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A Brief History of the 17th Regiment of Foot in America 1775-1783

Dr. William P. Tatum III

Men of the 17th Regiment charge bayonets

Introduction

In the late 17th Century, with invasion from Holland imminent, King James II raised several new regiments to bolster his army. On September 27th, 1688, Solomon Richards was commissioned colonel and authorised to raise a regiment of foot that would become the 17th Regiment, gaining its numeric designation in July 1757 and assumed the county title of “Leicestershire Regiment” in 1782.

The 17th was not a stranger to service in America by the time the American Revolution kicked off in full at Lexington and Concord in 1775. The regiment embarked from home service in Cork, Ireland and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia in May 1757, fighting in many battles of the “French and Indian War” Itself a part of the global “Seven Years' War.” and Pontiac's Rebellion. It was seen in far flung parts of the colonies, from Detroit to Philadelphia, South Carolina to Havana.

The 17th returned to England from New York in 1767, quartered in Wells, Somerset. The regiment was in poor condition, with a lack of non-commissioned officers and experienced drill instructors, WO 3/1, pg 79, Letter from E. H. to Lord George Lennox, September 12, 1767. National Archive. and further diminished while in New York when 84 men were drafted from the 17th for service in the regiments remaining in America. Webb, E. A. H. (1911). A History of the Service of the 17th (The Leicestershire) Regiment. pp. 57-61 The 17th was in desperate straits at this period in its history. Not only was the regiment lacking in experienced drill instructors, it was also chronically short of men. From the end of 1767, the new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John Darby was tasked with bringing the regiment back up to fighting strength and was given permission by the War Office to conduct intensive recruiting. WO 3/24, pg 9, Letter from E. H. to John Darby, January 20, 1768. National Archive. Although scheduled for royal review in the spring of 1768, the 17th was still so weak by February that the inspection was delayed, although the War Office made it clear that “His Majesty expects all effort to be devoted to the recruiting parties to bring the regiment up to establishment.” WO3/24, pg 9, Letter E. H. to John Darby, February 5, 1768. National Archive.

By late spring of 1769, the regiment was sufficiently near establishment strength to stand for inspection. On May 17, 1769, Major General George Cary inspected the 17th at Chatham Barracks, finding the regiment fit for service with their clothing conforming to the new regulations issued in the King's 1768 Warrant. WO 27/15, Review of the 17th Regiment of Foot at Chatham by Major General George Cary, 17th May, 1769. National Archive.

Darby's recruitment efforts paid off, and by the June 1770 inspection, WO 27/18, Review of the 17th Regiment of Foot at Newcastle by Major General Murray, 11th June, 1770. National Archive. it was noted that the men were young, and led by non-commissioned officers who were “attentive and expert at their duty.” However, given how young and inexperienced the men were overall, the regiment was deemed “not fit for immediate service,” though the inspecting general noted how “nothing could exceed the zeal and attention” of its officers.

In 1770, the 17th moved to garrison at Tynmouth. While there, the regiment underwent the general augmentation ordered by the King on December 25, 1770. In total, “20 private men were added to each Company, and a Company of Light Infantry of the same Numbers to each Battalion…amounting to 737, Including Officers & Contingent Men.” WO 25/3997. National Archive. For the first time ever, the regiment was now equipped with a dedicated Light Company.

By the following year, WO 27/21, Review of the 17th Regiment of Foot at Edinburgh by His Grace the Duke of Argyll, 5th June, 1771. National Archive. the regiment was described as a “remarkable fine corps of men and officers,“ and “well disciplined and perfectly fit for service.”

More rotation on Home Service followed — in 1771 the Regiment was stationed in Aberdeen. In February 1773, it sailed for Ireland, landing at Donaghadee on the 10th. Conditions in Ireland were poor, with the May 1774 inspection noting that while the regiment was “fit for service,” the 17th's arms (except the light company's) were “clean but bad [...] thin and defective” and the barracks at Kilkenny were in a poor state, with the windows, doors and bedding “bad,” and that “the men being obliged to drink dirty water, occasions violent fluxes and other disorders.” WO 27/32, Review of the 17th Regiment of Foot at Kilkenny by Major General Earl of Drogheda, 28th May, 1774. National Archive. The 17th remained on service in Ireland until late 1775, when they embarked for America.

Snippet from an inspection return from 1774
Barracks remarks from the 17th's 1774 Inspection carried out by Major General Earl of Drogheda, WO 27/32, National Archives. Photo courtesy Dr Paul Knight FRHistS.

The Outbreak of War

“Since my last to your Lordship of 26th. December the Six missing Companies of the 17th Regiment, and six of the 55th. are arrived, in the Grosvenor, and Grand Duke of Russia Indiamen.”

Letter from Howe, Boston 15th January 1776
CO 5/36. National Archives.

