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!

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