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.

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