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.
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