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!

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