The Redcoat in America: The Diaries of Lieutenant William Bamford, 1757–1765 and 1776


February 12, 2020
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


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A Redcoat in America: The Diaries of Lieutenant William Bamford, 1757-1765 and 1776 edited by John B. Hattendorf (Helion & Company, 2019)

Writings of participants in the American Revolution are always welcome when they become widely available. John B. Hattendorf’s new contribution to this literature is especially interesting because it offers one individual’s perspectives on events over two decades and two conflicts. Hattendorf’s recognized that two surviving manuscript diaries in different repositories are by the same author, British army officer William Bamford. One diary, describing operations in North America from 1758 through 1765, is in the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University in Rhode Island; the other, covering campaigns in America from January through December 1776, is held by Johns Hopkins University. The latter diary was published in the Maryland Historical Magazine in the 1930s, and that version is well-known to historians of the American Revolution, but the French and Indian War diary has remained obscure and its connection to the later journal was not previously recognized. Hattendorf’s new volume, A Redcoat in America, includes an introduction describing the discovery process, as well as the complete transcribed text of both diaries with extensive annotation.

William Bamford was a lieutenant in the 40th Regiment of Foot during the French and Indian War, and a captain in the same regiment during the American Revolution. He served at the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, and the subsequent campaign that took Quebec and secured Canada in 1759 and 1760. He traveled from Quebec up Lake Champlain, then down the Hudson River to Staten Island. From there, in 1761, he sailed with his regiment to the Caribbean, spending the next four years in Martinique, Havana, West Florida, and Mobile. He fought in some of the conflict’s most dramatic battles, and endured the chilling cold of Canadian winters and the brutal heat of Gulf Coast summers.

It is unfortunate that only one year of Bamford’s writings from American Revolution survive, from January through December 1776. Bamford served in Boston until its evacuation in March 1776, then went with the army to Halifax and on to Staten Island. He fought in the campaign that drove rebel forces out of the City of New York and its environs. His descriptions vary greatly in detail, and he recorded little that changes our perspective on any of these campaigns, but first-hand accounts allow us to feel the very pulse of history, and Bamford’s contributions enhance our understanding of major events and reveal details about minor ones. He records the rumors he heard, the fish he caught, the accounts he settled, the goings-on that he witnessed. He gave his perspective on the war, at the time perceived as a rebellion incited by a disloyal minority, and the impact it had on what otherwise seemed like an idyllic land. Reading what he thought was worth writing down gives a sense of what was important to people living through the events.

Bamford included a number of drawings in his first diary, all of which are reproduced in this book. He penned maps of the harbor at Louisbourg and the coast of West Florida, detailed plan views of British and French forts in Canada and the Caribbean, battle maps of important actions during the French and Indian War, excellent views of fortifications on islands in the West Indies, and even a few careful renderings of tropical fish. His draftsmanship was excellent, and the black and white reproductions in the 6 x 9-inch volume are large enough and of sufficient resolution to make them pleasing and informative.

For all its value as a primary source, this publication suffers from compositional deficiencies. First and most critical is that there are many blatant transcription errors that can be identified even without comparing to the original manuscript. For example, on page 176 we have “the Crops that went out the 14th recd each man a pair of Shoes & Stockings;” clearly this should be “Corps” rather than “Crops.” Later on that same page we have “out light Infantry landed,” which should be “our light Infantry landed.” Throughout the book are similar transcription errors; while some are easy to spot, there may be others that are not as noticeable which could alter the meaning of the text. As with any transcription, researchers depending on this material are advised to seek out the original manuscript to verify any details that are critical.

Another concern are the curious choices made in annotation. Footnotes make up over a quarter of the book’s contents, usually a laudable attribute, but some of the information provided is distracting rather than enriching. Each time Bamford has written the name of an army or navy officer, a footnote gives that man’s entire commission history and sometimes other details of his life. In cases where Bamford had interesting interactions with the man, these notes are nice to read, but often Bamford’s mention is only in passing and the long footnote is little more than a tangent to the narrative. Worse is when Bamford gives the names of Royal Navy ships, which he does frequently. For every ship, we have a footnote giving the vessel’s history from launch to destruction or decommissioning, making for long footnotes that have little to do with Bamford’s narrative. The information is potentially useful to some researchers, but inasmuch as the book is about an army officer, few readers are likely to find histories of ships relevant, and people seeking histories of ships are unlikely to know a book like this would suit their needs. In an extreme case, Bamford wrote a list of thirty-one ships involved in operations around Martinique in 1761, and the list spans six pages of the published journal because of the extensive notes on each ship.

Equally disappointing is what is not annotated—absent from the notes are discussions of people who were not officers. Bamford is a rare officer who occasionally mentioned common soldiers—we read of “Carrigan” and “Northington” getting into a fatal altercation, of “Shea” deserting by swimming from Staten Island, and frequent notes of payments to other surnames. Muster rolls for the 40th Regiment, available in manuscript at the British National Archives and on microfilm at research institutions in the United States, reveal that John Corrigan, William Norrington, and Richard Shea were all soldiers in the 40th Regiment. Norrington was tried by court martial for the death of Corrigan, the proceedings of which were recorded; Shea gave a deposition to American authorities which has been published. And almost all of the people Bamford paid were soldiers in the company he commanded, revealing rare details about how company officers managed the money of the men under their command. But none of these names are footnoted, even though they were directly involved with Bamford. Instead, we have histories of ships.

For those who love primary sources, especially those who study the British army, this book is a must, in spite of its flaws. The more casual reader will find it interesting in places, challenging in others (Bamford’s abbreviations, faithfully rendered in the transcript, are often cryptic), but generally a revealing look into the thoughts and experiences of an officer who fought two wars in America.

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