“Dear Rosey”: A Soldier Seeks Help from his Wife

The War Years (1775-1783)

January 21, 2016
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author

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It was November. Sergeant Williams was cold, and he knew it would be getting colder. He had no warm clothing, no money to purchase any, and he wasn’t able to get a part-time job to earn some extra cash. He needed help, and so he did the most sensible thing a man in his circumstances could do: he wrote to his wife.

Richard Williams was, like most men in the British army during the American Revolution, a career soldier. He had enlisted in the 22nd Regiment of Foot in November of 1769.[1] He chose a regiment that had returned from service in America four years earlier, and as such was unlikely to go overseas again soon. The regiment had finished the flurry of recruiting to replenish its ranks after long service abroad, and when Williams enlisted it was stationed in England and was in a good stable state of readiness. The regiment was sent to Scotland in the early 1770s to garrison towns from Inverness to Fort William. The soldiers were kept busy maintaining the network of military roads built early in the century that allowed rapid deployments if necessary. The work involved clearing drains, repairing erosion, removing loose stones and similar labor; tedious work, to be sure, but it paid 6 pence per day over and above the soldier’s usual wage.[2]

In 1773, the 22nd Regiment moved from Scotland to Ireland, where they wintered in Dublin and spent summers camping in the countryside. The peaceful routine came to an end early in 1775 when orders came to sail for America. When they embarked in early May, the soldiers of the 22nd and three other regiments did not know that hostilities had already broken out, and their transports steered for New York. When they arrived piecemeal off the American coast in May and early June, each of the ten transports were intercepted by a British frigate and redirected to Boston, where the regiments arrived just days after the battle of Bunker Hill. Through service in Boston, Halifax, Staten Island, New York and Rhode Island, Richard Williams served well enough to be appointed corporal in late 1776 and to command sizable parties of men. In April 1778 he testified against a soldier who’d deserted from a guard post; the soldier was found guilty and lashed.[3] Not long after the evacuation of Rhode Island in late 1779, Williams was appointed sergeant. Somewhere along the line, perhaps before he joined the army, maybe as recently as in Rhode Island, he married a woman named Rosanna.

Of Rosanna Williams we know nothing besides her name. Wives and children of British soldiers were generally allowed to accompany their husbands on overseas service, and military documents often record the number of women and children with each regiment. But in most cases all we have are numbers; while the names of soldiers were recorded on semi-annual muster rolls, there are no such comprehensive records of their wives, nor any way to identify which men were married. Mentions of specific women are, in most cases, piecemeal, such that even when we know that given soldier was married, we know nothing about how long. The only way we know about Rosanna Williams is through a letter that her husband wrote to her.

As the 1780 campaign season opened, a large British army laid siege to Charleston, South Carolina. Back in New York, an attempt was made to raid the headquarters of the Continental Army in Morristown, New Jersey by sending a large force from Staten Island to Elizabeth, New Jersey and marching over land. British soldiers had been executing long, rapid marches like this since the onset of the war; even though the 22nd and other regiments included many recruits who’d arrived only the previous autumn, there were an ample number of experienced men like Sergeant Williams to prepare them. They marched lightly, each man carrying only his blanket, one spare shirt, a haversack filled with seven days’ worth of biscuit and four days’ worth of cooked pork, and one days’ ration of rum mixed with water in his canteen. Most soldiers were armed with a musket and bayonet, and carried forty-eight rounds of ammunition in a cartridge pouch. No tents or knapsacks were brought along. If this had been a long expedition, a number of wives would accompany the troops on campaign to work as washer women, nurses and sutlers. But for this short raid, wives stayed behind.[4]

The army, consisting of roughly 6000 men, landed in New Jersey during the night of June 6 and 7 with the intention of quickly covering the twenty or so miles to Morristown. Local resistance, however, was much greater than expected. As New Jersey militia rapidly mobilized, fighting became intense in the town of Connecticut Farms, today named Union. The British advance ground to a halt, and their forces withdrew to Elizabeth where they encamped as best they could with the sparse equipment they had. The 22nd Regiment was posted as an advance guard. The night was dark, as dark as anyone could remember, and rainy. Men got lost in the darkness. On the 8th, American troops descended upon the 22nd Regiment; a German regiment advanced to support them, but ultimately they were forced to withdraw to the main British encampment with several men wounded.

Somewhere during these encounters, either in the inky darkness or during the confusion of battle, two sergeants and sixteen private soldiers of the 22nd Regiment were captured. Among them was Richard Williams. The prisoners were quickly sent to Philadelphia and confined in a common jail with other prisoners of war.

Conditions in the jail were harsh. Williams and his fellows hoped a quick exchange would allow them to return to New York, but months passed and hope of this dwindled. Realizing that he would be stuck in jail at least for the winter, and with only the clothing he’d worn when the June expedition began, Richard Williams penned a letter and addressed it, “To Mrs Rosanna Williams in the 22d Regt in Capt Handfields Company Lying in New York.”[5] With good handwriting but poor spelling, and following the common style of abbreviating many words, he wrote:

New Goal Philadelphia 23d Novebr 1780

Dr Rosey I have wrought to let you know our situation for want of nessaries as the winter is aproaching on and I have no nessaries to chainge me which I hope you will se and get my shirts Briches shoes & stockings great Coate and Blanket with som money and get your self ready to com of with them a long with Sergt Reasons wife as we do not Expect to be Exchanged this winter Dr Rosey you will apply to the genrl and get a pass to com of as soone as posable for I am in great want of Nessaries If you do not know how to apply for to com of you will Enquire of Sergt. Stewart and he will let you know I am sorry that you never sent me a Letter to let me know how you are and where you Lived which gives me great uneasyness of not hearing from you.

