Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Charles Stevens, 21st Regiment of Foot, Goes to the Dogs

 Charles Stevens was a cordwainer from the town of Airth in County Stirling, Scotland, a few miles up the River Forth from Edinburgh. He joined the army in 1758 at the age of twenty-five, enlisting in the 21st Regiment of Foot, called the Royal North British Fusiliers and composed largely of men from the Scottish lowlands. His regiment soon traveled to North America, moving around through various colonies from Quebec all the way to West Florida, before finally returning to England in 1773.

It would be a short stay. War broke out in America in 1775, and in early 1776 the 21st was crossing the Atlantic again, one of nine regiments sent to relieve the siege of Quebec City. There, joined by another regiment already in America, they helped to drive invading rebel Americans away from the city and all the way back into New York. The onset of winter prevented an assault on Fort Ticonderoga that year, and the 21st went into quarters in Canada for the winter.

The following year saw the regiment on the ill-fated campaign up Lake Champlain toward Albany, that culminated in surrender at Saratoga. It is not clear whether Stevens was on the campaign or not, but later events suggest that he may have been a servant to Lieutenant George Brody. By June 1781, when many soldiers of the 21st were still languishing in American prisoner of war camps, Charles Stevens was back in Great Britain, on recruiting service with now-Captain Brody. He attained the rank of sergeant.

After serving twenty-five years, Stevens was discharged from the army in late 1783 at the age of fifty. He went before the pension examining board at Chelsea Hospital outside of London in December, and again in January 1784, where he was granted an out-pension. He then settled far north of his home town, in the counties of Moray and Nairn. As an out-pensioner, he went to the nearest excise office twice a year to collect his pension, roughly five-eighths of his sergeant's pay. But he didn't show up to collect in the second half of 1786, nor at all in 1787.

In June 1788, Stevens went before a justice of the peace in Cupar, County Fife, to explain his absence and collect the pension funds due to him. In July 1786, he had gone to Ireland with his old commanding officer, Captain Brody, who presumably was there recruiting. Brody, now back in Edinburgh, wrote a letter of support. He explained that Stevens' long absence was "intirely given to the poor Old Soldiers attachment to me, as His Captain formerly"; Stevens had "been in Ireland with me, for two years taking care of my Dogs." Captain Brody was, in his words, "bound by Honour to see the Old Soldier paid for this strong attachment."

This installment is based on the muster rolls of the 21st Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3778/2, the pension admission book, WO 116/8, and the letters by Captain Brody and the justice of the peace, WO 121/138/624, all in the British National Archives.

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Sunday, July 9, 2023

William Nowland, 46th Regiment of Foot, serves from 18 to 62

 When he set foot on a sandy barrier island near Charlestown, South Carolina in the first half of 1776, William Nowland was already a seasoned soldier. The Enniscorthy, County Wexford native had joined the 46th Regiment of Foot on 22 April 1769 at the age of eighteen; now, having completed seven years of soldiering, he was barely beginning his army career.

The 46th Regiment spent several weeks encamped on the hot, barren Carolina coast as part of an expedition that was supposed to bring the region into British control, but which ended in failure. The seven regiments and the naval fleet that brought them to America then proceeded north to Staten Island, joining in August the large British army gathered there. In preparation for a new campaign, Nowland was transferred into his regiment's light infantry company. This company joined the light infantry companies from the other six regiments from the Charlestown expedition, forming the 3rd Battalion of Light Infantry. This temporary formation operated independently of the companies' parent regiments, instead working with two other light infantry battalions to form the vanguard of the army.

At the end of August, the army, led by the light infantry, successfully seized Long Island. In September they took New York City, and in October proceeded with a campaign to wrest the region surrounding Manhattan from rebel control.

The light infantry figured heavily in the campaigning in Westchester County, New York, but Nowland didn't remain long in that company. At the end of October he was appoint corporal in another company of the 46th Regiment. In his new role he probably took charge of a "squad of inspection," ensuring that about a dozen men were always fit for duty, their clothing and equipment clean, their diets and discipline properly managed. When on guard duty he posted pickets and sentries. In February 1778, when the regiment was in Philadelphia, he called the roll one evening and discovered a soldier missing; following normal procedure, the next morning he checked to see whether the man had taken anything with him. "Upon examining his knapsack yesterday morning," Nowland testified at the soldier's trial for desertion, "he found that all his necessaries, except a pair of shoes & a piece of an old Shirt had been taken out, & he was informed that he had taken away a Shirt of his Comrades."

