Wellington’s Favourite Engineer?

Since we announced our latest book, several people, have questioned the choice of title. Can we truly say that John Fox Burgoyne was Wellington’s favourite? If so, why him and not other deserving Royal Engineer officers such as Richard Fletcher? Author Mark Thompson explains why he believes Burgoyne to have had pride of place in Wellington’s esteem.

Of course, no-one will ever know for certain. Wellington did not say it, but a look at Burgoyne’s service with the Duke will make such a claim reasonable and explain why I have said this about him and not the senior engineer for most of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Fletcher. Apart from one brief absence, Richard Fletcher was the Commanding Royal Engineer under Wellington from 1809 until his death in September 1813. From reading the correspondence over the period, I would describe Fletcher’s relationship with Wellington as professional rather than warm. Over the duration of the war, Wellington came to respect Fletcher’s advice even when he did not follow it. Fletcher was probably one of the few officers who could ‘speak truth unto power’ to their leader and stay in his role.  As the war continued the relationship appeared to become strained, particularly after the difficulties in the sieges of 1811 and 1812. One scurrilous account suggested that Wellington left Fletcher at Badajoz to make the repairs in 1812 because he blamed him for the high casualties (I do not believe it).  Similarly, Fletcher did not appear to have a friendly relationship with his engineer subordinates. He was a great organiser rather than a great leader.

Burgoyne, on the other hand, was generally well liked and had built close and friendly relationships with most of his fellow engineers who served with him in the Peninsula. Burgoyne had also met several Peninsular generals including John Moore and Thomas Graham and was well respected by them. When Burgoyne first came into contact with Wellington he would have come with positive reviews.  In 1809 Burgoyne was ordered by Wellington to carry out comprehensive surveys of the Douro river and the northern border which.  Later in the year he was the only engineer who was with the army for several months when all others were ordered to Lisbon to start work on the Lines of Torres Vedras. This remained the case until mid-1810 when Fletcher re-joined headquarters. Burgoyne would have seen Wellington regularly through this period and was heavily involved in the preparations for the French invasion, surveying potential routes, mining bridges, preparing fort conception and identifying defensive positions all of which would have required close liaison with his commander.

The incident during the action at El Bodon in 1811 where Burgoyne was ordered to stay with a threatened Portuguese regiment (described in detail in the book) showed Wellington’s confidence in Burgoyne, and willingness to use him in non-engineering roles.

Burgoyne then took senior roles at the sieges of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo but avoided the flak that the chief engineer received. When Fletcher remained at Badajoz in 1812, Burgoyne commanded the engineers with the army even though there was another senior engineer in the Peninsula. He carried out another detailed survey of the Douro which would have been in preparation for the advance in 1813 although he would not have known that at the time. The challenges of the Salamanca forts and the failed siege at Burgos did not appear to impact Wellington’s view of Burgoyne.

On the death of Fletcher at San Sebastian in 1813, Burgoyne took over temporary command again. There were two senior engineer officers in the Peninsula at the time and Wellington did not order either up to the army (one was only 40 miles away).  It was almost certain that Wellington was involved in the decision to appoint Burgoyne to the American expedition of 1814.

Burgoyne’s relationship with Wellington did not finish with the end of the war. Wellington was Master General of the Ordnance from 1819-1827 and is likely to have had direct contact with Burgoyne who was commanding engineer for the Medway District, based at Chatham. Burgoyne was selected to be chief engineer of the expedition to Portugal in 1826 and Wellington would have approved this appointment. In 1831 Burgoyne was appointed to the Board of Public Works in Ireland and his work in that country will not have escaped the attention of the Duke.  Burgoyne’s later civil duties across the nation meant he would have been in contact with ministers during the period that Wellington was in the government. One wonders if Wellington had a hand in some of these appointments.

