Wednesday, July 24, 2019
The village of Thurcaston in Leicestershire has a primary school that was founded in 1715. It is quite possible that Thomas Swift, born in the village in 1749, attended this school before pursuing the trade of framework knitting, making stockings in the rapidly-mechanizing British textile industry. He left the trade behind at the age of twenty to become a soldier.
He joined the 37th Regiment of Foot, probably just after its return from six years in Menorca. This afforded him several years to learn his military trade while the regiment was posted in England, Scotland and Ireland. By 1775 he was in the regiment's light infantry company, and by the time the regiment embarked for America in early 1776, he had gotten married. The couple sailed from Ireland with a fleet that aimed to open a southern theater in the American war in 1776.
By June, the 37th Regiment was encamped on Long Island, not the well-known place in New York but a sandy barrier island just north of Charleston, South Carolina. In spite of the hot weather, the army had remained healthy in the sea breezes. Late in the month the soldiers watched helplessly as British frigates futilely bombarded Fort Moultrie, the army's plans to attack foiled by the depth of the channel between Long Island and the fort's island, which they had intended to wade across. The army remained on Long Island into July, then sailed north to join the troops already on Staten Island preparing for the campaign that would capture New York City.
The light infantry companies of seven regiments that came from South Carolina to Staten Island were formed into the 3rd Battalion of Light Infantry for the campaigns that ran from August 1776 through June 1777.
For the campaign to Philadelphia in the second half of 1777 the light infantry was reorganized into two battalions, with the 37th's company in the 2nd. Thomas Swift was certainly involved in these campaigns, but nothing remarkable is known of his individual service until September 20, 1777, the date of the battle of Paoli. Swift was among the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry that marched for hours through the night to surprise an American brigade in their encampment, descending with bayonets upon the sleeping American troops in the darkness.
As the mayhem subsided, a man wrapped in a blanket emerged from tall grass near a fence and surrendered himself to Thomas Swift and a fellow soldier of the 37th. The man wore a Continental Army uniform, blue with red facings. He offered his musket, pointing out that it had not been fired. And he explained that he had deserted from the 23rd Regiment of Foot in Boston back in 1774. He was now serving in the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, and said he had tried several times to desert and return to British service. As he was pleading his case, a sergeant from another British regiment came by and wounded him with a bayonet.
McKie, who had in fact deserted from the 23rd Regiment on 9 December 1774, was tried by a general court martial a week later in Germantown, just outside of Philadelphia, where the light infantry battalions were encamped. Two sergeants of the 23rd Regiment testified at the trial, and Swift and his colleague related their capture of the man now charged with "having had correspondence with and bourne Arms in the Rebel Army." McKie was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Five days after the trial, Thomas Swift was fighting for his own life. At dawn on 4 October an onslaught of Continental soldiers routed the light infantry from their camp. During the course of a fierce battle British forces turned the tide and won the day. Somewhere in the fray Swift was wounded in the left arm. The injury was not severe enough to end his service, though; he continued on in the 37th Regiment’s light infantry.
The muster rolls prepared in Philadelphia in February 1778 record Swift as a prisoner of war; by the time of the next rolls, August 1778, he was back with his company in the New York area. No details have yet surfaced about his captivity or exchange.
In early 1781 the light infantry, now operating as a single battalion given the reduced numbers of regiments in New York, was sent on an expedition to Virginia. In the summer they joined with the army under General Cornwallis that had come to Virginia through the Carolinas, and settled in to the post at Yorktown. By October they were under siege from American and French forces.
On the night of October 15-16, British light infantry conducted a sortie into the American trenches and put several cannon out of action. It may have been during this action that Thomas Swift was wounded “in the belly,” or he may have been wounded the following day, the last day that shots were fired. A cease-fire was called on the 17th, and the British troops surrendered on the 19th.
Probably because of his wound, Swift was not among those who spent the next eighteen months imprisoned. He returned to New York, and to duty with the 37th Regiment. On June 15, 1783, after peace was negotiated and the fellow soldiers of his company were released, Swift was appointed corporal. He and his regiment returned to Great Britain later that year.
The man who had been twice wounded and spent time as a prisoner of war stayed in the army. H was reduced to a private soldier in November 1785, but at some point after that was appointed corporal again. He served until the end of 1790, taking his discharge in Canterbury on December 23. Besides his wounds, his discharge recorded that he was “rheumatic and worn out in the service.” He received two extra weeks of pay, and made his way to Chelsea where he went before the pension board and was granted a pension early in 1791. In 1798, he spent a few months in an invalid company.
Of his wife, far less is known. She was certainly with him on Staten Island in 1776. And in the New York area in late 1778, she earned four shillings eight pence for making a shirt and a pair of leggings for the 37th Regiment’s light infantry company. Her first name is not recorded.