Monday, July 8, 2013

William Hambleton, 17th Regiment of Foot

Often in these descriptions of soldiers we've seen the phrase "by trade a labourer" or similar words. Most men joined the army between the ages of 17 and 25, with a majority of those being in their early twenties; in an age when education for common people seldom continued past the age of 12, every man who enlisted in the army could be expected to have had some other type of employment prior to enlistment. Between half and two-thirds (with a great deal of variation between the English, Scottish and Irish) had pursued a skilled trade of some sort, but the remainder were classified with the catchall term "labourer."

So what, exactly, did a labourer do? In a primarily agrarian society, we'd expect that most labourers were agricultural workers, perhaps itinerant, earning a subsistence income by tending crops owned by others. This is the description given by most scholars and the one that I usually use as well, with the caveat that construction, dock work or other unskilled labor may have been sought by men without formal trades. Occasionally we find farmer, gardener and husbandman listed as trades, indicating that a few agricultural workers were specialized, but men with those trades were few compared to the legions of labourers.

"Agricultural work", although a tangible phrase, is nonetheless general. A document recently provided by researchers Todd Braisted and Cole Jones (each of whom provided a copy to me) offers precious clarity, invaluable because it was penned by a British soldier in America.

Born in the lowlands of Scotland, William Hambleton was a private soldier in the ranks of the 17th Regiment of Foot when that corps was ordered from Ireland to America in 1775. The 17th arrived in Boston late in the year and its soldiers served through a difficult winter under siege before the town was evacuated in March 1776. The regiment was hotly engaged in the campaign through New York and New Jersey in the autumn of that year, fighting that came to a climax for the 17th when they made a dramatic stand at the battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777. The regiment overcame a superior force but at considerable cost. Several dozen men were taken prisoner including William Hambleton.

As a prisoner of war, Hambleton literally farmed himself out to a local landowner; with so many able bodied men away serving in the Continental Army, local farmers were eager to hire British and German prisoners as laborers. Many prisoners were equally eager for the opportunity to work, earning extra money and escaping the dull confines of captivity. Some chose to remain, accepting the mantle of desertion from the British army and settling into a new life in the colonies.

But not William Hamilton. He was exchanged after a year or so and returned to the ranks of the 17th Regiment. Fate was unkind to him and his fellow soldiers, though. The 17th Regiment of Foot formed the majority of the garrison of the fort at Stony Point on the Hudson River when that place was boldly stormed by Americans in July 1779. Sent with other prisoners to the "New Gaol" in Philadelphia, Hambleton saw another opportunity for gainful employment. He wrote an eloquent and persuasive letter to Thomas Bradford, Commissary of Prisoners in Philadelphia:

   I am a man that has been in the use of Farming from my Infancy according to the method practised in the South of Scotland, and also while I was prisoner  of War here before I laboured for my bread, so that I can now Venture to promise for myself That I can cut Wood, Spleit Rails, make Fences, Plow, Harrow, break, Hoe, Thrash, and attend Cattle as well as most men that have been in the Country for a longer Space of time.  It does not become a man to praise himself, but with regard to my Character, as to my fidelity, and Honesty, as there is no Commissioned  Officer here of our Regiment, I refer myself as to Character to our Serjant Major and Quarter Master Serjant.  And as you will See good, I hope you’ll do something for me.  And I am with Esteem Sir
Your most humble Servant
Wm. Hambleton
       Soldier in the Generals Company
           17th Regt. Prisoner of War
New Goal
Right Wing
18th Sepr. 1779

In his plea for employment, Hambleton provides a wonderful description of the type of work he was acclimated to, listing the various specific tasks that he knew how to undertake and giving texture to the general term "labourer." He also reveals a command of the written language which, as discussed in Chapter 4 of British Soldiers, American War, was not unusual among soldiers and which may have been enhanced if not learned while Hambleton was in the army.

Whether or not Hambleton was allowed to work is not known, but he once again remained faithful to the army. He and the other Stony Point prisoners - with the exception of some who escaped back to British lines and others who deserted - were exchanged in early 1781. The regiment regrouped in New York just in time to be sent south to campaign in Virginia. Revealing yet another skill for this "unskilled laborer", Hambleton is listed as one of five wagon drivers with the regiment when it embarked for this campaign.

Once again the fortunes of war were unkind to the soldiers of the 17th Regiment; they were part of the army that surrendered at Yorktown in October 1781. For the third time since setting foot in America, William Hambleton was a prisoner of war. This time the hard-working soldier did not fare well; he died in captivity in the second half of 1782.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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