The claim that Burgoyne was (possibly) Wellingtons Favourite Engineer is based on his regular use of this officer when others could have been used. Wellington clearly had great confidence in him and was happy to use him in the absence of senior engineer officers and sometimes over other army officers. No other senior engineer officer served as long under Wellington during the Peninsular War and survived. This relationship built in war would endure for another thirty years in peace.

Revenge, Honour, and National Identity

Nicholas Kaizer explains why the War of 1812 still has such a resonance in today’s Canada.

‘A six pounder is not an army, no more is 450 men, except in our puny war’ wrote one Upper Canadian in a Halifax newspaper in 1813.[1] Even contemporaries living in the British North American colonies (what is today Eastern Canada) recognized that the scale of the War of 1812 was tiny compared to the titanic campaigns being waged in Europe. By this point in the Napoleonic Wars, field armies could comprise hundreds of thousands of men: over 600,000 men made up Napoleon’s Grand Armée when he invaded Russia (1812), and the colossal Battle of Leipzig (1813) involved 600,000 soldiers in all. The British army that invaded and burned Washington DC (1814), by contrast, fielded just over 4,000 redcoats. The colonials also recognized, that to the wider British Empire, their Anglo-American conflict was a bit of a sideshow.

Still, 19th century Haligonians were engrossed by the campaigns in Canada, just as they were by those of Lord Wellington in Europe. The naval actions of the conflict were not neglected, either. Most shockingly for Halifax, USS Constitution, the famous American heavy frigate, defeated two Royal Navy frigates in single ship actions. A third frigate was captured by her sister ship, USS United States, and by March 1813 three British sloops of war met the same fate. During the 19th century, Halifax was a fiercely British city – proud subjects of the King and proud of the Royal Navy. Haligonians, who had enthusiastically followed the exploits of Admiral Horatio Nelson, were shocked by the losses, and struggled to come to terms with them; how could the Royal Navy be defeated by the upstart Americans?

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Not the Little Belt
Illustration by Elizabetha Tsitrin, Image Courtesy of Blue Nautilus Art, https://bluenautilusart.com/

Today, we Canadians cling to our national prowess in hockey and celebrate our athletes. The Toronto Raptor’s Championship win in the summer of 2019 briefly drew the attention and admiration of the country. In the early 19th century, our sports heroes were the officers and men of the Royal Navy’s frigates – figures who held a great degree of star power. They captivated Halifax’s youth and inspired many to seek a career in the navy, including a young Provo Wallis, who won fame during the War of 1812, and would go on to reach the highest rank in the Royal Navy. Beamish Murdoch, a future Nova Scotian historian who was a boy during the conflict, remembered the ‘sad series of disasters’ which, while ‘they are only connected with the history of our province indirectly,’ their impact ‘on the minds of our people was great, stimulating their patriotism and loyalty instead of depressing them.’[2] Faced with the losses of 1812, Halifax’s papers sought to defend the reputation and honour of their naval heroes, clinging to the fact that USS Constitution and her sisters vastly outclassed the RN frigates which they defeated. It was a remarkably similar tune to that sung by the press in England, which too sought to defend the honour of the Royal Navy and its sailors. This is still the understanding of today’s British and Canadian historians. The historiography of the War of 1812, alas, has always been steeped in national biases.

When I set to work on the project that would culminate in Revenge in the Name of Honour, I quickly noticed that not all contemporaries seemed to agree that the American victories could be sufficiently explained by their marked advantage in sire and firepower. None other than James Dacres, the captain of HMS Guerriere during her crushing loss to USS Constitution, declared at his court martial that the disparity in force had little to do with the defeat, and that he wished ‘to be once more opposed to the Constitution, with [his old crew] under my command, in a frigate of similar force to the Guerriere.’[3] The attitudes and actions of the Royal Navy’s captains following the losses suggest that Dacres’ rather bold interpretation was not unique. More than one officer sought revenge and contemplated putting their ships and crew into unnecessary risk to do so. The boldest was Captain Philip Broke of HMS Shannon, whose tiresome and risky efforts to bring about a single ship action with an American frigate paid off on 1 June 1813, when in a brief action Shannon captured USS Chesapeake.

