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.