In the Autumn of 1775, the 17th Regiment sailed for North America. Their passage was rough, and the various ships carrying the regiment and other units were separated by bad weather.

The first four companies arrived in Boston on November 8th, and when inspected by Major-General Clinton on December 11th, they were still missing six companies. The remaining companies arrived after Christmas, Kemble, Stephen. (1884). Kemble Papers: Volume 1. pp.61-62 with the light company detached and formed into Major Musgrave's Light Infantry Corps. Ibid. p.290. Howe's Orders, Boston, 4th Jan., 1776.

Boston was under siege — it had been since hostilities broke out in April 1775 and the position hadn't improved by the time the 17th arrived, despite the garrison's costly 'victory' at Bunker Hill in June.

Still, their time in Boston was not idle. General orders have the defenders practicing aimed fire Ibid. p.298. Howe's Orders, Boston, 20th Jan., 1776. in the face of a tightening cordon of rebel units.

In February, on General Howe's orders, serjeants exchanged their halberds for muskets. Ibid. p.303. Howe's Orders, Boston, 8th Feb., 1776. "The Commanding Officers of Corps to provide their Sergeants with firelocks if they have them to spare; if they have not a sufficient number for that purpose, they will Apply to the Commanding Officer of Artillery for Carbines to Complete them with fire arms." Lieutenant The Honorable William Leslie purchased Captain Lyon's office and rose to command a company, QLIB 2/16. Many other promotions and exchanges are found in WO12/3406/2. at whose head he would achieve immortality at Princeton a little under a year later.

As the rebels moved on Dorchester Heights in March, the evacuation started and the 17th set sail for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the rest of the Boston garrison, biding its time to fight the rebels later in the year.

Just like at Boston, the regiment continued training, refitting, and reorganising. Their Light and Grenadier companies were detached into their own battalions, and several new officers were received.

Lieutenant-Colonel John Darby was superseded by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Mawhood, formerly Lieutenant-Colonel of the 19th Regiment of Foot, on April 4th. Kemble, Stephen. (1884). Kemble Papers: Volume 1. p.329. Howe's Orders, Boston, 4th Apr., 1776. “17th. Regiment.—Lieutenant-Colonel Mawhood, of the 19th. Regiment, to be Lieutenant-Colonel Vice Derby 26th. Oct., 1775.” Captain Turner Straubenzee of the 17th Light Dragoons replaced Major Goodenough who had retired on January 6th, as Major of the regiment on May 14th. Ibid. p.352. Howe's Orders, Boston, 14th May., 1776. The now Major Straubenzee was detached to serve in the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry.

On May 16th the 17th Regiment was assigned to the 4th Brigade (with the 40th, 46th & 55th regiments) Ibid. p.355. Howe's Orders, Boston, 16th May., 1776. under the command of Major-General James Grant and were assigned to the Felicity and Liberty transports on May 18th, with a reported strength of 383 men. Ibid. p.359. Howe's Orders, Boston, 18th May., 1776.

On June 9th, the army set sail from Halifax and were heading toward New York, arriving off Sandy Hook on June 29th, and landing unopposed on Staten Island in early July, they mustered for the invasion of Long Island.

The 17th Regiment fought in all the battles for New York City. Landing on 22nd August, then advancing on the 26th, the regiment engaged in the Battle of Long Island (with the 4th Brigade under Major General Grant), which was directed to advance along the coast, with ten pieces of cannon. After much fighting, the American line was driven back to fortified lines in Brooklyn. The regiment had Captain Sir Alexander Murray and two rank and file killed; Lieutenant Marcus A. Morgan, one serjeant, and nineteen rank and file wounded. Cannon, R (1848). Historical Record of The Seventeenth, or The Leicestershire Regiment of Foot. p.24. Once Long Island was occupied, the army affected a landing at Kip's Bay and the brigade joined battle at the Battle of Harlem Heights. The 4th Brigade was held in reserve during the Battle of White Plains in October and remained at the White Plains camp through the taking of Forts Washington and Lee, and Cornwallis's excursion through New Jersey.

After the Battle of White Plains in October 1776, the rebel Americans retreated from New York. The British army captured Fort Washington and pursued the rebels into New Jersey. 17th Regiment of Foot Orderly Book, Lt. Col. Charles Mawhood, October 11- December 28, 1776, New York Historical Society Library, transcribed by Gilbert V. Riddle, pp. 23-29. The 17th Regiment, in reserve with the 4th Brigade during the previous two battles, were dispatched to Brunswick and Hillsborough, then took up winter quarters at Princeton, New Jersey. Ibid. p.67 Commander-in-Chief General Howe considered campaigning done for the year, setting up posts to occupy during the winter. The lull in the fighting played right into American hands, however. Despite all the setbacks and retreats, Washington managed to catch the garrison at Trenton completely by surprise, rejuvenating a disintegrating army over Christmas.

