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.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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