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H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake Into Halifax Harbour. Schletky, J.C., King, R.H., Haghe, L. Library and Archives Canada, R3908-0-0-E W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana, http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=2836439

The victory reinvigorated the British. It was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, and Broke was showered with praise and honours from Halifax and British society. Halifax continued to celebrate the action well into the following century, and it became a staple of cultural memory and local literature. Its centenary in 1913 was marked by major events, and the 150th anniversary was celebrated with a naval spectacle, attended by warships from the Royal Navy, the still-young Royal Canadian Navy, and even from the United States Navy, once a bitter enemy but now united by a camaraderie built over two world wars. Alas, as with most aspects of the War of 1812, it had largely faded from public memory by the bicentenary in 2012, when the Government of Canada again commemorated the war, as part of a wider mission to celebrate a nostalgic vision of Canada’s colonial past.

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Photograph of a 18-pounder on display outside Province House, Halifax (seat of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly), believed to have come from Shannon. One believed to have come from Chesapeake is on display on the opposite side of the building. Halifax Military Heritage Preservation Society, https://hmhps.ca/sites/shannon-vs-chesapeake

While the general public in Halifax has largely forgotten the conflict, the naval-interested public still hold a certain delight in this particular bit of history. It has taken up more than its fair share of curated space in museums and public places in the city, which is hardly surprising; not only was Shannon’s senior surviving lieutenant a Haligonian (Provo Wallis), but Canadians delight in any arena we can claim a victory over our cousins to the south. It was no different in Halifax in 1813, when the small town flocked from Sunday church to the waterfront to cheer on Shannon and the Haligonian officer at her helm.

Lieutenant Provo Wallis, At the Time of His Victorious Entry Into Halifax Harbour, ca. 1800-1880, Davey Fitzner. Library and Archives Canada/William Kingsford collection/e010966281, http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=FonAndCol&IdNumber=4310540

[1] NSA, Acadian Recorder, Saturday 4 December 1813, 1:47 (online), available at https://novascotia.ca/archives/newspapers/archives.asp?ID=800

[2] Beamish Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia, or Acadie, (Halifax: J. Barnes, 1867), Vol 3, p.334.

[3] TNA, ADM 1/5431, Testimony of Dacres, CM Guerriere.

Fashioning Regulation, Regulating Fashion. The Uniforms and Dress of the British Army 1800-1815

By Ben Townsend

The reading rooms of the National Archives at Kew present a curious sight on any given afternoon. Imagine a care home for the massively over-educated and terminally under-employed, and you will have a fitting conception of many of the inhabitants. The emblematic animal of the archives, and their notional spirit animal, is the swan, and a beautiful family of swans skim the ponds of the Kew forecourt. It is a not-inapt metaphor for the operation of the archives: the staff are all apparent grace and dignity, but beneath the surface, there is frenetic action, powering the perpetual cycle of documents from readers to storage and back again.

There are not many swans amongst the readers. A broad sweep of the detritus of the reading rooms might harvest a few spirit sloths who have carried their slippers from home, plenty of dishevelled wombats apparently unacquainted with a barber, and the occasional neophyte as startled giraffe, swivelling its neck in nervous wonder. Spending a lot of time in this atmosphere one begins to feel at home among this often vague, but also minutely focussed motley herd. You unthinkingly adopt their quiet padding lope to the return counter, and their lolloping shuffle of anticipation taking them to the arrived document pigeon holes. From there, it’s a short step to master the thousand-yard stare at the coffee counter down in the lobby, as one struggles to drag the mind back from mortgage rolls of the fifteenth century to deal with the mundane choices of various caffeine-based cups.

