Monday, November 30, 2009

Deserter: Benjamin Millett, 22nd Regiment of Foot

The muster rolls of the 22nd Regiment of Foot list 28 men as having “joined from Additional Company” on 24 June 1777. As was typical for recruits, these men were distributed more or less evenly among the regiment’s eight battalion companies. The obvious assumption is that these men arrived in Rhode Island on the date given, but further research proved that not to be the case. The agent’s ledgers for the 22nd Regiment survive in the archives of Lloyds Bank in London; through mergers over the years the regimental agency of Cox & Company became part of the present-day British bank (not to be confused with the insurance company of a similar name). These ledgers show us that the 28 recruits actually embarked in Great Britain on 20 June 1777, on the transports Union Island and King George. They arrived in New York in early September. Similar information for other groups of recruits shows us that the muster rolls often give the dates that men joined the regiment in a financial sense, not in a literal sense. A diary kept by a British officer in Rhode Island indicates that the 28 recruits finally arrived in Rhode Island on 15 December 1777.

One of these recruits was named Benjamin Millett. Because he boarded a transport in June 1777, we know only that he enlisted some time before that. We know the actual enlistment dates of some other soldiers in the 22nd Regiment, from which we’ve learned that most recruits enlisted between six months and a year before embarking for America, with some enlisting up to two years before. The intervening time was spent in training.

Benjamin Millett served in Captain Edward Brabazon’s company of the 22nd Regiment until 26 September 1779, when he deserted. This was just a month before the British army evacuated Rhode Island. It is common to see an increase in desertion shortly before a garrison was evacuated, suggesting either that men had made local connections that they did not wish to leave, or that they knew the departure of the army would make their capture unlikely.

For most deserters, their desertion date on the muster rolls is the end of the story that we know. On a hunch, however, I looked up names of 22nd Regiment deserters in American military records kept at the US National Archives, and learned that a Benjamin Millett served in the a Rhode Island Continental Line regiment in 1782. Only one Benjamin Millett appears on the 1782 Rhode Island census, and no Milletts are on the 1774 census, so it appears that this is the same man.

The surviving rolls for the Rhode Island regiment show that Millett enlisted on 20 March 1782, and was still serving in December when the rolls end. Another document associated with this regiment provides a real treasure trove of information, though. The Rhode Island State Archives holds a description book for the regiment, from which we learn that Benjamin Millett was 5 feet 9 ¼ inches tall, with dark brown hair and a fresh complexion, and was a labourer. He was a resident of Johnston, Rhode Island when he enlisted in the Continental army, but was born in Somersetshire, England. The document gives his age as 23, but the entry is not dated. If we assume that he was 23 years old when he joined the regiment in 1782, then he was born in 1758 or 1759 and probably enlisted in the British army at 17 or 18 years of age – perfectly plausible.

Benjamin Millett eventually received a pension for his 9 months’ service in the Continental Army, and documents associated with the pension survive in the National Archives. An 1818 document lists his age as 65 in December, and an 1820 document lists it as 66 in December. These ages do not correlate with the age of 23 given in the description book, but the pension deposition says that his service was in 1779 whereas the muster rolls prove that it was actually in 1782. Disparities like this are not unusual in American pension documents that were written 40 to 50 years after the events that they describe. At this advanced age, Millett was still living in Johnston, Rhode Island.

Some people look at information like this and ask, "who cares?" In April 2008, I met someone who cares. I was gaving a talk at a meeting of the Rhode Island Genealogical Society concerning the British occupation of Rhode Island. For this type of talk, I like to give generalities about the types of men who served in the British army and conclude with some profiles of individual soldiers. I have data on all of the 1005 men who served in the 22nd Regiment during the war, but chose just four to describe at this talk; because he settled in Rhode Island, Benjamin Millett was one of the choices.

At the end of the talk, after a few routine questions, one of the other speakers at the event who is a genealogist and professional archivist, raised his hand and said, “I don’t have a question, but I wanted to thank you for mentioning my ancestor, Benjamin Millett.” He had researched his own lineage back to the pension document in the National Archives, but had no idea that his ancestor had been a British soldier. He lives in Rhode Island, just a few towns away from me, and talked about Benjamin Millett’s various descendants through the years. It struck me how remarkable a coincidence it was to have a descendant of one of the soldiers that I study show up in the audience, without already knowing about the connection.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Died in America: Clement Nicholson, 38th Regiment of Foot

Clement Nicholson enlisted in the 38th Regiment of Foot in 1767 or 1768, and appears to have been an exemplary soldier until an incident involving alcohol in October 1774.

