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.

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