Monday, June 24, 2013

Unimpressed by the Press Acts: the Number of Pressed Men sent to America in 1779

A recent post on another blog discussed the British government's 1778 decision to allow men to be impressed into the British army. Prior to this, the army had been an all-volunteer force. The unidentified blogger accurately recounts some of the basic aspects of the press acts, but, like many other authors, runs afoul of assumptions and generalities that overstate both the reach of the press acts and their impact on the army.

It is true that, in 1778, a law was passed allowing justices of the peace and tax commissioners to force enlistment of “able-bodied idle and disorderly Persons” who did not “exercise and industriously follow some lawful Trade or Employment” or have some other way to sustain themselves. But the law applied only to the London area and clearly stated that pressed men must be fit for military service.  In 1779 a revised law was passed with broader scope but still with strict limitations. Details are given in Chapter 6 of my book British Soldiers, American War. The incorrect assumption is that, because it was now legal to impress men, that's how most recruiting was done for the remainder of the war. In reality, the press acts were unpopular with the army as well as with the population, and ultimately provided only a small portion of the recruits raised in 1778, 1779 and 1780, the only years that the laws were in effect. Of the small number of men raised by impressment, only a few were sent to America.

My book presents quantitative information illustrating the overall limited impact of the press acts, but since writing it a piece of information has come to light that very clearly quantifies the number of pressed men sent to America. Historian Paul Pace discovered a document in the Sir Henry Clinton Papers at the William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan, listing recruits sent to America in 1779. By this stage of the war, recruits were sent to America once a year in large convoys to protect the transport ships from marauding privateers and foreign navies.

The "Embarkation Return of the Additional Companies Embarked from Chatham Barracks to compleat the Regiments in North America 26th March 1779" enumerates the men sent to each of fifteen regiments serving in the New York area. It also denotes the numbers of those who were "impressed men". 1329 recruits were embarked (distributed on eleven transports); among them were only 70 impressed men. These impressed men were allotted to only six of the fifteen regiments; specifically:

7th Regiment: 92 recruits, including 9 impressed men
23rd Regiment: 49 recruits, including 13 impressed men
37th Regiment: 89 recruits, including 15 impressed men
42nd Regiment: 45 recruits, including 6 impressed men
44th Regiment: 147 recruits, including 16 impressed men
63rd Regiment: 133 recruits, including 11 impressed men

Other regiments received similar numbers of recruits, but no impressed men at all. The established strength of regiments in America was, at this time, 700 private soldiers. Clearly, impressed men formed only a minuscule portion of the soldiers in America that year. Unfortunately no return has yet been found identifying the impressed men by name and therefore allowing us to trace their careers.

As discussed here before, there was another issue with the 1779 recruits: disease broke out among them, perhaps scurvy brought on from an unusually long time on board the transports. Many of the recruits died within their first year in America; for example, a third of those sent to the 22nd Regiment were dead within 12 months of disembarkation. The presence of impressed men and the outbreak of disease among the recruits was probably just a coincidence, but the two have nonetheless been linked in some literature, further adding to the stigma of impressment and its impact on the British army in America.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Henry Vennel and Hester Foster, 22nd Regiment of Foot

Rising through the ranks to become an officer in the 18th Century British army was very rare. Looking at a sample of just over 1000 men who served in the 22nd Regiment of Foot in America from 1775 through 1783 (that is, men who served in the regiment for some part of that time), we find only 4 who became officers during that period.

But even this number is deceptively high. Two of the men had careers that suggest a preordained path to a commission: they were appointed corporal and then serjeant very soon after enlisting, suggesting that they had all of the necessary skills to be officers but lacked the means to stay with the army as volunteers until a vacancy opened in the officer corps; my book British Soldiers, American War has a chapter on men such as these. But let us look instead at one of the others, who apparently truly rose through the ranks based solely on merit.

Henry Vennel was born in England in 1749, and enlisted in the 22nd Regiment of Foot at the fairly typical age of 19. This doesn't mean that he was from humble beginnings. He may well have been part of the burgeoning English middle class, and probably had received an education (which itself was not at all unusual among British soldiers). He spent ten years as a private soldier before being appointed corporal on 25 December 1778. Exactly 11 months later, he was appointed serjeant.

Clearly he had shown administrative talent. In December 1779 he was appointed as an "overseer" with the Engineer's department on the expedition to Charleston, South Carolina. After the success of that venture in 1780, he returned to New York where his regiment was serving.

That same year brought another change to Henry Vennel's life. Two months after another serjeant in the regiment, William Foster, died, Vennel married the serjeant's widow Hester Foster. Although there is a popular notion that army widows were required to remarry quickly, in reality it seems to have been quite rare. But Henry Vennel was a good catch in terms of professional advancement; in February 1782 he was appointed Quarter Master of the regiment. This was an officer's rank, but not one that typically afforded much opportunity for advancement; it was usually given to a long-serving, deserving serjeant, something that Vennel certainly was.