On Monday, 24 October, Clement was part of a working party in the wood yard in Boston. The work party broke for dinner, their mid-day meal, at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and assembled again at 3. About a half hour after reassembling the party and directing them to stack wood, the serjeant commanding the party noticed that Nicholson was missing; another soldier said that Nicholson had complained of being unwell before the meal, so the serjeant assumed that to be the reason for his absence. When the work party was dismissed in the evening the serjeant went to a serjeant of Nicholson's company and inquired after him. The two serjeants asked around for Nicholson, and on not learning his whereabouts reported his absence to the captain of the company. They searched his knapsack and found two white shirts, one check shirt and a pair of stockings missing. The officer ordered them to search for Nicholson but they did not find him.

A little after seven that evening two officers of the 4th Regiment and a servant were in Charlestown, heading towards the ferry that would take them to Boston. About a mile from the ferry they came upon two soldiers heading rapidly in the other direction. When the officers spoke to them, the soldiers appeared confused, so one officer took hold of one of the soldiers. The other soldier, Clement Nicholson, ran but was apprehended by the other officer and the servant as he tried to climb over a fence. The servant asked Nicholson how he had gotten to Charleston, to which Nicholson replied that a 'countryman' had gotten them drunk and taken them across the river in some kind of boat, and that once they realized where they were they did not know what to do. He was taken to the quarter guard of the 38th Regiment.

Put on trial for desertion four days later, Nicholson testified that as he was going to dinner at one o'clock on the 24th he met with a fellow soldier who invited him for a drink. On their way to it, they met a countryman who promised them some liquor if they would come with him. They did, and drank so much that they became insensate until they realized that they had been taken across the river. When they saw officers approaching, they feared being taken up as deserters. Figuring that they would fare better if they returned to camp than if they were taken by the officers, they tried to run.

Nicholson called upon two officers to testify to his character. The adjutant of the regiment considered him to be "a very sober diligent Man" who had never been punished or brought to a court martial before. Another officer had "always heard a good Character of the Prisoner before he was inlisted" and that he subsequently "always behaved like a good Soldier."

Nicholson was found guilty and sentenced to receive one thousand lashes given out in four sets of 250 each. We have no information about whether the sentence was administered in its entirety or partially remitted. We do know that Nicholson recovered fully from whatever punishment he received. He was in the regiment when it fought at Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775, and he was wounded in the battle. He died of those wounds two months to the day later, on 17 August 1775.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Age and Experience: The 22nd Regiment, 1775

At a recent lecture, an audience member asked me if the data I was presenting was posted on my blog. Although the focus of this forum is individual soldiers, it makes sense to include some statistical data on the on the men who served in the British army during the 1775-1783 American War. This installment will look at the ages and military experience of common British soldiers.

The 22nd Regiment of Foot disembarked in Boston in late June and early July of 1775, arriving piecemeal because they were distributed among four transport ships. They had served in Ireland for two years, and in Scotland for a few years before that. Typical of British regiments, the 22nd recruited from all over the British isles. Regiments did not received county titles until 1782 and even thn were not required to recruit from their own counties. In the 1760s and 1770s most regiments recruited from the regions where they were serving and also sent recruiting parties to places where suitable men were likely to be found. Some regiments recruited preferentially in particular regions, but every regiment contained men from all over Great Britain. When the 22nd was inspected in May 1774 it was composed of a fairly typical mix:

197 English (47%)
174 Scottish (41%)
48 Irish (11%)
3 Foreign (1)

Men from Wales are included among the English on the inspection return. Although there was some turnover during the ensuing year, the mix of nationalities was similar when the regiment embarked for America in May 1775. As the war progressed the mix of nationalities changed significantly, but that will be discussed in another installment.

