Celebrating 17 years

The First Prisoner of War
(or possibly the First Deserter)
of the American Revolution

April 19, 1775 is a cornerstone date in United States military history. The "Shot Heard Round the World" has had a huge impact on the world and settled forever that a free people have the right to govern themselves. At the personal level, a huge number of lives were changed forever. Many of those were the men who stood with Captain Parker on Lexington Green or harassed the redcoats on their march back to Boston. On the Crown side, Gen. Thomas Gage, Lt. Col. Smith, Major Pitcairn and the names of many other officers now grace the American historian's lexicon. However, little is still generally known about the British redcoats themselves. The non-commissioned officers and men of the British regiments do not appear to have been of concern to contemporary authors and continue to this day to evade illumination by most historians.

The men of the Grenadier Company of 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot were one such group of men whose lives were also dramatically changed on April 19, 1775. The 18th Regiment's Grenadier Company had last seen traditional active combat in 1727, when a detachment of the regiment from Minorca was involved in the relief of Spanish siege of Gibraltar.1 The men who had fought at Minorca were long since gone from the regiment in 1775. The vast majority of the company hadn't ever seen combat. None of the company's three officers had ever been on active service, although, like most of the men, all had served with the regiment while they had been stationed on the Illinois frontier at Ft. Chartres and Cahokia from 1768 until returning to Philadelphia in late 1772. While in Illinois, tensions were high between the British and the Indians and the regiment had been prepared to fight in the woods in order to be prepared to attack the Spanish during the Falklands Crisis of 1770. One grenadier was lost in Illinois to marauding Native Americans. Three men in the company had been transferred from the 9th Foot on its return from the Caribbean in 1769, where that regiment had seen active service against the Red Carribs. For the majority of the company, as well as for the majority of the entire redcoated column, the events of April 19, 1775 were new experiences. Although many of the regiments involved in the events of April 19, 1775 had proud and distinguished histories, few of the redcoats on that march had experienced the trials of combat. Only the 43rd Foot had served in America during the French & Indian War. The 5th Foot and 23rd Foot had seen active service in Europe during the Seven Years War, but most of the veterans of those campaigns had since vanished from the rolls of those regiments.2

Pvt. Samuel Lee

A classic case of dramatic change due to the events of April 19, 1775 is the story of Private Samuel Lee. Originally from London, Lee was a career soldier who came to America with the Royal Irish in July 1767 disembarking at Philadelphia. When he enlisted is unclear. Lee was stationed with his company at Philadelphia until the spring of 1768, when a large portion of the regiment including the Grenadier Company was ordered to Fort Chartres on the Mississippi River in the Illinois Country.3 The regiment marched through Pennsylvania to Ft. Pitt where the five companies bound for Illinois embarked upon flatboats for the journey down the Ohio and up the Mississippi. The detachment arrived in Illinois in September 1768. The Grenadier Company, including Lee, was assigned at Cahokia, Illinois for at least some time during 1771. The majority of the regiment, including Lee's company, returned to Philadelphia via Ft. Pitt in November 1772. Lee remained in Philadelphia until 1774, when the regiment assumed postings in New Jersey as other regiments were being consolidated at Boston after the Tea Party. Lee appears to have been a stable soldier in the regiment having become the regiment's "master taylor" by March 1773. Lee's trade as well as his being deaf or hard of hearing are articulated in the court martial of John Green, another of the regiment's tailors in 1773. Lee testified as a witness for the Crown against Green in the May 1774 court martial at Amboy, New Jersey. In a company that had more than its share of courts martial, Samuel Lee's name is never included among those punished. Lee appears to have been a solid, obedient soldier; albeit one without good, or possibly even fair, hearing.4 In October 1774, the Grenadier Company along with two of the 18th Foot's battalion companies were ordered to Boston. Samuel Lee was among those arriving in Boston on October 23, 1774. Beginning on December 1, 1774, the detachment's orderly book shows the men being ordered to fire live rounds. Training that shows evidence of the serious nature of the tensions between the British government and her American colonies. Such firing with ball continued through the spring of 1775.5

