Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Benjamin Nevil is drafted into the 17th Light Dragoons

Those familiar with the British army know that only two cavalry regiments were sent to serve in the American Revolution, the 16th (Queen's) Light Dragoons and the 17th Light Dragoons. Seldom discussed is how those regiments were changed for American service, and the diversity of individual soldiers who served in them.

Compared to an infantry regiment, a dragoon regiment was small; infantry regiments consisted of ten companies each with three officers and 44 serjeants, corporals, drummers and private soldiers, while dragoon regiments consisted of six troops each composed of three officers and 36 serjeants, corporals, trumpeters and private soldiers. When the 17th Light Dragoons was ordered to America in early 1775, each troop had only about 24 of that number on its actual strength. Besides having to add the men to meet its normal establishment, a serjeant and 17 private men were added to the desired size of each troop. But later in 1775 when it became clear that this would be a long war requiring a stronger army, even more changes were ordered.

For infantry regiments, the size of each company was increased by half, adding a serjeant, a drummer and 18 private soldiers to each company. The 16th Light Dragoons was ordered to America, and both the 16th and 17th were increased substantially in size. The number of troops remained the same, but the size of each troop was increased by one officer and thirty private men - in addition to the increase that had been made the previous year. These new men were dismounted, that is, they were to fight on foot rather than on horseback (although the term "dragoon" originally described soldiers equipped to travel on horseback but fight on foot, by the time of the American Revolution dragoons were, in general, the same as other cavalry and configured to fight on horseback).

All these men had to come from somewhere, and filling the ranks with new recruits would be counterproductive; the purpose of the size increase, after all, was to make the regiments more effective on campaign. For both the infantry and cavalry regiments, men were drafted (that is, transferred) from other regiments to fill the ranks of those going to war; for the two cavalry regiments bound for America, almost all of the required men were drafts rather than recruits. One man drafted into the 17th Light Dragoons was a trooper from the 1st (Royal) Dragoons, Benjamin Nevil.

When Nevil joined the army has not been determined. It is our good fortune to have a detailed description of him, because at the beginning of 1774 he was advertised as a deserter:

Deserted, on the 2d of January, 1774, from a Party of his Majesty’s First (or Royal Regiment of Dragoons) commanded by the Earl of Pembroke, quartered at Boston, Lincolnshire,
                Benjamin Nevil, five Feet eight Inches high, thirty-one Years old, long brown Hair, grey Eyes, dark Complexion, gloomy Countenance, marked with the Small-Pox, strait and well-made, has lost the first Joint of his Left Thumb; born at or near Arlington, in Berkshire, by Occupation a Labourer. Went off in his Regimental white Jacket, laced Hat, and Leather Breeches, and has a Woman with him who passes for his Wife.
                Whoever secures the above Deserter, shall receive Twenty Shillings Reward above the Allowance by Act of Parliament, for apprehending Deserters, on Application to the commanding Officer of the Regiment; or to Mr. Lamb, in Golden-Square, London.
[St. James’s Chronicle (London), 29 January 1774]

The circumstances of this disciplinary digression are not known. What is clear is that Nevil was back with his regiment in time to be drafted into the 17th Light Dragoons in March 1776. He probably arrived in America six months later, when a large convoy carrying recruits and reinforcements arrived in New York in late October. Whether he fought on horseback or on foot is not known, but he appears to have gone quickly into the fight. His regiment was very active in the campaign across New Jersey in late 1776 and the many skirmishes there throughout the early months of 1777.

Service in New Jersey in the first few months of 1777 was very hard on British troops. Quartered in a number of small towns stretching from Fort Lee to Trenton, they spent nights in barns and outbuildings; days were occupied with procurement of desperately-needed forage from the countryside, and protecting the fragile string of outposts from attack by American troops. Soldiers succumbed to illness and wounds, including Benjamin Nevil. He died on 11 March 1777, but the cause of his demise is not known.