What has consistently surprised audiences to my lectures is the ages of British soldiers. We might expect a regiment arriving in America for a tour of foreign service to be composed largely of young new recruits. Out of 416 soldiers of the 22nd Regiment who arrived in Boston we known the ages of 183, or just under half. This includes serjeants, corporals, drummers & fifers, and private soldiers; officers are not included in this study. The ages of the 183 are distributed as follows:

15 – 20 years old: 3 men
21 – 25 years old: 20 men
26 - 30 years old: 65 men
31 - 35 years old: 50 men
36 - 40 years old: 24 men
41 – 45 years old: 13 men
46 – 50 years old: 7 men
51 – 55 years old: 1 man

Clearly the majority of the men were in their late twenties and early thirties, and about a quarter of them were over 35. We have more complete data on the length of service men had, and this service data suggests that the sample of 183 ages is representative of the entire regiment.

Of 416 men who served in Boston, we know how much experience 386 of them had in 1775. This information is not precise; it is taken from muster rolls which indicate when each man joined the main body of the regiment, but not when he enlisted with a recruiting party. We the enlistment date of a few men, from other sources, and this reveals that many men spent a year or more with a recruiting party before they appear on the muster rolls. We also know of several men who enlisted in the 22nd Regiment after having been discharged from another regiment - sometimes with a gap of months or years between discharge and subsequent enlistment. Therefore, we can be sure that the service data presented here is somewhat conservative. With this caveat in mind, the service of 386 men is distributed as follows:

1 year or less: 41 men
2 – 5 years: 128 men
6 – 10 years: 167 men
11 – 20 years: 36 men
21 years or more: 14 men

Enlistment younger than the age of 17 was quite rare. The service data, then, reinforces the age data; for men to have between 6 and 10 years of service, they were most likely at least 25 to 30 years old if we assume a typical enlistment age of 20 years old.

In a future installment we'll show that this age and experience distribution remained similar throughout the war in spite of attrition and changes to recruiting policies. Although attrition reduced the number of older men, wartime recruits were drawn from a wider age range and many of the 'recruits' were actually drafts from other regiments.

Although the 22nd Regiment that disembarked in Boston in 1775 did not have recent combat experience, it was composed largely of mature men who had several years of experience in the army. The same can be said of nearly every regiment in America at this stage of the war. This certainly contributed to the rapid adaptation that the army was able to accomplish in order to campaign successfully in America.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Pensioners: William Bradley and Matthew Collier, 33rd Regiment

When British soldiers received pensions, copies of their discharge papers were put on file in the War Office. Many of these documents survive to day, and provide a treasure trove of information about the individuals who made up the army. Besides details on the man's age, place of birth and trade, the discharge document usually recorded the reason that the man was no longer fit for military service. Often this is a simple and uninformative phrase like "worn out," but occasionally it reveals insight into aspects of a soldier's life that are easy to overlook.

After the 33rd Regiment of Foot sailed for America in the closing days of 1775, it's recruiting parties in Great Britain worked hard to provide the steady stream of recruits required to maintain its strength. In 1777 they enlisted a 17-year-old Yorkshire native named William Bradley. Just under 5-foot 6-inches tall, Bradley had no trade. Like many recruits, he spent years with the recruiting party and in training at Chatham Barracks before joining his regiment in America on 3 June 1780. Having enlisted after the war began, he was entitled to be discharged at the close of hostilities in 1783 but rejoined the 33rd in Nova Scotia. He continued to serve until 1792 when he was discharged and awarded a pension due to “having been Ruptured by lifting a Weight when on Fatigue at the Island of Cape Breton.” Hernia, called rupture during this era, was a moderately common ailment among old soldiers which reflects the hard labor that sometimes characterized their duties.

16-year-old Mathew Collier, a native of New Jersey, had a similar career. A rare example of an American who enlisted in a British regular regiment after the war began, the muster rolls of the 33rd indicate that Collier enlisted on 10 April 1777. The 5-foot 10-inch soldier was appointed as a drummer some time after that. He was also entitled to be discharged at the end of the war, but also chose to reinlist for service with the regiment in Canada and then in Great Britain. He was discharged in Dublin on the same day in 1792 as Bradley, having spent half his life in the army. The pension board recognized that he would have difficulty earning a living as a laborer “by being Ruptured & having a dislocated Shoulder which he received when on a Fatigue party at Kings Bridge North America.”

Both of these men may have experienced the rigors of campaigns and battles in America, but the surviving information tells us only of their injuries from common fatigue duties that were endured by soldiers in all locations.