I spent enough time amongst these people to feel at home when researching my latest book there. It involved thumbing many tens, even hundreds of thousands of document and folio pages, and while doing so, one becomes aware of other subterraneana lurking under the surface of the documents themselves. My particular haunt was the labyrinthine military bureaucracy and associated government apparatus of the early nineteenth century. Handling the correspondence between the lugubrious assistant second secretary to the deputy-assistant-adjutant-general at Horse Guards and his wizened counterpart at the Clothing Board in Great George Street can be a fairly dry experience, but after a while one comes to recognise their handwriting, and know their idioms of speech, and you begin to feel at home in their company. After joining the family of bureaucrats in their everyday procedures, and feeling them come to life again while thumbing through their letters, it’s just a few steps further to imagining you are part of that family. When you listen to their long lost voices asking after the health of the housekeeper’s cat, you wonder why on earth they would let a cat into a room used for storing textiles. Imagine the hair everywhere! One can sympathise with the custodian of the pattern-room who battles rheumatism and the cat with equal stoicism.

There are frustrations amongst the papers too, to balance these homely pleasures. In correspondence concerning the pattern room  (a storage place for sealed patterns of military uniform), one is all too frequently brought up short by the constant references along the lines of, ‘see pattern item attached’. This starts to become something of a litany to lost wonders, as the pattern was always attached to the original correspondence, and not included in the letter-book. When one is concentrated on the subject of these elusive patterns, to be always brought up short and reminded of their absence, is to exist in a state of perpetual disappointment. But there are exceptions. Sometimes after a long day reading letter-books recording the ingoing and outgoing correspondence of the pattern office, one turns the thousandth page and is confronted by a splash of glorious colour. Some marvellous new clerk has failed to remove the pattern item or drawing and file it properly, and it survives, as fresh as the day it was deposited. Below are two examples of these survivals, calculated to raise the spirits of even the most jaded wombat of the reading room.

These two samples of uniform lace illustrate the lace worn by the buglers of the 71st Regiment in 1819 and 1820. The practice of buglers wearing reversed colours had fallen out of favour by 1811, and they were to be distinguished by a different lace to that of the other ranks instead. This was a utilitarian alteration, intended to prevent the disproportionate targeting by the enemy of buglers, who were a vital part of the command and control hierarchy, owing to their role in transmitting orders.

This expertly rendered coloured drawing of the new 1812 pattern infantry cap plate pre-empts the issue of the infantry clothing warrant of that year, indicating that The First, or Royal Scots, Regiment had followed the advice of the clothing board of 1811 and prepared their issue of the new model caps in advance.

Further examples of these fortunate survivals are recorded in the author’s two new volumes on the regulation material of the British army, Regulating Fashion, Fashioning Regulation.

Find volume one on our website here.

Find Volume two on our website here.

‘They Were Good Soldiers’: African–Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775–1783

By John U. Rees

Detail from John Trumbull’s 1786 painting ‘The Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775’. (Artwork by permission of Yale University Art Gallery.)

‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’: When those words were written in the Declaration of Independence, Africans had been enslaved in British North America for approximately 140 years, and African Americans had been fighting in the Continental Army and states’ militia for 14 months.

‘They Were Good Soldiers’: African–Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775–1783 examines the subject in some detail, including black soldiers’ personal experiences before, during, and after their military service.

The role of African-Americans, most free but some enslaved, in the regiments of the Continental Army is not well-known; neither is the fact that relatively large numbers served in southern regiments and that the greatest number served alongside their white comrades in integrated units.

‘They Were Good Soldiers’ begins by discussing the inclusion and treatment of black Americans by the various Crown forces (particularly British and Loyalist commanders, and military units). The narrative then moves into an overview of black soldiers in the Continental Army, before examining their service state by state. Each state chapter looks first at the Continental regiments in that state’s contingent throughout the war, and then adds interesting black soldiers’ pension narratives or portions thereof. The premise is to introduce the reader to the men’s wartime duties and experiences. The book’s concluding chapters examine veterans’ post-war fortunes in a changing society and the effect of increasing racial bias in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

African American drummer, 2nd Battalion Philadelphia Associators, January 1777.

