Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mary Jeffries, Brigade of Guards, stands trial

It should be well known to readers of this blog that soldiers’ wives were an integral part of the army; for those needing a quick refresher, see my article on the subject. These women were not, however, enlisted or attested like soldiers, and as such were not subject to charges of desertion if they absconded. They were nonetheless subject to punishment for some violations of military law, and a number of army wives were tried by general courts martial in America for an assortment of crimes. One woman who stood trial was Mary Jeffries, wife of a soldier in the Brigade of Guards named John Jeffries. She was charged not with desertion, but with persuading her husband to desert.

The British army included three regiments of Foot Guards, charged with protecting the royal family and government institutions in London. These regiments were much larger than typical infantry regiments. When the need came to increase the size of the British army in America, a composite brigade consisting of about 1000 men was created by calling for volunteers from each of the three Foot Guards regiments. The Brigade of Guards arrived in America in 1776 and served for the remainder of the war, participating in major campaigns around New York, Philadelphia, the Carolinas, and Virginia.

One of the soldiers in the Brigade of Guards was John Jeffries, a private from the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. While the brigade was wintering in Philadelphia in late 1777 and early 1778, Jeffries met a local woman, Mary Staiger, and fell in love. He dutifully applied to his Colonel for permission to marry her, but was disappointed when the officer would not grant his consent.

The couple married anyway, in Philadelphia's Gloriea Dei Church, on 9 April 1778. When the army left Philadelphia in early June Mary accompanied her new husband. It may be that she was not among those officially allowed on the march, for John and Mary stayed at the rear of their company while the army was on the move and each time the army halted, they “made their Hut” some distance away from the rest of the company. This behavior, uncharacteristic of the soldier who had in the past always kept up with his comrades, aroused the suspicion of Jeffries’ serjeant, James Wilson. It is not clear why Wilson did not take any direct action such as ordering Jeffries to keep up and to bivouac with his company; instead, he reported to the Colonel that he suspected the couple intended to desert. The Colonel directed Wilson to “particularly to observe Jeffries.”

The army arrived at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, and there waited to board ships for the final part of their journey to New York and Staten Island. In spite of his serjeant's close observation, John Jeffries was absent from the 10 o’clock roll call on the morning of 3 July. Following the usual protocol when a man was absent a search was made for his necessaries (his shirts, stockings and shoes) and it was soon discerned that they were missing, a typical sign of desertion. Men sent in searching of him found Mary in a house a quarter mile behind the encampment at about 2 o’clock that afternoon, with all of her clothing. Serjeant Wilson determined that she did not have any of the missing necessaries. She said that she knew nothing of John Jeffries’ whereabouts or intentions, but nonetheless she was confined on suspicion of having “advised and persuaded” him to desert. With the rest of the army, she boarded transports and proceeded to posts around New York city.

She was brought to trial by a general court martial in Brooklyn three weeks later. Serjeant Wilson testified that, besides the circumstances related above, he had heard her say that she intended to return to Philadelphia where her father lived. In her defence, Mary repeated that she knew nothing of her husband’s desertion. She said not only that she had gone to the house in the rear of the encampment to wash her clothing, but that she had informed Serjeant Wilson of her intentions before doing so. While the serjeant claimed to have found her at the house with her clothing packed up, she related that another soldier had found her there while her clothes were hanging out to dry, and that she then packed them up and went herself to the serjeant. Responding to the claim that she had said she would return to Philadelphia, she explained that many of the soldiers’ wives had heard that they might not be allowed on the transports that were to carry the army from New Jersey to posts around New York. Some had decided that they would return to Philadelphia only if they were so refused, but that she herself had planned to see her husband on board ship before returning.

The court acquitted her, probably because Serjeant Wilson was the only witness against her and her explanations were reasonable enough. It is interesting that in the trial proceedings she was introduced as a “follower of the army” rather than as the wife of a soldier or a member of the Brigade of Guards (in many other trials, wives are explicitly referred to as, for example, “of the 22nd Regiment”). Throughout the serjeant’s testimony neither the term “husband” nor “wife” is used, but she is nonetheless referred to by John Jeffries’ surname. Her own testimony, on the other hand, refers to Jeffries directly as her husband.

Although the serjeant mentioned in his testimony that he had “heard since Jeffries’s Desertion that he has been seen” in Philadelphia, we have no information on his actual fate, nor the life pursued by Mary Jeffries after the trial.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Michael Wright, 43rd Regiment, makes a bad connection

Before war broke out in America, there were already British troops on the continent. It was part of the British empire, and there were many places where local tensions required military presence to maintain order. In addition to frontier posts along the Ohio river and in Canada, there were the valuable islands in the West Indies where local natives resisted British colonial expansion. The most recent uprising had occurred fighting had occurred on the island of St. Vincent between 1769 and 1773, a conflict that came to be called the First Carib War. After a peace agreement was signed, British troops remained on the island including the 6th Regiment of Foot.

The outbreak of war in the thirteen mainland American colonies necessitated an immediate buildup of troops there. The 6th Regiment, along with others in the Caribbean, were sent to New York in 1776 to bolster the strength of Sir William Howe's army that was preparing for a campaign that, it was hoped, would put an end to the rebellion. Not long after their arrival, though, it became clear that the 6th wasn't up for campaigning in America after having spent a few years in the harsh Caribbean climate. In December 1776, orders were given that the regiment was to transfer all of its able-bodied soldiers into other regiment in America. The remainder, including the officers and non-commissioned officers, would return to Great Britain where worn out men would be discharged and new soldiers would be recruited.

