Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Deserter: Samuel James, 52nd Regiment of Foot

Most of the entries in this series tell the story of a soldier, pieced together from primary sources. This entry illustrates something different: that many stories, in fact the majority of them, go untold for want of sufficient information. We have enough to know that something interesting happened, but not enough to know what it was. This serves as a reminder that every single soldier had a career that included interesting moments and events, but details of only a scant few survive.

Samuel James joined the army at the age of 22 in 1757. After 18 years in that regiment, he was drafted into the 52nd Regiment at the end of 1775. The 59th had been on service in North America for several years when war broke out. Being under strength and due to return to Great Britain, the regiment's able-bodied men were drafted - transferred into other regiments serving in America - while unfit men were discharged and and the officers, non-commissioned officers and a cadre of long-serving soldiers returned to the British Isles to recruit anew.

That Samuel James was drafted at the age of 40 after 18 years of service is proof that career soldiers remained fit for service well into middle age. James began service in the 52nd Regiment of Foot, moving with it from Boston to Halifax and then to the New York area. During the successful British campaign to take New York City in late 1776, Samuel James was reported as a deserter in a memorandum circulated in general orders:

9th Octr 76 Suposed to have Deserted from his Majesties 52d Regt on the 7th Inst (Samuel James) About 5 feet 9 I High brown Complection markd with the small pox 41 years of Age born at Fenningham Glocestershire by trade a Labourer have been 18 years in the 59th Rgt had on when he whent away the Regtl Cloathing of the 52 Regt.

This memorandum, recorded in a regimental orderly book kept in the 37th Regiment of Foot, provides all of the information that we have on James besides his service record, and saves us the trouble of tracing his service in the muster rolls of the 59th Regiment.

The rolls of the 52nd Regiment duly record the date that he joined that regiment, 25 December 1775, but also introduce an element of mystery to his story. There is no record of Samuel James' desertion. He is carried on the rolls of the 52nd steadily until the 52nd was drafted in late 1778. By this time, with 20 years of service, James was discharged. There is no evidence that he received a pension or continued to serve in a garrison battalion.

The only thing that is clear is that he returned from desertion, or was caught, within the muster period extending from June through December 1776; because he was present at the beginning and end of this period, there is no indication of his absence on the muster roll. There is also no evidence that he was tried by a general court martial for desertion. Either his absence did not result in desertion charges, or he was tried by a regimental court for a lesser crime; records of regimental courts have not survived. The semi-annual roll prepared in June 1778 indicates that he was on furlough at that time, a vague suggestion that regardless of whatever happened in October 1776 he was trusted enough to spend time away from the regiment. He had returned by the time the next rolls were prepared in September, shortly before he was discharged.

But that is all we know. Somehow, he got separated from the regiment in October 1776 for a long enough time to warrant a search. Clearly he returned somehow, for some reason, but we have no details. And this unrecorded vignette is but one incident in a 20 year career in two regiments that saw extensive foreign service and several major engagements in America. It is unfortunately that we know so little about him.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

John Gilbert, Musician, 22nd Regiment of Foot

Did soldiers own things? That's a simple question that is very difficult to answer. We have few documents that give us any answers, largely because there are no categories of 'official' documents to record such information. Army documents record what belonged to the army and, in the case of uniform clothing, what the soldier purchased from the army, but there was no reason to record those things that were the soldier's personal property - if, in fact, he had any. Journals, letters or other writings by the soldiers themselves are extremely rare, too few to answer the question (but, in the future, we will revisit those sources).

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the soldier's meager pay would afford him little opportunity to purchase much, and his itinerant life would make it difficult to retain any but small possessions. we would expect that something like a watch, even portable, would be too expensive for the common soldier to own. Conventional wisdom, though, is often wrong; we know of two soldiers in the 22nd Regiment of Foot who owned watches. This is not many of the 1005 men who served in the regiment during the war, but they happen to be the only two personal possessions that we know about in this regiment. Given the difficult of finding any information, the fact that these two watches are known is either remarkable, or an indication that watches were more accessible than we would have guessed. Perhaps watches then were like automobiles today - even though new ones were expensive, there were enough used ones on the market to make them accessible even to people of modest means.

A previous installment concerned Richard Hallum; we know he owned a watch because a fellow soldier tried to steal it from him. We also know that Hallum was a wagon driver, which perhaps allowed him to earn more money than other soldiers; that's only a guess, though. Another watch-owning soldier in the 22nd Regiment was John Gilbert, one of two men in the regiment with this name.

John Gilbert joined the regiment in May 1766, and is carried on the rolls as a private soldier for much of his career. For reasons that we do not know, he transferred to the 64th Regiment of Foot in November 1776 where he was also carried as a private, then returned to the 22nd Regiment in December 1779. It is possible, but not certain, that he was the servant to an officer who transferred to the 64th, Charles Laton. It was common for private soldiers to transfer to other regiments, but quite rare for a man to transfer back again. It is particularly interesting that Gilbert left the 22nd at the time the regiment was embarking in New York for Rhode Island, and returned immediately after the regiment returned to the New York garrison.

Shortly after returning to the 22nd Regiment he was appointed as a drummer. In 1784 he was reduced again to private soldier. This is consistent with several men known to have served in the regiment's band of music - they were usually carried on the rolls as privates, but for the last few years of the war were carried as drummers instead (but this is not true for all bandsmen, only some of them).

John Gilbert prepared a will on 4 April 1786 when the regiment was in Plymouth, England. He was probably quite ill at the time; he died 17 days later. The will refers to him as a 'Musician in the 22nd Regt.', confirming his role at least at that time; perhaps his musical talent was the reason for his temporary service in the 64th Regiment.

The will refers to his father in Surrey, also named John. Gilbert directed that all of his 'goods, money owed, prize money, etc.' go to Thomas Gilbert, apparently his brother, who would share it equally with another brother, William, and a married sister in Surrey, Elizabeth Alstous. The money was substantial; Gilbert's father had lodged 100 pounds sterling in his name, and Gilbert surely had accumulated some savings in his 20 years of service that probably included extra income from work as a musician.

John Gilbert also owned a 'Silver Watch & furniture' which he left to his sister. While we could assume that this was a sign of some wealth, the will reveals another possible explanation for this private soldier owning a watch: his brother William was a watchmaker.