Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Edward and Eleanor Webb, Brigade of Guards, secret stolen goods

The region around the village of Sedgley in Staffordshire was a hotbed of industrial development in the second half of the eighteenth century. South of Wolverhampton and northwest of Birmingham, it was a natural place for young men seeking work to take jobs in the iron industry. For Edward Webb, that meant following the trade of a nailor, a specialized metal worker who made nails. By the time he was nineteen years old, in late 1772, he decided to change careers and enlist in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards. At 5' 11" tall, with dark brown hair, grey eyes, and a dark complexion, he was a good specimen for a soldier, albeit with little prospect of advancement because he'd never learned to write.

Unlike the regular infantry regiments in the army, the Foot Guards had a permanent headquarters, and it was in London. In times of peace, the Guards regiments were never deployed overseas, so the young soldier may have expected to spend a long career in his nation's capital city. Things changed in early 1776, however, when the military buildup for the American war necessitated creative ways to send experienced troops overseas. As had been done in prior wars, a brigade of 1000 men was formed of volunteers from each of the three Foot Guards regiments (which were considerably larger than other infantry regiments). The Brigade of Guards arrived in America in the summer of 1776, joining the army on Staten Island.

The Brigade of Guards was at the forefront of several campaigns, including the one that captured Philadelphia in late 1777. While the army wintered in Philadelphia, duty was harsh, building and maintaining fortifications, foraging in a snowswept countryside, keeping watch during bitter cold nights. Somehow, in spite of this, soldiers found time to socialize. At the city's Gloriea Dei Church, the number of marriages more than doubled during the few months that the British army was in town; many of the brides may have been refugees from the surrounding region rather than inhabitants of the city or widows of soldiers; unfortunately, the church's marriage records record only the names of the brides, not their circumstances. Among the men who married was Edward Webb, who wed Eleanor Deley on 14 May 1778. A month later they left the city together and marched to New York with the rest of the British forces.

For the remainder of 1778 and into 1779, the Brigade of Guards stayed in the New York City area, but remained active, participating in a number of expeditions into New Jersey and Connecticut. As 1779 wound down, they moved from tent camps to huts, structures of boards or logs with thatched roofs, often built into the sides of hills. A dozen or so men and their wives might live in each one-room hut, cramped but cozy quarters for the cold season.

One night in late October, three soldiers of the Guards arrived at the door of the hut that Eleanor Webb shared with her husband and others. They asked for something to drink, an offer that she obliged. Then they asked if they might leave a bundle there for a while, which she also allowed. The next day the men returned, to open the bundled and divvy up the contents; one of the soldiers said he'd found the bundle in the street. It contained an assortment of cloth and three pairs of women's stays. They parceled out the contents, giving a pair of stays to another woman who was present, and giving Eleanor Webb a pair of stays, two pieces of calico cloth, and one piece of plain cloth. She hesitated to take them, saying she was afraid they'd been stolen, but the soldiers assured her they'd been found. Some of the goods remained in the hut, and one of the soldiers took the remainder.

A day later, more people arrived at the hut. This time it was a shopkeeper, a constable, and some men assisting them. They searched the hut and found some of the things from the bundle. Those goods had been stolen from the shopkeeper's shop, and she'd received a tip that they'd be found in the Webbs' hut. Other things had been found in the camp of a Hessian regiment, where soldiers and wives had bought them from a British soldier. A few days later the constable and his men returned, and this they dug into the ground under Edward Webb's bed. They found still more of the stolen goods. Edward and Eleanor Webb, and four other soldiers of the Guards, were put under arrest.

The Brigade of Guards held a general court martial in early December. Three soldiers were tried for breaking into the shop and stealing an assortment of goods. The key evidence was provided by another soldier who had participated in the crime and agreed to turn "King's evidence," that is, to testify on behalf of the prosecution in return for immunity. When that trial concluded, Edward and Eleanor Webb, along with one other soldier, were tried for "receiving and secreting of goods stolen" from the shopkeeper. The testimony was straightforward, about the goods being found in the hut, some buried under a bed. Soldiers described leaving the bundle in the hut, then returning and dividing up the contents. They mentioned Eleanor Webb receiving cloth and a pair of stays, and her reluctance to take them for fear of their having been stolen. The stolen goods were shown to the court, and the shopkeeper identified them.

Eleanor Webb testified honestly, about her concern that the things had been stolen, and the reassurance she'd been given that they were not. The court, however, did not accept this as an excuse. Plundering, and the distribution of stolen goods, had been a rampant problem in the British army in America, and many similar trials had been held even during the eighteen months that Mrs. Webb had been with the army. Edward and Eleanor Webb were found guilty; he was sentenced to receive 500 lashes, while she was sentenced to be "drummed out of the lines with a rope around her neck."

We don't know whether the punishment was carried out or pardoned. If Mrs. Webb was indeed drummed out of the lines, that left her in a difficult situation. She could try to return to the Philadelphia area, if she had a place there to go, but the very circumstances that led her to marry a British soldier may have also prevented her return. If she had proof of her marriage, she was entitled to reside in her husband's home town of Sedgley in England, but getting there would be profoundly difficult. Without further information, we can only guess what became of her.

Edward Webb now had two predictors of his future behavior: he had married in America, and he had been sentenced to lashes. Many soldiers who'd had either of these experiences subsequently deserted - to stay with their wives, in the former instance, and in disgruntlement, in the latter instance. If Edward Webb's wife was indeed turned out of British lines, that gave him even more incentive to abscond. He did not, however, desert. He remained a soldier in the 1st Foot Guards for a total of nineteen years and one month, taking his discharge on 4 January 1792 at Whitehall in London. Because of "the rheumatism contracted on service in America, during the whole campaign," the thirty-eight year old soldier was awarded an out pension, meaning that he could return to his place of residence and collect a semi-annual payment from the government.

Instead, he remained in London and joined the Royal Westminster Regiment of Middlesex Militia. He remained in that corps until October 1796, when he requested and received a discharge, and returned to the pension rolls.

Pensioners had an obligation to serve in garrison battalions if they were fit enough to do so, that is, capable of doing the sorts of light duty required in a fixed post, even if they were no longer able to march and encamp like they had done in the infantry. Webb was among those called up at the end of December 1802, but after only fifty-one days he was discharged again after being "found incapable of doing garrison duty;" he was then "exempted from attendence upon any further occasion when the out pensioners may be called on."

Two years later, however, he was once again in a garrison battalion in London. In spite of the medical assessment he'd previously received, he served for two years and nine months, taking his discharge on 30 November 1807 and returning to the pension rolls one final time, having "disorders contracted in the service and found unfit for garrison duty."

Learn more about British soldiers in America!