Monday, December 30, 2013

George Smith, 54th Regiment, plays through headaches

When George Smith began playing music for the British army, it was 1755 and he was ten years old. The boy from Limerick, Ireland, may have started on the fife before growing enough to handle a drum. We don't know which regiment he was in when he started. Perhaps he went on campaign and into battle in America or on the European continent during the Seven Years War.

The image of drummer boys is dear to us, but we often forget that boys quickly grown up. Twenty years after joining the army George Smith was still playing the drum, now with the 54th Regiment of Foot in Ireland. War broke out in America that year, 1775; by the end of the year the 54th was preparing to join the fight. When his regiment embarked for the first British attempt to establish a foothold in the south, however, Smith stayed behind on the recruiting service. He didn't miss much of the war, though; he joined his regiment some time in late 1776 or 1777, arriving with a contingent of recruits.

He continued as a drummer during the 54th's service in Rhode Island, enduring the three-week Franco-American siege of that garrison in August 1778.

The regiment left Rhode Island in the summer of 1779, and quickly went into battle again as part of the force that attacked New Haven, Connecticut on 5 and 6 July. Here fate caught up with the drummer who'd spend 25 years in the service unscathed. He received two bullets in the head. He nearly died; army surgeons extracted one of the balls but were unable to remove the other.

George Smith not only survived, he continued to serve. Looking at the muster rolls, one might say he never skipped a beat - he doesn't even appear as "sick," the euphemism that included recovering from wounds, on the semi-annual muster rolls in the second half of 1779. Around one hundred of his comrades in the 54th died that winter when illness swept through the regiment, but George Smith soldiered on.

In 1781, he was appointed Drum Major, a position of authority that required him to instruct young drummers and fifers in the regiment and well as handle numerous administrative tasks. He remained in this capacity for eight years, until he was discharged in 1789.

At 44 years of age, 34 of those years spent in the army, George Smith was recommended for a pension. The justification for this reward was that he suffered "from Wounds by two Shots in his Head (which were near proving mortal, and from which he still suffers great pain, one of the Bullets not being got extracted) received at New Haven in New England on 5th July 1779, and by being rheumatic, and otherwise worn out, is become quite unfit for further service." The pension was granted to this tough and faithful soldier.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Monday, December 16, 2013

John Irwin, 9th and 40th Regiments, raises his family

Many of the British soldiers who served in the American Revolution had years of experience, if not in combat then at least in the army. As professional soldiers, they enlisted during a time of peace and learned the fundamentals of their trade. By the time they were deployed to America these soldiers with three, five, ten or more years of experience were well-versed in the basics of hygiene, maintenance of clothing and equipment, handling firearms and military discipline; this allowed them to adapt quickly to conditions in the new conflict in the new land.

The backbone of the army was composed of men like John Irwin, an Irishman who enlisted in 1771 when in his early twenties. As a young soldier in the 9th Regiment of Foot, he spent his first years in the army in his native land; in 1774, knowing that war was looming in America, the 9th Regiment was among those trained in fast-moving, open-order fighting. It wasn't long before the wisdom of this training was borne out by the outbreak of hostilities, and in early 1776 the 9th embarked with several other regiments to reinforce the British army in Canada.

John Irwin crossed the ocean not only with his comrades in arms but also with his wife. The regiment hit the ground running, fighting at the battle of Trois Rivieres within days of disembarking at Quebec, and pushing a retreating American army out of the colony and down to Lake Champlain; John Irwin served in his new role as a corporal. Whether Mrs. Irwin accompanied her husband on this campaign or remained in Quebec is not known, but their first child, a son named Samuel, was born in Canada that year.

The following summer saw the regiment, and Corporal Irwin's family, on campaign again. The 9th was involved in some of the heaviest fighting in the campaign that culminated in the Convention of Saratoga. The family made the transition from being part of a conquoring army to being prisoners of war. They spent the next four years in captivity, walking with their fellow captives first to Boston, then to Virginia finally to Pennsylvania. It's difficult to imagine a family doing this, but they were one of many that did.

