For those who might be in the area, I will be speaking on 6 November (Wednesday) at the Washington, DC, American Revolution Round Table; and on 7 November (Thursday) at Fraunce’s Tavern in New York City. Both talks will be about my book, British Soldiers, American War.
Many of the soldiers we've discussed here had learned trades before joining the army. This should come as no surprise when one thinks of the ages and opportunities involved; young men who went to school usually studied only until they reached their teen years, and some didn't go to school at all (it would be a mistake, however, to assume that most didn't go to school). But the army didn't usually take recruits until they were fully grown, which meant at least their late teens, and the majority of soldiers enlisted in their early twenties. That meant spending at least a few years, and perhaps a dozen or more, at some sort of work - ample time to complete an apprenticeship or acquire a skill in some other way.
Sometimes those skills were useful to the army. Taylors, blacksmiths, shoemakers and others provided necessary maintenance for regimental clothing; bakers, butchers, brewers and victuallers prepared food for the army; carpenters, sawyers and coopers supported the military infrastructure. When the British army landed in Rhode Island, orders were given for the 22nd Regiment to send a printer to headquarters; although the purpose was not specified, he almost certainly prepared notices, handbills and other documents for the army.
It was not only the British army that took advantage of skilled British soldiers. Prisoners of war were put to work by their American captors, filling labor voids created by men being away in the American army and also keeping the prisoners gainfully employed rather than idle. One such man was James Gamble (also spelled Gambles, Gamiel and Gammel) of the 80th Regiment. He'd enlisted on 3 February 1778 when this regiment was being raised, part of the wartime expansion of the army.
The 80th Regiment arrived in American in August of 1779. By October of 1781 most of the soldiers were prisoners of war, having been taken as part of General Cornwallis's army at Yorktown. James Gamble was a prisoner of war after his first campaign. He and his fellow soldiers were sent to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Gamble's skills were noticed by the Committee of Safety. In March 1782 he was sent to Philadelphia to the Commissary of Prisoners, presumably because that officer had requested a printer from among the British prisoners. A letter informing the commissary of Gambe's impending arrival indicated some uncertainty about his suitability for whatever tasks were expected of him; the committeeman wrote that Gamble was "more of stationer than printer," and said he was told there was a printer among the prisoners of the 17th Regiment who might be more suitable (and, in fact, there was: Corporal John Waterman of the 17th, who survived the war and received a pension in 1791).
How Gamble worked out at his job in Philadelphia is not known. He must have liked his overall experience in America, though, as he was one of many British prisoners who did not return to his regiment when prisoners were repatriated in 1783. Like the others, he was written off as a deserter.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!