Saturday, September 10, 2022

John Bartley, 31st Regiment, knows the war is over

The terms of enlistment were very clear to John Bartley: service would be over “at the end of three years, or at the end of said Rebellion, at the option of His Majesty.” These were the terms prescribed by the British War Office for enlistments after December 16, 1775. The British government had committed to using military force to quell a rebellion in thirteen British colonies in North America. This required a significant increase in the size of the army. The established strength of regiments deployed to America was increased by 50 percent, an increase met partly by transferring men from non-deployed regiments and partly by new recruits.

John Bartley was one of those recruits. The five foot nine-and-a-quarter inch tall Scotsman enlisted in the 31st Regiment of Foot in early 1777 at the age of twenty-four. Later that year he was on a transport with other recruits, bound first for Quebec and then going on to the regiment's post at St. Johns on the Richelieu River between Lake Champlain and Montreal.

Bartley served uneventfully enough that no mention of him has been found other than his name on muster rolls throughout the rest of the war. The 31st's grenadier and light infantry companies went on the 1777 campaign towards Albany and were captured at Saratoga that October, remaining in captivity for the rest of the war. In 1781 the regiment selected suitable men from the eight remaining companies to create new grenadier and light infantry companies; Bartley was among those chosen to be a grenadier.

Early in 1783 a peace treaty was signed. The war that had been winding down for months was now officially over. There were now innumerable administrative and logistic tasks involved in reducing the army to a peacetime footing. The 31st Regiment was in Quebec, so it didn't need to go anywhere, but around half of the soldiers were eligible for discharge because of reduced manpower needs. Officers awaited orders for how to proceed with this, but John Bartley decided for himself that his military career was over. In April, probably soon after news of the finalized peace treaty reached Quebec, he refused to do any more duty. As far as he was concerned, he was done.

His officers, not surprisingly, had a different point of view. Bartley was tried by court martial on May 1, found guilty, and sentenced to be punished with 500 lashes. The commander in chief in Quebec reviewed the case and chose to forgive Bartley "in consideration of the Prisoners good character, his confession of having been misled and acted through ignorance." In general orders the commander proclaimed that he hoped Bartley's case would "be a warning and prevent any other soldier from falling into the like error."

Those soldiers awaiting discharge did not have to wait too much longer. Later in the year large numbers of soldiers were discharged, with the option of remaining in North America or returning to Great Britain. Gaps in the muster rolls make John Bartley's fate unknown.

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Monday, August 29, 2022

What became of Sarah McPike, 62nd Regiment?

Thomas McPike enlisted in the British army at the young age of sixteen in the year 1759. A native of Ballinderry parish in County Antrim, Ireland, he had learned no trade and as such fell under the general category of "labourer". In the army he fared well, rising to the rank of serjeant within only four years, suggesting that he was well-educated and highly capable, perhaps someone who aspired to become an officer but lacked the patronage or social standing achieve such a goal. By the beginning of 1776 he was a sergeant in the 62nd Regiment of Foot's grenadier company, the tallest, most fit men in the regiment.

The 62nd was among the regiments that sailed from Ireland to Quebec, driving off American forces that had besieged that city and chasing them all the way to Lake Champlain before the end of 1776. The following year they were in the army led by General John Burgoyne that advanced from Canada towards Albany.

Soon after landing in Quebec in 1776, the 62nd's grenadier company joined grenadier companies from nine other regiments to form a grenadier battalion. This battalion was part of the advance guard on the 1777 campaign and saw heavy fighting at the Battle of Hubbardton in July, the Battle of Freeman's Farm in September, and the Battle of Bemis Heights in October. Somewhere on the campaign, probably in one of these battles, McPike was wounded in the leg; in period parlance, this referred to the part of the leg below the knee, the upper part being called the thigh. When the British army capitulated at Saratoga in October, McPike became a prisoner of war.