They were released in late 1781, and joined the British garrison in New York city. Corporal Irwin joined the 40th Regiment of Foot in October, a regiment sorely in need of soldiers after suffering heavily at the storming of Fort Griswold the previous month. When the war ended he was given the unusual choice of being discharged and taking a land grant in Canada - unusual because this option was usually offered only to men who had enlisted after 16 December 1775, or men who had served at least twenty years, long enough to be eligible for discharge under any circumstances. Perhaps it was because he had served with particular merit, or suffered particular hardship. Or perhaps it was because he now had three children, two daughters having been born in America.

The family settled in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, with hundreds of other discharged soldiers. They settled there (instead of moving farther into Nova Scotia like many former soldiers did), had two more children, and lived out their lives. Some time in his later years John Irwin wrote a brief memorial of his life, summing up with modest brevity all that he'd endured:

    This is to certify that I enlisted in the year 1771, in the city of Dublin, Ireland, under the command of Lord Langanier, 9th regiment of foot, he being full colonel, it being commanded by Lieut. Col. Taylor, and I done duty for several years through Ireland, and I Embarked early in the year 1776, for America under the command of Lieut. Col. Hill, and landed at Quebec, Canada; from thence proceeded on a heavy campaign under the command of General Charleton and suffered greatly therein, having wintered in Canada.

    Next summer proceeded on second campaign under the command of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, and suffered there greatly by reason of several engagements - everything but death itself; became a prisoner to General Gates by capitulation and remained a prisoner for 4 years in a dreadful state of confinement, having a family with me all this time, which increased my suffering; being released came into New York and joined the 40th regiment of foot, under the command of Lieut. Col. Musgrave; being discharged in October, 1783, came to Nova Scotia and settled in the county of Shelburne, where I remained, having done military duty since I came to Shelburne until age rendered me unserviceable.

    [Signed] John Irwin.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Monday, December 9, 2013

John Tom, 21st and 23rd Regiments, escapes and absconds

John Tom was an Irish blacksmith born in 1757 who joined the British army as a teenager. By June of 1775, he was a private soldier in the 21st Regiment of Foot, the Royal North British Fusiliers. This was one of the regiments sent to Quebec in 1776, initially to relieve Canada from the threat of rebel takeover and then to go on the offensive towards Lake Champlain. The 21st participated in the 1777 campaign that started with a flourish, driving American forces from the region of Lake Champlain, seizing Fort Ticonderoga, and pressing towards Albany. The effort floundered in October at Saratoga, and the army including private John Tom of the 21st Regiment became prisoners of war.

The prisoners were sent first to barracks outside of Boston, and the following summer father inland to Rutland. Somewhere along the line John Tom absconded; the circumstances of his escape aren't known, nor exactly where he had been held, but he was advertised in a Connecticut newspaper in June 1778:

Run away the 26th of May, inst. one John Tom an Irishman belonging to the 21st British regiment, taken at the Northward in September last by trade a Blacksmith, had on when he went away a short blanket coat striped vest tow cloth trowsers, about 5 feet 6 inches high, light complexion 21 years of age fore teeth rotten. Whoever will take up said runaway, and secure him in any goal or return him to the subscriber, shall have 5 dollars reward and all necessary charges paid, by Ez’l Williams Dep. Commiss. Prisoners.
[Connecticut Courant, 9 June 1778]

However he managed to escape, it was effective: before the end of the June he was already in New York and had joined a new regiment, the 23rd Regiment of Foot, or Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Many British soldiers made daring escapes, risking life and limb to make their way through hostile territory and rejoin their comrades, either finding the regiment they'd originally belonged to or joining one in the place where they found safety. After putting so much at risk, we can only wonder why some of these men didn't stay. After only fifteen months in his new regiment, John Tom deserted from the British army, never to return. He and another man with whom he absconded gave a brief intelligence report to an American officer:

   Two deserters from the Welsh Fusileers, which they left last Thursday was a week are arrived but give little information except that the recruits which arrived for theirs & the 7th regiment, which lay together did not exceed one hundred & ten men for the two several whereof were sick many of them old and pressed men.  Every thing had been moved out of Fort Independance, the platforms taken up but the works not destroyed.  The two regiments, which lay at Spiking Devill Hill; with the Yagers in front at Courtlands house had orders to move within their new lines.  Every hill on York island is fortifyed as strong as possible.

