Sunday, February 23, 2014

Barbara Saunders, Royal Artillery, States her Case

Sometimes - often, in fact - we find single pieces of information that defy our efforts to discover corroborating or elaborating material. It remains tantalizing, a fragment of a broader untold story. A perfect example is the newspaper advertisement below, taken out by the abandoned wife of a British deserter. To date, we have found nothing more about John Saunders or Barbara Saunders. If anyone can discover anything more about this discordant couple, it'd be wonderful to learn of it!

To the Public.
Whereas John Saunders, late Gunner in the British Artillery, in the City of New-York, my lawful Husband, by and with the Advice of some dissolute and evil minded people, like himself, deserted from said Artillery, and absconded from me, upwards of four years ago, leaving me pregnant with two children, since dead.
And whereas the said John Saunders, hath now married in the City of Philadelphia (as his lawful Wife is credibly informed, and verily believe to be true). And whereas great scandal may arise, as well in this City as at the City of Philadelphia, amongst divers of its inhabitants, to the great disturbance and tranquility of me the Subscriber, owing to the contriving, devising, composing, and publishing to the world that he never was married, in order to vindicate his re-marrying, as above set forth, that I think it my duty, for the vindication of my character, to convince the respectable public, that I was lawfully married to him, in this City of New-York, upwards of six years ago; and that I know of no reasons for his absconding from me, and deceiving the woman that he is married to at said Philadelphia. And further, that I will not run him in debt, neither will I pay any for him; neither will I ever have any further Connections with him.
In witness whereof, I have, at said City of New-York, put my Hand to this Advertisement, this thirteenth day of May, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty three.
Barbara Saunders.
[Royal Gazette (New York), 14 may 1783]

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Francis Boole, Farrier, 17th Light Dragoons

The British army sent only two cavalry regiments to America, the 16th and 17th, both Light Dragoon regiments. The composition of these regiments was somewhat different than that of infantry regiments; instead of being organized into companies, cavalry regiments were composed of troops. In one of the troops of the 17th Light Dragoons was a private soldier named Francis Boole.

Boole's background isn't known. He first appears on the muster rolls of the regiment prepared in early 1777, suggesting that he was one of the many reinforcements the regiment received in October 1776, but the rolls do not explicily indicate when or how he joined the regiment. There are indications that he had joined the army in 1772, meaning that he may have been one of many drafts from another cavalry regiment that joined the 17th; Light Dragoons; his name, however, has not been found on any other regiment's muster rolls to support that assumption. About 31 years old in 1776, Boole was a "smith and farrier," an essential artificer in a cavalry regiment. Each troop of the 17th Light Dragoons was supposed to have at least one such man, but they are not listed separately on the muster rolls; instead they are included among the other private soldiers. We only know about Boole's specialty because he wrote a petition years after the war.

Besides that he served "on the expedition to the Southward" in 1780, we nothing specific about Boole's service during the American Revolution. At the close of hostilities he was one of the soldiers who was discharged and accepted a land grant in Nova Scotia. He obtained 200 acres of land on the Sable River about 15 miles outside of Shelburne. He settled there with his wife Catherine (it is not known when they met or married; possibly it was after arriving in Nova Scotia); over the next dozen years they had seven children. 

With great effort he worked the land and supported his young family. By 1795 this hard-working veteran had formulated a plan to build a saw mill, but recognized that with no meadow land on his acreage he could not feed the draft animals needed to work the mill. He saw a way out of this dilemma. He discerned that another parcel of land was not allocated because it was marshy and not tenable for farming. The enterprising veteran wrote a petition to the government explaining that he could obtain fodder from the marsh land, enabling him to build and work his saw mill, making good use of land that had no other value.

Francis Boole was granted permission to survey and make use of 400 additional acres. He and his family thrived; he lived until 1835, and his wife survived him by five years.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

William Ellis, 10th Regiment, goes for a canoe ride

With the war only half-a-year old, things had gotten somewhat stagnant around Boston. After the battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775, things had settled into a protracted siege. Soldiers on both sides were kept very busy and alert, musket and cannon fire was exchanged, small skirmishes occurred, but overall the military situation remained unchanged. This left newspapers angling for every tidbit of news to report, no matter how minor. On 18 October 1775, the Pennsylvania Gazette carried this notice:

Worcester, Oct. 6. A correspondent at Cambridge has favoured us with the following, September 29, viz. "Two deserters came over on Monday night, they belonged to the 10th regiment; I spoke with them, they say there are hardly 6000 effective men in Boston, and 2000 sick; General Gage expects ten regiments of foot, and two dragoons; and pretends they are actually now at sea: They further say, that with all their expectations they are extremely apprehensive of a visit from the Provincials; are much disputed, have not a taste of fresh provisions, and would almost desert if they could; these men brought over with them their arms, thirty rounds of powder, and a new boat."