The prisoners - presumably including Thomas McPike - were marched first to the Boston, Massachusetts area, then a year later to Virginia, and finally to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1781. In the meantime, his wife Sarah and child Samuel had found their way to Newport, Rhode Island by January 1779. How they got there has not been determined. Most likely they had stayed behind in Quebec when Burgoyne's army marched south in June 1777, and then taken a passage from Quebec to Newport. From Newport they boarded the armed victualling ship Maria on January 31 and sailed to the city of New York, disembarking there on February 9. From there Sarah and Samuel's whereabouts are unknown until June 1781, when the British prisoners of war arriving at Lancaster included "Sjt. McPike & Wife". Somehow Sarah had joined her husband in captivity. And young Samuel was now old enough to be Drummer Samuel McPike.

The prisoners were finally freed in the first half of 1783, after a peace treaty formally ended the war. From Lancaster they walked to the City of New York, still a British garrison, and in June Sergeant Thomas McPike and Drummer Samuel McPike along with about forty soldiers and fifteen of their wives boarded the British sixty-four-gun warship Lion. They boarded on June 21, and disembarked at Portsmouth, England on July 24. Thomas McPike accepted his discharge from the army after twenty-four years of service and received an army pension; Samuel continued as a drummer in the 62nd Regiment.

But Sarah was not with them on the voyage. What became of her? Nothing more has been found about her after her arrival in Lancaster in June 1781. It would be nice to hope that she survived and found her own way back to England and her family, or at least made a new life for herself in America. But probably not. She probably died in captivity, the same fate that befell many of the Saratoga prisoners, one of many whose fate is unknown.

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[Information for this article comes from the muster rolls of the 62nd Regiment of Foot, army pension admission books, and muster books of HMS Maria and HMS Lion, all in the British National Archives; and the list of prisoners sent to Lancaster, in the Peter Force Papers, Library of Congress.]

Saturday, April 16, 2022

John Fletcher, 54th Regiment, far the most witty

Various military records provide details on British soldiers' ages, places of birth, trades, and sometimes even physical attributes like their height, hair color, eye color, complexion, and "visage" (the shape of the face - round, square, long, etc.). This sort of information gives a sense of who each person was, but tells nothing about his personality; it is extremely rare to find anything about what type of person a soldier was, what they thought, whether they were articulate.

William Cobbett enlisted in the 54th Regiment of Foot in 1783 when he was twenty years old, and served for eight years. Like many soldiers, he used his time in the army to better himself, becoming an avid reader and writer. He became a journalist, pamphleteer and political activist, lobbying hard for reforms to benefit soldiers and the working class. His time as a soldier had left a strong impression on him that guided his life and career. Cobbett did not serve in the American Revolution, but his regiment had done so, and he met many soldiers who had served in that war. One of them left such an impression on Cobbett that twenty-six years after leaving the army, in 1817, he wrote of him to a colleague:

I have had, during my life, no little converse with men famed for their wit, for instance; but the most witty man I ever knew was a private soldier. He was not only the most witty, but far the most witty. He was a Staffordshire man, he came from Walsall, and his name was John Fletcher. I have heard from that man more bright thoughts of a witty character than I ever heard from all other men, and than I have ever read in all the books that I have read in my whole life. No coarse jokes, no puns, no conundrums, no made-up jests, nothing of the college kind, but real sterling, sprightly wit. When I have heard people repeat the profligate sayings of Sheridan, and have heard the House of Commons roaring at his green-room trash, I have always thought of poor Jack Fletcher, who, if he could have put his thoughts on paper, would have been more renowned than Butler or Swift.

This was high praise from Cobbett, who had by this time indeed met many famous men. Cobbett followed his praise of Fletcher with with a statement about the importance not just of acquiring knowledge but of "communicating that knowledge to others." He wrote, "Jack Fletcher's wit, for instance, went no farther than his red-coated circle. But, if he had had my capacity of putting his thoughts upon paper, he would soon have made the world participate in our pleasure."

