Thursday, April 26, 2012
Doing research this week at the National Archive of Scotland, I had the pleasure of finding a very rare type of document: a letter written by a common soldier in the British army.
Duncan Grant was a soldier in the 21st Regiment of Foot, which was named the Royal North British Fusiliers. The regiment was among those that landed in Quebec in 1776; the following year it was part of the army that General John Burgoyne led south on a fateful campaign. Grant had experienced the successful part of the campaign, but then had a personal twist of fate: he was sent back to Canada to retrieve regimental baggage that had been left there. With the promise of the army reaching its ultimate objective, the intent was to begin the process of taking stores from the previous winter quarters at Montreal to the anticipated new ones in Albany. this duty gave Grant an opportunity to write a letter home, and spared him from being captured with his regiment at Saratoga.
Duncan Grant wrote the letter to his father, directing it to "Lachlan Grant, Farmer in Duthill, Strathspey, Inverness shire, North Britain." Most of the news he conveys relates to people from his area - Major Robert Grant of the 24th Regiment, killed at the battle of Hubbarton among others. He mentions several who had moved from Scotland to Canada before the war and were now serving in the Royal Highland Emmigrants commanded by Lt.-Colonel Allan McLean. Grant is careful to name the towns from which the various men came; because of the many common names in Scotland, this added context was important.
He told his father of his adoration for his wife Margaret, along with the news that they were expecting a child. His language suggests that his father had not yet met Margaret and perhaps had expressed misgivings about the marriage.
Grant's closing note of "Direct to..." tells his father how to address letters to him.
The transcript of the letter presented here has some punctuation added for readability; punctuation in period writing is highly inconsistent, often consisting of lines and squiggles rather than the uniform symbols that we're accustomed to today.
Canada, Montreal, North America, the 12 Septr 1777
You will Excuse me for not writing to you sooner as I could not inform you of our Transactions in this part of the world. We had several Engagements last Summer but this summer has been a bloody one on both sides and likely to continue for some time but I hope wit the assistance of god in time we will get the better of them although they are very numerous in proportion to our number. I am very sorry to let you know that Major Grant of the 24th Regiment was killed [illeg] ago Tullochgribans son and Peter mack Donald son in Tullochgribban was killed the same Engagement with major Robert Grant. Alexander Cameron is well and William Robertson when I left them but they had a smart engagement since I was sent to Montreal by General Hamilton to Bring some Bagage to the Regiment to Albeny. Peter Smith and Peter Smith William and David Smith, Sons that was in Duthil, they are in Colo MacLeans Regiment in Canada; Likeway Lewis Grant Capt Allan Grants son, James and Donald Grant sons to Donald Grant that was formerly on Desher is in the same Regiment. My step mothers Brothers son is in General Hows Army but for his sister I do not know what place she is in. Robert Grant is in Colo Mackleans Regiment in Canada that is married to James Cumings daughter that was in Avocmore who informed me when he left new York that serjt MacGrigor was an officer in a new raised Regiment there and before that I heard that he went home a Recruiting. There is so many of our Country people hear that it is too tedious for me to mention at present, my wife is Bigg with child at present expecting to ly in every day who desires to be Remembered to you all happy was the day that ever I got such a good wife for she keeps me more like a gentleman than a Soldier.
Dr. Father although I am at a Distance from you I hope you will not for get me in my proper rights and if you will have the pleasure to see my wife she will please you better than your son in Law although I Bless god for it I do not want both gold and silver and good Cloaths by her industry.
Remember our love to my step mother our Sisters ther husbands and Children and all Enquiring Friends. No more at present from your Dutifull son and Daughter
Duncan & Margaret Grant
Direct to Duncan Grant soldier In the 21st Regimt or Royal North British Fuziliers in North America
Duncan Grant's letter is yet another piece of evidence to defy the dogma that British soldiers were illiterate and vagrant characters. Here we find a farmer's son who had enough education to write a thoughtful letter, and enough compassion to be devoted to his father and to his bride.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Escape stories are among the most fascinating in the lore of soldiers at war - prisoners who evaded enemy captors and made their way back to their own lines hold a special fascination. During the 1775-1783 war in America, hundreds of British captives absconded and rejoined the ranks of active regiments. My own estimate is that at least 1000 prisoners did so from Burgoyne's army alone, on the order of one fifth of the total number of men taken prisoner at Saratoga in 1777. Unfortunately we know the details of only a few of these escapes; only one soldier left a detailed narrative of his two escapes, while a few others gave brief depositions of their harrowing adventures.