Heroes of Princeton

Cutting from “The Battle of Princeton,” ca. 1782. James Peale (1749-1831)
Cutting from “The Battle of Princeton,” ca. 1782. James Peale (1749-1831), Oil on Canvas. Princeton University Art Museum. Princeton University, gift of Dean Mathey, Class of 1912, in 1951. View the original online.

Major-General the Earl Cornwallis was recalled (he was about to board a ship for England as news of Washington's attack at Trenton broke) and he immediately set out for New Jersey. On 2nd January 1777, Washington engaged Cornwallis in the second Battle of Trenton. That night, the Americans managed to deceive the British army, leaving their encampment with fires burning and a small garrison to make noise, while the rebel army marched by a difficult but unknown (to the British) path to Princeton.

Cornwallis had sent for the 17th and 55th to join his division at Trenton. On the foggy morning of the January 3rd, Lieutenant-Colonel Mawhood detached the 40th to garrison Princeton and they set off, with the 17th regiment (understrength with 280 men) at the front, and the 55th regiment about a mile behind.

As Mawhood came upon a small hill south of Stony Brook, the American Army was sighted. He immediately sent a rider to warn the 40th at Princeton and wheeled his regiments around to return to the town. With the American detachment led by General Mercer in his rear, Mawhood decided to detach part of the 55th Regiment and sent the rest to join the 40th at Princeton, and then moved the 17th, the remaining 55th, a small force of cavalry, and a couple of artillery pieces to attack Mercer. The makeshift flank companies of the 17th struck first, confronting the Americans at Clark's Orchard: in the first exchange of gunfire, promising young Captain William Leslie was shot and killed. Fraser, W. Sir (1890) The Melvilles, Earls of Melville, and the Leslies, Earls of Leven. Memoirs. p.351 Leslie's body was later loaded onto a wagon and taken to Pluckemin, a town some 25 miles north of Princeton. Later, Dr. Benjamin Rush, attending British Captain John McPherson, who was wounded in the lung, revealed that the officer was Leslie. Rush, a friend of Leslie's wept at the news, Hawke, D. F. (1971) Benjamin Rush; revolutionary gadfly p.180 and Washington on hearing about the Scotsman, had him buried with military honours.

“The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton,” January 3, 1777. John Trumbull
“The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton,” January 3, 1777. John Trumbull c.1787-c.1831. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut View the original online.

After several volleys, the 17th Regiment fixed bayonets. The American militia troops quickly broke before the charge, leaving Mercer exposed and surrounded. Offered quarter, Mercer refused, and was bayonetted and left for dead. Mercer's second in command, Colonel John Haslet was also a casualty. Two rebel cannons were captured and immediately turned on the fleeing militia. As the flight became a rout, a fresh brigade of militia arrived with some 1000 men, but seeing Mercer's brigade running, they too joined the flight.

Meanwhile, another American brigade under Smallwood was in a standoff with the 55th regiment, neither willing to move towards the main battleline in fear of being exposed in their flanks.

The main host of Americans under Washington arrived soon after, checking Mawhood's advancing 17th regiment and rallying the fleeing militia. The numbers were now some 10-1 in the American's favour. Or 20-1 in some accounts! Seeing the desperate situation, Mawhood ordered his force to retreat towards the nearby post road but were quickly surrounded by the rebels attempting to block escape over a bridge.

Once again, Mawhood ordered the 17th Regiment to charge bayonets, and they managed to break through the American lines, escaping across the bridge. Unfortunately, the 40th and 55th had no such luck — they were pinned down in Princeton and while retreating, many were captured by the end of the day. Cohen, S (1990). Captain William Leslie's “Paths of Glory.” New Jersey History, Vol. 108, Nos. 1-2

While a victory for the Americans, the 17th Regiment managed to defeat a significant portion of the rebel army and escape. In total, the regiment lost one captain (Leslie) and twelve rank and file killed, one captain (McPherson), one lieutenant, one ensign, 4 sergeants, and 46 rank and file wounded, and one sergeant, one drummer, and 33 rank and file missing (captured, killed or deserted). Extract of a letter from Howe to Germaine, “dated New York, January 5th, 1777” published in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 1358, Saturday, March 1, 1777.

While the 17th was gallantly contesting the Battle of Princeton, Captain William Scott, also of the 17th Regiment, with just 40 men, successfully defended the 4th Brigade's baggage train against overwhelming numbers of rebel attackers. Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment of Foot remarked:

“He formed his men upon commanding ground, and after refusing to deliver the Baggage, fought with his men back-to-back; and forced the Enemy to withdraw, bringing off the Baggage safe to Brunswick.”

Sullivan, Thomas. From Redcoat to Rebel: The Thomas Sullivan Journal, pg. 101.

