Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Richard and Rosanna Williams, 22nd Regiment of Foot

Richard Williams enlisted in the 22nd Regiment of Foot in November 1769. It was a good time to join the army, and this particular regiment. Having returned from long service in America in 1765, the regiment had finished the flurry of recruiting to replenish its ranks was in good stable state of readiness. The 22nd was sent to Scotland in the early 1770s to garrison towns from Inverness to Fort William. The soldiers were kept busy maintaining the network of military roads built early in the century that allowed rapid deployments if necessary. The work involved clearing drains, repairing erosion, removing loose stones and similar labor; tedious work, to be sure, but it paid 6 pence per day over and above the soldier's usual wage.

In 1773, the regiment moved from Scotland to Ireland, where they wintered in Dublin and spent summers camping in the countryside. The peaceful routine came to an end early in 1775 when orders were received to sail for America. Through service in Boston, Halifax, Staten Island, New York and Rhode Island, Richard Williams served well enough to be appointed corporal in late 1776 and to command sizable parties of men. In 1778 he testified against a soldier who'd deserted from a guard post; the soldier was found guilty and lashed. Not long after the evacuation of Rhode Island in late 1779, Williams was appointed serjeant. Somewhere along the line - maybe before he joined the army, maybe as recently as in Rhode Island - he married a woman named Rosanna.

As the 1780 campaign season opened, a large British army laid siege to Charleston, South Carolina. Back in New York, an attempt was made to raid the headquarters of the Continental Army in Morristown, New Jersey by sending a large force from Staten Island to Elizabeth, New Jersey and marching over land. British soldiers had been executing long, rapid marches like this since the onset of the war; even though the 22nd and other regiments included many recruits who'd arrived only the previous autumn, there were an ample number of experienced men like Serjeant Richard Williams to prepare them. They marched lightly; each man carried his blanket, one spare shirt, seven days' worth of biscuit and four days' worth of pork in his haversack; one days' ration of rum mixed with water in his canteen, and 48 rounds of ammunition in his cartridge pouch. No tents or knapsacks were carried. Wives stayed behind.

The army, consisting of roughly 6000 men, landed in New Jersey during the night of 6-7 June with the intention of quickly covering the 20 or so miles to Morristown. Local resistance, however, was much greater than expected as New Jersey militia rapidly mobilized. Fighting became intense in the town of Connecticut Farms, today named Union. The British advance ground to a halt, and their forces withdrew to Elizabeth where they encamped as best they could with the sparse equipment they had. The 22nd Regiment was posted as an advance guard. The night was dark, as dark as anyone could remember, and rainy. Men got lost in the darkness. On the 8th American troops descended upon the 22nd Regiment; a German regiment advanced to support them, but ultimately they were forced to withdraw to the main British encampment with several men wounded.

Somewhere during these encounters, either in the darkness or during the confusion of battle, 2 serjeants and 16 private soldiers of the 22nd Regiment were captured. Among them was Richard Williams. The prisoners were quickly sent to Philadelphia where they were held in a common jail with other prisoners of war.

Conditions in the jail were harsh. Williams and his fellows hoped a quick exchange would allow them to return to New York, but months passed and hope of this dwindled. Realizing that they would be stuck in jail at least for the winter, and with only the clothing he's worn when the June expedition began, Richard Williams penned a letter to Rosanna. He affectionately began it "Dear Rosey" (abbreviating the first word in typical fashion of the era). He asked her to "get my shirts Briches shoes & stockings great Coate and Blanket with som money and get your self ready" to join him in Philadelphia.

This may sound like an odd request, but it illustrates two important facets of the era: wives of British prisoners of war often stayed with their husbands in captivity, either in prison camps if their husbands were confined that way, or in lodgings they'd procured for themselves in the area; and, an army was responsible for providing clothing to its men who were held prisoner, rather than the captors doing so. Everything that Richard asked of Rosanna was typical of the age, and he requested that she give the same instructions to the wife of the other serjeant confined with him. He told her who to ask for instructions on how to obtain a pass.

Williams ended his letter with a lament, "I am sorry that you never sent me a Letter to let me know how you are and where you Lived which gives me great uneasyness of not hearing from you." And he closed with "I remain your Loving Husband."

Conditions in the Philadelphia jail were harsh and unforgiving. It is unfortunate that we know nothing more of Rosanna Williams, whether she went to Philadelphia or even received the letter (which today is in a collection of papers belonging to the American commissary of prisoners, leaving doubt as to whether it was delivered). Whatever transpired, this chapter of her life certainly did not end well. Richard Williams wrote the on 23 November 1780; he died in prison on 13 January 1781; six more of the 18 men captured in June 1780 died in prison and two others died soon after their release in 1783, a clear indication of the awful conditions the prisoners endured. Another earned his release by signing an oath of allegiance and settling in Pennsylvania. Among those who were repatriated and received pensions after the war ended, one was "sickly & worn out" while another suffered from "bad health, being long a prisoner."

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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