The British army departed Philadelphia in June 1778, returning to the area around the city of New York. Late that year, the 46th and nine other regiments embarked on an expedition to the West Indies to defend British interests there against the French. They landed in St. Lucia in December, and soon drove away an attacking French army. Some time before the end of 1779, William Nowland was appointed sergeant.

Service in the West Indies meant spending a lot of time on ships, often on warships rather than the transports that usually moved soldiers from one place to another. Several times, British soldiers participated in naval battles. One of these was the Battle of Martinique on 17 April 1780, an inconclusive action that prevented a French fleet from reaching British-held Jamaica. Casualties on both sides were light, but Sergeant William Nowland was wounded in the leg during the fighting while on board the 60-gun ship Medway.

A career soldier, he continued to serve in the 46th Regiment. He stayed in the army until November 1794, when he was discharged due to "old age, being worn out in the service" in addition to having been wounded. His discharge paper noted that he had been wounded in the right leg. He was granted a pension. But he didn't stay away from the army for long.

In December 1795 William Nowland joined an invalid corps, composed of soldiers who were not fit for campaigning but could help defend Great Britain's coast. He stayed in that corps until December 1802, when he joined the 3rd Royal Veteran Battalion, a similar organization. With them he served another six years, taking his discharge in December 1808 after almost forty years as a soldier. His discharge mentioned that he had "an old ulcer," included the note, "the mark of his wound is in his left leg."

But he still had more to give to the army. He took a job in the Barrack Office on the Isle of Jersey. He finally resigned from that post on 3 August 1813 "on account of ill health."

Information for this post comes from the following documents in the British National Archives:

Muster rolls of the 46th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5796 and WO 12/5797

Discharges of William Nowland, WO 121/21/230 and WO 121/170/179

Acknowledgement of William Nowland's resignation, WO 121/176/105

Court Martial of James Garraty, WO 71/85, p. 281–283

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Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Donald McPherson, 71st Regiment, gets two stabs and a slice

The surgeon looked over Donald McPherson's right arm. It was a bayonet wound, no doubt. There, on McPherson's left arm, was another. As if the two stab wounds weren't enough, McPherson had a saber cut on his head. This man had done some hard, close-quarters fighting.

Donald McPherson hailed from Boleskine Parish, at the southern end of Loch Ness in Invernes Shire. Born in 1746, he took up the trade of tailoring. But in 1775, after war broke out in America, McPherson was one of over two thousand highlanders who answer the call for recruits in a new regiment, the 71st Regiment of Foot, called Fraser's Highlanders after their commanding officer, raised specifically for the North American conflict. McPherson was new to the army, as were many of his comrades, but the enlistees also included many veterans of the previous was that ended in 1763. The regiment was new, but in the ranks there was much military experience.

The 71st, organized into two battalions of ten companies each, with 100 private soldiers in each company, sailed from Scotland in April of 1776. They made for Boston, not knowing that city had been abandoned by the British army. Some of their transports ran afoul of American privateers; about a quarter of the regiment became prisoners of war before even making landfall. The rest of the regiment, including McPherson, put in to Halifax, Nova Scotia, only to find that the army had recently departed from that place. The highlanders finally caught up with the British army on Staten Island, where they landed at the beginning August 1776.

Just three weeks later the army was on the move. Over 20,000 British and German soldiers crossed from Staten Island to Long Island. Several days later, part of the army made a feint towards American lines in Brooklyn while the rest, including the 71st Regiment, made a long nighttime march east, then north, and finally back to the west, around the flank of the American defenses. The Battle of Long Island, or Battle of Brooklyn, began in the morning of 27 August and ended in a total rout of American forces. 

In some places the defenders put up a determined if futile fight. Individual companies of British grenadiers, light infantry and highlanders fell into close combat as they rapidly overtook surprised and retreating Americans. In some places the fighting was hand to hand. Donald McPherson, in the army for less than a year and in his first battle, suffered three wounds, two from bayonets (or perhaps from the same bayonet) and one from a saber.