After the battle, the 17th regiment was mentioned in dispatches:

“General Howe desires Lieut.-Col. Mawhood will accept his thanks for his Gallantry and good Conduct in the Attack [...] He desires his thanks may also be given to the Officers and Soldiers of the 17th. Foot, to part of the 55th. Regiment, and other Detachments on their march, who on that occasion supported the 17th. Regiment and Charged the Enemy with Bayonet in the most Spirited manner.

The General desires his public Approbation may be signified to Capt. Scott, of the 17th. Foot, for his remarkable good conduct in protecting and securing the Baggage of the 4th. Brigade on the above Occasion.

Kemble (1884) pp.434-435. “HEAD QUARTERS, New York, Jan. 8th., 1777.”

The following message was received from the King, through Lord George Germain, principal Secretary of State for America, dated 3rd March 1777:

“His Majesty has been pleased to take very particular notice of the bravery of Lieut.-Colonel Mawhood, and approves the behaviour of the regiments under his command, especially the 17th, so highly commended by Lord Cornwallis.”

Shortly after, the 17th Regiment were described as “The Heroes of Princetown” in recruiting media. A recruiting poster from the 1790s says of the 17th: A recruiting poster from the 1790s printed in the “Princeton Supplement” of the 'Green Tiger' regimental magazine.A recruiting poster from the 1790s printed in the “Princeton Supplement” of the 'Green Tiger' regimental magazine.

“17th or Leicestershire Regiment

The Heroes of Prince-town

Who, alone, upon a former occasion fought a WHOLE ARMY, being at that time and since that period mostly completed by GALLANT LEICESTERSHIRE MEN...no doubt but that the 17th or Leicestershire Regiment will again...defeat the enemies of our Good King and Old England.

Laffin, J. (1966). Tommy Atkins: The Story of the English Soldier. London: Cassell. p.53

Following the Battle of Princeton, the 17th Regiment once again went into winter quarters, this time at Brunswick. The regiment marched with the rest of the army to New York in the spring of 1777 and boarded transports for Head of Elk. The 17th took part in the 1777 Philadelphia campaign as part of the 4th Brigade, which included the 35th and 64th Regiments of Foot. While serving in the reserve for the opening movements of the campaign, the 17th Regiment was actively engaged at the Battle of Brandywine, where its light company, serving with the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, was immortalized by the account of its actions contained in Feinstone 111, one of the few surviving accounts of light infantry actions during the war.

When Earl Cornwallis took Philadelphia in late September 1777, the Grenadier Company of the 17th Regiment was with them. Under the command of the intrepid Captain Scott, the 17th Grenadiers not only took the rebel Delaware frigate, but also distinguished themselves during the fighting on Providence Island. On October 4th, when Washington's army attacked the British positions at Germantown, the regiment again played a vital role in coming to the relief of the 40th Regiment of Foot, which was ensconced in the Chew House. Major André provided a brief account of the 17th's conduct in his journal entry for the battle:

“The 4th Brigade received Orders by inclining to their right to enter German Town and drive the Enemy from it. From some misunderstanding, or from receiving some fire, they did not immediately go into the village, but halted on the skirts of it, and kept up a very heavy fire against a distant Column they had some intimation of in front. The 17th and 44th Regiments were therefore ordered to wheel to the right and drive out the Rebels. This was executed, the 44th crossing the village and moving up the skirts on the opposite side, and the 17th moving up the street. General Grey headed the 44th Regiment. Lord Cornwallis came up as the Rebels had retired, and took the command of the left wing, with which he pursued as far as Whitemarsh Church, leaving a Corps at Chestnut Hill.”

André, J (1904). Major André's Journal. pp.29-30

Monmouth and The Martha's Vineyard Raid

The 17th Regiment remained in garrison at Philadelphia with the rest of the army through the transition of power from Howe to Clinton. When the city was evacuated in June 1778, the regiment marched as part of the 3rd Brigade and fought beside the Guards at the Battle of Freehold (Monmouth Courthouse) June 28th 1778. After successfully defeating the rebel assault, the 17th withdrew with the army to New York and remained on duty there until August.

On the August 26th 1778, the 17th Regiment marched with the rest of the 3rd Brigade, the 4th Brigade, the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers, and the 1st Light Infantry under the overall command of Major General Grey to Flushing Fly from their positions at Bedford. On the 27th, the troops marched to Whitestone and were embarked upon transports. The 17th was assigned to the Margaret & Martha and the Alicia.

At this time, the regiment was reported to be 287 men strong. The fleet sailed on the 28th, arriving in Rhode Island Harbour on September 1st, to find that the Battle of Newport had already taken place and the rebels had evacuated the island. The fleet sailed the next day for the rebel privateer base at New London but arrived in such disarray on September 4th that Generals Grey and Clinton decided against landing the troops.