The 18th Foot's Grenadier Company was ordered to march to Concord as part of Lt. Colonel Smith's column. The 18th Grenadier Company appears to have been involved in the search of Concord for military stores. The activities of neither the company nor any of the officers are mentioned in contemporary reports, excepting those enumerating losses of men or material. While that searching was conducted, Cpt. John Shee or one of his subalterns appears to have posted sentries around the search area. One of those sentries was Private Samuel Lee.

Captured

Posting a deaf, or hard of hearing, sentry doesn't appear to have been a stellar idea. One Sylvanus Wood, a minuteman from Woburn, Massachusetts, claimed to have taken advantage of the situation. In his pension declaration, Wood snuck up on Lee (not a particularly tough task to sneak up on a deaf man) and relieved him of his weapon. Wood then marched Lee back to Lexington following the British column. In Wood's own account, Lee was standing sentinel in Concord when captured. Lee was carrying a musket and bayonet along with a "cutlash and Brass fender" and two cartridge pouches. One over the shoulder with 22 rounds and one "box round the waist with 18 rounds."6

Secondary accounts place the capture at Fiske Hill outside of Concord where Lee was to have left the rear of the column and sat down, having determined his soldiering days were over. If it was there where Wood came upon Lee, Lee may have readily handed his musket over to Wood. Wood would serve three enlistments with the Massachusetts state troops in Continental service. He would serve as a sergeant and was later promoted to ensign and finally to lieutenant before retiring from the service. At the end of the war, Wood returned to his trade as a cobbler.7

The exact facts of whether Wood captured the first prisoner of the war, as he claimed, or simply came upon the first wartime deserter may never be conclusively known. However, in 1775, the British Army was unclear as to Lee's disposition as well. He was still listed as missing since April 19 in the 18th Grenadier Company's muster roll on October 7, 1775. Both published regimental histories of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot list Lee among the dead.8 By December 1775 when the men of the 18th Foot were drafted at Boston, Lee appears to have been believed to be a "prisoner with the rebels" and neither dead or deserted.. Lee was among the draughts assigned to the 10th Regiment of Foot. He was assigned to Major John Vattas's Company. He continued to be listed as a prisoner of war in the returns of the 10th Regiment until that regiment was drafted in September 1778. At that time, the British Commander in Chief in America ordered Lee taken off the strength of the 10th Regiment of Foot. It is at that time the British Army appears to have given up on regaining Lee's services.9

However, Lee was not dead. He had a valuable trade and set himself up as a tailor in Concord. His exact reasons for deserting or remaining with the rebellious colonists may never be known. One secondary account states that he bribed the Lexington jailer to release him. Another account lists him as being wounded, which might explain his falling out of the ranks on the return from Concord and the ease of his capture. Regardless of how or why, Lee ended up setting up shop as a tailor in Concord. He appears to have improved his standing among the townspeople by trying to pass himself off as a British officer.10

Another version of the story has Lee being left behind by his fellow soldiers, who determined there "wasn't enough life left in you [him]" to justify continuing to carry Lee on the retreat. In this version of the story, he was wounded by a Yankee ball while passing the Concord Meeting House and was left at the house of a Dr. Minot. Minot then tended to him, but the ministrations of the doctor's female assistant, Mary Piper, are what actually led Lee back from the precipice of death.11

Whatever his rationale, Lee appears to have become a successful member of Concord society. Lee married Mary Piper on July 11, 1776 in Concord. Samuel and Mary Lee had five children, three boys and two girls. The first, a girl named Polly, was born in January 1777.12 The 1790 census lists Lee as the head of a household in Concord with three free white males under 16 in his household and four free white females. These were likely his wife and five children and another female relative or servant girl.13

