Friday, June 5, 2009

Deserters: Francis Overton & Daniel Sullivan, 22nd Regiment

Some years ago, a colleague asked me how to research a member of a Rhode Island independent company. Local legend had it that the unit was trained in 1774 or 1775 by a British deserter from Boston. Would it be possible to verify this story? I asked whether rolls existed for the Rhode Island unit. British muster rolls identify many deserters, so there was a chance that a matching name might be found. My colleague dismissed this suggestion – “Wouldn’t a deserter change his name?”

We have not been able to verify the story of the deserter training a Rhode Island corps, but research on the 22nd Regiment of Foot has shown that many British deserters joined the American army under their own names, apparently not feeling any need to use an alias. Robert Hall had served for at least four years when he deserted from Rhode Island on 1 September 1777. Five days later, the 24-year-old joined the 5th Massachusetts Regiment. He served for several years, settled in New York, and received a pension in 1818. Benjamin Millett, a recruit from Somersetshire, arrived in America in 1777 and deserted on 26 September 1779. He joined the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, and also received a pension. Joseph Denham deserted on 9 January 1778, joined the Lee’s Additional Regiment on the 16th, and deserted six weeks later. Henry Eaton, a grenadier with 9 years’ service, deserted in New Jersey in 14 March 1777, joined the 4th Pennsylvania Regi-ment, served through the end of the war and received a pension.

Not all British deserters who joined the Continental Army became good soldiers. Daniel Sullivan enlisted in the 22nd Regiment in Ireland in March 1775, when the regiment was recruiting up to full strength in anticipation of embarking for America. Francis Overton enlisted later in 1775 or 1776, part of the large augmentation ordered for regiments in America after the war began, and arrived in America in October 1776. The two men deserted together from Rhode Island on 3 September 1777. They had been seen going towards the town of Newport during the night, which led British authorities to suspect that collaborators in town were helping British deserters escape from the island to the mainland. A 100 dollar reward was offered, but no information was forthcoming. The men were soon in Providence, where the Rhode Island Council of War resolved, on 6 September, that be "be allowed and paid each Six Dollars out of the General Treasury in order to carry them into the Country to enable them to get Work to maintain themselves" because they were "destitute of Money."

Overton and Sullivan did find work, but not the sort of work that the Council of War had in mind. They immediately enlisted in the 5th Massachusetts Regiment which was recruiting in Attleboro just northeast of Providence. This could be construed as a act of sympathy towards the American cause, but more likely it was a simple act of opportunism. Neither man stayed long. Overton deserted a month after enlisting, on 8 October 1777, and Sullivan deserted in December. A description roll of deserters tell us about them. Overton was 21 years old (in 1777), born in "Britain," 5 feet 10 inches tall, with dark eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion, and had given his place of residence as Medway, Massachusetts. Sullivan was a 25-year-old Irishman, 5 feet 6 inches tall, also with dark eyes, dark hair and a dark complexion; he gave his residence as Attleboro. Like many other British deserters, they had enlisted under their own names. After all, they did not have to fear being arrested for desertion from the British army, and if they were recaptured by the British they could be recognized visually. No aliases were needed.

Although they deserted from the 5th Massachusetts at different times, Overton and Sullivan joined up with each other after and fled to Connecticut. Now they apparently were more concerned about being caught, and took additional precautions. A newspaper advertisement from early February reads:

Stop Thives! [sic]
Came to the house of the subscriber, on the 25th of January 1778, one James Hamilton, about 5 feet and an half high, well sett, black short curled hair, black eye brows, light blue eyes, can read and write well; had on when he went away, a white out-side jacket, with one button on each sleeve, at the wrist, a pair white breeches, much wore, a pair blue and white stockings, his left thumb (upper joint) put out, so that he can slip it in and out. Likewise, one Patrick Brian, about 6 feet high, a sprightly well limbed man, short strait brown hair, light blue eyes, speaks broad; had on when he went away, a green coat faced with red, and yellow buttons, a white coarse linen shirt, a pair white cloth stockings, a good felt hat, with a metal button thereon: Both these fellows were Irishmen, said to desert from the 22d regiment on Rhode Island the 6th day of Sep-tember last, and had passes from Governor Cook at Providence, to go into the country to get work; they tarried with me till Friday the 30th ult. (After dinner) then went off without paying for their board, and carried off one white Holland shirt and sundry other things, to the value of 22 or 23 dollars. Whoever will take up said villains, and bring them to Norwich or New London jail, so that justice may be done them, shall have Six Dollars reward, and all necessary charges paid by Ebenzer Grover. [Norwich Packet, 2 February 1778]

At first blush this ad seems to have no relevance to our story, but no James Hamilton or Patrick Brian ever served in the 22nd Regiment. The date of desertion from the 22nd and the physical descriptions, however, make it obvious that these men were actually Francis Overton and Daniel Sullivan. They did not hide the fact that they were British deserters, but apparently mentioned nothing about their American service, and in fact changed their names to conceal it.

Learn more about British soldiers in America

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