Monday, March 4, 2019

Cavalrymen in the 17th Regiment of Foot

The British army sent only two cavalry regiments, the 16th and 17th Light Dragoons, from Great Britain to fight in the American Revolution. Some Loyalist cavalry regiments and legions (regiments that included both infantry and cavalry) were formed in America, but only two cavalry corps were sent from the British Isles. Many horse soldiers, however, left other British cavalry regiments to serve in the American War as infantry.

Throughout 1775, when regiments were ordered to America - initially for a military buildup that was intended to prevent war, later because war had broken out - they were brought up to full strength with approximately equal numbers of recruits and drafts. Drafts were soldiers already in the army, serving in regiments that were not deploying overseas; they were "drawn" from one regiment to another. In this way, the regiments going on foreign service did not have too many inexperienced men in their ranks.

The infantry regiments that came to America in the first half of 1775 received drafts only from infantry regiments. But in the second half of the year five more regiments received orders to embark, and a call went out for volunteers from cavalry regiments to join the infantry. Due to logistical problems, only the 17th, 27th and 55th Regiments sailed in late 1776, and all included a few drafted cavalry troopers in their ranks. Ten were in the 17th Regiment of Foot.[i] When more regiments were sent to America in 1776, more cavalry drafts filled their ranks, over two hundred in all.

None of the troopers who "went volunteer for America" (to use the terminology on some of the cavalry muster rolls) left an account of his reasons for volunteering. It was quite a career change. The difference in pay between the cavalry and the infantry was significant. The army's adjutant general at the War Office wrote, “What is this Mystery of the willingness of Troopers, to serve as private Grenadiers? I can’t Decypher it: however it’s done.”[ii] The best guess is that overseas service in a war was preferable to the usual duties of the cavalry, policing the English and Irish countryside, occasionally battling smugglers and ruffians.

Not all of the cavalry men who joined the 17th Regiment are explicitly denoted as such on the muster rolls, but because a few are, the others can be determined by comparing names on the 17th's rolls with the names of drafts on the cavalry rolls. Five of them joined the 17th's grenadier company, an apt assignment because grenadiers needed to be experienced soldiers and the cavalry generally recruited taller men than the infantry. John Campbell was thirty-one years old with eight years of service when he left the 5th Dragoons to join the grenadier company of the 17th Regiment. The native of county Sligo in Ireland was discharged in April 1779 because he had been wounded in the leg; he received a pension, a useful benefit because he had never learned a trade.[iii] A fellow trooper from the 5th Dragoons, Bartholomew Reynolds, joined him in the grenadier company, but deserted in New Jersey on 19 June 1777.

Also in the grenadiers were James Lorimer, a twenty-eight year old Irish weaver from county Antrim who had joined the army when he was only fifteen years old. A trooper in the 2nd Horse Regiment, he joined the 17th Foot and served the entire war, taking his discharge in December 1783 and receiving a pension because he had been wounded in the left arm during the war.[iv] James Carlisle, a trooper in the 3rd Horse from county Tyrone, went into the 17th's grenadiers at the age of twenty-nine after five years in the army, and continued to serve until 1799 when he was discharged and pensioned because he was “superannuated & rheumatic;” although a "labourer" with no trade, he was able to sign his own name, and was granted a pension.[v] And Patrick Cunningham of the 9th Dragoons initially joined the 17th's grenadier company, but soon after was transferred to the battalion; he was wounded at Stony Point in 1779, and his subsequent fate is not known.[vi]

William Armstrong was a private trooper in the 14th Light Dragoons, but was appointed corporal a year after joining a battalion company in the 17th Regiment. In 1782 he was appointed sergeant, but he didn't get to enjoy that elevated post for long; he died on 25 April 1783. Also from the 14th Light Dragoons came Robert Quin, who was appointed corporal in June 1778. He was among the unfortunate men of the 17th who was captured at Stony Point, released, and captured again at Yorktown; when prisoners were repatriated at the close of hostilities in 1783, he did not return and was written off the rolls.

From the 5th Dragoons came John Shorthal, whose career with the 17th was cut short when he died of unknown causes on 20 March 1777. John Guthrey volunteered from the 3rd Horse Regiment and served in the 17th Foot for the entire war, but there is no record of him receiving a pension after his discharge in 1783. Thomas Newenham of the 5th Dragoons was taken prisoner soon after joining the regiment; his name appears on a list of prisoners with the rebels dated 29 December 1776. He was released, only to be captured once again at Yorktown. He appears to have been an officer’s servant, as he was given leave to return to Great Britain rather than remaining in captivity. He was discharged in September of 1783.

And there were others. In October of 1778, the 16th Light Dragoons, one of the two cavalry regiments sent as a whole to America, was sent back home. Following the usual practice, men who were fit for service were drafted into other regiments remaining in America. Most of these dragoons went to the 17th Light Dragoons and to Loyalist cavalry regiments, but eleven of them were drafted into the 17th Regiment of Foot. It’s possible that these men had served as dismounted troopers in the 17th Light Dragoons; the muster rolls do not distinguish between mounted and dismounted men. Their careers in the infantry could be traced through the muster rolls of the 17th Foot, but we’ll leave that for another day.

When men were drafted, they typically retained their uniforms from their old regiments, which they owned, having paid for them through pay stoppages. But they received new uniforms with their new regiment’s next clothing issue, if not sooner. It is possible that among the men in the 17th Regiment at Princeton in January 1777 were a few private soldiers in cavalry uniforms, but by the summer of 1777 they had surely been replaced. A few old garments and buttons may have continued to be seen here and there. The more important takeaway is in understanding that many of the “new” soldiers in the regiment were in fact quite experienced, and knew more of the army than just the infantry.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

[i] Muster rolls, 17th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3406, and muster rolls of other infantry and cavalry regiments in the WO 12 series, The National Archives of Great Britain (TNA). Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent information about individual soldiers in this article is drawn from this collection.
[ii] Edward Harvey to Lt. Col. Smith, 7 September 1775, WO 3/5 f41, TNA.
[iii] Pension admission books, WO 116/7, TNA.
[iv] Pension admission books, WO 116/8, TNA.
[v] Discharge of James Carlisle, WO 121/35/153, TNA.
[vi] "List of the Wounded Prisoners left at the Kakial on their March from Stoney Point and who were wounded in attempting to make their Escape from the Guard on the night of the 16th July 1779,"

1 comment:

  1. Well written article. Provides some insight as to the British "horse soldiers" during the Revolution.