Thursday, January 26, 2012

Owen Smith, 63rd Regiment of Foot

We have seen examples of soldiers who went to great length to desert from the army, and escaped prisoners of war who went to great lengths to return. This installment looks at a rare example of a deserter who went to great lengths to return.

In 1769, Captain Henry Bruen of the 63rd Regiment of Foot enlisted a man named Owen Smith. The recruit joined the ranks of the regiment and served dutifully until 1773 when the regiment was on duty in Dublin, Ireland. A robbery occurred and three soldiers of the 63rd, including Smith, were accused of having committed it; Smith deserted soon after. We haven't found any details of the robbery or desertion, but we do know that the 63rd left Dublin in early 1775. They marched to Cork, not to garrison that city but to board ships for America. The 63rd was one of four regiments to arrive in Boston within days of the battle of Bunker Hill. They continued to serve in the army under General Sir William Howe, leaving Boston in March 1776, regrouping in Halifax, landing on Staten Island in late June. By November they were in Westchester County, New York. They supported the forces that fought at White Plains and then reduced Fort Washington, but did not participate in either of those famous battles.

Owen Smith, in the mean time, initially fled from Dublin to Derry on the north coast of Ireland. He feared being arrested by civil authorities for robbery, but nonetheless wished to return to the army. He sent a letter to the Major of the regiment expressing his willingness to rejoin the ranks when the regiment left Dublin, but received no reply.

When he learned that the 63rd was bound for America, Smith determined to make good on his intentions. Derry was a seaport town, and he was able to obtain a passage across the ocean by indenting himself as a servant to a master in Philadelphia. Arriving there, he met a friend who paid twelve pounds to free him from indenture. This left him in debt to the friend, however, so he found work as a shoemaker to earn money. After six months he was able to pay his debt; he went to the town of Nottingham along the Susquehanna River where he continued to work for a while to earn money for himself.

By this time the call for soldiers was echoing throughout the country, and Owen Smith was pressured to enlist. He initially refused to bear arms but was threatened with being tarred and feathered. This induced him to consent to a four month enlistment in a Maryland regiment if he would be exempted from further service; he knew that it was the only way he'd be allowed to travel. And travel he did; with his fellow soldiers he soon arrived at Fort Lee in New Jersey, opposite Fort Washington. He learned that his own regiment was to stay in New Jersey, so he absconded and boarded a boat with some women who were on their way to the American garrison of Fort Washington.

On 16 November 1776, British forces stormed the outer works surrounding Fort Washington, forcing the garrison inside the fort to surrender. As Brigadier Samuel Cleaveland of the Royal Artillery approached the fort, he saw a man outside the gate waving his hat. Cleaveland waved back. The man approached, laid down three firelocks (muskets), and announced himself as Owen Smith, a deserter from the 63rd Regiment. He asked permission to go back and get two other men who's firelocks he'd brought, but those men refused to come. The general summoned a corporal to take Smith into British lines and asserted that Smith had surrendered himself willingly.

Owen Smith was put on trial for desertion three days later. He told the court his story, and there was no incriminating evidence against him. Captain Bruen, who has recruited Smith nine years before, was among those who testified and even remembered the letter Smith had written expressing a desire to return after the regiment left Dublin. The court nonetheless found Smith guilty and sentenced him to receive 1000 lashes. The verdict and sentence were sensible enough; regardless of Smith's reasons and his sustained effort to return, he had in fact deserted. Although this was a capital crime, the corporal sentence reflected Smith's willing return. In an act of mercy typical for cases of this nature, the commander in chief pardoned Smith and ordered him to return to his regiment.

Smith's return to the 63rd Regiment provides an example of the challenges faced by researchers in using British military documents. The muster rolls for the 63rd show Owen Smith as having been "entertained" (that is, enlisted) on 18 November 1776. While the nomenclature "returned from desertion" is often seen in muster rolls and is the proper annotation for this case, whoever prepared the roll for this time period annotated Smith in the same manner as recruits who had recently arrived from Great Britain. Were it not for the existence of the proceedings of Smith's trial, we would have no way of knowing he was the man who had deserted years before. There are other instances where names look tantalizingly similar but we can only guess whether we have a story of desertion and return or a simple case of two men with similar names.