Remember me to Downs and his wife Sergt Stewart Sergt Thomson and all friends

                        So no more but I remain your Loving Husband

                                                                        Richd Williams

The regards he sent were to fellow soldiers in the 22nd Regiment.[6] His plea for “nessaries” referred to shirts, shoes and stockings, which in army parlance were called necessary items or necessaries; soldiers received a suit of regimental clothing once a year, but necessaries were provided as often as needed because they tended to wear out quickly. Over six months after his capture, Williams still had only the clothes he’d been wearing on June 6 and his one extra shirt. During this era, an army was responsible for providing clothing to its men who were held prisoner, rather than the captors doing so.[7]

Williams asked his wife to bring these things to him herself, for which she’d need a pass to leave British-held New York and make the arduous trek to Philadelphia. He didn’t expect her to make the journey alone, instead advising her to travel with the wife of his fellow prisoner, Sgt. George Reason. This may sound like an odd request, but wives of British prisoners of war often stayed with their husbands in captivity. They resided either in the same prisons or camps as their husbands, or in lodgings they’d procured for themselves in the area.

Conditions in the Philadelphia jail were harsh and unforgiving. The winter of 1780-1781 was famously cold, and the men captured the previous June were not in any way equipped for it. Other British prisoners had been confined in Philadelphia for much longer, and were even worse off. By March, a group of prisoners sent a petition to the British commander in chief in New York, which:

sets forth, our unhappy sittuation, which at this present is deploreable, having a Very brief sickness and deadly fever Arangeing amongest us, which in a Very few days illness, has Carried Off, A many bold, & youthfull, active, Soldier. Also the Case is Miserable, being in want of Necessaries, Clothing, Blanketing, &c. for want of such, the General part [of] us, Are much distress’d and almost Naked.[8]

By the time this plea was made, it was already too late for Richard Williams. He was among those “carried off” by illness, dying on January 13, 1781, two months after writing to his wife. Six more of the eighteen men captured in June 1780 died in prison and two others died soon after their release in 1783, including George Reason.[9] Another earned his release by signing an oath of allegiance and settling in Pennsylvania. Among those who were repatriated and received pensions after the war ended, one was “sickly & worn out” while another suffered from “bad health, being long a prisoner.”[10] The simple fact of being captured had destroyed nine out of eighteen men.

As for Rosanna Williams, nothing more is known about her. Her husband’s death is recorded on the 22nd Regiment’s muster rolls, so she must have learned about it. As a soldier’s widow, she was entitled to her husband’s arrears of pay and to his personal property including the clothing that he had so desperately needed. The army also provided widows with passage to Great Britain if they chose it. Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that she never received the letter from her husband. It went to the Commissary of Prisoners, Thomas Bradford, and stayed among his papers where it remains to this day.

 


[1] This is the date on which the muster rolls record Williams as having joined the regiment; it was common for men to have enlisted with a recruiting party before this date, sometimes months or years before. Williams’s exact enlistment date is not known. Muster rolls, 22nd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3871 and /3872, British National Archives. Subsequent information about Williams’s career and promotions are from this source unless otherwise noted.

[2] Don N. Hagist, “Maintaining Scotland’s Military Roads: Orders for Sergeant McGregor’s Party, 1772,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 93#375 (Autumn 2015), 210-213.

[3] Court martial of Thomas Kingsley, April 21, 1778, WO 71/86, 84-98, British National Archives.

[4] Orders for the 37th Regiment of Foot, reflecting orders given to all of the British regiments on the expedition, in Maj. Frederick Mackenzie to Maj. James Cousseau, June 6, 1780, Sir Henry Clinton Papers, V104/23, William L. Clements Library. The orders directed each soldier to carry forty-eight rounds. This was to many to fit into the standard British cartridge pouch of the era; there are several possibilities for how the remaining rounds were carried, but that discussion is outside the scope of this article.

[5] Bradford Family Papers, Thomas Bradford Series, Army Prisoners, Box 23, F 10, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[6] Sgt. Thomas Stewart had, on September 6, 1780, become the quartermaster of the 76th Regiment of Foot; James Thompson was a sergeant in the same company as Williams; Downs could be Alexander Downs or Thomas Downs, both of whom had been in the regiment for at least a decade. Muster rolls, 22nd Regiment of Foot.

[7] Gary Shattuck, “10 Facts About Prisoners of War,” Journal of the American Revolution, April 27, 2015, https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/04/10-facts-about-prisoners-of-war/

[8] http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/default.xqy?keys=FOEA-print-01-01-02-5128

[9] Muster Rolls, 22nd Regiment of Foot.

[10] Entries for John Reynoldsand Peter McQueen, 22nd Regiment of Foot, Out Pension Rolls, WO 120/6, British National Archives.

4 Comments

  • I wonder why Bradford never sent the letter along? Clerical error or was he under no obligation to actually forward it?

    1. I wish I knew.
      The Thomas Bradford papers at the Pennsylvania Historical Society is a large collection. It contains a number of letters from imprisoned British soldiers, but most of them are to Bradford himself in his office as Commissary of Prisoners; letters like the one from Richard Williams to his wife are rare, suggesting either that most letters did get forwarded or that few prisoners attempted to have letters forwarded in this way.
      A detailed examination of Bradford’s papers could reveal why this letter was never delivered, but I’m not aware of anyone having undertaken such a study.

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