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.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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