clothing provides several interesting and unusual details.
His interesting cap was probably made of felt, given that it was bound with white tape (the binding on felt hats and caps was more than an ornament - it kept the edges from fraying). It is reminiscent of the caps adopted by some light infantry companies. It was not the bearskin cap prescribed by the December 1768 clothing warrant, but the 29th Regiment had been serving in America for a number of years and my simply have not yet had an opportunity to obtain the some parts of the new-style clothing.
The coat conforms to the warranted pattern, except that it was short; perhaps this coat was new in 1769, and by September 1770 had been modified to account for wear and tear. Regiments in America normally received their new annual clothing in October or November. The coat has the reversed colors that we would expect for this yellow-faced regiment. It is interesting that the wings on the coat were, nonetheless, red.
Linnen waistcoat and breeches are not in accordance with the clothing warrant, but were probably procured for warm-weather use by the regiment.
The description of William Simpson reveals some interesting facets of military life. He was born in the regiment, making it probable that his father was also a soldier. He had a brother serving in another British regiment. He had received a serious injury during his service in Boston, at Castle Island. His hair was short, even though he was young and had been in the army his entire life. He had a broad range of musical talent.
His desertion is recorded on a muster roll covering the period ending 24 October 1770. On the next roll, however, for the period 25 October - 24 December 1770, Simpson is listed again, with no explanation of when or how he returned. There is also no record of him having been tried by a general court martial for desertion, so we are left to wonder how long his absence lasted and how it was accounted for. To further the mystery, Simpson no longer appears on any subsequent muster roll. We are left with no idea of what became of him. There is the slight possibility that he never actually returned and that the October - December muster roll is in error. Otherwise, he must have deserted again, been discharged, transferred to another regiment, or died. Usually these events are recorded in the rolls, but when they're not they leave us only to wonder.

Learn more about British soldiers in America


  1. Don, when did the 29th leave the Castle for Perth Amboy?

  2. They left very soon. I don't have the exact dates, but by 30 May 1770 they were settled in to quarters in New Jersey. You can find more details here:

  3. Thanks. Great reference.