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.

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