Thursday, December 3, 2015

Richard Roberts, 33rd Regiment, Gets a Break

There's a perception that British officers were totally aloof from the common soldiers they commanded. While military discipline and bearing required that officers maintain a degree of separation in order to maintain authority, wise officers were invested in the welfare of their men and took their personal well-being seriously. It's not unusual to find writings by officers that casually mention individual soldiers. When officers commanded individuals from their own neighborhoods, letters home sometimes include requests to pass information of a soldier's well-being on to that man's family.

A fine example comes from the letters of Major William Dansey of the 33rd Regiment of Foot to his mother. A career officer who had served in the Seven Years' War in Germany, Dansey had spent time recruiting in his native Herefordshire on the Welsh border, and frequently boasted of his Hereford recruits in letters home to his parents. Dansey arrived in America with the 33rd Regiment in 1776 and was frequently in harm's way during active campaigning throughout the next few years, but personal business brought him back to Great Britain for a period in 1780 and 1781. It was by this twist of fate that he missed the 33rd Regiment's service on the fateful southern campaign under Lord Cornwallis. 

By the time Dansey returned to America and arrived in Charleston in January 1782, most of his regiment was imprisoned after the British surrender at Yorktown. There were elements of the 33rd and other British regiments in Charleston, South Carolina, however, including men who had been unfit to serve on the campaign and new recruits who had arrived too late to follow their corps. Among the latter was a soldier in the 33rd Regiment named Richard Roberts. 

Roberts had arrived in America in 1780 with a number of other recruits for the 33rd and other regiments. He may have enlisted anywhere from a few months to a few years before embarking for America. When Major Dansey arrived in Charleston, he took command of the soldiers of the 23rd, 33rd and 71st Regiments there, 300 or so men altogether, including Roberts. They were sent to garrison James Island, hot, uncomfortable and in danger. Cornwallis's army had surrendered, but the war continued. Dansey, a seasoned veteran of two wars, made sure that his small post was ready for whatever might occur.

His preparation paid off on 14 November 1782, when an American force under Col. Thaddeus Kosciusko descended on James Island. They encountered a forward position well-placed and manned with brave, alert British soldiers. Although outnumbered, they held off the attackers long enough for Dansey to bring up reinforcements and push them back to the mainland. Among those defending the advanced post was Richard Roberts; the connection between him and Dansey is not known, but the officer wrote enthusiastically to his mother,

You will be pleased that Dick Roberts was one of those brave men, he is wounded in the Arm but doing very well, I can't help saying I was pleased to see him wounded it has open'd a road to my sincere Friendship for him. I shall take care he never wants any Comforts to his station of Life can admit of and if he behaves well he may expect my Maintenance and Protection.

True to his word, Dansey appointed Roberts corporal on 16 December, affording the young soldier greater prestige and responsibility. The skirmish in which Roberts was wounded was the last in South Carolina, and among the last of the war. The men of the 33rd and other British regiments soon moved to New York where the climate was much more to their liking. In March 1783 Dansey wrote again about Roberts, making it clear just how severe the young corporal's wound had been:

I have the pleasure to tell you that Dick Roberts is very well. as his arm was broke I don't like to let him do duty till he has recovered strength by the Spring. He promises to make as pretty a soldier as any in the Regiment and is behaving very well, from me he shall not want for Encouragement if he continues it. As he was above being a Tradesman he must take his chance as a soldier and I hope he will behave as well as he did brave.

Although Dansey's assessment of Roberts's choice of career choice is colored by the officer's own attachment to the army, it puts into perspective the dogma that enlistment was a choice of last resort. In the same letter, Dansey related more about the aftermath of the November skirmish; Roberts was having his wound dressed when an officer carried in another wounded man who was about Dansey's size:

I cou'd not help being pleased and smiling at him when I saw him wounded, while he was dressing Ensn. Lockhart was carrying in wounded and being about my size some of the soldiers said it was the Major upon which this poor Boy burst out a crying not having flinch'd before but berg his wound very patiently, he has suffer'd pretty well for his folly.

Mail between Great Britain and America traveled regularly on fast packet ships, usually once a month. Correspondence was nonetheless a slow process and the fate of each mail delivery far from certain. Under these conditions, Dansey sometimes related similar things in successive letters to his mother; in April he wrote:

As Dick Roberts is going on very well I have a Pleasure in mentioning him to you. I hope I shall make a very pretty soldier of him, he has hardly yet got the full strength of his arm, but the spring will set him up, it was a lucky shot for him had it not been for it, I shoud have been a long time before I promoted him, for had I a Brother, I would not favor him before a deserving soldier

With peace declared, the mechanics of taking the British army down off a war footing began. Even though the 33rd Regiment had suffered much during the war, it was directed from New York to Nova Scotia rather than returning to Great Britain. Men who had enlisted after the war began had the option of being discharged. Richard Roberts was discharged on 11 September 1783, but Major Dansey's care and attention had had a good effect on him: the following day he reenlisted in the 33rd Regiment of Foot. The remainder of this faithful soldier's career has not yet been traced; we can hope he fulfilled the promise that his devoted officer saw in him.

Learn more about British soldiers in America

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