Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Robert and Elizabeth Dunbar, 22nd Regiment of Foot

Many of the installments on this blog make it appear that there is plenty of information on each and every British soldier who served in America. That is not at all the case; the men and women featured here are chosen because we are fortunate to have a few puzzle pieces that come together to form a discernible picture. For many, many other soldiers we know nothing more than a name and a few dates associated with length of service. For most wives, we know even less.

Robert and Elizabeth Dunbar of the 22nd Regiment of Foot provide an excellent example of a couple who surely had stories to tell, if only we could find them. Robert Dunbar joined the regiment in Scotland on 24 July 1772. He went with the regiment to Ireland in 1773, then to America in 1775; he served the entire war, but we know not one thing about his service except what we can deduce from the movements of the regiment itself, from Boston to Halifax, to Staten Island and New York, to Rhode Island for three years, then back to New York. He probably fought in at least three major battles and several smaller actions, and performed innumerable other duties from standing sentries on foggy night on Rhode Island shores where American raiders could snatch him away, to cutting wood on windswept Shelter Island in the dead of winter where a slip on icy ground could result in being crushed by a felled tree. Or he could have spent most of the war in houses and barns altering regimental clothing. We simply don't know.

We do know that he was married. His wife Elizabeth wrote a petition to the New York Provincial Congress:

Petition of Elizabeth Dunbar.
To the Honourable the Congress now Sitting at the Citty Hall.
    The Humble Petition of Elizabeth Dunbar, Most humbly begs leave to represent her situation to this Honourable Committee. your poor Petitioner has arrived at this City wants to go to Boston to her husband who is in his Majestys 22 Regiment of foot, and as your petitioner cannot get on Board the Transport without a pass from this Honorable Company do earnestly begg entrite & pray the favour of you Gentlemen to order your poor petitioner on board said transport, in doing so, the City will be so far Relieved of a Town Charge and ye poor petitioner will always pray.

The petition is undated but is certainly from 1775 or early 1776; from it we can deduce some things about Elizabeth Dunbar's situation: The 22nd Regiment sailed from Ireland in May 1775 bound for New York; when the tranports carrying the regiment arrived off American coast, they were intercepted by a British warship and directed to Boston because of the rapidly-changing conditions. The regiment had been allocated shipboard space for 60 wives and families, but there was nothing prohibiting other wives from making their own war to America. Elizabeth Dunbar probably obtained her own passage on a civilian vessel and went to New York expecting to join her husband there, only to find herself stuck in a now-hostile city governed by a provisional Committee of Safety. Knowing that a ship was bound for Boston, she asked to be allowed on board.

And that, unfortunately, is all we know. Various returns tell us the numbers of wives and children with the regiment, but there are no comprehensive lists of names. We don't know when the Dunbars were married or whether Elizabeth was successful in finding Robert again. This petition is, so far, the only record we have of her existence.

Robert Dunbar continued his service as a private soldier when the 22nd Regiment returned to England at the end of the war. In late 1793 he was still in the ranks when the regiment sailed to the West Indies and endured a year of arduous campaigning and high climate-related mortality. He survived and returned once again to England, but died on 27 June 1796, still a soldier after 24 years - a soldier about whom we know nothing except that a dutiful wife once tried to find him.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

John Brewer, 17th Regiment of Foot

It was a tough war for John Brewer. The 27 year old laborer from the parish of Weston Zoyland in the middle of Somersetshire had been in the army for eight years when he arrived in Boston in late 1775 with the 17th Regiment of Foot. Service in besieged Boston did not provide much opportunity to test his mettle as a soldier, but the New York campaign of 1776 did. The 17th was actively engaged in fighting from Long Island through Manhattan, into Westchester County and in particular the battle of White Plains, and the subsequent push into New Jersey that extended all the way to Trenton by year's end.

The new year brought an immediate turn of fate for Brewer. He was one of 73 men of the regiment captured in the battle of Princeton on 3 January. He spent most of the next two years as a prisoner of war, being exchanged in the second half of 1778. The following year he was posted with his regiment on the Hudson River north of New York city at an unfinished fortification called Stony Point.

The fate of Stony Point is well known. A guard ship being off station afforded an opportunity for General Anthony Wayne to skirt the fort's defenses during the night and storm the works. Several hundred British soldiers were taken prisoner and marched to Pennsylvania for imprisonment, among them John Brewer. He spent almost two years as a prisoner of war being again being exchanged in early 1781.

His exchange came in time for him to join the 17th Regiment on its voyage to reinforce General Cornwallis's army. This, of course, led to the regiment's capture once again when the army capitulated at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781. For the third time, John Brewer became a prisoner of war.

A peace treaty brought about a release of prisoners; Brewer and his comrades in the 17th Regiment rejoined British forces in New York in early 1783. Brewer had spent almost five years as a prisoner of war. The 17th Regiment of Foot, rather than returning to Great Britain, was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia where it remained, John Brewer in its ranks, for several more years.

Brewer was finally discharged from the army in 1790 after 23 years of service. He signed his name on his discharge form, and was granted a pension due to the "hardships sustained in America." He was the only man of the 17th Regiment to have been captured three times and yet survive to receive a pension. His military service, however, was far from over. 

After only a few years as a pensioner he joined a garrison battalion, a corps of old soldiers not fit enough for active campaigning but capable of garrisoning coastal fortifications. He continued in this capacity for another 17 years, finally leaving the army in 1807 after spending nearly 36 years in uniform.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!