The incident was not particularly unusual: men desertered from both sides almost daily during this phase of the seige. Because this correspondant noted the date and regiment, we verify the accuracy of this report: muster rolls of the 10th Regiment of Foot confirm that William Ellis and Alexander McDonald both deserted on 29 September 1775. McDonald had been with the regiment since its arrival in Boston from Quebec the previous year; a gap in the muster rolls prevents us from knowing when he had joined the regiment. Ellis had arrived in Boston as a recruit the previous September, leaving him with almost exactly a year to the day in Boston before his desertion. The two men had been stationed on a fire raft, a structure built in the river to help protect the isthmus that connected Boston to the mainland from water-borne attack. Sentries paddled a canoe out to the raft in the evening, and returned in the morning, but these two soldiers had absconded in the canoe during the night and paddled across the river to American-held Cambridge. Ironically, sentries were posted in pairs as a deterrent to desertion.

Most British deserters disappeared into the American countryside, never to be heard from again. William Ellis did not manage to do so. On 12 February 1777 the 26th Regiment of Foot surprized and defeated a party of New Jersey Militia at Navesick, New Jersey, killing and capturing a large number. Among the prisoners was William Ellis, who was soon recognized as a deserter from the 10th Regiment. Desertion tends to be a bad career move for a soldier, but being subsequently captured among the enemy is far worse. Ellis was put on trial for "having deserted... and having held correspondence with and borne Arms in the Rebel Army."

Deponents at the trial testified about Ellis having been posted on the fire raft in Boston and having deserted with his arms and with another soldier. A Captain in the 26th Regiment explained that, although Ellis was not under arms when captured, "the rebels being surprised in a house had not time to get under Arms, but they found as many stands of arms as they took prisoners, and they also found a Drum, which the rebels said the prisoner used to beat on, and that he had beat the Revielle that morning."

In his own defense, Ellis claimed that he and Alexander McDonald "were posted upon the fire raft, and were to watch alternately, two hours at a time; that he stood sentry the two first hours, and then lay down in the boat and fell asleep; and McDaniel took that opportunity of rowing the boat over to Dorchester, and when he awakened, he found himself surrounded by a number of people, who ask’d him if he had deserted, and he answered that he had not, nor would he serve with them." For this, he was confined first in a barn in Cambridge, then moved inland to Springfield where he was put in jail. After a time, he and other prisoners were allowed to find work in the countryside, an indulgence allowed by American authorities to offset the reduced labor force caused by military demands for manpower. So far, Ellis's story was plausible and echoed that of many British prisoners of war.

Ellis claimed that he then went "into Jersey," which while obviously true was not typical of men allowed out of confinement to work; if he had actually been a prisoner of war in Massachusetts, he would've remained under the auspicies of that colony's commissary of prisoners and would not have been allowed to move to another colony. But many prisoners broke their work paroles and relocated, so again the story is plausible albeit less likely. To earn his keep in New Jersey, Ellis kept a school, a fairly common profession for British soldiers and one known to have been persued by some British deserters. The story remained plausible.

He stated that he next "came over to New York" where a militia colonel "promised to speak to the General for a pardon for him." What sort of pardon is not clear. He also "applied to the General Commanding at Amboy," but did not state what it was he applied for. Perhaps he meant he was hoping to be released from being a prisoner of war, or perhaps he was indicated that he had indeed violated his parole from Massachusetts. Regardless, it is not clear how any indulgence from American officers would be seen favorably by the members of the British court martial.

Ellis told the court that the night before he was captured he had been forcibly carried to the house where British soldiers found him, and "that he never bore arms with or served the rebels." The court didn't buy it. They found him guilty of both charges. It took some time for the trial proceedings to be reviewed and approved by the commander-in-chief, but approved they were. Ellis was executed on 4 April 1777, along with a mariner found guilty of robbery.

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