In this capacity he continued through the end of the war and beyond. His signature appears on many surviving bits of regimental paperwork.  Unlike most former serjeants in his position, though, he advanced further. In October 1789 Henry Vennel was commissioned an Ensign in the 22nd Regiment of Foot when he was 40 years old.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

John Drury, 38th Regiment of Foot

One draw to enlisting in the British army is that it offered steady employment in an era when many jobs were itinerant and uncertain. A man who joined the army in his early twenties and served well stood a reasonable chance of receiving a pension after twenty years; although the pension income was modest, it assured subsistence in old age. But the wartime need for manpower led the government to offer another inducement: land. Private ownership of land was almost impossible for a working class citizen in Great Britain, but in 1775 the British government proclaimed that men who joined the army after 16 December would have the option of taking a land grant in America at the close of hostilities if they had served for at least three years. It wasn't until 1783 that a formal peace treaty was signed and the army reduced in size, allowing men who enlisted under these terms to claim their land if they so chose.

One man who did so was John Drury. He enlisted in the 38th Regiment of Foot, which was already in America when the war began; he joined his new corps in America in November 1775. Apparently a capable and active soldier, after 18 months he was transferred into the regiment's light infantry company, just in time to serve in the siege of Rhode Island in 1778. He remained in the light company for the rest of the war, and "always behaved himself a clean, good and obedient soldier." He also received three wounds during the war.

In the autumn of 1783 the 38th Regiment was among those reduced in size before being sent back to Great Britain. John Drury took his discharge and went with several hundred other former soldiers to Port Roseway (now Shelburne), Nova Scotia. For reasons that are not known, he did not receive a land grant. Instead, he used his own money to purchase a small piece of land from Benjamin Marston, the chief surveyor for the land grants in the area. In spite of the disabling effects from his wounds, Drury quickly built a house and a slaughterhouse on the land (suggesting that he had been a butcher before joining the army). He was married and had a family, but whether he had married before joining the army, during his service in America, or after arriving in Nova Scotia is not known.

Fortune soon turned against this industrious man. The allocation of land grants was a challenging process that proceeded slowly, and there were many accusations of unfairness. Much of the land was poor, and of course not every lot was close to the town. House lots in town were in high demand and short supply, and tensions were exacerbated when white settlers complained that free blacks in town threatened jobs because they would work for lower wages. In late July rioting occurred, with white settlers pulling down the houses of their black counterparts. Marston, the land surveyor, got wind that he was soon to be targeted for his role in allocating the lands and fled to Halifax for his own safety. John Drury, trying to support his family on a subdivision of Marston's land, was driven off of the property he had bought and developed. He lost everything.

In 1786, Drury penned a well-written petition explaining his plight and asking for the lot he had purchased, with the house and slaughterhouse he had built, to be returned to him. Unfortunately we have not determined whether or not the petition was granted to this dutiful soldier and hard-working citizen.

Monday, June 3, 2013

James Bradley, 7th Regiment of Foot

We have seen, on these pages, many long military careers. There were others that were agonizingly short, and in some cases we have just enough information to make them tantalizing mysteries. One such case was James Bradley.

Bradley arrived in America in 1777 along with a number of other recruits for the 7th Regiment of Foot. The first muster roll on which his name appears, dated April 1778, annotates him as being "sick" at that time. The term was a generic one for men who were in hospital at the time the roll was prepared; whether Bradley was wounded in battle or suffering from illness is not known. He may have been one of the many hapless recruits who fell ill during the Atlantic voyage. The survival rate of hospitalized men was actually fairly good during the course of the entire war, for most illnesses were not life-threatening even though incapacitating and treatment cosisted largely of bedrest, reasonably good hygiene and a healthful diet, all under the care of well-paid army nurses supervised by trained physicians.

James Bradley, however, did not recover. By April 1779 he was not only still sick but took the foreboding step of preparing a will:

In the name of God, Amen. I, James Bradley, Soldier in his Majesty’s Seventh Regiment of Foot, native of Broomsgrove, Worcestershire, Great Britain, being of sound mind and memory. After all my just debts be paid I leave to Mr. James Bennett, of the City of New York, jeweller, all my real and personal estate, whatsoever, in Great Britain or elsewhere; desiring the said James Bennett to pay to Mr. Samuel Harrison £20 for favors received. Likewise I make the said James Bennett, my executor.
    April 17, 1779. Witnesses, Thomas Dixon, William Milbourne, and Ann Smith (spinster)

Bradley must have been advised that survival was unlikely, but it was another 13 months before he succumbed to whatever malady ailed him. He died on 27 May 1780, and his will was proved in July 1781.

Only a few soldiers' wills have been found. On most, the witnesses are fellow soldiers, but there were no men named Dixon or Milbourne in the 7th Regiment. Bradley's relationship to these men, and to the unmarried Ann Smith (who could've been the daughter of a soldier in the regiment) is unknown. We are also left to wonder how much of an estate a soldier might have had, but clearly it was expected to the substantial sum of £20 left to Samuel Harrison - whose identity and relationship to Bradley are also unknown.

The one relationship that can be discerned is the one between Bradley and James Bennett. Bennett had been an established artisan in New York, advertising in local newspapers since 1768. It is unlikely that the soldier Bradley was a casual customer, but it happens that Bennett died in 1783 and left a will of his own. That document reveals that Bennett, like Bradley, was a native of Broomsgrove, Worcestershire; although we don't know precisely how the two men knew each other, they probably shared social contacts.

James Bennett's will reveals one additional connection to Thomas Bradley's: by 1783, Bennett was married to Ann Smith who had witnessed Bradley's will; Bennett left almost his entire estate to her, and named her executrix. 

Learn more about British soldiers in America!