Richard Augustus Wyvill: A British Officer’s Journal as the War Winds Down


June 26, 2018
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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The 38th Regiment of Foot disembarked in Boston in the summer of 1774, and spent the next nine years in America involved in some of the war’s most storied campaigns. There was considerable turnover of personnel during those years; the regiment had, nominally, thirty-five officers at any given time, but a total of eighty-eight men served as officers in the 38th over the course of the war. Not all experienced the rigors of campaigning in the colonies. One of the last to arrive was Richard Augustus Wyvill.

Wyvill kept a journal during his three decades of military service, the first few pages of which record his Revolutionary War experiences. His reflections on his brief service in America provide an entertaining look at military activities when the war was winding down. The memoir begins with a quick summary of his early life and military education:

As the juvenile years of Boys, in general, pass in the same round, of dull uniformity, I shall meerly observe, that I received a tolerably good Education, previous to my Friends determining on the line of Life to which I should attach myself. It being decided that I should pursue the Military Academy, at Strasburg, in the year 1778, where, I remained, about two years, studying with assiduity Military Tactics. As the Military Profession is particularly attractive to young Men, whose minds are much amused with the contemplation of a red Coat and Sword, I was unremitting, in my attentions and in the month of May 1780 I received a Commission in the 38th Regiment of British Infantry.

As with many young officers, Wyvill began his career by serving as a recruiting officer:

Immediately, on my Arrival in London, I reported myself at the Commander in Chief’s office, and was ordered on the Recruiting service, at the Town of Wolverhampton in Staffordshire.

After almost a year raising men to replace those lost in years of American campaigning, it was time for young Wyvill to shepherd some of those recruits across the Atlantic to join his regiment.

On the 15th April 1781 I received orders to proceed to Portsmouth, there to Embark for America, to join my Regiment. I lost no time in getting to Portsmouth, where a large Fleet was assembled, and expected to sail immediately, but, to my great disappointment, we were detained there, untill the 30th July, and my expences were unavoidably so great, that most of my ready money was expended. We at length sailed, and had nothing but Storms and contrary Winds, and to add to my disappointment the fleet was obliged to steer for Charlestown, instead of New York. We landed at Charlestown on the 17th Octr 1781. I had only one solitary Guinea in my Pocket and a friend of mine who came in the same ship (Cornet White of the 17th Dragoons) was without a Sous. A happy state to be, in a strange Country, at a great distance from my Regiment, and only a guinea between my friend and me. The next day, however, we waited on General Leslie, who commands at Charlestown and he most kindly supplied us with what money we wished for, and gave us quarters, in a house, with some Officers of the 3d Regiment or Buffs, who received us, with the greatest kindness and hospitality.

This was an inauspicious beginning for an officer who was anxious to join his regiment. He landed just as the British army at Yorktown, Virginia, was about to surrender, but he knew nothing of those events. Instead his time was taken up getting to know a little of Charleston society while awaiting a voyage north. He made note of only one event that struck him:

I was highly incensed, against some American Loyalists, in our pay, who some evenings ago, I observed in a very brutal manner, shove from the wall, Colonel Washington, nephew to Genl. Washington, a prisoner on parole here. He immediately made a motion to draw his sword, but recollecting he had none disdainfully looking at them coolly walked on.

When a ship was ready to take him Wyvill and his companions, he was exposed to another aspect of the prolonged war that took its toll on young officers struggling to make their modest means meet pragmatic and social demands:

After remaining a short time, at this place, the shipping were ordered to New York, when the Master of our Vessel, demanded ten guineas additional of us, and we were under the necessity complying with his extravagant demand.

Arrival in New York at the onset of winter only added to the young officer’s distress, but he soon found solace in the bucolic lands of Long Island, where in spite of constant military presence, war could seem like a distant thing:

The sudden change, from heat, to intence cold, affected me, so much that I lost the use of my limbs and was so severely afflicted with Rheumatic pains, that it was the 12 of May 1782 before I could leave New York to join my Regimt at Flushing on Long Island, and crossing the East river, here, about a mile broad, landed on Brooklynn Ferry, thence I journeyed on, in a very bad state of Health, six miles, and was so fortunate as to be lodged, with a worthy Dutch family, whose kind attention, and the society of their lovely Daughter brought me to my usual good state of health.

