“About five weeks after he made his escape from Prospect hill,” Augustine Barrett told the board of inquiry, “he was confined in the Prison Ship at Boston where he continued between 5 & six Months.” Barrett was stating his case to a board of officers convened to settle claims of British soldiers owed paid and other entitlements. It was January 1783, the eighth year of a conflict in America that had seen many British soldiers displaced from their regiments for extended periods due to the fortunes of war.
The most common form of displacement was captivity. From the day hostilities broke out on April 19, 1775, soldiers on both sides had been captured here and there, separated from their own ranks and swept up by their enemies, wounded and left on the battlefield, captured at sea, and taken in an assortment of other circumstances. Sometimes large numbers were captured at one time—two British regiments garrisoning forts along the route from Lake Champlain to Quebec in 1775, several thousand Continental and militia troops on Long Island in August 1776 and again at Fort Washington that November, and almost six thousand British and German soldiers at Saratoga in October 1777. Those captives were marched across Massachusetts to barracks on Prospect Hill (for the British soldiers) and Winter Hill (for the Germans) outside of Boston.
Among the tenants of the hastily-constructed barracks was Augustine Barrett, a twenty-four-year-old member of the 24th Regiment of Foot’s light infantry company. Born in Leeds, England, he had been a bricklayer before enlisting in the regiment in 1771; his first name is recorded sometimes as Augustus, sometimes as Augustine. Barrett probably was enlisted by a recruiting party somewhere in England before being sent to his regiment that was on service in Ireland. Soon after he joined, light infantry companies were added to the establishment of British regiments, and the 5′ 6″ tall Barrett was put into this organization of young, active men. The regiment’s muster rolls record that he deserted with another soldier in December 1774 but returned less than a month later, an incident about which no further details are known.
The 24th Regiment was part of the relief force sent to Quebec in 1776 to drive away besieging American forces. The following year, they formed part of Gen. John Burgoyne’s army on the expedition that seized Fort Ticonderoga but stalled at Saratoga in its attempt to reach Albany. Interned and put into the barracks on Prospect Hill, Augustine Barrett had other ideas than waiting for an exchange that would never come. He made his escape on November 13, 1777, among the first of hundreds of British soldiers to do so.
Three years later, on September 14, 1780, the brown-haired, dark-complexioned Barrett came into the British garrison in New York City with another escapee from Burgoyne’s army, an Irish barber named James Cuffe from the 62nd Regiment of Foot. The two had pulled off a trick used by many captive British soldiers: they enlisted in an American regiment, then deserted when they were close to the front lines. In this case, it was Col. Henry Jackson’s regiment, the 16th Massachusetts, posted in Bergen County, New Jersey. Given passes to go into the country to seek provisions in the area between Paramus and New Bridge, Barrett and Cuffe absconded on September 11 and were in New York three days later. Both were put back into active service in the 22nd Regiment of Foot.
Part of a British soldier’s enlistment contract was the promise of pay and clothing in exchange for service to the army. As the war wound down, Barrett an others with similar experiences were allowed to claim the pay and clothing—or the value thereof—due to them for the time they were prisoners and escapees; they were, after all, still British soldiers during this time, and had risked life and limb to rejoin the fight rather than remaining in captivity. A board of inquiry convened in New York to hear their claims, and Barrett made his in January 1783. He told the court the date that he had left the 24th Regiment at Prospect Hill, that he had been put on a prison ship in Boston for half a year, and then enlisted in Colonel Jackson’s regiment where he spent eighteen months before having an opportunity to desert. He explained that he was paid and clothed while in Continental service, but claimed pay for the remaining time as an escapee. His story was like many others the board heard, of escapes and recaptures, suffering on prison ships and in jails, working in the countryside to earn money while on the lam, making connections with sympathetic inhabitants who helped them get to British lines, and many enlistments into rebel service in hopes of finding an opportunity to desert.
What the board of inquiry did not know was that Barrett’s story was only partly true. Returns for Col. David Henley’s Additional Massachusetts Regiment record that Barrett enlisted in November 1777 within days of leaving the barracks at Prospect Hill. One year later he was appointed corporal in the regiment. In 1779, the organization of the army changed, and enlisted in the 16th Massachusetts Regiment under Col. Henry Jackson. He deserted in August of that year, but returned that October, although he was reduced back to a private soldier for the infraction. A return from that month also indicates that had his “family in camp,” suggesting that he had married an American woman after his escape. The rolls record his desertion from the regiment on September 14, 1780.
Augustine Barrett clearly knew how to take advantage of a situation to suit his own needs. He left the bleak conditions of a prisoner of war barracks to enlist in Continental service, took some unauthorized time off from that service, married somewhere along the way, then abandoned the Continental army to rejoin the his former army. Six months after stating his case to the board of inquiry, on June 7, 1783, as the British army was reorganizing and downsizing after the end of hostilities, Barrett deserted one more time. Perhaps he wanted to return to that wife he had in 1779. Or perhaps he sought some new opportunity. His fate has not been discovered.
Muster rolls, 24th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/4059, TNA. British muster rolls record his enlistment and British service; his age, trade, place of birth, height, hair and skin color are recorded on several American rolls cited below.
Roll of the Officers of Col. David Henley’s Regt & all of the men which has been Inlisted in said Regt, April 18, 1778, Revolutionary War Rolls, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. Dates of Barrett’s enlistment are given as November 14 and November 20 on different rolls for the 16th Massachusetts Regiment. See: Descriptive list of the Non-Commission’d Officer and Privates, Deserters, from the late 16th Masstts. Regt.,Revolutionary War Rolls; Muster roll of the 5th Company in the Battalion of Massachusetts Forces, in the Service of the United States, Commanded by Col. Hy. Jackson,Revolutionary War Rolls; Return of the Non Commiss’d Officers & Soldiers Inlisted for the War in the Cols Compy, Muster rolls, 16th Massachusetts Regiment, Henry Jackson Papers, Library of Congress.