A Marriage Abandoned: Andrew Bruce and Henrietta Overing


January 8, 2018
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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A chapter in Henrietta Overing Auchmuty’s life has been overlooked by history. Perhaps she would’ve wanted it that way, for it is a story of romance turned into heartbreak and bitterness.

Born on June 13, 1760, Henrietta Overing was the daughter of prominent Newport distiller and sugar refiner Henry John Overing.[1] As a member of a wealthy family in a thriving city, she could expect a comfortable, prosperous life. Newport, however, was a town divided by the era’s political events, from riotous Stamp Act protests in the center of town to naval altercations in the waters surrounding the island. Half a year after her sixteenth birthday, a large British military force arrived in Narragansett Bay and occupied the two main islands there, setting up headquarters in the Newport. Many prominent merchants fled along with half the island’s population, but Henry Overing and his family stayed behind to cooperate with government forces and look after is property and interests.

The British occupation of Rhode Island is regarded today as a time of depredation and deprivation, but this was not a foregone outcome when British forces first came to the place. The Royal Navy needed the deep-water harbor as a secure winter anchorage, the island provided a good base of operations for expected future operations in New England, and strong naval presence in Narragansett Bay restricted activities of American privateers in the region.[2] Hosting a military garrison puts a strain on any town, and the challenges of feeding, quartering and fueling several thousand troops without access to the adjacent mainland soon became apparent. But for those inclined towards cordiality with the military, there were opportunities: the army purchased food, firewood and forage; officers and soldiers were ready consumers of commercial goods; and officers who were well-educated and well-traveled were socially intriguing to the local population.

Henry Overing took an oath of loyalty in January 1777 and seems to have supported British government and military policies. In October 1777 he was appointed an officer in the Loyal Newport Associators, a militia-like military unit raised for local operations. But the Overing family is best remembered for their contribution to great British military embarrassment. Among the family’s substantial holdings in Rhode Island was a large farm roughly in the middle of the island. This central location made it a favorable residence for the commander of the British garrison, Maj. Gen. Richard Prescott. The army maintained fortifications and encampments on the island’s north end and eastern shore to guard the closest points to the mainland. The army’s administrative headquarters was miles south in Newport. Each evening General Prescott made his way from headquarters in town to lodgings in the Overing house where he could respond quickly no matter where on the island he was needed. With the western approaches protected by warships anchored in the bay, this location was sensible from an operational perspective. In July 1777, however, a carefully-planned nighttime raid led by the American Col. William Barton plucked the general from this central but isolated location. The Overing house still stands as part of the Prescott Farm, now named for its famous tenant rather than its owner.

None of this is known to have directly affected Henrietta Overing. The teenager probably spent most of her time at the family’s main house in Newport, where she caught the notice of young and aspiring British officers. The military gentry began holding festive entertainments in Newport within a month after arriving there, inviting ladies and gentlemen of the town and making particular note of “pretty well look’d Girls.”[3] How many of these events Henrietta attended and how many men wooed her is not known.[4] By the summer of 1778, though, one man had secured her affections, an officer of the 54th Regiment of Foot named Andrew Bruce.

Born in 1742 to Sir Michael Bruce of Stenhouse in Clackmannanshire, Scotland,[5] Bruce began his military career at the tender age of fourteen, obtaining a commission in a new-raised regiment during the Seven Years War.[6] He probably spent that war recruiting in Great Britain; after the war ended he obtained a captain’s commission in the 38th Regiment of Foot, a milestone that insured career security in the peacetime army. At the age of twenty-nine he was promoted to major in the regiment, a rank that was effectively second-in-command and would afford recognition and influence if the regiment saw active service. Although that opportunity came when the 38th was ordered to Boston in 1774, Major Bruce instigated an event that almost ended his career and his life. The regiment was stationed in Ireland that year, and Bruce quarreled with Lt. Col. Robert Pigot, his superior officer. In violation of army policy, they fought a duel; Bruce was dangerously wounded by a gunshot in the chest.[7] When the regiment set sail in May, he was “left sick at Corke” where he remained for nearly a year recovering.[8] He caught up with his regiment in the middle of June 1775, arriving in Boston with recruits for the army just in time for the battle of Bunker Hill.[9] He took part in that action, earning praise as one of the officers who “exerted themselves remarkably.”[10]

Bruce joined the duty rotation of senior officers who daily took command of the lines defending Boston Neck and Charlestown Neck and the sentries posted at various locations to raise alarms.[11] At least twice he met with American officers at the lines to discuss points of military protocol for the opposing forces or to receive letters.[12] In October he was detached from the 38th Regiment to serve with a light infantry battalion, a composite corps formed of the most active and mobile troops in the army, a posting indicative of a capable, trusted officer.[13] If there was any residual tension between him and Pigot, who had recently been appointed colonel of the 38th Regiment and brigadier general in America, it is not apparent, but Bruce’s service in the light infantry battalion afforded some distance between the two of them.[14] When an opportunity came for advancement in March 1777, Bruce took the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the 54th Regiment of Foot.[15]