Grey proposed to move on and attack New Bedford, Massachusetts, in Buzzard's Bay. Clinton agreed to this plan and returned to New York onboard the Galatea later in the evening. At five o'clock in the afternoon of September 4th, the fleet sailed from New London, bound for New Bedford. At three in the afternoon of the 5th, several large sail of ships were seen to the east. Given the possibility that they were French ships from the fleet at Boston, Grey decided to make sail back for Rhode Island and the protection of the ships posted there. At seven o'clock on the morning of September 6th, the strange ships came up with Grey's Fleet and turned out to be Admiral Lord Howe. After conversing with the admiral, Grey's fleet once again sailed off for New Bedford, arriving a little before sunset at Clark's Cove. The grenadiers and light infantry were immediately landed and marched off to secure New Bedford, while the 33rd, 64th, and 42nd Regiments were landed in support. Meanwhile, the 17th, along with the 44th, landed at Skonticut Neck, where the expeditionary force to New Bedford was ordered to rendezvous. Six companies under Sir James Murray landed directly in New Bedford and burned the town, while the 33rd Regiment raid Fair Haven and burned all the stores of military value that they could find. The entire force rendezvoused at Skonticut Neck at 6 AM on the 7th and was quickly embarked.

Following the success of the New Bedford Raid, General Grey decided to continue on to Martha's Vineyard, with an eye towards raiding Nantucket at the same time, and sent word to Rhode Island for transports to carry back cattle and sheep. On September 10th the fleet arrived at Home's Harbour and came to anchor, except for the Grenadiers, Light Infantry, and the 33rd Regiment, which Grey intended to use in raiding Nantucket. Unfortunately, unfavourable winds foiled this plan, so Grey concentrated on Martha's Vineyard. On the evening of the 10th, several rebel committee of safety men came aboard General Grey's ship to submit to his authority. Grey required them to “direct the inhabitants to drive in their sheep and cattle, or that Troops should be marched thro' the Island; likewise to bring in their arms, or that the Colonel and Captains of the Militia should be sent prisoners to New York.” André, J (1904). Major André's Journal. p.58 On the morning of September 11th, a detachment of 150 men from each regiment in the harbour landed under Lieutenant-Colonel Stirling and secured the main harbour. Meanwhile, the ships from Rhode Island that Grey had requested for taking up cattle and sheep arrived. The next morning, several thousand cattle and sheep were embarked on these vessels, which sailed for Rhode Island.

The detachments from the 17th, 37th, and 46th Regiments were ordered to assemble on the beach, while Colonel Donkin with the 44th Regiment marched towards the Southeast of the Island. Only 229 stand of arms had been turned over to the army, so the militia officers were taken into custody along with the committee men, who had “concealed a quantity of ammunition.” Ibid. On the 13th, the 17th, 37th, and 46th Regiments were embarked as more arms, sheep, and oxen came in from the countryside. Two men had deserted from the shore parties and were required to be brought in by the inhabitants “on pain of having a double number of their friends seized.” Ibid. p.59 A tender from Lord Howe arrived bearing orders for the fleet to return to New York, so any lingering plans for Nantucket were set aside and the collected cattle and sheep were embarked upon the ships. Orders were sent to Colonel Donkin at Chilmarck to return and embark, which was completed on September 14th. With the cattle onboard and the deserters restored, the Militia officers and Committeemen were released “with a solemn injunction to abstain from taking part any more in the War or persecuting others for their political opinions.” Ibid. Before leaving, Grey took up the money that had been collected by the inhabitants for a Congressional tax and destroyed a salt work.

The fleet sailed late in the afternoon of September 15th, arriving at Rhode Island on the 16th. By September 18th, the entire fleet was at Whitestone once more. In total, the expedition had carried away 10,000 sheep, 300 cattle, £950 in Continental Currency, and a large number of military accoutrements. Ibid. p.60-62 “Copy of General Grey's Report to Sir Henry Clinton. Carisfort, off Whitestone, September 18, 1778” On the 18th, 19th, and 20th of September, the troops landed and marched for New Bedford. On the 22nd, they were once again embarked and sent to Paulus' Hook and were stationed at Bergen. On the 23d, the men move forward to English Neighbourhood where they encamped with their left to Newbridge. On September 27th, Generals Grey and Cornwallis marched with several corps to Old Tappan, N.J. for the famous “massacre” of Baylor's dragoons, though the 17th Regiment was left behind in English neighbourhood. On October 15th, the 17th returned to New York and took up its winter encampment.

Raids in Connecticut

The 17th spent the winter of 1778 and the early spring of 1779 in posts around the edge of New York City, especially at Fort Knyphausen (the re-named Fort Washington that had been captured in 1776), occasionally sending details to act as the Commander-in-Chief's guard. For the regiment, this was a fairly mundane period of garrison duty and getting used to a new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Johnson, who replaced Mawhood in late 1778.

