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!

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