Cobbett implied that Fletcher could not write, but it may be that Fletcher simply lacked a venue for his writing. When he was discharged from the army he signed his discharge form. This document confirms that Fletcher was born in Bloxwich Parish, Walsall, Staffordshire in 1748, and that he was five feet five and a half inches tall, with a dark complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. He pursued the trade of buckle making before joining the 54th Regiment in 1770 at the age of twenty-two. The regiment's muster rolls show that he was with the 54th Regiment when that corps sailed to America in early 1776, first to the Carolina coast and then to Staten Island. The regiment participated in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, and the campaign that took the City of New York. From there they went to Rhode Island where Fletcher spent three years before departing in the summer of 1779. The 54th spent the rest of the war in the environs of New York, taking part in raids on the Connecticut coast in 1779. When a peace treaty was signed in 1783, the 54th was one of several British regiments that voyaged from New York to Nova Scotia, remaining in Canada for several years. It was there that Cobbett joined the regiment as a young recruit (having been enlisted by a recruiting party in England) and met Fletcher.

John "Jack" Fletcher was discharged from the 54th Regiment in June 1792, six months after Cobbett, becasue he was “consumptive and rheumatic, and worn out in the service." He obtained a pension but, like many British soldiers, soon enlisted again. He served in the 86th Regiment from 1794 until July 1799, this time attaining the rank of corporal. He was discharged again in July 1799. Thanks to the strong impression he made on William Cobbett, we know something of what kind of man he was.

Information from this article comes from the following sources:

William Cobbett: Selected Writings, ed. Leonora Nattrass (London: Routledge, 2016) 

Discharges of John Fletcher, WO 121/14/455 and WO 121/148/410, National Archives of Great Britain

Muster rolls, 54th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6398 and /6399, National Archives of Great Britain

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Duncan Robinson, 49th Regiment, a very proper soldier for promotion

When Serjeant Duncan Robinson signed his discharge from the 49th Regiment of Foot on 31 July 1786, at the age of sixty, his signature looked like that of someone who had barely learned how to write. He had spent thirty-two years and two months in the army, ten as a private soldier in the 42nd Regiment during the French and Indian War, and the rest (possibly after a gap in his service) in the 49th. But the Perthshire native had been appointed corporal only five years before, and serjeant only one year prior to being discharged. He was recommended for a pension because he was "worn out in the service, having served seven years of the above time in the West Indies, and America last war, which has rendered him incapable of further service." Having learned the trade of carpentry before becoming a soldier, he had spent part of career "in the Engineers Department when employ'd in making the Kings works under the command of Colonel J. Montresor," an army engineer who oversaw a number of major projects in America, but in this work he "received several bruises," contributing to his incapacity. An army surgeon added that Robinson was "subject to rheumatism and also received severe hurts in the service, which from old age and infirmities, has prevented him from doing his duty during the winter months."

None of this was unusual for a discharged soldier, but the officer commanding the 49th Regiment wrote a letter to accompany the discharge describing some distinctive attributes of Robinson's character. He had, the officer wrote, "served honestly and faithfully," and "never was Confined during the whole course of his Service in the 49th Regiment." Clarifying the reason why he had remained a private soldier for so long, the officer wrote that Robinson "was always looked upon as a very proper soldier for promotion, but on account of his not learning to write, prevented him from being made a Non Commission’d Officer for which promotion he was justly entitled to." Moreover, Robinson had "frequently refused being appointed a Non Commissioned Officer himself, saying and giving for reason he would be Oblidged to no other soldier for writing his reports for him." Besides affirming the importance of writing for non-commissioned officers, this shows how prideful Robinson was in turning down positions that offered higher base pay and significant opportunities to earn extra money; he would have no man do his work for him, a testament to his integrity as well as his honesty (no one could falsify information in his name).

His commanding officer told more about Robinson: "He brought into the service, and into the 49th Regiment three sons, and three Nephews," showing how influential an individual could be in obtaining recruits for a regiment. In 1768 the author of a popular military text had recommended,

Men being most desirous of enlisting into a corps, where they are certain of meeting many countrymen, and perhaps relations; besides, it is a spur towards raising their ambition, to see some of their friends, who probably enlisted only a few years before, return among them in the character of Non-commission-officers, or sometimes in a higher station.