My intent from the start was to make extensive use of black veterans’ 19th century pension narratives. For those unfamiliar with the Revolutionary War pension applications (deemed by one historian, ‘one of the largest oral history projects ever undertaken’), they are the best way to hear the men’s stories in as close to their own words as is possible – to almost hear them speak. Add to that, personal details, available nowhere else, are revealed by the veterans themselves or people close to them. In essence, my wish is to present their experiences as soldiers, as citizens, and as individuals, and pension narratives are the best way to accomplish that.

Here are several examples showing the range of their experiences:

Connecticut veteran Cezar Shelton: ‘Before he enlisted, he was in the Militia … he was wound[ed] at Horse Neck [Landing], he was just relieved from guard and had lain down with his pack on & fell asleep when he was awaked by an order, surrender[,] he jumped out of the window and escaped to the bushes, but received one blow with a cutlass across his back, he was also struck by a [musket] ball on the skin at the same time …’.

New York soldier Joseph Johnson, aka Thomas Rosekrans, at the Battle of Newtown, August 1779: Major James Rondecrants … gave me orders to stay with the pack horses, I did so a short time, but becoming uneasy I left the horses, took my Gun and engaged in the battle for which I was censured by Major Rondecrants’.

Jim Capers, South Carolina, ‘was in the Battle of Eutaw Springs, at [that] … Battle he received four Wounds, Two cuts upon the face, one on the head with a sword & one with a Ball which passed through his left side, killing the Drummer immediately behind him …’.

Virginian Thomas Mahorney, ‘declares that he is a planter on a little farm not his, and is rendered unable to pursue it by reason of his age and infirmity and that his family residing with him are as follows: Viz: his wife Maima[?] and his son Jack both of which are slaves, he the said Thomas Mahorney being a free man of colour who served in the war of the Revolution, and is unassisted by the labour of his family’.

Four Appendices close the book, covering the role of officers’ servants (both black and white), deserter notices for African American soldiers, and men of color in Virginia’s 1780-81 draft to fill its Continental regiments. Appendix 2 discusses African American women with the army, including Sarah (also called Rachel), a runaway ‘Mulatto slave’, pregnant and accompanied by her son Bob. Sarah and her son were present in 1778 with the 1st Maryland Regiment.

Rachel (previously called Sarah) and her son Bob. based on an October 1778 New Jersey Gazette runaway advertisement. Artwork by Bryant White (Image courtesy of the artist, https://whitehistoricart.com/)

Finally, here is a teaser from the only known letter written by a black soldier during the war, published for the first time in ‘They Were Good Soldiers’: John Lines to his wife Judith, “November the 11 1781 … i am well and hopeing these lines may find you and the Children Well … we lay at fishkill now … I have lived a-11-day With Bread [only] … I re mane your loveing husband un tel death.”

Lines and other veterans returned home to a changed and changing nation. Despite the waning of Northern slavery, with the ratification of the 1789 United States Constitution black bondage was cemented as a political and economic fact, and detrimental racial attitudes hardened, especially after 1800. Thirty-five years after the war black Revolutionary veterans, along with their white comrades, were eligible for service pensions, but, even in that system, they experienced the effect of increasing bias. Still, black Americans continued to fight for their nation, as 81-year-old Judith Lines related in 1837, ‘my youngest son died of a wound recd in the last war [War of 1812], his name was Benjamin, the wound was recd. at the Battle of Chippewa [5 July 1814]’. And black Revolutionary veterans remained proud of their service, as attested by Artillo Freeman, who in a tally of his belongings, totaled the whole at $15.75. At the end of the list he added one more item, ‘Revolutionary Uniform – Invaluable’.

Buy a copy of ‘They Were Good Soldiers. African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783’ here.