The information they gave about recruits was reasonably accurate at least as to numbers: the 7th Regiment had just received 55 recruits, and the 23rd had received 49. Illness had broken out among the some 1300 recruits that had just arrived for the army, and by this stage of the war some recruits were indeed in 30s and early 40s. But only 13 of the recruits for the 7th and 23rd were "pressed men", all of them put into the 23rd Regiment.

It is unfortunate that John Tom gave no reason for abandoning the army he'd worked so hard to rejoin only a year before.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Monday, December 2, 2013

Frederick Fisher, 34th Regiment, seeks 200 acres

It's frustrating sometimes to find an interesting anecdote about a British soldier, but to have no additional information on the man to add some substance to the story - his age, where he was from, and so forth. Equally frustrating, and much more common, is to have very informative demographic data with no hint at all of the man's individuality. Frederick Fisher provides an excellent example.

The 34th Regiment's muster rolls tell us very succinctly that Fisher joined the regiment some time between April 1776 - shortly before the regiment left Ireland for Canada - and January 1777. The rolls prepared on the latter date give no indication of where Fisher and a large number of other new men came from. We can follow him through the semi-annual rolls and see that he served as a private soldier until he was discharged at Fort Niagara in June 1784.

Fisher's name, and some knowledge of the 34th Regiment, leads us to suspect that he was German. Some 2000 men were recruited by the British army in the German states in late 1775 and early 1776 for service in the ranks of British regiments; for the most part, these men joined their regiments in America in late 1776. The 34th received over 100 of these German recruits. A description list of men in the 34th prepared in 1783 correlates with this assumption, listing Fisher's country of birth as "Foreign" (as opposed to English, Scottish or Irish); there's an outside chance that he was from some other region including America, but given the large number of Europeans, mostly Germans, that joined the regiment in 1776, it's a pretty good bet that he was German.

The list also tells us that Fisher was 41 years old in January 1783 and had served 7 years in the regiment. So he was born in 1741 or 1742 and enlisted at the age of 34 or 35. That's an unusually old age for enlistment, albeit not unprecedented. Many of the German recruits who joined in their 30s had had prior military service in European armies, but we don't know if that's true of Fisher. We also learn from the desciption list that he was 5 feet 5 and one half inches tall.

Fisher appears again as having applied for a land grant of 200 acres in Ontario in June 1797. He wrote a brief but well-composed petition in which he explained that, having enlisted after 16 December 1775, he was entitled to the grant. He was correct: in a move to stimulate recruiting when it became apparent that an all-out war had begun in America, the King proclaimed that men who enlisted after 16 December 1775 were entitled to be dischaged at the end of the war, as long as they'd served at least three years, and could take a land grant in America if they wanted it. Fisher met these criteria and claimed his land, but gave no indication of why he'd waited so long to do so or where'd been in the mean time. Included in his petition was a copy of his discharge, which indicated that he was (in June 1784) 43 years old and had a swarthy complexion, brown hair and grey eyes.

Also revealing from this petition is that Fisher was able to write, and write lucidly, in English. When he'd learned this skill is not known. His German roots are perhaps confirmed by his spelling his name "Frederick Fisher" in the body of the petition but signing it "Fredrich Fischer."

This is a lot of information about the man. We know about his entire military service, and his general physical characteristics - more than we know about so many people of the era. But that's all we know. In eight years of service he certainly experienced many things, perhaps participated in dangerous military actions and contributed to the construction of fortifications that survive to this day. In over 30 years of pre-military life and over 13 years of post-military life, he was occupied at something or another every single day. It appears that he mastered two languages. And yet we know nothing of any specific thing this man did, other than write one petition. We don't even know if he got the land he asked for.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!