Sunday, November 10, 2013

James Wilcox, 33rd Regiment, doesn't get his revenge

There's a popular perception that British regiments recruited from specific regions in Great Britain during the 1775-1783 era. They didn't. The county titles for which British regiments are so famous - the Cheshire Regiment, the Staffordshire Regiment, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment, and so forth - weren't given until 1782, much too late to influence the recruiting practices of regiments in the American war. But, like many things that were institutionalized, the assignment of county titles reflected a practice that had already begun in the 1770s. Regiments that maintained a long-term recruiting presence in a particular region tended over time to be successful at recruiting there. The war accelerated the trend when some cities endeavored to raise regiment from within their own populations, and some counties did the same.

Among the trend setters was the 33rd Regiment of Foot, among the best disciplined and most distinguished of the war. In 1782 they acquired the title The West Riding Regiment, after a region of Yorkshire, but it is clear (from surviving pension records which give mens' places of birth) that the regiment had been recruiting predominantly in Yorkshire for some time. But not exclusively in Yorkshire. Like all British regiments early in the war, officers of the 33rd Regiment recruited where ever they could best find suitable men. For Captain William Dansey of the 33rd, this men in the area of his newly-adopted home in Hereford near the Welsh border.

One of these recruits was James Wilcox. In February of 1775, at the age of 19, he enlisted with Captain Dansey. The 33rd was posted in Ireland at the time, but ; it is not known when Dansey and his Hereford recruits made their way to Ireland and joined the regiment, but they made it in time to leave Cork harbor for America in early 1776. Captain Dansey took command of the regiment's light infantry company, and Wilcox, although still an inexperienced soldier, joined him in it. Dansey described him as "a fine spirited lad."

Two companies of the 33rd including the light infantry were on a tranport named the Golden Rule when their convoy carrying nine regiments left Cork on 12 Februay 1776 bound for Charleston, South Carolina. By April they were off the American coast. It was here, still at sea, that the 33rd's light infantry had their first activity of the war. Their transport came upon an American merchant ship and, after firing a few shots and a half-hour chase, captured the vessel. This was a trivial contribution to the war but surely raised the spirits of the British troops.

In early May the British regiments landed and encamped at Cape Fear, North Carolina. It was here that young James Wilcox had the dubious distinction of being the 33rd Regiment's first battle casualty. Around the 24th he was posted as an advanced sentry one night when a violent thunderstorm came on, the worst the British soldiers had ever seen. Lightning illuminated the camp, strong winds knocked down some tents and carried others away, and intense rain began to fall. In the midst of this, three American soldiers crawled towards Wilcox on their hands and knees, stalking him as they would a hunted animal. Wilcox fired once and began to reload, but the assailants, now only ten yards away, fired back and then fled. Wilcox was hit in the wrist, but one of his attackers lay dead.

Taken back into camp and then put on a hospital ship, it was at first feared that Wilcox would lost his hand. Dansey "went on board the Hospital Ship several times to see him 'till he was out of Danger." It wasn't long before Wilcox's spirits had improved and he hoped to recover sufficiently "to do his Duty again and have his Revenge."

It was not to be so. The hand did not recover sufficiently for him to remain an effective soldier. He was discharged as an invalid and returned to Great Britain. Captain Dansey recommended him as a fit object for consideration from the government in spite of Wilcox having served only two years and two months in the army. In April 1777 Wilcox appeared before the examining board of Chelsea Hospital and received an out pension. Captain Dansey was quite pleased that Wilcox had gotten this reward, but offered sound advice:

I think Lord Bateman has honor'd me very much by his Attention to Wilcox, he has given him more than ever he merited or I desired... tell Wilcox if he does not behave exceeding well I shall use the same Interest to get it taken from him, he is in Duty bound to honor my Recommendation when he knows how many brave Fellows of my Company have suffer'd as well as him."

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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