In late February, the 17th, along with the 44th, 57th & Loyal American regiments, a Hessian corps, and a detachment of Royal Artillery “Orderly book Captain Clayton's company of the 17th Regiment of Foot, 1779, Feb. 14-June 29.” mssHM 52666, The Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. fol. 3r. Available Online joined Major General William Tryon's raids on the Connecticut coast, in an attempt to draw Washington's army away from the Hudson Valley.

On the night of February 25th, the brigade marched northeast from Kingsbridge, New York towards Greenwich, Connecticut. The Force was spotted by militia pickets at New Rochelle who retreated first to Rye Neck where they engaged in a small firefight, and then to Horseneck, an old pasture south of Greenwich near the coast of the Long Island Sound.

According to General Israel Putnam, “To George Washington from Major General Israel Putnam, 2 March 1779.” Founders Online, US National Archives. Available Online who was touring the outposts at the time, his forces were alarmed at 9am on February 26th, and at 150 strong, formed on a small hill to make their stand. The American forces were overwhelmed by the almost 1500 strong British party and forced to retreat while the British destroyed a salt works, a sloop, and carried off 200 head of cattle. Putnam escaped and returned with a Continental Army contingent later, hoping to pick up stragglers as the British returned to New York. In this they were successful: 15 privates of the 17th were captured, “drunk and loaded with plunder.” “British Orderly Book. Jan 26-Apr 1, 1779 and Jun 14-Jul 12, 1779.” Microfilm Publications Roll 17, Target 5, Volume 163, US National Archives. pp.70-71. Available Online

The prisoners were traded back in early March, and despite this setback, the regiment was praised for its conduct in the operation:

“Head Quarters, New York, 3rd March 1779
Major General Trayon [Tryon] having reported how much reason he had to be pleased with the spirit and cheerfulness of the troops employed in the late excursion to Horseneck the Commander in Chief Returns his thanks on that account to the detachment of the Royal Artillery, 17th, 44th & 57th Regiments British, the Hessians Regiment De Corps, Colonel Robertson's & Lt. Colonel Emmerick.”

“British Orderly Book. Jan 26-Apr 1, 1779 and Jun 14-Jul 12, 1779.” Microfilm Publications Roll 17, Target 5, Volume 163, US National Archives. pp.60-61

Battle of Stony Point

In late May, a force consisting of the 17th, 33rd, 42nd, 63rd, and 64th Regiments, along with the battalions of Light Infantry and Grenadiers and detachments of provincials, advanced up the Hudson River and seized King's Ferry. Construction began on two posts, each anchoring one end of the ferry. On the north-eastern shore stood Verplanck's Point, while on the southwest stood Stony Point. Also referred to as “Stoney Point” in period documents. Verplanck's Point was heavily fortified with enclosed works and garrisoned by the 33rd Regiment, while the Stony Point defenses, mostly constructed by the 64th Regiment, consisted of two lines of abatis and several open artillery emplacements with no enclosed works. While the lines of abatis continued for a short distance into Haverstraw Bay and the Hudson River on either side of the point, they were no real obstacle to an attack.

The artillery emplacements were constructed in such a manner as to prevent the guns from be sufficiently lowered to fire effectively at close range on advancing forces, particularly on the southern side. When the main force retired from the area, and with further men drawn off to aid Tryon's latest Connecticut raids, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Johnson, with the 380 men of 17th Regiment, the 71st Grenadier Companies, a company of Loyal Americans, and a detachment of Royal Artillery was left at Stony Point, under the overall command of Colonel Webster.

Johnson recognised the danger of not having an enclosed work in his post and began construction of one in late June. Unfortunately, the work was not completed by the evening of July 15th when Continental General Anthony Wayne stormed the post with 1,600 men of the Continental Light Infantry.

The British weren't completely unaware of an attack. Several days prior, American deserters entered Stony Point and alerted Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson to the danger of an attack, WO 71/93. Trial of Henry Johnson. National Archive and the information was passed to his subordinates to coordinate a defense, including suspending the sign-countersign system, and a plan for companies of the 17th and 71st Highlander Grenadiers to occupy positions in the lower works, and 17th and Loyal Americans to defend the upper works.

Furthermore, Johnson ordered a state of readiness, with men to “lay wth all their clothes on at night, except coats which with their arms, ammunition and accoutrements is to be carefully put up in such a manner as they can get them upon the shortest notice.” Ibid.

Despite high alert, a high wind from the north concealed the noise of American columns moving around the edges of the point, while the British ships, Vulture and Cornwallis were forced to move away from the shore by rough nighttime squalls, leaving the flanks of the abatis unguarded. Using a small detachment in the centre at the causeway crossing to the point as a distraction, the attackers were able to enter the works from the flanks behind the second line of abatis (wading through the low tide to do so), cutting off Stony Point's defenders and isolating them between the two lines. The extensive works were built to accommodate more than twice the garrison left by Clinton, and proved easy to bypass.

