Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fate of 416 soldiers who landed in Boston, 1775

The American Revolution lasted for 8 years (1775 to 1783), and many British soldiers were in America for the entire war. Each man had his own distinctive career, but sometimes an overview gives a useful perspective. Let's look at the men of one regiment who arrived in America just as the war was beginning, and see how they fared over the following years.

The 22nd Regiment of Foot embarked in Cork, Ireland in early May 1776. Hostilities had begun, but they didn't know that yet - they had been ordered to America simply to reinforce the army already there, along with the 40th, 44th and 45th Regiments. The men of the 22nd were divided among four transport ships. Originally bound for New York, they were met off the America coast by a British warship that redirected them to Boston. The transports trickled in to Boston harbor during the last week of June and the first week of July, encountering the aftermath of the battle of Bunker Hill and a fresh new war.

416 serjeants, corporals, drummers and fifers of the 22nd Regiment disembarked in Boston (along with about 30 officers, 60 soldiers' wives, and some soldiers' children, but we won't be discussing them here). Over the next years many more men came into the regiment, but for now we'll discuss only this initial 416. During the next 8 years:

4 became officers. In general it was unusual for a man to "cross over" from the enlisted ranks to the officer corps, so this low number is no surprise; it may even be deceptively high because some of the four may have been qualified for a commission but enlisted because there were no vacancies (there were several "tracks" for men to follow becoming officers; this is discussed in some detail in my book British Soldiers, American War).

14 were killed in battle in America. The 22nd Regiment was involved in fighting on Long Island in 1776, Rhode Island in 1777 and especially 1778, and in New Jersey in 1780; the Grenadier and Light Infantry companies were in many other actions. The regiment suffered more killed than this, but only 14 of the initial 416 died in battle.
4 died as prisoners of war. A few men of the regiment were taken prisoner here and there over the course of the war, including at least one in Boston; 18 men were taken in New Jersey in 1780, and the light infantry company of 50 men was part of the army that capitulated at Yorktown in 1781. Many prisoners died in captivity; again, this number reflects only those of the initial 416, not the total for the regiment during the war.

2 were executed in America after convictions for military crimes. One was convicted of robbery and desertion; it was his second offence for robbery, and he was executed in Rhode Island in 1778. The other man murdered his wife on Long Island in 1781.

7 never returned from captivity. Officially counted as deserters, the actual fate of many of these men is not known. Most probably succumbed to the temptations of land ownership and a new life in the colonies.

92 died in the service. During times of peace most British soldiers enlisted in their early 20s with no expectation of leaving the army until they were no longer fit for service; typical careers spanned 20 to 40 years. Wartime enlistment was different, but for the 416 men who arrived in Boston the American war was only a portion of their career. Some died in America, while others died years later, some as late as the 1790s. Muster rolls do not give the cause of death; we assume that most of these men died of illness, but accidents and post-1783 warfare may have claimed some.

30 deserted and never returned. This includes those who deserted in America and those who deserted in other places after 1783; it does not include those who did not return from captivity. Reasons for desertion were many and varied, so much so that we dare not suggest generalities!

176 were discharged and received pensions. Men who did serve 20 or more years, or who were disabled in the service, could apply for a pension; this, too, is discussed in detail in my book. After factoring out the men who died or deserted (and therefore could not received pensions), we see that the odds of getting a pension were fairly good! And few careers during this era offered anything like a pension.

22 were discharged and received land grants. Those men who were eligible for discharge at the end of the war could opt for a grant of 100 acres of land in Nova Scotia instead of returning to Great Britain and applying for a pension. Considering that land ownership was only a dream for most British citizens, this was a very tempting offer.

55 were discharged but received no known reward. When a man was discharged from the army, it was his own choice whether to return to Great Britain to apply for a pension. Once the muster rolls shows that the man was discharged, there is no way to know his fate unless he happens to show up later on the pension lists.

10 unknown. And a few men disappear from the muster rolls of the 22nd or subsequent regiments with no indication of why. In some cases the muster rolls themselves are missing. For the moment, we simply have no way of knowing what became of these soldiers.

Overall, we see that about half of the 416 men who landed in Boston completed their military careers and received either pensions or land grants. Considering the number that did not complete their careers, it becomes clear that military service, although arduous, was an attractive career because of the possibility of a pension or land grant, something that almost no other career could offer.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! A very valuable contribution to our knowledge of the 18th century military life.