Sunday, July 19, 2009

Deserter: Walter Graham, 22nd Regiment of Foot

This installment includes a request for leads or further details to complete the story. Most students of the American Revolution have at least a passing knowledge of the capture of Major General Richard Prescott on the night of 10-11 July 1777. Prescott, commander of the British garrison of Rhode Island, had established his quarters in a house near the middle of the tall, narrow island so that he was equidistant from the town of Newport to the south and the principal army encampments to the North. A mile to the west was the shore of Narragansett Bay, providing several miles of separation from American forces on the mainland. In spite of this apparent safety, Prescott was spirited away during the night by a brave party of Americans who rowed two whaleboats more than seven miles across the bay, eluding detection by British warships. They surrounded the house, took the general and Lieutenant William Barrington, his aide-de-camp, hurried them back to their boats, and had them securely on the mainland by dawn. This bold stroke was admired by British and Americans alike, and gave the Americans a prisoner of war to exchange for their own general, Charles Lee, who had been captured seven months before.

The Americans took one additional prisoner that day, who is largely overlooked in contemporary and modern accounts of the raid. The British sentry who stood at the door of the house where Prescott was quartered was a private soldier named Walter Graham of the 22nd Regiment of Foot, and he was also carried off.

Walter Graham first appears on the rolls of the regiment on 12 December 1772, meaning that he was probably enlisted by a recruiting party earlier that year. The regiment was serving in Scotland at the time, and most of the men that joined that year (whose nationalities we know) were Scottish, suggesting that Graham was probably Scottish. There is evidence that he deserted in 1772 before joining the regiment (that is, while still with a recruiting party), and was taken up and returned by the 15th Regiment. On 27 March 1774 when the regiment was in Dublin, Ireland, Graham deserted again. This time he returned on 17 June of the same year, but it is not known whether he returned voluntarily or was apprehended.

The regiment seems to have been able to keep better control of Graham for the next few years as it moved from Ireland to Boston, then to Halifax and New York, and finally to Rhode Island at the end of 1776. In July of 1777 he was one of a small guard housed in an outbuilding a few hundred yards away from General Prescott’s quarters. He appears to have been the only British soldier standing sentry on the night of 10–11 July, when around midnight he challenged an approaching stranger.

Abel Potter, one of between 30 and 40 men in the American raiding party, described his encounter with Graham in his pension deposition:

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp The mode in which he took the guard standing at the door was as follows. He answered as a “friend” and then stepped up to him to whisper the countersign in his ear and stooped forward to him, and as the sentinel inclined towards him he seized the sentinel’s piece with his left hand and told him not to speak or he should die, the only words which this claimant spoke while on the island.
The sentinel answered “I won’t,” tremblingly.

Other accounts said Graham had given the “Who comes there?” challenge twice, to which members of the raiding party responded that they were searching for deserters and did not have the countersign.

The prisoners were landed on the mainland at Warwick and were soon taken to Providence. The focus, of course, was on the high-value captives. We do not know exactly what was done with Graham initially, but ten days after taking him the Rhode Island Council of War

Resolved that the Sheriff of the County of Providence forthwith take into custody the Soldier who was taken Prisoner upon Rhode Island by Lt. Col. Barton & his Party, And confine said Soldier in close Jail in the County of Providence. And the keeper of sd. Jail is hereby directed to receive him & him closely keep until further Orders.

An American soldier named Samuel Buffum, who had been caught during one of the many raids on the British-held island, was paroled and went before the Council of War seeking to be exchanged for a serjeant of the 17th Light Dragoons who was a prisoner of war in the colony. The Council denied this request, but granted in early August that Buffum be exchanged for Walter Graham.

Neither Graham nor Buffum, however, returned to their armies. According to a letter from the governor of the colony to the British commander in Rhode Island in May 1778, “Graham was put on board the cartel vessel, while under the care of our people, in order to be sent, but made his escape.” Buffum was not granted freedom because Graham had disappeared, so Buffum broke his parole and disappeared from the colony. The governor did take the opportunity to complain that the exchange was not a fair one to begin with because

The person we sent down was a British soldier, taken in arms, nor did he appear as an idiot, but as a fair subject of exchange; and I cannot help adding that Buffum, when here, gave evident marks of insanity, and that I am well informed he was, a considerable time, disordered in his senses when under confinement in the gaol at Newport.

Walter Graham was not returned as a deserter from the 22nd Regiment of Foot until 8 June 1778, probably because it took that long to conclude that he was not in fact coming back from captivity. After this, we find no further information about Graham – no advertisements seeking him, no trace of him entering the American military. Abel Potter, the man who deposed that he seized Graham, did offer one clue in his pension deposition: “This same sentinel afterwards taught school in Pownal, Vermont, and claimant sent a member of his family to school to him.” The inaugural settlers of Pownal in the 1790s included many Rhode Islanders, but we have not been able to find any Walter Graham among them.

It is here that we seek the help of readers. If anyone can find details of a Vermont school teacher thought or known to have been a British deserter – either named Graham or with a background that suggests a changed name – this author would appreciate hearing of it. It would be fitting to learn the ultimate fate of this forgotten prisoner taken in one of the war’s most daring exploits.


  1. There is an S. W. Graham b. about 1812 who appears on the 1860 Census for Pownal, Vermont. Any chance he could be a son to your Walter Graham?

    Jeannie Graham

  2. On the 1790 US census we find a Walter Graham in Adams Massachusetts. He apparently has a wife 3 sons and a daughter. I believe that this is most likely the sentinel and that he probably commuted to his school teaching job. If he was actually in N. Adams which did not split from Adams until 1878 he would have been closer. Clarksburg inc. in 1798 is another possibility if it split off from Adams. Ned Fleet

  3. I believe that Abel Potter may have been involved in abetting the escape of Walter Graham. It just seems to be a huge coincidence that the same man responsibe for capturing the sentinel and the sentinel ended up living so close together. However; sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence. Ned Fleet

  4. The Walter Graham in Adams, Mass (1790 US Census) is believed to be my ancestor. His and his wife (Rachel)three sons: Benjamin, born 11/22/1783, Andrew, born 9/3/1785, Wanton born 5/15/1789. No family knowledge of a daughter as shown on the report. Later another son was born. Walter P. Jr was born 11/19/1795. I've been tracing my Graham family tree and Walter is my road block.
    Dean Graham Aldrich