Thursday, July 14, 2016
There's a common misconception that during the American Revolution the ranks of British regiments were filled with "the scum of the earth." That's certainly not true as a generality; the majority of British regulars were career soldiers who volunteered for the job and served dutifully, faithfully and well. But any large population is bound to have a few bad eggs. In spite of the efforts of recruiting officers, incorrigible men did make it into the ranks.
The 54th Regiment of Foot sailed from Ireland to America at the beginning of 1776, serving first on the abortive expedition to establish a foothold in the southern colonies, then joining the army in New York. At the end of the year they were part of the force that landed in Rhode Island, where they settled into a garrison routine that was frequently interrupted by alarms and incursions from nearby American forces.
Like all British regiments in America, the 54th had several officers and men in Great Britain recruiting to make up for the inevitable attrition of a wartime deployment. In the spring of 1777, recruits raised during the previous year embarked for New York. Upon arrival there, those of the 22nd, 43rd and 54th Regiments were sent up Long Island Sound to join their regiments in Rhode Island. They arrived on 20 June and were quickly integrated into their corps. They had already been trained in the basic aspects of soldiering while with their recruiting parties in Britain, but had much more to learn. Just days after landing, the recruits were practicing with live ammunition.
The island called Rhode Island, now referred to as Aquidneck Island, was a front line, separated from the mainland by only narrow channels in a few places. Because parts of the shoreline were within easy cannon shot of the mainland, the British established lines that were in many places well back from the shore. By day, the land between the lines and the shore were well protected by British positions. At night the area became a no-man's land, where marauders from the mainland could land to attack sentries or raid houses and farms, island inhabitants could meet agents from the mainland to provide intelligence, mischievous British soldiers could attempt to sneak off of the island, and other illicit activity could occur.
Encounters between British sentries and people lurking outside the lines took place almost daily, or nightly, in Rhode Island. One instance occurred on 2 September, when sentries noticed two men between them and the waterside. One quickly returned and was taken by the sentries; he proved to be a soldier of the 54th Regiment. The sentries saw the other man crawling on hands and knees towards them. They challenged the intruder, but got no response. Following their training, they fired. The crawling man was struck twice in the body and died almost instantly.
The man was William Wood, a soldier in the 54th Regiment. A very new soldier, in fact: he was one of the recruits who had arrived in June. After 74 days with the regiment, he was dead. But an officer of the garrison indicated that Wood had earned no sympathy during his short career: "The man who was shot, was of a very bad Character, and if he had no intention of deserting, of which however there is little doubt, deserved his fate, as he had no business in front of the advanced posts at night, and should have answered when challenged.”
Thursday, July 7, 2016
A popular bit of mythology concerning British army wives is that they were required to remarry within a few days (24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, or other durations depending upon who retells the story) or they would be abandoned by the army. Not only is this illogical given the important roles that army wives held in the military infrastructure, working as nurses, washer women and sutlers, but we've shown several examples of widows who stayed with the army for months or years after their husbands died. In those cases, we used information from marriage licenses combined with information from regimental muster rolls. We have several instances where a marriage license denotes the bride-to-be as "widow" belonging to a regiment, and found on the regiment's muster rolls a man with the same last name who had died anywhere from a few months to a few years before. Although British general orders in America frequently mention opportunities for soldiers' widows to return home on ships bound for Great Britain, these marriage licenses demonstrate that some did not.
Another source of evidence has come to light. In late 1782 or early 1783 there was an opportunity for people associated with the army to sail from New York to Great Britain. This was quite common, but in this instance a list survives, found by researcher Todd W. Braisted, of the people who applied for passage. The list includes a number of army widows, each one with the regiment listed alongside the woman's name. Comparing these names to muster rolls we can determine when the husband died.
Some of them are indeterminate, such as three widows of the 76th Regiment, Margaret Hay, Ann McDonald and Ann Bissett. Only a few muster rolls for this regiment survive, leaving no way to know whether their husband's died in garrison in New York, on campaign in Virginia, or as prisoners of war after the capitulation at Yorktown. We also have no way of knowing whether these women accompanied the regiment on campaign. Similar is the case of Eleanor ("Elinor") Paget of the 24th Regiment, who sought passage to Ireland for herself and one child; not enough information has been found to reveal whether her husband died on Burgoyne's 1777 campaign, or in prison during the subsequent years. And no man corresponding to Rachel Molloy of the 27th Regiment, who sought to go to England, has been found on the muster rolls.
A few, however, can be traced, and the results are surprising. Anne Carr of the 35th Regiment was the widow of William Carr, who had died on 28 October 1776. This was the date of the battle of White Plains, in which the 35th Regiment was heavily engaged, and we can assume that Carr was killed in that battle. The 35th Regiment was sent to the West Indies in late 1778 and was still there when Anne Carr applied for passage to England in late 1782.
Widow Huston, whose first name is not given, belonged to the 10th Regiment of Foot. She was the widow of William Huston, who died on 10 September 1776 when the regiment was on Long Island preparing for the assault on Manhattan. In 1778 the fit men of the 10th Regiment were drafted into regiments bound for the West Indies, the unfit men were discharged, and the officers and non-commissioned officers were sent home. But Widow Huston remained in New York, and applied for passage to Ireland with six children.
Another widow from the 10th Regiment was Mary Smith. There were two men named Smith in the 10th Regiment who died during that regiment's service in America between 1774 and 1778. Thomas Smith died on 2 February 1777, and Joseph Smith on 30 December 1777. We don't know to which one Mary Smith was married, but we do know that she was still in New York in late 1782 when she applied for passage to England.
What were these women doing all this time? Lacking specific information, we can only guess that they were gainfully employed, perhaps supporting the army as hospital nurses or sutlers. While don't know the reasons why they stayed in America, they do provide further proof that army widows were neither abandoned nor required to remarry.