Monday, November 22, 2010

Mary and Cornelius Driscoll (Driskill), 10th Regiment of Foot

Last week I gave a presentation at a workshop for history teachers, hosted by the David Library of the American Revolution concerning women during the war. My specific subject was wives of British soldiers, the largely overlooked thousands of women who worked within the army infrastructure to help provide for their families. We know from many examples that this was a difficult life, particularly when the army went on campaign (although the difficulties must be taken in context of what else was available to working-class people of the era).

The challenges and hazards that could face army women are exemplified in a petition written by Mary Driskill (or Driscoll), wife of a grenadier in the 10th Regiment of Foot. It is not known where she was from, when she married a soldier or how long she was in America. It is clear that she was with the British army in Philadelphia in December 1777 when an expedition made its way towards the American army that was establishing an encampment at Valley Forge. Mary Driskill accompanied her husband on this foray when they skirmished with an American force under the command of General Lafayette. Nearly two years later, back in New York, she wrote a petition to the commander in chief recounting her subsequent experiences:

To his Excellency, Sir Henry Clinton, Knight of the Bath, General and Commander in Chief, of all his Majesty’s Forces Within the Colonies Lying on the Atlantic Ocean from nova Scotia to West Florida Inclusive &c. &c. &c. –

The Humble Petition of Mary Driskill, a Poor Distressed Widow Belonging to the Tenth Regiment, Capt. Fitzgeralds Company of Grenadiers

Mosty Humbly Sheweth

That your Poor Petitioners Husband was killed at Chestnut Hill [skirmish near Philadelphia, December 1777], after which your Petitioner was taken prisoner, and put into Trentown Jail, out of which your Petitioner made her Escape, and was again taken and put into Lancaster Prison, from which, along with Three of General Burgoins men your petitioner Escaped Again, and was again taken and cast into Carlisle Prison, from which also your Petitioner (along with Two Women more, and With Two Twins, of which your Petitioner was delivered in Prison,) made her Escape and in a Canno came Over the Susquehana River, and thence, by many hardships, came to this City.

Your poor Petitioner is in a Very Disconsolate Condition, having by means of Lying in the Woods with her Two Twins, lost her hearing, and has nothing to Support herself and Children, nor a house to shelter her and little Ones, from the Inclemency of the Weather, your Poor Petitioner looks up to your Excellency for Redress; and may the almighty God, Who is a Father to the Fatherless and a Comforter to the Widow, Bless your Excellency with every Blessing from the upper and Nether Spring, So prays your poor and Distressed Petitioner.
Brooklyn Long-Island Novr: 27th: 1779

Her petition was endorsed by Major General Francis Smith of the 10th Regiment, the same officer who had led the British expedition to Concord on 19 April 1775; Smith confirmed that Driskill was the wife of a soldier in the 10th Regiment and "bore a good Character."

Lists of prisoners of war are fragmentary, and we have found no corroboration that Mary Diskill was in any of the prisons that she mentions. Here story is plausible, though, particularly in light of the large numbers of incarcerated prisoners from Burgoyne's army that made escapes similar to the ones that she describes.

The exercise for the teacher's workshop was to be a demonstration of the use of multiple primary sources to corroborate each other. I assumed that it would be an easy task to find Mary Driskill's husband on the muster rolls of the 10th Regiment, get an idea of how long he had been in the army, and verify his death in December 1777. It was, in fact, easy to find Cornelius Driscoll (using the spelling on the muster rolls). His story made hers that much more interesting (assuming that they had been married for a few years) because he was drafted into the 10th Regiment of Foot from the 50th Regiment in August 1776. The 50th had been in the West Indies for a few years before being sent to join the army in New York; tropical service took its toll on the men, leaving the regiment so depleted that it was not fit for campaigning in America. Upon arrival in New York, the able-bodied men were drafted - transferred - into other regiments and the officers, non-commissioned officers and drummers sent home to recruit. Men unfit for service were also sent home to be discharged or stay on the recruiting service. We have not had the opportunity to trace Cornelius Driscoll's service in the 50th Regiment.

More intriguing is that Cornelius Driscoll did not die in 1777. He is carried on the rolls of the 10th Regiment until late 1778, when that regiment was drafted. Driscoll was certainly able-bodied at that time, because he went into the 5th Regiment of Foot and on to service in the West Indies once again. He continued in the army, serving in two more regiments (for a total of 5) before being discharged in 1791 after twenty years of service at the age of 44. He received a pension from the government, from which we learn that he was a labourer from Shannon, County Cork; his military service left him "worn out and asthmatik." We have no way of knowing whether he was eventually reunited with his wife.

This information makes Mary Driskill's plight all the more interesting. Somehow she became separated from her husband in December 1777. Perhaps he had gone missing during the action at Chestnut Hill and she had gone looking for him, leading to her capture. Perhaps she had seen him wounded and assumed he was dead before her own capture. There is also the chance that she had no information at all, but wrote that he was dead as a way of invoking sympathy in her petition. Since the regiment had left New York a year before she presented her case, there was no way (that we know of) for the headquarters staff in that city to verify her claim with muster rolls or testimony from fellow soldiers.

For whatever reason, Cornelius and Mary Driscoll were separated for at least two years, and maybe forever. Her petition is a small but powerful testimony to the women who accompanied their husbands on service in America, facing unimaginable hardships for the simple sake of matrimonial loyalty.