Careful comparison of British casualty returns to regimental muster rolls reveals something counterintuitive: most wounded British soldiers survived their wounds. McPherson was among those survivors. In spite of receiving three wounds on the same day, he not only recovered, but rejoined his regiment and served for the remainder of the American War. The 71st Regiment suffered many casualties during their seven years in America, but McPherson was among those who returned to his native Scotland at the end of hostilities.

The 71st Regiment was disbanded at the end of the war, it's soldiers sent home and mustered out in Scotland. When war with France was declared in 1793, he returned to soldiering, spending six years in a regiment called the Strathspey Fencibles, a corps that served only within the boundaries of Scotland. He served for the entire six-year existence of that regiment, which was disbanded in 1799.

His military career was not yet finished. After leaving the Fencibles, he joined the Argyleshire Militia as a substitute - that is, serving instead of another man who was obliged to serve. He was finally discharged from that regiment on 1 May 1802 at the age of forty-six, having spend sixteen of those years as a soldier. An army surgeon noted on his discharge that the scars from his wounds were still evident. He was awarded an army pension.

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[Information in this post is from the discharge of Donald McPherson from the Argyleshire Militia, WO 121/53/289, in the British National Archives, and from general information about the 71st Regiment of Foot]

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Joseph and Mary Whitaker, 17th Regiment of Foot, make their claims

A few miles southwest of Dublin is a village called Kill, in County Kildare. In 1736, Joseph Whitaker was born there. He grew up to pursue the trade of a whitesmith, crafting metal into products with shiny surface finishes. This was a good trade, but for some reason not enough for the young Irishman; at the age of twenty he enlisted in the army.

His skill and education served him well as a professional soldier. After nine years, he was a sergeant, the highest rank that most common soldiers could expect to achieve, and one in which afforded numerous opportunities for earning extra money over and above the base pay. By 1772 he was in the 17th Regiment of Foot, a regiment that had spent ten years in North America, first participating in the sieges of Louisbourg in 1758, Ticonderoga in 1759, Montreal in 1760, then in the West Indies, and on the American frontier during Pontiac's Rebellion. It is not known whether Whitaker was in the 17th during this time, or served in a different regiment before joining the 17th. Whether he had been to America before or not, in late 1775 he embarked with his regiment for Boston to reinforce the British garrison that was besieged there.

The 17th Regiment of Foot disembarked in Boston in December 1775. Joseph Whitaker served in the regiment's grenadier company. Detached from the regiment and joined with other grenadier companies to form a grenadier battalion, Whitaker's company was in the forefront of many of the war's most fierce and famous battles. He came through it all unscathed. And his time in America brought more good fortune to him.

The British grenadier battalions spent most of the second half of the war quartered in the area of New York City. Probably during that time, he met Mary Williams, a widow who had lived in the city "prior to and during the troubles." She ran a business "in the public line" - probably referring to a public house or tavern - and did well enough to purchase property "in her own right for ever." Her holdings amounted to between four and five hundred pounds, a testament to her enterprise. She married Sergeant Whitaker, who by this time may have accumulated a fair amount of cash from his work for the army. In terms of prosperity, their future looked bright.

No amount of marital optimism, however, could overcome the tide of events for the British military and Loyalist citizens in America. By 1783 the war was lost. The army and a large number of inhabitants were forced to abandon the city of New York. Joseph and Mary Whitaker left their property "to the mercy of the rebels," and sailed with the 17th Regiment to Halifax, Nova Scotia. They didn't stay there long. A reduction in forces afforded Sergeant Whitaker the opportunity to be discharged. 

The couple went to England, where Joseph Whitaker went before the army pension examining board at Chelsea, near London, in February 1784, and was awarded a pension. This would afford a modest but sufficient income for them. Mary Whitaker made a claim to have her losses compensated by the British government, but hers was one of thousands of such claims. Whether she ever received any payment is not known.

Information in this installment come from the muster rolls of the 17th Regiment of Foot (WO 12), the army out-pension admission books (WO 116), and Audit Office records (AO 13), all in The National Archives of Great Britain.

Learn more about British Soldiers in the American Revolution