Tuesday, May 20, 2014

John Winters, 59th Regiment, catches a woman's eye

During the winter of 1770-1771, a young man named John Winters enlisted in the 59th Regiment of Foot in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He started off as a drummer, but soon became a private soldier. He was so proficient in that capacity that he was put into the regiment's light infantry company, the fast-moving skirmishers recently embodied in each British infantry regiment. He was in this company when the 59th was sent to Boston in 1774 to reinforce the garrison there amid growing tensions.

Having enjoyed peacetime service in Nova Scotia, it was perhaps out of naivity that Winters strayed from his regiment's Boston Neck encampment on 5 October 1774. He went with a fellow soldier to Dedham, a town some miles southeast of Boston, where he was "seduced" by his comrade and a local resident to abscond from the army. He went to New York, where many deserters from Boston were sent, apparently aided by inhabitants who were keen to get former soldiers away from the British army. He found work as a servant for the keeper of a tavern in the city.

War broke out. The few British troops in New York abandoned the place by sea and joined the army in Boston, which was soon surrounded by a nascent American army. Although desertion put him in mortal danger, Winters was far away from any possibility of capture. To further improve his situation, in December 1775 his regiment was sent back to Great Britain. Whatever his intentions, it looked like Winters would spend the rest of his life in America.

Within six months, however, things changed dramatically. The British army evacuated Boston, regrouped in Halifax, and landed on Staten Island to threaten New York. In late August this powerful force won a devastating victory over American defenders on Long Island, and began preparations for an assault on Manhattan. The western end of Long Island was teeming with British soldiers.

On the evening of 7 September 1776, John Winters was out walking on Long Island when a couple overtook him. The woman recognized him immediately and addressed him by name; the man took hold of him. It was a soldier and his wife, former fellows from the 59th Regiment; when that corps left America, many of the men transferred into other regiments rather than going home. It was Winters's amazing luck to run into a man and woman he'd known since his enlistment, now in the 5th Regiment and part of the army that had just arrived in his neighborhood. They took him into custody.

Just two days later Winters was on trial for desertion. Two former comrades, both now serving in the 5th Regiment, testified against him. They verified his enlistment, his desertion, and that he didn't admit to being a deserter until after he was apprehended. This latter point was significant, because deserters who returned of their own volition were often treated with lenience.

Winters was not. Although he pleaded that he had come to Long Island explicitly to turn himself in, and had gone so far as to enlist with the then-raising 84th Regiment (which included many American prisoners of war in its ranks), he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was approved by the commander in chief and carried out on the morning of 11 September. As he may have supposed he would when he deserted, he spent the rest of his life in New York, but it was a shorter life than he'd expected.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

James Annett, 7th Regiment of Foot, gets fired

Sometimes soldiers with short careers have something to teach us, like James Annett of the 7th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Fusiliers. He arrived in America in October 1781, among the last British army recruits to make the journey all the way from Great Britain to New York (recruits sent the following year were detained in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to reinforce that garrison). When Annett and other recruits arrived in New York, they found that their regiment was scattered about North America. Many were prisoners of war, having been captured in the south at Cowpens, Yorktown, or other smaller engagements. Some were in the garrison at Charleston, South Carolina; they soon would be sent on to Savannah, Georgia. But there were elements of the regiment in New York City, including Captain-Lieutenant Thomas Bibby, who took Annett as a servant.

Bibby had been an officer in the 24th Regiment of Foot on the campaign commanded by General Burgoyne in 1777. Captured and subsequently exchanged, he took a commission in the 7th Regiment in January 1781. The regiment was in South Carolina at the time, but Bibby was appointed Deputy Adjutant General in New York, a staff position that offered him safety and comfort, particularly compared to what his fellow Fusiliers were experiencing. He was promoted to Captain, and courted a local woman, Margaret McEvers; they married her in 1782.

After the close of hostilities, the 7th Regiment coalesced again in New York, composed of the men who'd evacuated Savannah, the repatriated prisoners of war, some recruits and transfers from other regiments, and whatever other individuals found themselves in the New York garrison after their diverse wartime experiences. James Annett, in the mean time, had spent two years in America serving Captain Bibby, drawing his soldier's pay plus a salary for his services.

British regiments in America were reduced in size and reorganized in preparation for departure. James Annett took his discharge in August 1783. Although he'd arrived in America in late 1781, he'd probably enlisted well before that, enough to have put in the three years of service required to be eligible for discharge at the end of hostilities (a wartime provision enacted in December 1775; British soldiers who enlisted in peace time had no fixed term of service). Although entitled to passage back to Great Britain, he chose to remain in New York. He had a job there: he was the servant to Thomas Bibby, who also chose to remain. Bibby retired from his post in the 7th Regiment but remained on half-pay, akin to being in the reserves today. He settled in New York with his wife, retaining his former soldier-servant in his employ.

The arrangement had worked for a while, but some time in 1784 things turned sour. On 9 September, this notice appeared in the New York Journal:

I have discharged James Annitts, formerly a British soldier, (an hired servant) for insolence, impertinence and dishonesty.
T. Bibby, Cap. Royal Fusileers.

We lose sight of Annett after this. Perhaps he found work as a servant in another household, but the bad endorsement from his former master may have forced him to established himself in a new career in his new county.