Charles Turner: One Soldier, Three Armies

The War Years (1775-1783)

February 1, 2024
by Todd W. Braisted Also by this Author


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On the muster roll of a Continental Army regiment stationed at West Point in 1779, is a note that a soldier, Charles Turner, had deserted on June 5 of that year. In and of itself, it’s a routine entry, a common occurrence with every army of the period. The war saw thousands of such desertions from both sides, men who took matters into their own hands to unilaterally, not to mention illegally, end their military obligations. Seeing so many deserters, one can lose sight that each one of these men had a personal story to tell, experiences often unique to themselves. So it was for Charles Turner, starting with the fact that his name was not quite Turner.

When the war started for Charles Turner, he was better known by his comrades as Carl Tournier (or Tornier), a private soldier in the Prince Ludwig Regiment of Brunswick Dragoons, one of the contingent of troops from the German principality of Brunswick hired by the British to supplement their forces attempting to subdue the rebellion in America. The Brunswick troops arrived in Canada in 1776 and formed a large part of Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne’s invasion of northern New York the following year. Although a cavalry unit, the Prince Ludwig Regiment arrived without horses and fought as infantry during the campaign. Tournier, with many of his comrades, was captured at the Battle of Bennington on August 16, 1777. Marched as a prisoner to Massachusetts, he spent months as a captive, finally deciding to enlist with his captors in May 1778. Tournier became Turner to his new officers, serving in Capt. Elisha Brewer’s company of light infantry in Col. Samuel Brewer’s battalion.[1] With his battalion he was sent to the Hudson Highlands, garrisoning the lynchpin of the Hudson River defenses at West Point. In early June 1779, Tournier was part of a scout sent out under a lieutenant from West Point, taking the opportunity to slip away and desert when within three miles of the British garrison of Stony Point, at which post he arrived the next day.

Upon arriving within the British lines, the former dragoon was debriefed for whatever intelligence he could provide concerning the enemy. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Tournier’s interview concerned his time at West Point. Fifteen months after providing detailed intelligence on the state of the fortifications and garrison, his interviewer, John André, would be captured with similar information on his person, provided by Continental Maj. Gen. Benedict Arnold. André of course would be executed at Tappan, New York for possessing information he had probably already heard from any number of deserters from West Point. The information changed over time, but there was a steady stream of it to the British.[2] Tournier’s information on West Point was recorded by his interviewer:

He has been in Garrison at West Point since Novr. last and gives the following account of the works, &ca. there—That there are three Forts, call’d Fort Putnam, Fort Arnold & Fort Webb, of which Fort Putnam is the principal, and besides the Forts, they have three Redoubts & a Fleche along the River; that the 1st Redoubt has in it 3 Guns, (the natures of them he does not know) the 2d Redoubt 2 long 12 Prs., the 3d Redoubt, 2 – 9 Prs. and the Fleche 3 – 18 Pounders & 1 – 12 Pr. In Fort Putnam there are 7 Guns, (the heaviest an 18 Pr. and 1 Howitzer, but no Mortars; in Fort Webb, (which is a paultry work, there are 3 Guns, one of which is a 9 Pr. & the other two 6 prs. Fort Putnam has a Chevaux de Frize and a Stone Wall round it, with a parapet upon it of Fascines & Earth. Fort Arnold has a Ditch, but he cannot tell the number of Guns in it, as many small ones were lately mov’d into it, but there are between 50 & 60 cannon in all the Point. General Parsons commands at West Point & the Garrison of the different works consist of 7 Regts. belonging to Massachusetts Bay & 2 from North Carolina, besides the militia, who lay in the woods. Their light Infantry (to which Tornier himself belong’d) is commanded by Major Hull, a very good Officer and consists of 7 Companies of 60 men each, which are as many almost as some whole Regts. are compos’d of. This Corps of Light Infantry have taken post on a hill about ½ mile from Fort Putnam, which it commands & are building a Block house there. Fort Putnam is about half a mile from Fort Arnold & about the same Distance from Fort Webb. Fort Putnam lays so high that the Shipping can’t incommode it, nor can they fire on the Shipping except from one Gun[3]

Once with the British, it is unknown what immediately became of Tournier. He may have been placed with other escaped Germans until an opportunity presented itself to return him to the Brunswickers still serving in Canada. Such a provision had been made by the British as early as September 24, 1778 when George Albus, a former Hessian lieutenant, was ordered to “take Charge of Such Non Commissioned Officers of the Private Men of the Brunswick Troops as have been Exchanged or who have made their Escape from the Enemy.”[4]

