Saturday, July 17, 2010

Army Wives: The Remarriage Myth Dispelled

A favorite topic of mine is wives of British soldiers. Information on these women who formed an integral part of the British army in America is sparse. While the names of soldiers can be readily obtained from muster rolls and other sources provide details of their ages, backgrounds and other attributes, just learning which men were married and the names of their wives is challenging. I've been able to pull together significant information about their role in the army, but learning about the individuals remains difficult.

With this paucity of information, it is especially annoying when people propagate information that has no basis in actual research. One such 'nugget' is the notion that wives who became widows were required to remarry within days or they would be cast out of the army and left completely on their own where ever they happened to be. I've heard this repeated many times, but never seen it backed up by information from general orders, military texts, personal accounts, or any other first-hand information. Although it is true that women had to be married to soldiers in order to become part of the 'regimental community', it is contradictory to the spirit of community to suppose that widows would be cast out. Over time, direct information made the remarriage assertion less and less plausible - for example, orders directing that widows who wished to return to Great Britain would be provided passage on board transport ships - but the absence of supporting information does not directly prove that remarriage was a requirement or necessity.

It is pleasing, then, to have finally obtained specific information about several army wives whose husbands died and who then married other soldiers. Regimental muster rolls provide us with the dates that the men died. A collection of marriage licenses issued in New York City gives the date that the widows obtained license to remarry (presumably close to the date of the actual marriage). Just enough of these marriage licenses are specific about the regiments to which the men and women belonged to make it possible to associate the names of some of the women to men in the same regiments who had died. They are in Volume 46 of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record (1915), available on Google Books.

The first example we found, about a year ago, was Hester Foster of the 22nd Regiment of Foot. Her husband William died as a serjeant on 14 October 1780 in New York after a career of at least 14 years in the army. On 18 December 1780 she obtained a license to marry a 31-year-old serjeant in the regiment, Henry Vennel. A decade later he became a rare man who obtained an officer's commission after rising through the ranks from a private soldier.

This example of a woman who remarried just two months after losing her husband was weak proof that women were not required to remarry immediately. Although two months is much longer than the 24 to 72 hours generally purported as the required time limit (depending upon who told the story) it is nonetheless a fast turnaround. More information was required to get a better sense of typical practice. That information has finally come together.

Noted author Brendan Morrissey recently worked extensively with the muster rolls of the 23rd Regiment of Foot. These rolls record the death of Thomas Pearcy on 31 May 1776 when the army was in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Over two years later a marriage license was obtained by Elenor Percy, widow in the 23rd Regiment, to marry a soldier named William Rider. Variations in spelling of surnames is quite common in muster rolls and related documents, and no other soldier in the 23rd had a name close enough to reasonably have been the husband of Elenor Percy. Sadly, her new husband died in June of 1780 and we have no additional information about her.

My own recent trip to the National Archives afforded the opportunity to piece together three more examples:

Daniel Rogers, a grenadier in the 38th Regiment, died on 19 August 1775 of wounds received at the battle of Bunker Hill. Catherine Rogers, widow of the same regiment, obtained a license to marry Thomas Mason of the 38th on 2 May 1777. Mason was still in the regiment in 1783, but a gap in the muster rolls makes his ultimate fate unknown.

Richard Twine of the 54th Regiment died on 21 August 1776. His wife Ann obtained a license exactly one year later to marry a soldier in the 45th Regiment, James Wiggins. He was drafted into the 5th Regiment of Foot in 1778 when the 45th was sent back to Great Britain and the 5th to the West Indies. A gap in the rolls of the 5th from late 1778 to the beginning of 1781 leaves his fate (and hers) unknown.

Thomas Proffit of the 7th (Royal Fusiliers) Regiment died on 17 April 1777. His wife Ann obtained a license on 6 February 1779 to marry serjeant John Lomix (or Lomax) of the same regiment. He died on 28 July 1782, leaving Ann once again a widow.

Among the marriage licenses are several others that can be traced in this way when we have an opportunity to work with the muster rolls of more regiments. For now, we have these four examples of women who were widowed and then remarried a year or more later, where the marriage license information explicitly refers to them as widows belonging to their regiments. A fifth woman married within only two months. We have yet to find an example of a woman remarrying within days of losing her husband. This doesn't mean it didn't happen, but it certainly proves that it was not a requirement.

Besides putting to rest the remarriage myth, the marriage licenses open up a new mystery. Among the women named as affiliated with British regiments are four who are not called widows but 'spinsters.' My first supposition was that these women were daughters of soldiers in the regiment, but we have not been able to correlate their names with any men on the muster rolls. It may be necessary to track down the original marriage license information to fully understand this nomenclature and determine who these women actually were.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!


  1. I wrote about another soldier’s widow possibly remarrying here, but the evidence is very tenuous. Glad you and Brendan Morrissey have located solid sources.

  2. A question Don: once a woman was widowed, what would be her function and place in a regiment on campaign? Where would she physically reside? Still in the tent? I realize if she was with Burgoyne's Army her situation would remain the same. But what about an army in towns and more populated areas, say at Bunker Hill or all through New York in '76 where the army is in and about urban areas but steadily on the move? By the way - great post.

  3. An orderly book 20 Apr. 1777-28 Aug. 1777 for the 40th regiment was captured and is held with Washington's papers at the Library of Congress. This book can be read online. In it I found a request for a list of women's names associated with each company and the names of children they have that are victualled? opposite their names. This list would be of great genealogical value to me as it would likely tell me whether James Fleet who joined the 40th in Jan. of 1782 was the son of William, and possibly the names of other children and his wife. Unfortunately I think these lists were most likely discarded when they became out of date. The main hope of getting one of these lists of wives and children would probably be if they were saved among captured British documents at the Library of Congress. Descendant William Fleet 40th regiment