This blog is by Library of Congress Manuscript Historian, Dr Julie Miller
Today we're releasing a new By the People Campaign featuring handwritten receipts and interrogations of deserters--documents found in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Read this blog and then visit “Ordinary Lives in George Washington’s Papers: The Revolutionary War” to transcribe, review, or read these historic materials.
In 1782, during the Revolutionary War, the American artist John Singleton Copley painted this portrait of thirteen-year-old Augustus Brine, a sailor in the British Royal Navy. The boy’s capable hands and confident stance, startlingly combined with his rosy cheeks and curly hair, are a clue that the redcoats we learned about when we were children may not have been exactly as we imagined.
More evidence to prove the truth of this is in two small notebooks in Series 6A of the George Washington papers at the Library of Congress. These contain notes made by Washington’s aides as they interrogated British deserters and escapees. The interrogations took place around New York City in 1782 and 1783 while the city was occupied by British troops.
These men constituted a diverse group. They were Americans pressed into British service, sailors captured from French ships, escapees from British prison ships, Hessian mercenaries, and Americans serving in loyalist regiments, including the one commanded by Benedict Arnold after his defection. Responding to a set of questions, they give their names and histories, describe conditions at British encampments, and tell where, how, and why they left.
Christian Reidenby, a Hessian mercenary, deserted his regiment on Governor’s Island because he owned land in Georgia and preferred to stay in the United States. John Carrol, a sailor originally from Philadelphia, had been impressed by the British and imprisoned in Jamaica. Then he sailed on a privateer, and finally escaped from a British ship on Lake Champlain. Richard Green and Daniel Lane deserted from the loyalist corps headed by Benedict Arnold. They had enlisted with Arnold in order to get out of jail in British-occupied New York. James Nealy, a fifer, escaped his regiment on Long Island. He reported that “great uneasiness prevails” in his corps, probably because they had learned of the impending evacuation of New York and the shipment of British troops to the West Indies, where they knew that heat and disease threatened the lives of British soldiers.
George Washington used the information he learned from these and other deserters in his plans. Today these capsule biographies, which range from one sentence to several paragraphs each, should interest anyone who wants to gain a complex understanding of the British or British-allied men and boys who occupied New York during the Revolutionary War.