The number of men making it to New York, such as Tournier, was sufficient enough for the British to make temporary use of them. Accordingly, on April 11, 1779, the Brunswickers “are to be mounted for the Present & do duty as Hussars, under Capt. Diemar of the 60th Regt., till they can be restor’d to their proper Regiments.”[5] Friedrich de Diemar was a Hanoverian officer who had served two years on Minorca before being commissioned an officer in the 3rd Battalion of the 60th Regiment of Foot. Armed with a letter of introduction from Lord George Germain, he sailed to New York in the late summer of 1778 to offer his services to Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, commander of the British army in America, who had served with his father in the Seven Years War.[6]

While some of these German prisoners had escaped from their places of confinement, others, like Tournier, had enlisted in the Continental Army prior to escaping to the British. One who did so a month after Tournier, Henry Siebert of the Hesse Hanau Regiment, had actually been commissioned a 1st lieutenant in Col. Charles Armand’s independent partisan corps before deserting with fourteen others from Crompond in Westchester.[7]

Finding himself back in British hands, albeit in a completely different army than the one in Canada, Tournier was officially reunited with some fellow Brunswickers on September 21, 1779 when he entered as a cavalryman in the Corps of Black Hussars, as Diemar’s troop would be known due to the color of their distinctive uniform jackets.[8]

The formation of the troop had not been universally popular with the senior officers of the Brunswick forces. General Clinton had initially planned on making up the difference of pay of the Brunswickers to make it consistent with the higher pay given to cavalry soldiers in the British service. The problem was, according to Brunswick Gen. Friedrich Riedesel, the senior officer in North America from that principality, the Duke of Brunswick regarded these men as deserters from their corps and had ceased paying them. Exerting his authority, he informed the British he would “order them to be Claim’d when ever an opportunity offers of Sending them to Canada,” which the British had little choice but to agree with, regardless of how useful they were at New York and how less so they would be in Quebec.[9]

Sooner or later, Tournier expected to be back in Brunswick service. For the moment, however, he was a soldier in His Britannic Majesty’s Provincial Forces. Provincials, as they were commonly known, referred to standing regiments raised in North America under the authority of the British commander-in-chief. These were overwhelmingly Loyalists, Americans who favored the British cause. Placing what was in effect a German cavalry unit on the Provincial Establishment was the only practical way to pay and uniform them, as only the king of Great Britain could authorize a new British regiment, nor could the British create a new corps belonging to the army of another country, or in this case countries. So Charles Tournier had the distinction of being a soldier of the Principality of Brunswick, serving in a Loyalist establishment, commanded by a Hanoverian holding a commission in the British Regular Army, officially being placed in the new troop of hussars on September 21, 1779.

Cavalry had not been taken into account when the Treasury ordered clothing for the Provincial forces during the first few years of the war, leaving Alexander Innes, the Inspector General of Provincial Forces, no alternative but to purchase, at expensive local rates, all the necessary uniforms and equipage for the mounted troops. These expenses were born by Captain Diemar himself; “the Hussar Dress and Equipage being unknown,” the articles were not to be found in the Provincial Stores, necessitating their purchase by the captain, which cost he was still seeking reimbursement for after the close of the war.[10]

Tournier’s troop is one of the handful of units for which an inventory of items issued to each soldier survives today. As opposed to the light blue coat and heavy dress of a Brunswick cavalryman, the new hussar was issued with a coat and jacket, a waistcoat, two pair of Osnaburgh trousers, a hair ribbon, a pair of leather breeches, a “great hussar coat,” a neck stock, a stock buckle, two blankets, two pair of shoes, two pair of spare shoe soles, two pair of stockings, a pair of winter gloves, two shirts, a canteen, a watering cap, a pair of leather gaiters and a pair of boots with spurs. What was notably missing from this list of things issued to Tournier, and many other of the hussars, were the tools to wage war.[11]

In the two years or so that the troop existed as an independent corps, a total of 180 men passed through its ranks, although the average strength of the troop was generally around sixty of all ranks. The items Tournier did not receive, according to the return cited above, seem to have been in short supply throughout the career of the corps. For these 180 members, there were issued just 96 horses, 68 muskets, 64 carbines, 46 pistols and 83 broad swords. Many, like Tournier, had none of these items, making them useless in combat. One explanation could be that since men left the corps through reassignment or other reasons, their equipment and horses were passed along to others during the course of the troop’s existence. The paltry number of pistols, however, strongly suggest the troop was never complete with them.

