Thursday, August 6, 2009

Deserter: John Bolton, 35th Regiment of Foot

Muster rolls are a key source of information on the individuals who served in the British army. For regiments serving in America during the 1775-1783 war, rolls were prepared once every six months for each company of each regiment. One muster roll covered the period from 25 December to the following 24 June, the next roll from 25 June to 24 December. Ideally, muster rolls were prepared very soon after each six-month muster period; in practice, regiments sometimes fell behind by months or even years, they caught up with the missing rolls all at once; for this reason it is not unusual to find rolls for several muster periods all prepared on the same date.

Each roll listed the names of each officer and soldier in the company. Next to each name was an annotation of anything that occurred during the muster period to change the man's status in the company - notations such as "joined", "discharged", "deserted", "died", as well as indications of transfers to or from other companies or regiments - along with the date that the event occurred. If a man had no changes, then of course nothing was annotated. These annotations are quite useful, but there are many nuances that can be misleading; these will be discussed at another time. The level of detail varies from regiment to regiment. For example, the rolls of the 22nd Regiment meticulously indicate where each new man in the regiment came from, whether "from the English Additional Company", "from the Irish Additional Company" (referring to recruiting parties in Great Britain), "German recruit", "from 53rd Regiment", or what have you; the rolls of the 33rd Regiment, on the other hand, refer to all new men as "inlisted" regardless of whether they are recruits, drafts, or even men from the regiment who escaped from captivity.

Occasionally, the muster rolls completely let us down. Such is the case with John Bolton, a soldier of the 35th Regiment. The 35th prepared a set of rolls in Cork, Ireland in April 1775 shortly before they embarked for America. The next set of rolls was prepared in Boston in January 1776. This set of rolls includes men who do not appear on the April 1775 rolls, but have no annotation about where those men came from. Among the new men is John Bolton.

Two sets of rolls later, those prepared in January 1777, Bolton is listed as "prisoner with the Rebels" along with three other men in his company. He appears this way on the next two rolls as well, but on those prepared on 25 June 1778 he is listed as "on command", a common term applied to many circumstances. The 35th Regiment was sent to the West Indies later in 1778, and prepared no muster rolls until April 1780. Bolton and many other men no longer appear, and again there is no indication of what happened to these men.

For John Bolton, however, we have an alternative source of information that provides details of his career. Bolton stood trial by a general court martial in New York on 30 July 1778, for desertion.

Testimony in his trial reveals that Bolton was drafted from the 20th Regiment of Foot into the 35th in April 1775 when the regiment was preparing to embark. It was common practice to draft soldiers from regiments remaining in Great Britain to bring regiments bound overseas up to strength. Because the drafts are no recorded on the 35th's muster rolls we don't know how many drafts the regiment received; when the 22nd Regiment was preparing for embarkation the following month it received 19 drafts from five regiments including the 20th.

More interesting is testimony that, rather than having been taken prisoner, John Bolton deserted. The adjutant of the 35th Regiment testified that

on the Regt. being ordered to the Cedar Swamp on or about the 6th of Octr 1776 the Prisoner was sent on Command to New York to make Cartridges, and deserted from thence

This type of duty was a common one. Regiments were capable of making their own ammunition, but during operations with armies such as that in the New York area, ammunition was usually prepared in bulk at a laboratory under the supervision of the Royal Artillery. Regiments sent detachments of soldiers to handle the labor of rolling, filling and closing cartridges. The soldier who had commanded the cartridge-making party from the 35th Regiment elaborated on Bolton's desertion:

on the 5th of October 1776 he was Ordered with a Party of which the Prisoner was one to New York, to make Cartridges and when he paraded the Party in the Evening to return to Camp, the Prisoner was absent

Why the muster rolls indicate that Bolton was a prisoner, rather than a deserter, is a complete mystery. It does prove that the muster rolls are not always reliable (although, to be fair, my experience has been that they usually are accurate).

More surprising is some of the further testimony concerning Bolton's whereabouts. After he deserted in October 1776 he did not leave the British-controlled region but instead enlisted in a Loyalist regiment, the New York Volunteers. He served in that regiment for a little over a year. In January 1778 he got into some sort of trouble in that regiment and was due to be punished. In order to avoid the punishment, he declared himself as a deserter and was returned to the 35th Regiment. The Lieutenant-Colonel of the 35th pardoned Bolton, and he returned to the same company of the regiment in which he had served in 1776.

Bolton's troubles did not end here. The captain of the company took Bolton as a servant. In some cases this was a highly desirable position which could result in better quarters, clothing and amenities than were afforded to most soldiers. For Bolton things did not go so well; the captain "ill treated him and beat him." Given Bolton's already inauspicious record, it is possible that he exasperated his master; on the other hand, the captain's treatment of servants may be the reason why it was necessary for him to take men unwillingly for that duty.

In July 1778 Bolton lost one of the captain's keys, which resulted in a beating that was the last straw for Bolton. On 15 July the regiment moved from Long Island to New York City, and Bolton was among a detachment left in Brooklyn as a baggage guard. The next day he went missing from the guard, having absconded in uniform wearing his waistbelt, cartridge pouch and bayonet, but had left behind his musket and other clothing. About two weeks later he was detained by the provost in New York. The circumstances of his capture are not known, but clearly he had not left the region. During his trial for desertion all of the above circumstances were related, and Bolton offered nothing in his defense except that he was drunk both times he deserted, and would not have deserted had he been allowed to remain in the ranks as a soldier rather than being employed as a servant. The court was not impressed by these arguments, and the man who had avoided punishment for his past transgressions was sentenced to death. We've been unable to learn whether or not the sentence was carried out.

The story of John Bolton is unusual in that the muster rolls of his regiment give a completely different impression of his career than what is revealed in the record of his court martial. Fortunately, this seems to be a rare case; usually the various sources of information on British soldiers correlate reasonably well. But a deviation as great as John Bolton's is a good reminder that things are not always what they seem.


  1. Do you know if an Irishman, Peter Langley, served in the 35th regiment of Foot and deserted in March, 1840, please?

  2. My apologies for taking so long to respond to this comment. The focus of my research is strictly on the 1775-1783 period; I regret that I am unable to help with something that occurred in 1840.

  3. I am researching to see if there was any Red Coat soldiers by the name of Capps? English soldiers who fought with England against the Colonials during the War of the Revolution.
    thank you for your time and consideration

    1. It's possible that a soldier named Capps served in the British army in America, but to prove it we need additional information. There is no comprehensive list of soldiers; instead, there are twice-yearly muster rolls for each regiment. If we know the regiment in which a man served, finding him is fairly easy; if we have only a name, finding the man means searching through several thousand handwritten pages in hopes of finding him.
      Do you have any more information that could help narrow things down - a first name, a location where the man may have served, or any other specifics that could narrow down the search? Sometimes a little bit of context makes it possible to discern the regiment.