Monday, May 23, 2011

Walter Burges, Luke Melly and John Williams, 63rd Regiment

One of the greatest sources of personal information about soldiers is deserter advertisements. Because few other descriptive documents survive, the advertisements published in newspapers are often the only remaining accounts of what individuals actually looked like and sometimes personal nuances that they had. The purpose of the ads was to provide a sufficient textual image to allow readers to recognize the deserter and apprehend or report him. Similar advertisements were published for escaped prisoners, thieves, runaway servants and slaves, and other people who had absconded from some sort of contract, bondage or captivity.

There is no way to judge how effective these ads were except for the fact that they were a staple of newspapers throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th. Sometimes other sources can be used to determine the individual's whereabouts; in the case of soldiers, muster rolls allow us to trace a man's career in the army, and for the few who deserted and advertised the combined sources of information yield an interesting personal story.

A 1773 advertisement from an Irish newspaper describes five men who deserted from a regiment that would arrive in America two years later:

Deserted 29th May, from the 63d Regiment of Foot, and Capt. Westropp’s Company, at Belfast, William Condie, born at Path of Condie, near Perth, in Perthshire, Scotland, aged 20 Years, Size 5 Feet 8 Inches and a half, dark brown Eyes, brown Hair, brown complexion, straight and well made, by Calling a Labourer.

Also from Capt. Follett’s Light Infantry Company (at Ballynahinch) of said Regiment, the following Men, viz. Drummer John Williams, born in St. Nicholas’s Parish in Rochester, in the County of Kent, aged 22 Years, Size 5 Feet 2 Inches and a half, black Eyes, dark brown Hair, fresh Complexion, strong and well made, by Trade a Painter and Glazier.

Walter Burges, born in the Army, but rear’d in Fromme, Sommersetshire, aged 22 Years, Size 5 Feet 5 Inches and a half, grey Eyes, light brown Hair, fresh Complexion, straight and well made, by Trade a Scribler.

Luke Melly, born in Dudley, Worcestershire, aged 20 Years, 5 Feet 5 Inches, light brown Eyes, dark brown Hair, fresh Complexion, strong and well made, a Cut over the right Eyebrow, by Trade a Scythe Smith.

Nathaniel Brown, born in Market Dearham, in the County of Norfolk, aged 19 Years, size 5 Feet 6 Inches and a half, grey Eyes, brown Hair, fresh Complexion, straight and well made, a small Cut on each side of his Forehead, by Trade a Cordwainer.

The above Deserters went off in their Regimental Cloathing, the Buttons of which have a Star on them, and the Number 63 in the Center.

Whoever apprehends any of the abovementioned Deserters, shall receive a Reward (over the Allowance of Parliament) of one Guinea for each of them, by applying to the Commanding Officer of the Regiment at Belfast, to Capt. Follett of said Regiment at Ballynahinch, or to William Montgomery, Esq, Mary-street, Dublin.

[Belfast Newsletter, 4 June 1773]

Both the ad and the men described are quite typical. Although we don't have on hand the muster rolls from the time that these men deserted, we guess from their ages that they had all joined the regiment recently - most peacetime enlistees were in their very late teens or early twenties. Because they were in regimental clothing, however, it is clear that they were not new recruits but had been in the regiment probably for at least a year. Drummers often joined the army at a younger age but, contrary to the popular image of the drummer boy, many men stayed in this role for their entire military careers, well into their 40s and even 50s. The fact that John Williams had already learned a trade suggests that he did not join the army until his late teens at the earliest. Walter Burges, although born in the army, was not raised in the army so it is probable that he too enlisted at a typical age rather than a young age; he had learned a wool-combing specialty known as scribbling which involved the combing of rough wool in preparation for more refined carding.

The muster rolls of the 63rd show us that some of these men returned to the army, either voluntarily or by being captured. When the regiment came ashore in Boston on 14 June 1775, drummer John Williams and privates Walter Burgess and Francis Scott were on the rolls of the light infantry company. After only two days in America they were hotly engaged in the battle of Bunker Hill on 17 June; Burgess was mortally wounded and died four days later.

Drummer Williams continued serving in the light infantry (probably using the hunting horn favored by these active troops rather than a drum) until he was taken prisoner by the Americans on 14 February 1778 outside of Philadelphia. He remained in captivity for about two years; the date of his repatriation is not known and he is absent from one semi-annual muster roll, but by the second half of 1780 he was back with his company.

His good fortune did not last long. The light infantry company of the 63rd Regiment was part of the army under General Cornwallis that surrendered at Yorktown. He was once again made a prisoner of war, along with Luke Melly who had been serving in the light infantry company throughout the war.

Although the British prisoners taken at Yorktown were repatriated in the first half of 1783 when hostilities were officially ended, some of them did not return. Tempted by the possibility of owning landing and beginning new lives in America, an estimated 20% of the incarcerated soldiers absconded from captivity to seek their fortunes in America. Among the 10 in the 63rd Regiment's light infantry company who did so were John Williams and Luke Melly. On 1 July 1783 they were written off of the regiment's muster rolls as deserters.

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