Despite the logistical difficulties, the troop was quite active in the New York City area, particularly in 1779 and 1780, attached to the cavalry of the Queen’s Rangers, British Legion, and even an ad-hoc light corps commanded by the famous Capt. Patrick Ferguson. During Tournier’s tenure with the troop, they were involved in at least four notable skirmishes and an abortive attempt to capture George Washington at Morristown, an expedition turned back by the severe ice and deep snow of the intense winter of 1779-1780.[12]

The most notable action of the troop took place on April 16, 1780, when they composed part of 120 cavalry, joined to 312 infantry, sent to attack the Continental Army outpost of 250 men at Hopperstown (modern Ho-Ho-Kus), Bergen County, New Jersey. With the cavalry in the vanguard, the horsemen overwhelmed a picket guard at New Bridge before quickly moving a further nine miles to surprise the garrison. The post was a rotating detachment of 250 men drawn from the regiments at Jockey Hollow. This April it was commanded by Maj. Thomas L. Byles of the 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment, who had just paraded some of his men when the first horsemen galloped into view. As reported by Capt. Jonathan Hallett of the 2nd New York Regiment,

Their approach was so rapid after the[y] was discovered by the Guards that it was impossible to collect our force before they was up with the Quarters of the Troops, Altho we had been under Arms this morning as was Customary with us daily. Majr. Byles took Post in the House with a party of Men, [in which he] defended himself for some time.[13]

Cornet George Spencer of the Queen’s Rangers Hussars conceded, “Never was a House better defended.”[14] The attackers tried unsuccessfully to force the door, having a man wounded in the process. Finally the attackers set fire to the house, and the occupants thought best to give up. Major Byles “as he opened the door to surrender, was unfortunately shot by one of Captain Deimar’s huzzars, and died three days after.”[15] Organized resistance ended at that point, with the loss of at least ninety officers and men of the Continentals dead, wounded, prisoners and deserters, as well as six militia wounded on the march. Diemar’s troop had two men wounded among the thirty-seven casualties suffered by the attackers.[16] Assuming Tournier was involved in the action, it was his last as a hussar, and probably of the war.

With the passing of the harsh winter of 1779-1780, normal shipping could resume, particularly the passage to Quebec. Reinforcements previously committed to Canada, in the form of the 44th Regiment of Foot and the Hessian Regiment of Lossberg, were now able to sail there and join the Northern Army. Seeing an opportunity of restoring his Brunswick regiments to some semblance of respectability in point of numbers, General Riedesel demanded the return of men from that principality then serving under Captain Diemar. With no apparent legal right to keep foreign troops from serving in their own regiments, on May 15, 1780 the British bid adieu to forty-two hussars, among whom was Charles Turner. Captain Deimar’s troop was instantly gutted, being reduced to just thirty-seven officers and men.[17]

While the loss of the Brunswickers was severely felt, it did not mean the end of the troop. Enlistment records for sixty members exist, just over one-third of the enlisted men, for the period 1779-1781. Only eleven are clearly identified as being from Brunswick. The remaining forty-nine came from across Europe and America, including Sweden, Prussia, Hamburg, Wurttemberg, Hanover, Holland, Frankfurt, Hesse-Hanau, Anspach, Hesse-Cassel, Hungary, Osnabrück, Switzerland, France, Pennsylvania, Ireland and England.[18] To be sure, language issues could prove a problem. Four deserters in early 1781 claimed to leave the corps to join the Queen’s Rangers as they “did not understand the language.” Of the four, one was from Ireland, one from England and one from Sweden.[19] New recruits brought the unit back up to its former strength in just a few months. The troop took part in the actions at Connecticut Farms and Springfield, New Jersey in June 1780, but nothing thereafter. In the spring of 1781, Captain Diemar was recalled to his actual corps, the 60th Regiment of Foot, leaving the troop under its present commander, Lt. George Albus, and New Jersey native Benjamin Thomson for the remainder of the war. Albus and the other sixty-three hussars were officially added as a fifth troop of cavalry to the Queen’s Rangers on April 25, 1781.[20] The troop was eventually given to Capt. William Sutherland, a British regular officer, but he never actually joined the corps in person.[21] The hussars mostly remained at New York City for the rest of the war, not joining their regiment under Cornwallis, and thereby being spared capture at Yorktown.

As for Charles Tournier, his fate remains a mystery. Upon returning to Canada, he found a reconstituted Brunswick Dragoon regiment of four complete troops. For how long he remained with them, if indeed he remained with them, and what his fate may have been is not recorded. On a set of rolls of the corps, made out on New Year’s Day 1783, his name does not appear.[22] In the course of his career in North America, it is doubtful this son of Germany could have possibly envisioned the trail across America he would follow, the people he would meet, or the events he would take part in. If by chance he did return to Brunswick, or wherever he ended up, he would have had stories to tell.


[1]Muster Roll of Capt. Elisha Brewer’s Company, 9th Massachusetts Battalion, West Point, June 12, 1779. Revolutionary War Rolls, M-246, Reel 38, Folder 17, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

[2]A British intelligence book shows no less than five deserters from West Point being interviewed in late July 1780 alone, including three who had previously been in the British Army. Clinton (Sir Henry). Information of Deserters and Others, Not Included in Private Intelligence, Emmett Collection, EM. C*, New York Public Library.