A gap in the muster rolls of the 63rd Regiment prevents us from knowing Owen Smith's fate. He was in the regiment through the end of 1777, and no longer appears on the next available rolls covering the second half of 1778. Whether he died, was killed in battle, deserted again, was transferred to another regiment, or discharged from the army remains unknown. This is unfortunate because it would further reveal the character of this soldier who had such zeal for service that crossed an ocean to return to his regiment.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Edward Hall, 43rd Regiment of Foot

At first glance, the case of Edward Hall of the 43rd Regiment of Foot seems typical enough. Hall, who had been enlisted in Yorkshire and became a grenadier in the regiment, was absent from the 8 PM roll call in Boston on 11 October 1774. Following typical procedures his serjeant went to his tent to see if his necessaries (shirts, stockings and shoes) were missing, for soldiers who intended to desert often took extra clothing with them. The guard at Boston Neck was informed to be on the lookout for the missing soldier, and his absence was reported to the officers of the 43rd.

In the mean time, Captain Robert McLeroth of the 64th Regiment was making his way towards Castle William on a road about four miles from the British encampment in Boston. At about 11 PM he came upon two grenadiers a few yards apart from each other. He asked the first one if he had a pass, upon which both soldiers turned and ran. McLeroth gave chase and caught up with the second one, Edward Hall. Hall immediately submitted to being caught, but seemed apprehensive for the whereabouts of his comrade, Timothy Bremer, also a grenadier in the 43rd. As McLeroth escorted Hall back to camp, Hall explained that they had had a liaison with a country woman from whom they had “often received pecuniary Favours.” They were intoxicated, and she convinced them to go to a house near Dorchester, but they both intended to return to camp by morning. They were on the way to the house when McLeroth came upon them.

Hall was given over to soldiers of the 64th Regiment who ferried him to Castle William and put him into custody. He was tried by court martial two days later. Witnesses from the 43rd and 64th recounted their experiences with Hall’s absence and capture, noting in particular that Hall offered no resistance

Serjeant Thomas Rookesby of the 43rd described in detail the process of determining the disposition of Hall’s necessaries. He first “went to the Prisoner's Tent to look for the Prisoner's Knapsack which he found with only one Old Shirt & some Spatterdashes in it.” This, of course, suggested that Hall had made off with his other shirt, shoes and stockings, and Hall was reported as a deserter. The next morning, however, Rookesby made a more detailed search and found “The Shoes in the Straw of the Tent one Shirt in his Comrade's knapsack & the other his Comrade had taken down to the Washerwoman” as well as two pair of old stockings in an unspecified location. Only two pair of stockings remained missing, far less of an implication against Hall.

Edward Hall’s defense was particularly lucid and he was earnest about his actions, admitting his unauthorized absence but making a convincing case that he had no intention of deserting. He called several witnesses who corroborated his assertions, and presented closing arguments in writing. In an effort to prove his character, he deposed “That his Family being in very independent Circumstances he first entered into the Service not from Want, but Inclination. That he has always met with Treatment that left him no Reason of Complaint, and that Lt Robertson by directions from his Father, has ever been ready, to give him every assistance suitable to one in his present Station which he must have forfeited by Desertion.” Here, then, is another example of the type of British soldier that is too often overlooked in the literature: educated, from a good family, in the army fully voluntarily rather than for want of any other opportunity.

Unfortunately for Hall, the court did not appreciate his sincere and well-delivered defense. He was found guilty and sentenced to “receive one thousand lashes by the Drummers of the line… at such time and place and in such proportions as the Commanding Officer of the 43rd Regiment shall see convenient and proper.” We have no evidence that the punishment was remitted. Whether it would have dissuaded any further transgressions from Hall is moot: he died in July 1775 of wounds received at the Battle of Bunker Hill.