His health recovered, Ensign Wyvill was finally able to begin his military duties, but in this place that was far from any hostile threat he found his social interactions most noteworthy. He also learned local opinions of events that had transpired years before, when war raged in the area:

Soon after I mounted Guard, at Brooklynn, where I relieved a Hessian Guard. This place contains some good and pleasant houses. I got a very good breakfast at Loosely’s Tavern, the motto of this liberal hearted Landlord is, Pro bono publico, which, to his cost, he has found it so. No great victory has occurred, but he gives a grand let off. His is terribly incensed, against Sir William Howe, in allowing Washington and his Army to ferry themselves over from this, during the night when he could have made them surrender in the evening but says my Landlord the two Brothers had not sufficiently feathered their nests, or the battle of White plains, might have finished the business and all our movements are made known to the Enemy by a Yankee Woman kept by Sir William Howe.

Unlike his predecessors who had endured service in hostile Boston, rigorous campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, dangerous garrison duty on the front lines in Rhode Island, or savage warfare in the South, Wyvill’s first summer in America was passed in a pastoral paradise:

Flushing lays on the N. W. part of Long Island, and on the South side of Hell’s Gate. This and Flatbush, another pleasant and healthy place appears like a perfect garden, orchards filled with trees bearing the finest cling stone peaches, which delightfull fruit forms a regular row on each side of the roads and of which even the hogs freely partake. This fruit and the acorns make their flesh delicious, and it is extremely curious observing every evening, droves of Cattle hogs &c &c returning together, at the sound of the horn, and then returning themselves to their several homes. In short, Long Island is a Paradise and I had pictured, to myself, various delights, at this place, with every prospect of passing a summer, the most delightfull, and a Winter the most social but alas, how often are with disappointed in what we flatter ourselves we shall enjoy. A sudden order arrived for us, to embark. To bid farewell, was impossible, therefore, silently, before the dawn of day, I left my quarters, and on passing the Chamber, where beauty reposed, I slipped under the Door, some lines expressive of my grief.

Ordered to King’s Bridge at the northern end of Manhattan island, where the real war was, it seemed like Wyvill might finally see something resembling the fighting that he had by now heard so much about. But 1782 was coming to an end, and there simply wasn’t much hostile activity anymore; once again, Wyvill’s journal in this long-contested location recorded activities more social than military:

Our Regiment embarked on board Arnold’s boats, each capable containing, as 100 men, fully accoutred. We were conveyed, to York Island, which is 15 miles in length, and only one, in breadth, and joined, to the Continent, by a bridge, called King’s bridge, and to which place, we proceeded. There we passed several dreary Months no hospitable Landlady, or fair Daughter, to solace my melancholy days. I was ordered, with another subaltern, to No 8 Redoubt, to which we crossed over, in a boat, pulled along the side of a strong rope fastened on each bank; here, we were to remain, a fortnight. Our only amusement, was, now an then, to pay a visit, to a Farm house in the neighbourhood, and chat with the Farmer’s Daughter quite a Hottentot; teasing, the Old Mother, who armed with a broom stick, used to exclaim “get ye gone, ye terrible sarpents, you shall not come here to tantalize me or my Daughter.” However, by giving a little higher price for her butter Eggs &c &c we used to put the Old Lady in to good humour again. Some night previous to our quitting this Post, heard several shots fired, the night was extremely dark, and we remained Manning the works, untill day light; when, we sent out, a reconnoitering Party, which returned with intelligence, that it was some skinners (so called from robbing both friend and foe) attacking the poor Royalists, hutted in the ground in the plain, like so many rabbits, in a warren, the doors of which are strongly barred, having holes in them to fire through.

Being many miles north of bustling New York City, the troops stationed at King’s Bridge made due with what quarters they could construct or reclaim from previous garrisons. Wyvill did quite well for himself, at least in his own estimation, in spite of the harsh winter conditions:

On the 4th February [1783], we returned to King’s bridge; there I got a comfortable hut built, of two rooms, with good brick fire places in each. This I got finished by the 29 Feby, and no Nabob could be prouder of his dwelling, than I was of mine, when I found myself seated by a comfortable Hicory wood fire, in my own Freehold. I had enjoyed this Mansion but a few days, when a very heavy fall of snow came on with a strong North West wind and compleatly enveloped my hut, in which I remained buried for many hours. Some of our Men, at length, set me at liberty whom I rewarded with a few bottles of rum. The weather was now intensely cold. We are obliged to relieve the sentries, every half hour, and spirits froze in the House.

Wyvill attained the rank of lieutenant on February 25, 1782, perhaps while sitting by his hickory fire in King’s Bridge. The island surrounded by rivers required more than just redoubts for protection; armed vessels were placed at strategic places in the waterways, manned by soldiers just as the shoreline positions were. On one of these vessels Wyvill took his turn:

On the 2d March I was sent on Duty on board the Guard ship. The Detachment was Commanded by Captain Hildebrand Oakes, of the 33d Regt. The Navy Officers paid us the greatest attention and we spent a Month, very pleasantly with them.