[3]Intelligence report of Charles Tornier, June 9, 1779. Sir Henry Clinton Papers, Volume 60, item 25, University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library (CL).

[4]General Orders, New York, September 24, 1778. British General Orderly Book, September 11 to October 24, 1778, Early American Orderly Book Collection, No. 69, Reel 6, New-York Historical Society (NYHS).

[5]General Orders, New York, April 11, 1779. Orderly Book of the 1st Battalion of Guards, January 1 to December 28, 1779, Early American Orderly Book Collection, No. 77, Reel 6, NYHS.

[6]George Germain to Henry Clinton, August 7, 1778. Headquarters Papers of the British Army in America, PRO 30/55/1296, Great Britain, The National Archives (TNA).

[7]Intelligence report Henry Siebert, July 1779. Clinton Papers, 231:8, CL. Muster Roll of Capt. George Schaffner’s Company, Armand’s Corps, August 14, 1778. Revolutionary War Rolls, M-246, Reel 115, Folder 16, NARA.

[8]“General Roll of Captain De Diemars Hussars taken from the Muster Rolls New York 20th May 1781.” ARC.278, Mrs. Milan Hulbert collection of colonial British America and early United States of America papers, Corps of Hussars: General Roll, taken from the Muster Rolls, Box 2, Folder 8, Center for Brooklyn History (CBH). See also recruiting notice of the corps, dated Kingsbridge, August 12, 1779. Best.4h Nr.3106 S.118, Staatsanwaltschaft-Marburg.

[9]James Robertson to Clinton, New York, December 22, 1779. Clinton Papers, 83:39, CL.

[10]Diemar to Lord Thomas Sidney, Glueckstadt, October 28, 1786. ARC.278, Mrs. Milan Hulbert collection of colonial British America and early United States of America papers, Corps of Hussars: Correspondence, etc. 1779-1791, Box 1, Folder 30, CBH.

[11]“Account of the Corps of Hussars raised in North America under the Command of His Excellency General Sir Henry Clinton K.B. by Captain Frederick de Diemar, in the Year 1779, 1780 & 1781 and accounting for Clothing, Saddlery, Arms, Accoutrements and Necessaries issued to the Hussars on the Outposts of the Army and what has been received from the Inspector Generals Office of Provincials.” ARC.278, Box 2, Folder 9, CBH.

[12]“One hundred and Twenty Dragoons were to cross the North River from the City of New York to penetrate by a particular Route to the Neighbourhood of Morris Town and in their Retreat to fall back upon a Body of Infantry posted at Newark Mountain Meeting to receive them.” The cavalry seems to have been drawn from all those at New York at the time, principally the Queen’s Rangers and 17th Light Dragoons. The attempt, originally intended for February 7, 1780, was delayed by inclement weather for three days before being ineffectually launched. Journal of events in the New York District, January 1 — February 24, 1780, Clinton Papers, 83:2, CL.

[13]Jonathan Hallett to George Washington, Paramus, April 16, 1780. George Washington Papers, General Correspondence, 1697-1799, MSS 44693, Series 4, Reel 65, Library of Congress.

[14]Spencer account, c-April 1780. Simcoe Papers 1774-1824, CL.

[15]Report of Captain Alexander Wickham to Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe. John Graves Simcoe, A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps called the Queen’s Rangers commanded by Lieut. Col. J. G. Simcoe, during the War of the American Revolution (New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844), 139-142.

[16]The Royal Gazette (New York,) April 19, 1780.

[17]“State of the following Corps under the Command of His Excellency Lieut. General Knyphausen, New York 15th May 1780.” Colonial Office, Class 5, Volume 1110, folio 128, TNA.

[18]Corps of Hussars Enlistment Certifications, ARC.278, Box 1, Folder 29, CBH.

[19]The four were found guilty of desertion and sentenced to 1,000 lashes each. At least three were sent on board a Royal Navy warship later that year, possibly in lieu of corporal punishment. Court Martial Proceedings of Edward Handlin, Samuel Forrester, Richard Perry and Ouly Johnston [Ole Uhanssan], New York, 19 February 1781. War Office, Class 71, Volume 93, p. 210-211, TNA.

[20]“Muster Roll of the Troop of Hussars attached to the Queens Rangers Jno. Graves Simcoe Esqr. Lieut. Col. Commandant From 25 April to 24 June 1781.” RG 8, “C” Series, Volume 1864, page 41, Library and Archives Canada.

[21]See William Sutherland to Clinton, October 20, 1784. Clinton Papers, 200:19, CL.

[22]Rolls of the Prince Ludwig Regiment of Dragoons, January 1, 1783. War Office, Class 28, Volume 10, folios 236-240, TNA.

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