Wednesday, April 11, 2012

John May, 40th Regiment of Foot

Escape stories are among the most fascinating in the lore of soldiers at war - prisoners who evaded enemy captors and made their way back to their own lines hold a special fascination. During the 1775-1783 war in America, hundreds of British captives absconded and rejoined the ranks of active regiments. My own estimate is that at least 1000 prisoners did so from Burgoyne's army alone, on the order of one fifth of the total number of men taken prisoner at Saratoga in 1777. Unfortunately we know the details of only a few of these escapes; only one soldier left a detailed narrative of his two escapes, while a few others gave brief depositions of their harrowing adventures.

One man about whom we know precious little is John May of the 40th Regiment of Foot. Having worked as a turner before he joined the army, he was already a private soldier in the regiment at the beginning of 1775 and embarked with his comrades for America in May of that year. The regiment arrived in Boston shortly after the battle of Bunker Hill and endured a difficult winter in that besieged city. The fall of 1776 saw them on the aggressive campaign that drove American forces out of New York city and across New Jersey. The dramatic reversal of fortunes that was initiated by Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 led to the battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777. Here the 40th Regiment was heavily involved and had several dozen men taken prisoner.

Most of the British prisoners taken in New Jersey were sent to central Connecticut, an area away from active campaigning. They were distributed among several towns including Enfield, Chatham, Farmington, Bolton, Glastonbury and others. John May was among 17 men sent to "Symsbury" northwest of Harford. A year later, however, May was in the town of Goshen about 30 miles to the west. He may have been granted parole and allowed to work in the area, as many British prisoners were; they were a welcome supplement to a labor force depleted by the manpower needs of the American army.

Regardless of why he was in Goshen, he did not stay. A newspaper advertisement provides some details:

Goshen, (Litchfield County) Jan. 31, 1778.
Ran Away from said Goshen on the night after the 25th of January instant, two persons, both Irishmen, one named Peter Golden, about 23 years old, light complexion, about 5 feet 8 inches high, short hair; had on and carried with him an old felt hat, grey coat, vest, and breeches, pair of grey woolen stockings, pair of white ditto, pair of white thread ditto, striped Holland shirt, black velvet stock, square copper shoe buckles. The other named John May, he belonged to the 40th regiment is about 28 years old, and about 5 feet 10 inches high; had on and carried with him a felt hat, light brown surtout bound with white, grey coat lined with brown tammy, black home made vest & breeches, pair of black woolen stockings, two pair of blue and white ditto, one pair white thread ditto, two pair of shoes, pewter shoe buckles, silver knee buckles; striped Holland shirt, two white linnen shirts. It is supposed said prisoners are endeavoring to escape to the enemy, as they had parted with most if not all their regimentals before they went off. Whoever will secure said prisoners, and send them to Hartford to the care of Ezekiel Williams, Esq; commissary of prisoners, or to the subscriber at said Goshen, shall be well rewarded. Eben’r Norton.
[Connecticut Journal, 4 February 1778]

The ad suggests that, after a year of captivity, May had retained some of his regimental clothing but had managed to dispose of it and acquire other garb in order to make his escape. We have not been able to identify the Peter Golden described in the ad; the text does not make it clear whether or not he was a British prisoner of war. No man by this name appears either on the muster rolls of the 40th Regiment or on the list of Princeton prisoners that includes John May.

Proof that May was successful in his endeavor to return to British lines comes from the 40th Regiment's muster rolls. The date of his return is not annotated, but he was back in the regiment before June of 1778 and transferred into the grenadier company on 23rd of that month. He went with his regiment to the West Indies from late in 1778, and at some point became a drummer (or fifer). He survived the difficult Caribbean climate and returned to New York with the 40th in 1781. The 40th Regiment took heavy casualties storming Fort Griswold in Groton, Connecticut in September of that year, but May survived this bitter engagement.

John May’s career took him through campaigns in Boston, New York, New Jersey, and the West Indies in addition to spending a year as a prisoner of war. His service record is that of a dedicated and faithful soldier, but something must have occurred to change his attitude towards his military career. He deserted from Long Island on 28 April 1782, then made his way to Philadelphia where he took an oath of allegiance to the colony on 22 August; presumably he found work at his former trade as a turner. 

1 comment: