Monday, April 21, 2014

John Smith, 4th Regiment of Foot, wounded on the first day

At this time of year there is naturally much discussion on the battle that began a long war, the fighting that occurred on 19 April 1775 when a British column marched out of Boston in an attempt to seized military stores at Concord. Who fired first will be the subject of debate for as long as the war is remembered; we have nothing new to add to that discussion. But people talking about the battle today often make erroneous statements about the British troops involved, using words like "young", "conscripts", "recruits", and other terms. There's a mistaken impression that these were inexperienced men. They were not.

The soldiers who marched to Concord that day were the light infantry and grenadier companies from regiments serving in Boston. Each regiment had ten companies, including one each of light infantry and grenadiers. These companies, each with about 35 private soldiers, were composed entirely of capable, experienced men. Their names are known from surviving muster rolls, and their careers can be traced using these semi-annual documents. Unfortunately, very few historians have used this valuable source of information (available only in the form of the original manuscripts at the British National Archives) to document the actual amount of military experince these soldiers had. It's tedious work, but it reveals that the soldiers involved in the fighting on 19 April typically had been in the army for five to ten years, many of them longer. Only a handful had fewer than three years of military experience. The British column did have issues with discipline that day, but they cannot be attributed to fundamental inexperience of the soldiers. Instead, we must look at other factors. Many of the soldiers lacked combat experience in spite of having been in the army for several years. More important, the individual companies had each been taken from their regiments and were put together for the expedition to Concord, but they had not trained together before. Even though each individual company was composed of well-trained men, they did not have experience working together. And no one expected a war to begin that day.

Among the most seasoned soldiers on the expedition was a private soldier in the grenadier company of the 4th Regiment of Foot, the King's Own. John Smith was from St. Andrews in Norfolk, England, and had learned the dyer's trade before he joined the army. He enlisted in 1754, just before the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, when he was 23 years old. His regiment participated in fighting at Minorca in the Mediterranean, and later was sent to the West Indies. When Martinique was taken by the British in 1762, John Smith was wounded in the lower leg. He recovered, and continued in the service.

By the time he marched out of Boston on 19 April 1775, John Smith was 44 years old and had been a soldier for 21 years. And there was nothing unusual about him; many soldiers on that march had similar service records. He received his second wound that day, this time in the thigh. Once again the injury was not severe enough to put him out of the war. It is not known whether he fought again at Bunker Hill, but he continued in the grenadier company after that battle. At the end of 1776 he was transferred into another company for unknown reasons; perhaps the effects of his wound made it too difficult to march with the fast-moving grenadiers. But he was still very much a serving soldier, continuing with the 4th Regiment as it participated in the 1777 campaign to Philadelphia and the 1778 march across New Jersey back to New York.

Later in 1778 the 4th Regiment was among those sent to the west Indies. Smith went there for the second time in his career. He continued to serve after the war ended and the army was reduced in size. He finally left the army in 1788, signing his own name on his discharge certificate. He was 57 years old, and had been wounded twice during his 34 years in the army. He received a pension for his long service.

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