Each British company officer was entitled to take a servant from among the soldiers in his company. Wyvill unfortunately did not name the man who was at the center of one of his most amusing accounts:

On my return, as a great treat, I purchased a fine round of beef, which cost me three pounds. In the evening, returning to my hut, sooner, than expected, I surprised my Servant busily employed eating away, on my expensive beef; with all the luxuries of Mustard &c &c which I had provided for my own supper. I took the liberty, he being quite drunk, of tying him to a Gun. The fellow made me laugh, for, at intervals, he kept exclaiming, “‘Tis too bad, too bad, what, tyed to the Breech, when I never feared to face the Muzzle.”

Martin Bladen Tinker, an officer of the 38th Regiment commissioned before Wyvill but who had been recruiting in Great Britain for most of his career, arrived in America full of otentation in November of 1782, and met Capt. George Abson, an artillery officer much more experienced in the ways of war and rather more clever:

The snow has now continued on the ground these two Months, and is perfectly hard, we have a beautifull clear sky, not a Cloud to obscure the sun. Sledges are constantly passing to and from New York, and we frequently take a trip there, in an evening with an avant Courier, and flambeaux. The snow is now, however, going off, which gives us all fresh spirits and the spring fast advancing. A Captain Abson of the Royal Artillery is the life and soul of this place and some days ago made us laugh most heartily. One of our Lieutenants named Tommy Tinker lately arrived from England, a neat little man, who on account of his legs, always wears boots, brought out with him, two Capital English Hunters, a groom, and a servant in livery, besides a plentifull cargo of good English cheer: Wine and Porter. Smart little Tommy, struts up to Captain Absom, a tall handsome Man with “Mon cher Capitaine, comment vous portes vous.” to which Absom replys, with the greatest gravity, “With all my heart, if you please.” Tommy stares, and says, what do you mean. Why, rejoins the Captain, didn’t you ask me to dinner, and by this witty turn, partook of a most excellent treat, not to be got here for money.

With the summer of 1783 came the prospect of yet another campaign season, when the army’s situation was suddenly changed by the war’s formal end:

Intimation being given us, that, we are to encamp the beginning of June, I went into New York, and had the good luck of purchasing an excellent Marquee for twelve guineas, and every thing would have passed pleasantly, had I kept away from the Taro Table, where I lost every farthing I had, and obliged to sleep on the chair. Next morning had no alternative but to return on foot to Kings bridge, and living for a Month on my slender rations. On the 7th of June found myself under Canvass, having left my hut in charge of a Soldier’s Wife. Cessations of hostilities however soon after taking place we broke up Camp and returned again to Kings bridge. And now the communication with the Country being opened, we have all kinds of provisions, in the greatest abundance, our eyes every day delighted by flocks of pretty Damsels, coming in with their Merchandize and they have plenty of Customers, for all their commodities.

The fighting was over, but there were other conflicts to be sorted out:

Some days ago an American Officer came here with a pass for New York to see his Sister, who he understood had got the scarlet fever, but, which, he wishes to change to the blue Devils, meaning, she was in love with a British Officer, and he wishing her to marry an American.

It is unfortunate that Wyvill did not give the names of the players in this romantic drama. Wyvill’s next vivid information related once again to the hut where he had spent several months:

On the 27th Septr 1783 orders arrived for the Regiment, to March into New York; when I took a last farewell of my hut, which had for so many Months afforded me a comfortable shelter, from the inclement weather. I compleatly dismantled it, and stripped it of its green baize, canvas, &c &c.

For the first time Lieutenant Wyvill was able to tarry a while in the metropolis of New York, and record some interesting details of the place. And fully three years after his demise, people were still talking about the beloved, tragic Maj. John André:

There are, in this City, several fine buildings, but many of the streets, are narrow, and dirty. At this time, New York is compleatly crowded with red Coats, and every description of elegant vice perfectly in fashion. The Hessian Officers, still keep the Taro bank, which, continues nightly to be filled with British Officers who generally leave it, with light Pockets and frequently with Quarrels on their hands. We had amongst those, who wished to be moderate, a pleasant social meeting, where we enjoy’d ourselves with a Welsh rabbit, and a Pot of Porter, for the small expence of a shilling, and we kept up our spirits, with Songs, Catches, and Glees. Here I was shewn a sketch, with a pen, drawn by poor Major Andre, when in the boat, going on his fatal Embassy, and was told, that he was strongly averted, at the Head Quarters, whatever disguise he put on, never to divest himself entirely, of the dress of an English Officer, which he unfortunately omitted. He was, but a short distance from our lines, on his return, when some skinners met him, and asked for his passport, wich he shewed them and was in a feigned name. They then left him, but, as all Americans are extremely inquisitive, they returned, and Major Andre, most unaccountably, lost, so far his presence of mind, as to offer them his watch, and purse which they, in hopes of a greater reward, refused, and made him prisoner. One of the Men was sent on, to the Head Quarters of the American Army, which was commanded by Arnold, in the absence of General Washington. By the description given by this man, Arnold found, it must be Major Andre, who was taken, and knowing this circumstance must discover his correspondence with the British Army, he immediately made his escape to us.

Every individual remaining in New York had to decide on the future, whether to stay, or where to go:

Most of the Loyalists in New York, are embarking for Nova Scotia, taking their wood dwellings with them, which gives the streets a strange appearance leaving large openings, in many of them. A number of half pay Officers, and discharged men, are also going there, where they are to have land given them, implements of Husbandry, and rations for ten years. It was a most affecting scene, when the Inhabitants embarked, quitting their friends forever, to whom they were attached, both by ties of blood and friendship, and many of our rough Soldiers felt the sympathetic tear on their cheeks, on leaving their old Comrades. The prospect before them, was also most distressing, going to a distant and strange country, where their success was extremely doubtfull, and their future prospects in life perfectly uncertain.

Lieutenant Wyvill’s career, of course, made his choice for him. His regiment was among those sent back to Great Britain (rather than Canada or other North American colonies still in British hands. He had had enough of the place by then, in spite of having spent far less time there than so many of his fellow officers and soldiers:

On the 16th November 1783 the following American orders were given out. “As the City of New York, is going to be evacuated by the British Troops, on the 22d instant, it is proposed to celebrate the Peace by us, on the 1st of December by a display of fireworks and illuminations.” On the 22d Novr to our great Joy, we evacuated New York, when passing the Fort, in our boats, we were surprised at seeing the American Colours flying, through one of the embrazures, and learnt afterwards, that one of our sailors had cut the flag halliards, and greased the flag staff, so effectually, that the Colours could not be hoisted time enough, to display them there, at which they were greatly mortified. Our Troops landed on Staten Island, where we were, to our great regret, detained some time, the Americans behaving in the most brutal manner to us and annoying us on every occasion.
At length we left this miserable place and, by the end of January 1784, we landed at Portsmouth. One of the transports separated from us off Sandy Hook, yet, so equal was our passage, that she anchored at Spithead a few hours after us.

Richard Augustus Wyvill continued with a long career in the army, serving in Great Britain, the West Indies, Egypt and other places. He eventually published his journal, taking care to edit some portions, as Sketch of the Military Life of Richard Augustus Wyvill (London: T. Warton, 1820). The extracts presented here are from his manuscript journal in the Library of Congress, and include passages that are not in the published version.


  • Wondering if you have any info on the battle of alamace and captain. Benjamin Merrill, along with 5 others that were drawn hanged and quarted June 1771.

  • An interesting discrepancy (perhaps?) is that John Van Arsdale is commonly credited with climbing the greased flagpole on November 25, while this diary implies that Wyvill saw this happen November 22.

    1. An astute point, Will. Throughout Wyvill’s manuscript, there are signs that he wrote it when he had “down time” rather than on a daily basis. It does not have dated entries like a diary, but he often wrote in the present tense using terms like “today” and “yesterday,” while at other times he used the past tense as though he was writing days or weeks after the events he chronicles. As such, there are minor discrepancies here and there.

  • Don, I’ll give you another example. There is a well known story about the siege at Fort Stanwix, 1777, in which a half crazy man named Yost Schuyler was “captured” and tipped off the British that Benedict Arnold had a much larger force than he really did, inspiring them to quit the fort. I was curious where this story came from, because books couldn’t come up with a good source. It turns out that the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia has an authentic looking diary, but it begins with the phrase “Journal of the Siege at Fort Stanwix….” which is a dead giveaway that it was written later, yes? I am actually on the fence about using that as a citation, but I also assume it is the only actual for the story.

  • This is a fantastic piece. I have always been interested in learning about the lives of British soldiers in the Revolution. It’s fascinating to read how Wyvill perceived Long Island to be a paradise, in spite of all of the dangers in the area! Thank you for another great article.

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