One man about whom we know precious little is John May of the 40th Regiment of Foot. Having worked as a turner before he joined the army, he was already a private soldier in the regiment at the beginning of 1775 and embarked with his comrades for America in May of that year. The regiment arrived in Boston shortly after the battle of Bunker Hill and endured a difficult winter in that besieged city. The fall of 1776 saw them on the aggressive campaign that drove American forces out of New York city and across New Jersey. The dramatic reversal of fortunes that was initiated by Washington's crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 led to the battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777. Here the 40th Regiment was heavily involved and had several dozen men taken prisoner.
Most of the British prisoners taken in New Jersey were sent to central Connecticut, an area away from active campaigning. They were distributed among several towns including Enfield, Chatham, Farmington, Bolton, Glastonbury and others. John May was among 17 men sent to "Symsbury" northwest of Harford. A year later, however, May was in the town of Goshen about 30 miles to the west. He may have been granted parole and allowed to work in the area, as many British prisoners were; they were a welcome supplement to a labor force depleted by the manpower needs of the American army.
Regardless of why he was in Goshen, he did not stay. A newspaper advertisement provides some details:
Goshen, (Litchfield County) Jan. 31, 1778.
Ran Away from said Goshen on the night after the 25th of January instant, two persons, both Irishmen, one named Peter Golden, about 23 years old, light complexion, about 5 feet 8 inches high, short hair; had on and carried with him an old felt hat, grey coat, vest, and breeches, pair of grey woolen stockings, pair of white ditto, pair of white thread ditto, striped Holland shirt, black velvet stock, square copper shoe buckles. The other named John May, he belonged to the 40th regiment is about 28 years old, and about 5 feet 10 inches high; had on and carried with him a felt hat, light brown surtout bound with white, grey coat lined with brown tammy, black home made vest & breeches, pair of black woolen stockings, two pair of blue and white ditto, one pair white thread ditto, two pair of shoes, pewter shoe buckles, silver knee buckles; striped Holland shirt, two white linnen shirts. It is supposed said prisoners are endeavoring to escape to the enemy, as they had parted with most if not all their regimentals before they went off. Whoever will secure said prisoners, and send them to Hartford to the care of Ezekiel Williams, Esq; commissary of prisoners, or to the subscriber at said Goshen, shall be well rewarded. Eben’r Norton.
[Connecticut Journal, 4 February 1778]
The ad suggests that, after a year of captivity, May had retained some of his regimental clothing but had managed to dispose of it and acquire other garb in order to make his escape. We have not been able to identify the Peter Golden described in the ad; the text does not make it clear whether or not he was a British prisoner of war. No man by this name appears either on the muster rolls of the 40th Regiment or on the list of Princeton prisoners that includes John May.
Proof that May was successful in his endeavor to return to British lines comes from the 40th Regiment's muster rolls. The date of his return is not annotated, but he was back in the regiment before June of 1778 and transferred into the grenadier company on 23rd of that month. He went with his regiment to the West Indies from late in 1778, and at some point became a drummer (or fifer). He survived the difficult Caribbean climate and returned to New York with the 40th in 1781. The 40th Regiment took heavy casualties storming Fort Griswold in Groton, Connecticut in September of that year, but May survived this bitter engagement.
John May’s career took him through campaigns in Boston, New York, New Jersey, and the West Indies in addition to spending a year as a prisoner of war. His service record is that of a dedicated and faithful soldier, but something must have occurred to change his attitude towards his military career. He deserted from Long Island on 28 April 1782, then made his way to Philadelphia where he took an oath of allegiance to the colony on 22 August; presumably he found work at his former trade as a turner.