Lee died on August 6, 1790 in Concord. He was listed as 45 years old at his death. If that age was accurate, Lee was approximately 30 years old when captured.14 Lee became prosperous enough in his new county to leave a will. It appears that the United States treated its first prisoner of war extremely well.15

 

Endnotes

  1. R. Cannon, Historical Record of the 18th Foot. London; Printed under the authority of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1836, 42.
  2. J. R. Gavin, The Minute Men: The First Fight: Myths and realities of the American Revolution. Washington: Brasseys, 1989, 62; WO 12/2289 Returns of the 5th Foot, 1763 to 178
  3. Fort du Chartres was originally constructed by the French in the 1720s. The third version of the post was built by the French in the 1750s. It was occasionally known as Ft. Cavendish by the British, but the Royal Irish Regiment nearly always referred to it as Ft. Chartres.
  4. British National Archives, War Office Series 71/79, Court Martial of John Green private soldier in the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot; 240-244; Abraham English Brown, Beneath Old Roof Trees, Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1896, 99.
  5. Orderly Book of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot’s Boston Garrison, October 1774 to May 1775 National Army Museum (UK) Microfilm 7609-3.
  6. J. C. Dann, The Revolution Remembered: Eyewitness accounts of the War of Independence, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 6-8.
  7. Dann, 6.; Samuel Sewell, The History of Woburn, 1640 to 1860, Boston; Wiggin & Lunt, 1868, 363 –364; Lemuel Shattuck, The History of the Town of Concord, Boston; Russell, Osborne, 1835, 117.
  8. WO 12/3501, Returns of the 18th Regiment of Foot; Cannon, 48, C. L. Gretton, Campaigns & History of the Royal Irish Regiment, Edinburgh; William Blackwood & Sons, 1911, 387.
  9. WO 12/2750, Returns of the 10th Foot, Major’s Coy. Completed at Berwick upon Tweed 26th March 1779; In another twist to this tale, some of the secondary accounts list Lee as being from the 10th Regiment of Foot. Most likely that is simply a misreading of the stylized “18” often used in the 1770s. However, it is possible that the British authorities had communicated with him while he was confined to inform him of his being drafted onto the 10th Regiment’s rolls. This would indicate that he was retained as a prisoner, or was released on parole, until at least December 1775. None of the accounts support such a long incarceration.
  10. R. Gross, The Minutemen and their World, 131. Gross also identifies Lee as an officer and states he married a local widow. Others incorrectly identify Lee as a member of the 10th Foot. Brown’s version of the story includes that Lee met Mary Piper while she was living in Boston in the winter of 1775 and their attachment to each other began in Boston prior to Mary returning to Concord.
  11. Brown,90-100. Timothy Minot was a Concord physician. He did perform at least some surgery on the wounded the day in question. He appears to have graduated from Harvard in 1747 and 1750 and died in 1804. The Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1804, 477. His Concord home and surgery is currently the home of the Colonial Inn.
  12. The children were Polly, born January 1777; Samuel, December 1779; Sarah, also Sally, September 1782, Amos, July 1785 & Rufus, December 1788. All were born in Concord. Massachusetts Town Birth Records via www.ancestry.com
  13. US Census Bureau, 1790 Census for Concord, Middlesex, Massachusetts., Roll, M637_4: Image 0178
  14. Vital Records of Concord; Massachusetts Town Death Records. Provo, UT; The Generations Network, 1999; Mary Lee is said to have married one Joseph Hoar on May 25, 1794; Samuel Lee (junior) and his son were to have been lost in American service during the War of 1812, but a primary reference to that service has yet to be uncovered. Brown, 100; Neither the regular army rosters available for the War of 1812 nor the list of Massachusetts Militia include a Samuel Lee among their rosters. However, he may have served within another state’s organization.
  15. Middlesex County, MA, Probate Index, Item Number 13943. Also the guardianship of his son, Samuel Lee appears to have been the topic of record 13944.