Andrew Bruce had arrived in Rhode Island with his light infantry battalion when the British army landed there in December 1776. His promotion into the 54th Regiment meant that he would remain there when the light battalion was sent back to the New York area. The 54th, along with the 22nd and 43rd Regiments and several German regiments, formed the long-term garrison of Rhode Island. Ironically, Brigadier General Pigot took command of the garrison in July of 1777 after General Prescott was captured, but there is no evidence of animosity between him and the subordinate with whom he had dueled three years before.

Some time after he arrived in Rhode Island, Andrew Bruce met Henrietta Overing. By the summer of 1778 they were courting; we don’t know for how long, but it was a relationship under pressure. She turned eighteen in June, and in late July the garrison was threatened by a large French fleet off the coast. At the beginning of August a joint Franco-American operation besieged the outnumbered British garrison, The French navy seized control of the bay, American troops descended upon the island, and the garrison hunkered down behind lines of earthen fortifications erected on the high ground around of Newport. Exactly half-way through the siege Andrew Bruce and Henrietta Overing were married.

The Reverend George Bissett of Newport’s Trinity Church (which still holds regular services) presided over the wedding on Tuesday, August 18, 1778.[16] There is no record of whether the wedding took place at the church itself or if there was any ceremony to speak of. Perhaps the imminent danger expedited the marriage; the young bride may have held the romantic fear for her beloved’s safety that has figured in literature and film for centuries. Although twice her age, the lieutenant-colonel probably was an enamoring figure with his successful military career, dueling scar, and an enemy at the gates.

Col. Andrew Bruce in the uniform of a British staff officer, after a miniature circa 1781 painted by Sarah Addington.

From the start, Andrew Bruce told Henrietta that his elderly father, upon whom he relied for support, would not approve of the marriage. Not to worry; the old man was not long for the world and it would be to their mutual benefit to conceal the marriage until Andrew could collect his inheritance. She dutifully obliged her husband’s request. The siege was soon lifted, and a year later, in October 1779, the British army evacuated Rhode Island. Andrew Bruce went with the army to New York while his new bride Henrietta remained in Rhode Island in her father’s care. Lieutenant Colonel Bruce’s career continued to advance when in 1781 he was appointed aide-de-camp to Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, commander in chief of British forces in North America. He had moved into the inner circles of the military hierarchy; the following year he received the brevet rank of colonel. All the while Henrietta remained hopeful of a future with him in due time.

In 1782 she and her father both fell ill. A physician recommended a change of climate, and they removed from Newport to Bermuda. Her older brother Henry, who in 1779 had received a commission as an ensign in the 54th Regiment, took leave and went to Bermuda to be with his father and sister.[17] He brought with him a discouraging letter from his superior officer and brother-in-law to his sister:

Camp 5th October 1782

My Dear Harriott

Do not think my Long silence is either from want of affection or regard, for be assured both is as strong as ever, but I am narrowly watched and have moreover an aged Father who is in his 77th year, and who has taken strange notions in his Head, his Health Declines so fast, he cannot live many months, and then we are happy but should he know our connection, and by Heaven I swere to you he says will have me a beggar; he certainly has it in his Power; your own Prudence, if you have any regard for me will direct you how to act; for God’s sake take this into Consideration wither be happy shortly in future, or be Miserable with me for life – recollect and think on all this, and you will not find me so much to blame as you imagine. We certainly do not, I tell you from Authority with secrecy, we do not quite [sic – quit] America this Winter – hope for every thing both Public and Private for our mutual happiness next Spring. Our situations here are truly wretched, bad every thing; were you here I don’t know were [sic – where] I should put you. Your brother who tells me he will Charge of this will account for his own Health, I therefore will conclude with Recommending Prudence to you & to believe that I shall ever remain yours


A Bruce[18]

Alluding to the impending evacuation of New York by British forces, Colonel Bruce urged his wife to continue her patience, citing the severity of conditions there (a questionable argument) and the continued need to maintain secrecy.