A map of the Battle of Stony Point during the night of 15th July 1779, including troop dispositions and movements.
Map of the Battle of Stony Point, 15th & 16th July 1779. Based on an original by William Faden, 1784.Click for a larger view.

Captain Francis Tew was killed by a rebel volley while leading his company in a bayonet charge to clear the rebels from the upper works.

Realising that he was encircled, Colonel Johnson requested Wayne's terms of surrender, and when promised good treatment for his men, he agreed to surrender the garrison. Isolated posts, including a detachment of 20 men from the 17th with an officer of the Royal Artillery, negotiated similar terms, promising to fight to the death if they were not properly treated.

On July 16th, the garrison was marched off for internment in Pennsylvania. The officers were separated from the men, in strict defiance of accepted protocol, and sent to Philadelphia, while the men marched to Goshen under their non-commissioned officers. Johnson, after writing to Washington about the conditions and lack of provisions for his captured men, managed to arrange for the wounded men to be transported back to New York city, with several women and children. “A draft of the letter from General Washington's secretary Robert Hanson Harrison to Abraham Skinner, deputy commissary general of prisoners at Goshen attached with a letter From George Washington to Brigadier General William Woodford, 22 July 1779,” Founders Online, US National Archives. Available Online.

On July 24th, Johnson sent a letter to General Sir Henry Clinton, with a report and return of casualties:

The Bearer, Lieutenant Armstrong, of the 17th Infantry, will give you a full and perfect Account of the unfortunate Event of the Morning of the 16th Instant, whereon the Post of Stony-Point fell into the Hands of the Enemy. I am inclined to think, that upon a just Representation you will be fully convinced that it was not any Neglect on my Part, nor of the Troops under my Command, but the very superior Force of the Enemy that caused the Capture of the Place. Inclosed I send a Return of the Killed, Wounded, Missing, and Prisoners, as nearly as could be collected by the Commanding Officers of Corps. [...]

Return of the killed, wounded, missing, and taken prisoners bv the enemy, of His Majesty's Troops, under the Command of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Johnson, at the engagement upon Stony Point, July 16, 17-79. The 17th Regiment of Foot — 1 Captain, 2 Serjeants, 10 Rank and File, killed; 1 Lieutenant, 1. Ensign, 43 Rank and: File, wounded; 1 Drummer, 20 Rank and File, missing; 1 Colonel, 2 Captains, 6 Lieutenants, 3 Ensigns, 1 Adjutant, 1 Surgeon, 17 Serjeants, 12 Drummers, 222 Ranks and File,prisoners.

Names of Officers killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners. 17th Regiment of Foot — Captain Tew killed; Lieutenant Simpson and Ensign Sinclair wounded; Lieutenant. Colonel Johnson, Captains Darby and Clayton, Lieutenants Armstrong, Carey, Williams, Simpson, and Hayman, Ensigns Hamilion, Sinclair, and Robinson, Adjutant Hamilton, Surgeon Horn, Prisoners.

While en route to Goshen, a portion of the 17th attempted to overpower their guards and escape, according to a report found in the George Washington Papers. At least 9 men of the regiment were wounded in the attempt — the number of rebels wounded and killed is unknown ‐ 2 additional 17th Regiment men were left with the wounded to attend them. Ibid. While in captivity, the men were put to work in shoe factories and other business providing war supplies to the rebels, again in defiance of accepted protocol. One man, Serjeant John Workman, deserted while on this duty, finding his way back to New York. “John Workman, 17th Regiment of Foot,” British Soldiers, American Revolution. Available Online. The officers of the regiment were exchanged in December 1780, while the enlisted men had returned by January 1781.

The story that the garrison surrendered without a fight is a malicious myth and had Wayne not agreed to grant acceptable terms, it is quite likely that his force would have suffered severe and debilitating casualties in attempting to possess the post. Colonel Johnson was court-martialled, at his own request, for the fall of Stony Point, for which he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, with one witness testifying that “had the gunboat been at her station, and the people in her vigilant, I do not think it possible for a column of men to have waded through the water without being heard, notwithstanding the darkness of the night.” WO 71/93. Trial of Henry Johnson. National Archive

The 17th Company and the End of the War

The entire 17th Regiment had not been taken prisoner at Stony Point. Those men who were on leave at New York were organized into an additional company, A writ from the Deputy Pay-Master General of the Army for £50 to assist Cuppaidge's 17th Company.A writ from the Deputy Pay-Master General of the Army for £50 to assist Cuppaidge's 17th Company. bolstered by the arrival of recruits from England, and were placed under the command of Captain-Lieutenant George Cuppaidge of the 17th, who had been at New York on business when Stony Point was lost.

