If a British soldier was absent without leave, he might be charged with desertion; if caught, he could be tried by a general court martial, a board of thirteen officers. The court looked at many factors in deciding guilt and sentencing punishment. In today’s trial, see if you agree with the court’s verdict and sentence.
The court looked at whether the soldier had been enlisted properly, and had been paid and clothed as required by the terms of enlistment. They also considered the reasons for his absence. Punishment depended upon whether the man’s absence was premeditated, whether he was trying to disguise or conceal himself, whether he had resisted arrest, and his overall character as a soldier. Their judgment was truly a life or death decision as they chose between capital or corporal punishment.
Hubert Römer was one of hundreds of men recruited in German states to serve in the ranks of British regiments – not a “Hessian” serving in a German regiment, but a British army recruit. A native of Trier, he had enlisted after the war began and arrived in America in October 1776, joining the 22nd Regiment of Foot. In September of 1778, the twenty-eight-year-old was with his regiment in Rhode Island when he was brought to trial. “Necessaries” referred to shirts, shoes and stockings, articles of clothing that it was necessary to replace on a regular basis.
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Prisoner. Hubertus Reimar, of the 22d Regiment and Captain Handfield’s Company being brought before the Court, was charged with being guilty of Desertion.
Interpreter. Serjeant Cling of the 54th Regiment was sworn to duly Interpret all Evidences delivered by Foreigners, and explain to the Prisoner, who is a German, those delivered by the British ones against him.
1st Evidence. Serjeant George Reason, of the same Regiment and Company with the Prisoner, being duly sworn deposes, that early on the Morning of the 14th of August, the Prisoner was absent, that on examining his Necessaries, three Shirts and two pair of Stockings were missing, and that the same day the Prisoner was brought to his Regiment by two Soldiers of the Anspach Corps, and adds, the Regiment was at that time encamped within the lines of Newport, as also, that till then, the Prisoner had always behaved himself well.
2d Evidence. John William Brown, Grenadier in the Anspach Regiment of Voit, being duly sworn deposes, (the same being interpreted to the Court) that being Sentry on the outside of the Abattees, about ten o’Clock one night, he heard a noise in front of him, on which he Challenged, but receiving no reply fired, when the prisoner called out to him, and the other Soldier who was posted with him and desired them not to fire again, as he was coming in to them, that he then came up to them and said, he had lost his way, and appeared to be in liquor, but desired them to take him to the Regiment.
3rd Evidence. John Free, private soldier in the same Regiment with the former Evidence being duly sworn, deposes, (the same being interpreted to the Court) in substance as the foregoing Evidence, with whom he was posted Sentry when the prisoner was taken by them.
The Prisoner Hubertus Reimar, being called to, and put on his Defence, says he was in Liquor when he went from his Tent, and had no design to Desert the Regiment.
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Do you think Römer was trying to desert? Some of his clothing was missing, often the case when a man planned to get away, and he did not surrender to the sentries until they shot at him. On the other hand, he was drunk, and once he was caught he asked to be taken to his regiment.
“The Court having heard and considered the Evidence against the Prisoner Hubertus Reimar, as also his Defence is of Opinion, he is not Guilty of the Crime laid to his Charge and doth therefore Acquit him.”
The court’s deliberations were not recorded, so we can only guess how they arrived at their decision. Other deserters had been sentenced to death in Rhode Island in 1778, so there was no overall history of lenience. Römer continued as a soldier through the end of the war, when he was discharged and took a land grant in Nova Scotia.
Don N. Hagist, “Forty German Recruits: The Service of German Nationals in the 22nd Regiment of Foot, 1776-1783,” www.revwar75.com/library/hagist/FORTYGERMANRECRUITS.htm.
Trial of Hubert Römer, WO 71-87, 241-243, National Archives of Great Britain.
Muster rolls, 22nd Regiment of Foot, WO 71/3871, National Archives of Great Britain.
Curious that he was acquitted while Sullivan, who had a stronger case for his “innocence,” was found guilty. I wonder whether, and how much, politics played a role. Wasn’t the Anspach Corps raised in German territory? Though they may have served in the British Army proper, they might still have a fair amount of sympathy toward a fellow German-speaker, whose execution might be inclined to stir some unrest among German elements in the army, whether recruited directly by the British or hired as mercenaries. Just speculating.
The series is interesting. It sheds a lot of light on what’s happening inside the British Army while in America, which often gets overlooked in general histories or campaign histories. It’s a subject I don’t know much about. Appreciate the articles.
An interesting observation, Eric, and plausible based solely on this example. Having read several hundred trials like these, however, suggests either that the court considered things not stated in the trial transcripts, or that they were very capricious. There are many, many cases where two seemingly identical trials have diametrically opposite findings. For this reason, I often repeat the phrase, “the data tells us what, but it doesn’t tell us why.”
These British general court martial proceedings are in manuscript at the British National Archives in Kew, a London suburb, and on microfilm at the David Library of the American Revolution. They are a very rich source of information on many facets of the British army in America, including the Loyalist regiments, and the goings-on in garrison towns where civilians were also under military law (but not so much on the German regiments, who held their own courts; I’m not aware of any surviving proceedings from those trials).
This is a very interesting article and thanks very much.
My Am Rev Patriot is from N.C. and because of that, I can luckily say that I am a DAR from TX living right here in NM.
It always amazes me to read about our National American heritage and how we became a nation.
Our American history is so humbling in my opinion and we had family members who were foot soldiers from both of the wars. (Am Rev & Civil)
Eventually, our NC family Patriots ended up in Texas for the land grants of the 1850’s. We are part of the Chisum Trail family and I’ve luckily ended up in NM from TX and I can’t read enough of those old cowboy books and anything about The Am Rev.
Don, how did you start your research and how did you become a writer? I’d love to know if you traveled all over the east coast to do your research and how long that took. I’ll look you up on Wikipedia to find out more if you are too busy to respond.
Keep up the great work and serving our Republic. God Bless America.
Judy Parish Sparks,
Santa Fe, NM
Thank you for asking, Judy.
I became a researcher simply by looking in the citations and bibliographies of every book I read, and chasing down the sources. This led to many archives, sometimes through correspondence and other times through visits, nowadays sometimes over the internet (I’ve spend an aggregate of about three months at the British National Archives, for example). I had the good fortune to learn early on the value of tracing things to the primary sources – or discovering that there were none. Research is like doing a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, but you have to find each piece and you don’t know what the picture looks like.
As to writing, after years of asking questions of others, gradually others began asking questions of me; after years of tracing down primary sources, I recognized that some needed to be more accessible. Writing is the natural outgrowth of those realizations.