The Overings waited out the winter in Bermuda, but the climate did not save the patriarch; Henry John Overing died in March 1783, leaving Henrietta with no immediate support. Her brother convinced her that her marriage should no longer remain a secret, and urged her to confront her staff-officer husband. The two of them went to New York where she hoped to realize her dream of being at last with her husband of over four years. They arrived in the spring, and Henrietta’s hopes were soon crushed. Colonel Bruce refused to see her, instead sending her this cold letter from his quarters on Staten Island dated May 30, 1783:

My dear Madam, When I gave you my hand I gave it with the sincerest intentions of living happily with you, but since that event things have taken another turn.  By indiscretions I am not now worth a shilling but what my commission will sell for, and we can never live together to upbraid one another.  My commission I mean to sell and you shall share of it, and my intention is to retire to some sequester’d place to live and I hope to die unknown.  As to seeing you is impossible, the stroke woud be to great for either; as we must part immediately, and it could not be for either of our advantages.  I am far from being well and will write you more fully, but your brother knows my fixt resolve.  May every blessing attend you, prays your most wretched, A. Bruce.[19]

No information has been found to confirm or refute his claim of poverty or allusion to ill health. His military position was certainly a lucrative one, and he had sustained it for several years; on the other hand, wartime New York held many ways for new wealth to be squandered through poor speculation and poor habits. Following the custom of the age, he had “purchased” his commission by lodging a substantial amount of money as a surety against his satisfactory performance as an officer, money that he stood to recover when he retired and of which he promised her a share; but this was equity, not cash. Regardless of his true circumstances, he would not meet with his wife Henrietta. Her brother, taking the role of her champion, boldly confronted the much-senior officer and demanded that he at least support her. Bruce agreed that he would provide her with one third of his pay and one third the value of his commission should he sell it.

However good a soldier Bruce may have been, he was completely disingenuous in his dealings with Henry and Henrietta. Instead of providing the money that he had promised, he met their demands in a quite literal manner, sending a paper on which was written,

One third of my Pay while in the service and when I sell, one third of the Purchase Money during her life.       A. Bruce.[20]

After this affront, Henry and Henrietta submitted a penal bond to force Bruce to abide by the terms that he had proposed to Henry, but Bruce refused to sign it and apparently denied having offered the terms in the first place. With no other recourse, Henrietta submitted a memorial to the current commander-in-chief, Gen. Sir Guy Carleton, on July 19, 1783. She eloquently stated her situation and provided enclosures of the relevant correspondence including her marriage certificate.[21] Much of the information we have about their relationship comes from this memorial.

Henrietta’s petition apparently was not acted upon. It was a bad time to expect redress: the British evacuation of the American colonies was imminent, and the commander-in-chief’s office was swamped with claims from property owners and refugees who had experienced all manner of losses during the war and now saw their last hopes for restitution preparing to sail away. In his capacity as lieutenant colonel, Andrew Bruce went with the 54th Regiment to Nova Scotia, while Henrietta returned to Rhode Island with her brother. Whether there was any legal annulment of her marriage is not known; on December 8, 1785 when she married another prominent Newport resident, Robert Nicholls Auchmuty, at Trinity Church, her surname Bruce was entered in the parish register, confusing subsequent historians who did not know of her brief and unfortunate first marriage.[22] Auchmuty was her cousin and a widower, leaving us to wonder if it was a marriage of convenience between two broken-hearted souls. In the early 19th Century she was painted by Gilbert Stuart as Mrs. Robert Nicholls Auchmuty, and she died in 1830. Andrew Bruce remained in the army and died childless in Naples, Italy in 1791, not yet fifty years old; his “aged Father,” who in 1782 he said “cannot live many months,” outlived him by four years.[23]

Henrietta Bruce Overing Auchmuty’s marriage to a deceitful British officer was heartbreaking but must not be used to characterize British military behavior in America. Many American women had long and happy marriages to British officers. A few months before Andrew Bruce married Henrietta Overing, his immediate subordinate in the 54th Regiment with a strangely similar name, Major John Breese, was wed to Elizabeth Malbone, daughter of another of Newport’s prominent citizens. She, too, stayed behind when the British evacuated Rhode Island, but in 1781 she received permission from the General Assembly to go with her infant child to join her husband in New York.[24] When the war ended, rather than leave with his regiment he resigned his commission and the family settled in Newport; he became British Vice Consul for Rhode Island in 1796.[25] Also in 1778, Lt. Charles Handfield of the 22nd Regiment of Foot married Margaret Alford Winslow, daughter of a New England loyalist minister.[26] The couple remained together for the rest of his long and successful military career in which he rose to the rank of colonel and held important administrative posts with the British army in Ireland; they had twelve children.

The war that brought independence for the United States brought all sorts of changes to individual residents, some positive, some negative. For Henrietta Overing, it initially brought a personal tie with Great Britain that she surely never imagined, and ended with those ties forever severed and very nearly erased from the historical record.


[1] April Cummings, “Portrait of a Loyalist,” Newport Restoration Foundation report, 2005, 7.

[2] Christian M. McBurney, The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2011), 2-3.

[3] Ira D. Gruber, ed. John Peebles American War: The Diary of a Scottish Grenadier 1776-1782 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998), 77, 81.