Among the men drafted from the 6th Regiment was Michael Wright, who joined the 43rd Regiment of Foot. We know nothing of his background, including how long he had been in the 6th Regiment (no muster rolls survived for the regiment during this time period); he may have been a long serving soldier or a recently arrived recruit. Regardless, he was sent with other drafts from New York to Rhode Island where the 43rd was stationed. Initially, like the other drafts, he continued to wear his uniform from the 6th Regiment. Both the 6th and the 43rd had just received new uniforms for the year 1776, but it would take all winter for the clothing to be fitted properly to the men. Each regiment had tailors to do this work (Great Britain's thriving textile industry insured that there were plenty of skilled tailors among the men who enlisted in the army). When spring came, it is not known which newly-tailored uniform Wright donned - the one he'd recently received from his old regiment, or a new one from the 43rd Regiment.

Regardless, he didn't wear it long. The muster rolls show us that he died on 5 July 1777. There was no fighting on that day; although minor engagements occurred frequently in Rhode Island throughout that year, none correlate with Wright's demise. Muster rolls provide a record of many such unascribed deaths, and ordinarily we attribute them to illness for want of additional information. But in Wright's case, an officer of the Rhode Island garrison recorded the cause:

A Soldier of the 43rd Regt shot himself last night in the rear of the Camp. The discovery of a Connection he had with a married woman of the same Regiment, appears to have been the cause of this rash action.

Nothing else is known about the incident. All we know of this untold story is the tragic ending.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mary Pollard, 46th Regiment, remarries

By the beginning of 1776, war had broken out in America and the British government had put together a plan to establish a military presence in the southern colonies. A fleet of warships and transports carried several regiments that were to land and establish a foothold. Among those regiments was the 46th Regiment of Foot, previously stationed in Ireland; in the ranks of the regiment was a private soldier named Richard Pollard who brought with him his wife Mary. There is no record of whether they had children with them.

The fleet sailed from Cork, Ireland on 12 February 1776, later than indended. The voyage went poorly, particularly so for the Pollards. An officer in another regiment wrote that, on the day they set sail, "in the evening, a storm sprung up, which lasted three weeks, without intromission; and the wind being against us made our situation truly lamentable." The transport ships used to carry troops across the Atlantic were private vessels operating under contract to the government and typically ranged in size from 200 to 500 tons - tiny by today's oceangoing standards. It is difficult to image the prolonged discomfort and danger of being tossed about an open ocean in such a vessel. Whether due to illness or accident, Richard Pollard did not endure long; on 27 February 1776, he died of unknown causes.

May Pollard was now a widow on a transport full of soldiers bound for a foreign and possibly hostile land, her soldier husband having died without facing an enemy. There is a popular tale that army widows in such circumstances were required to remarry immediately or they would be cast out of their regiment where ever they happened to be. We've shown that this is not true; some widows stayed with the army for quite some time; they were allowed to return to Great Britain and provided with funds and transportation to do so. That doesn't mean it was easy, and it certainly couldn't always be effected immediately, especially in a case like Mary Pollard's. She had to continue to earn her keep with the regiment - probably as a washer woman or hospital nurse - while waiting to see where the fortunes of war brought her and the rest of the 46th Regiment.

She endured the remainder of the voyage. She may have stayed on board ship while the regiment sweated out an encampment on a barren, sandy island on the Carolina coast, ultimately looking on helplessly as a naval assault on Fort Moultrie near Charleston, South Carolina, failed. After several ineffective weeks in the steadily increasing southern heat, the soldiers re-embarked and sailed north to join the British army that had just landed on Staten Island.

Mary Pollard could've gone home. There were opportunities to sail to Halifax where many women and children of the army had stayed to await word of the success of the campaign around New York. After the city and surrounding area was in British hands, there were other opportunities to return to Great Britain with other widows and wounded soldiers. But she stayed on with the army, for reasons now lost to history. On 25 June 1777 she and William Hyde, a soldier of the 46th who had also sailed from Ireland the previous year, obtained a marriage license and presumably took vows around that time in the area of New York City.

Assuming that they stayed married, things went better this time. Hyde served with the regiment during the campaign to Philadelphia in 1777 and the return to New York in 1778. Late that year the regiment was sent to the West Indies, but it appears that Hyde, due to either injury or other infirmity, was discharged and returned to Great Britain. There, he served for several years in the 41st Regiment of Foot, a corps of soldiers fit only for service within the home islands. He was discharged from that regiment in 1788 and received a pension.

The sad part about all of this is that we have no idea what became of Mary Pollard Hyde. In fact, the only direct information we have about her is from the marriage license - a single surviving document that records here name, that she was a widow in the 46th Regiment, and applied to marry William Hyde of the same regiment. Everything else about her is determined from the muster rolls of the 46th Regiment that record the names of her husbands and the day that Richard Pollard died (he was the only man named Pollard in the regiment, and there was only one man named William Hyde), and the pension of William Hyde. Mary could've died the day after her second marriage, and we would have no way of knowing. If she did return to Great Britain with William Hyde, there may be information about her tucked in a regional archive waiting to be discovered.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!