This new company, referred to in primary documentation as the “17th company,” was sent of various duties with the New York garrison until September, when it was placed in the “Provincial Light Infantry” under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Watson of the Guards. The 17th Company sailed with the Guards and other reinforcements for Charleston that sailed on October 15th 1780 and stopped off in Hampton Roads, Virginia, for several months of operations. “A British Orderly Book, 1780-1781,” North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 9, Jan-Oct 1932, pp.166-178. The company was disembarked along with detachments of the Guards and the 82nd Regiment at Portsmouth, Virginia on October 26th and served on various duties throughout the area. When the British evacuated Portsmouth on November 14th, the 17th Company and the Jaegers served as the rear guard and were the last troops to embark. Once the fleet reached Charleston, the 17th was detached along with Watson's Corps as part of the Charleston garrison and remained active in South Carolina until the end of the war.

While the 17th Company under Cuppiadge was fighting partisans in South Carolina, the bulk of the 17th Regiment was being exchanged from captivity. By early 1781, the regiment was entirely exchanged and on duty again in New York.

In April the 17th Regiment, now with 12 officers and 209 other ranks, was chosen as part of the last reinforcement to reach Lord Cornwallis. Consisting of the 17th, the 43rd, the 1st and 2nd Anspach Regiments, and detachments of light infantry, the 76th, 80th, Queen's Rangers, Loyal American, and Prince Hereditaire Regiments, along with the Anspach Artillery, the fleet sailed on April 29, 1781, under the command of Colonel de Voit. The regimental camp followers were left behind in New York. N237, Nr. 55, f. 67, Niedersaechsisches Staatsarchiv Wolfenbuettel, transcribed by Todd Braisted. “Head Quarters New York, 4th May 1781. Sir — The Women of the 17th Regiment of Foot not being allowed to Embark, you are requested to Order some place for their reception.”

They arrived at Portsmouth in late May, and the 17th stayed with the Anspach Regiments to garrison Portsmouth, under the command of General Leslie, while the remainder of the detachment joined Lord Cornwallis. Following the Battle of Green Spring, the 17th joined Cornwallis when he retired to Portsmouth and moved the army to Yorktown. On October 16, 1781, the 17th Regiment once again marched into captivity with Cornwallis's army.

After being exchanged in 1782, the regiment was resupplied at New York and was on service there until the city was evacuated in 1783. Although it is not entirely clear at this time, it appears that reinforcements, possibly from the exchanged prisoners or from recruits arriving from England, were sent to the 17th Company in South Carolina. The 17th Company fought in the last major action of the war at Combahee Ferry, where the famous rebel Colonel John Laurens lost his life. After withdrawing from New York, the 17th Regiment became part of the Canadian garrison and was stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia, until 1787, when the regiment returned to England.

Bibliography

  • André, John. (1904). Major André's Journal. Kindle Edition
  • Bonk, David C. (2018). “Men who are determined to be free:” The American Assault on Stony Point, 15 July 1779. Warwick, England: Helion
  • Cannon, Richard. (1848). Historical Record of The Seventeenth, or The Leicestershire Regiment of Foot; containing an account of the formation of the regiment in 1688, and of its subsequent services to 1848. London: Parker, Furnivall & Parker
  • Cohen, Sheldon S. (1990). Captain William Leslie's “Paths of Glory.” New Jersey History, Vol. 108, Nos. 1-2, Spring/Summer
  • Ferraro, W. M. eds. (2009). The Papers of George Washington. Revolutionary War Series, vol.21, 1 June-31 July 1779. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press
  • Fraser, W. Sir (1890). The Melvilles, Earls of Melville, and the Leslies, Earls of Leven. Memoirs.. Edinburgh: [Privately printed]
  • Hawke, D. F. (1971). Benjamin Rush; revolutionary gadfly. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill
  • Johnston, H. P. (1900). The Storming Of Stony Point On The Hudson, Midnight, July 15, 1779. New York: James T. White & Company
  • Kemble, Stephen. (1884). Kemble Papers: Volume 1. Kemble's journals, 1773-1789 -- British Army orders : Gen. Sir William Howe, 1775-1778 ; Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, 1778 ; Gen. Daniel Jones, 1778. New York: Printed for the New York Historical Society. Available online
  • Loprieno, D. (2009). The Enterprise in Contemplation: the Midnight Assault of Stony Point. Westminster , MD: Heritage Books.
  • McCullough, David. (2006). 1776: America and Britain at War. London: Penguin
  • Webb, E. A. H. (1911). A History of the Service of the 17th (The Leicestershire) Regiment. London: Vacher and Sons Ltd.

Contributors

Thanks

  • Dr. William P. Tatum III, whose research and copy makes up the majority of this document. His relentless efforts to seek out scraps of information from incomplete sources by scouring the UK and US national archives for any mention of the 17th Regiment has deepened our knowledge of the regiment's actions of the time, far more than even the official regimental histories.
This article is meant as a “living document” to aid in future research and development of our living history society. If you have any additions or corrections that would improve this document, please do contact us at alan@17thregiment.org.uk

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