[4] One other British officer mentioned “frolicking” with Henrietta in the summer of 1777. Christian M. McBurney, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2014), 137n61.

[5] George Edward Cokayne, ed., The Complete Baronetage (Gloucester, England: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1983), 2: 359.

[6] Commission Book, WO 25/1, The National Archives, Kew, Engand (TNA).

[7] “By a correspondent from Athlone we learn, that a few days past a duel was fought there between the Lieutenant Colonel (Pigott) and the Major (Bruce) of the 38th regiment; and we hear the slight occasion which gave rise to the following fatal result, was no more than the latter telling the former he was an Egyptian. In consequence of this expression, the Colonel demanded an explanation, which the other refused, telling him he was at liberty to put on the word whatever construction he thought proper; a term, which, between men of honor, is always considered as a challenge: It was therefore understood as such, and the two gentlemen with their seconds met on the ground. Captain Otto, who was the Colonel’s friend, demanded from Lieutenant Sutherland, who was the Major’s friend, what explanation Mr. Bruce chose to give of the expression he had made use of at the mess? The Major made answer, that by the word Egyptian, he intended to have it understood as a person of groveling and mean principles. The two gentlemen then took their respective stands; Colonel Pigot firing first, his ball struck against the fourth rib on Major Bruce’s right side, and breaking the bone, forced its way, with part of his cloaths and shirt, into the body, where it penetrated too far to be extracted, and he was afterwards, by the surgeon, deemed past all hopes of recover. When the Major received the shot, he staggered forwards, and his pistol, either by design or accident, going off, the ball struck on the inside of Colonel Pigott’s wrist, and from thence directing its course to the fleshy part of the arm, just grazed the skin, and made its lodgement about two inches below the arm-pit on the outside, from whence it has since been extracted without any dangerous symptoms.” London Evening Post, January 15, 1774.

The Lord Lieutenant of Ireland ordered an investigation into this affair and sent the result to the King, finding that “His Majesty is highly offended at the conduct of [Major Bruce], and if in his future deportment there does not appear a very steady observance to discipline and decent behaviour, he must quit the service.” Calendar of Home Office papers of the reign of George III: 1760-1775 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1899), 200, 201.

[8] Muster rolls, 38th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/5171/2, TNA.

[9] The exact date of his arrival is not known. Elements of the convoy that carried him, the recruits and four British regiments arrived on June 16. Joseph Lee Boyle, From Redcoat to Rebel: The Thomas Sullivan Journal (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1997), 14.

[10] Richard Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston (Boston: Little and Brown, 1851),  387. Some sources indicate that he was wounded in the battle, but there is no evidence of this.

[11] Bruce was “Field Officer of the Picquets” on June 20, and “Field Officer of the Lines” on June22 ; he took these rolls every few days thereafter for the remainder of the occupation of Boston. The term Field Officer included majors, lieutenant-colonels and colonels. B. F. Stevens, General Sir William Howe’s Orderly Book (Boston, 1890), 5, 12.

[12] Henry Knox to Lucy Knox, Roxbury, July 6, 1775. Gilder Lehrman Collection GLC02437.00196, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York, NY; Frothingham, History of the Siege of Boston, 201.

[13] Stevens, General Sir William Howe’s Orderly Book, 108.

[14] Orders for 15 July 1774, TNA, General Orders America, WO 36/1.

[15] Muster rolls, 54th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6398/1, TNA.

[16] “This is to Certify whom it may concern that on the 18th day of August 1778 Andrew Bruce was Married to Henrietta Overing according to the Liturgy of the Church of England by George Bisset minister of Trinity Church Newport Rhode Island [signed] George Bisset.” British Headquarters Papers, PRO 30/55/1302, TNA. This and two letters from Andrew Bruce were all enclosures to Henrietta’s petition to Sir Guy Carleton, cited below, but the documents are now filed chronologically among the British Headquarters Papers.

[17] Muster rolls, 54th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6398/2, TNA.

[18] British Headquarters Papers, PRO 30/55/5794, TNA.

[19] British Headquarters Papers, PRO 30/55/7822, TNA.

[20] British Headquarters Papers, PRO 30/55/8472, TNA.

[21] British Headquarters Papers, PRO 30/55/8471, TNA.

[22] See, for example, Wilkins Updike, A History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island (Boston: Merrymount Press, 1907), 307.

[23] Cokayne, Complete Baronetage, 2: 359.

[24] The marriage was on February 1, 1778. See John Russell Bartlett, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (Providence: Alfred Anthony, Printer to the State, 1864), vol. 9 (1780-83), 460.

[25] George Chapman Mason, Annals of Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island (Newport: by the author, 1890), 1: 159.

[26] Sir Bernard Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry (London: Harrison & Sons, 1891), 348.

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