Muster rolls for the 49th Regiment confirm that several Robinsons were in the 49th Regiment between June 1775 when the corps arrived in Boston, and August 1778, the last available muster roll - Arthur, Daniel, John, Thomas and William. Military documents don't indicate who was related to who, but presumably all of these men were either sons or nephews of Duncan Robinson. Moreover, according to the 49th's commander, two "were killed in America, Non Commissioned Officers and the other lost his Arm at White Plains." Daniel Robinson was indeed killed while serving in the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry near Philadelphia on 21 September 1777. Serjeant William Robinson was apparently wounded because he was reduced to private in late 1776, then discharged in April 1778; it may well have been he who lost his arm at the Battle of White Plains in October 1776. Rolls are incomplete during the time the 49th served in the West Indies beginning in late 1778; other Robinsons may have died while fighting the French in that harsh climate.

Duncan Robinson's thirty-two years of exemplary service and great contributions to his regiment earned him a pension. This was a portion of his pay as a serjeant, significantly more than that of a private soldier - which may have been the reason he was promoted just a year before he was discharged, so that his exceptional service would be well rewarded.

[Information for this post comes from the discharge of Duncan Robinson, WO 97/581/47, British National Archives; muster rolls of the 49th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6032, British National Archives; and Bennett Cuthbertson, A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Economy of a Battalion of Infantry (Dublin, 1768)]

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Sunday, February 20, 2022

Dennis Green, 5th Regiment, takes home a souvenir

Dennis Green was just thirteen years old when he joined the 5th Regiment of Foot in 1765. Born in the town of Mallow in County Cork, Ireland, he was probably the son of a soldier in the regiment and probably started his service as a drummer. By 1774, though, when the regiment arrived in Boston, he was 5 feet 11 1/4 tall, just right for the regiment's grenadier company.

Late in the evening of April 18, 1775, the grenadiers and light infantry from regiments in Boston were quietly assembled, ferried across the Charles River, and in the first hours of April 19 set off for Concord, a town twenty miles inland. By the end of that day the British army in America was at war with rebelling American colonists, and Dennis Green was among the war's first casualties and first prisoners. He was hit by a musket ball somewhere along the arduous retreat from Concord back to Boston, and left behind with a number of other wounded soldiers. Doctors were unable to remove the ball, and it remained in his body.

Some time between April and June 1777 he found his way back to his regiment. Whether he escaped or was exchanged has not been determined, but he was fit enough to go back into the grenadier company. He went with them to Philadelphia in 1777, and back to New York in 1778, then - as far as can be determined from the incomplete surviving muster rolls - continued with the regiment to the West Indies. By 1783, with hostilities ended, Green one among the many soldiers discharged as the size of the army decreased.

Dennis Green's discharge from the 5th Regiment, a printed form with personal details filled in that confirmed his obligation to the army was over, reveals the details about him related above - his age, place of birth, how long he had been in the army, and his height. It also includes a statement from an army surgeon:

I certify that the above nam’d Dennis Green has been for these five years labouring under a Complaint, occasioned by a Musquet shot (which still remains in his Body) he received at Lexinton N. America, & is so reduced in Body that it does not seem probable he will recover) And will not by Labour be able to Provide a Maintenance for himself.

He was out of the army, but carried with him a token of his first day at war. He was granted a pension.

Either the musket ball in his body was eventually removed, or somehow it did not cause him undue pain, for seven years later, in 1790, he enlisted in the army once again. He joined the 11th Regiment of Foot, was appointed corporal, and served for twenty months before being discharged and put on the pension rolls once again. This time no mention was made of a ball in his body; his discharge indicates that he suffered from "a Colliquative Diarrhea." He signed his name on his discharge, and there is no record of him serving again in the army.

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