Monday, October 7, 2013

William Lewis, 37th Regiment, receives a hurt at sea

We've seen a number of soldiers who were disabled not by wounds but by accidents, an often overlooked hazard of military service particularly in wartime. This week we tell the story of one such man who was injured on an expedition that was called off before he ever went into battle.

First, however, I'm pleased to announce that a new book, a compilation to which I contributed several articles and some editorial work, will be released soon. Journal of the American Revolution Vol. 1 is a selection of articles from the Journal of the American Revolution web magazine, which I also highly recommend. If you're looking for a good starter book on the American Revolution, or a good gift for someone with a casual or serious interest in history, this book is an excellent choice.

On to the story of William Lewis. This young laborer from Lincolnshire enlisted in the 26th Regiment of Foot early in 1779 at the age of seventeen. It appears from the muster rolls that he enlisted in America, but how he came to be in the colonies is not known - and it is possible that he enlisted in Great Briton; muster roll annotations are often ambiguous.

The 26th Regiment had been in America since before the war began. In 1775, most of its men were taken prisoner at posts from Fort Ticonderoga (a small detachment of the 26th manned that fort when it was seized by Vermont soldiers led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold) to Montreal. By 1777 the prisoners were exchanged and new recruits filled out the ranks, but in 1779 it was time for the 26th Regiment to return to Great Britain. Following a typical procedure, able-bodied men in the 26th were transferred (drafted) into other regiments in America; unfit men were discharged, and the officers and non-commissioned officers returned home to recruit anew. William Lewis, young and able, was drafted into the 37th Regiment of Foot in August 1779.

He came into his new regiment at a relatively inactive time for the New York garrison. The locus of the war was shifting south, but the 37th remained part of the strong garrison where the British army in America was headquartered. The regiment participated in the expedition that resulted in the battle of Springfield, NJ, in June 1780 and Lewis may have gotten his baptism of fire there. Late the following year came the opportunity to see another even bigger action.

It is well known that General Cornwallis's southern army established a fortified camp at Yorktown, Virginia, where they would meet their demise. This army wasn't given away haphazardly, however; a relief force was assembled and embarked in New York in October 1781 to reinforce and relieve Cornwallis. Among the nearly 7000 troops distributed on Royal Navy warships was William Lewis, on board HMS Belliqueux with 280 men of the 37th. Belliqueux was a brand new 64-gun ship launched just a year before in London, named after a French ship captured in 1758.

The expedition sailed, but too late; they were at sea when they learned of Cornwallis's capitualtion, and they returned to New York and disembarked the troops. Somehow, though, during his time on ship Lewis's leg was broken. Over time it healed, but it never healed well. He managed to continue on in the army, spending time in the Bahamas in the 1780s where he contracted a severe fever.

By 1790 his leg had gotten worse and he still suffered from the effects of the fever. He was discharged from the army (he signed his own name on his discharge, suggesting that he was a literate man) and was put in a physician's care for his "incurable sore leg; in December 1791 the doctor wrote that Lewis "Has from the 14th of July 1790 been under my care of ye same complaint & the wounds of his legg, has occasioned him to be confined to his Room, from ye time above mentioned to ye Latter end of October last. And although I have it so Purfect as it now appears, I am Doubtfull there is some small fractures of bones, that will at different times come forward & disable him from being a usefull Soldier or even to provide for himself & family."

William Lewis was granted a pension, a meager subsistence for himself and the family he had to support in his disabled condition. But it's more than he would've gotten in any private profession had he suffered a similar injury.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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