British Army Muster Rolls: A Readers Guide

In our last installment of the ‘Research Story’ series, we opened the door to the great cavalcade of eighteenth-century British Army demographic information known as the muster roll (found in the WO12 series in the British National Archives). Of course, even more demographic information is contained in the general review returns (WO27), but that is a story for a different time. For now, I’ll focus on how one “reads” a British muster roll, because they aren’t necessarily straightforward to people who haven’t internalized British military procedure as I have. Or so my friends keep telling me.

Here is a photograph (taken in 2011, pardon the quality) of the muster roll for Captain Robert Clayton’s Company of the 17th Regiment of Infantry, covering the period from December 1775-June 1776. As you can see, it is a multi-part document, following a standard format that you will find with any other regiment’s muster roll (with a tiny few exceptions). So even if you aren’t in love with the 17th, the following instruction is transferrable to other corps.


IMG_2350 Clayton Dec 1775-June 1776
Muster roll for Captain Robert Clayton’s Company, HM’s 17th Regiment of Foot, The National Archives of Great Britain (TNA) WO12/3406/2

Most folks raised in the western tradition will want to read these from the top-down rather than the bottom-up, despite the fact that your most important information for understanding when and where is down near the bottom. So we’re going to look at the bottom first, for the most important material. Then we’ll move back to the top. And then deal with the center portion, where everyone inevitably ends up.

IMG_2350 Clayton Dec 1775-June 1776 Detail 3


In this view of the document’s bottom half, we see several important pieces of information. First, there’s the location and date when the muster was taken—in this case, on Staten Island, July 13, 1776. Beneath that, you have a written synopsis of the information rendered above, which I’ll transcribe since the photo is blurry:

“Mustered present in His Majesty’s 17th Regiment of Foot Commanded by the Honble Colonel Robert Monckton Lieutenant General and in Captain Robert Claytons Company the Captain, Lieutenant with two Serjeants and Drummer and twenty five Effective private men.

Allowing the Ensign, with two Corporals Sick One Corporal recruiting, two men on Guard and five men Sick that are Absent to pass unrespited being Certified Effective on the back of this roll

Also allowing the Commission, non Commissiond Officers private Men & Casuals to be Effective for the intermediate times as set down against their Respective names above Mentioned being Certified on the back of this roll

This Muster is taken for 183 days from 25th December to 24th June 1776 both days inclusive”

This eighteenth-century military legalese is concerned with the prickly question of paying the army. Parliament passed an annual bill to fund the army, which was always subject to intense debate and scrutiny. From that point on, essentially every penny expending for military support had to be accounted for, since a scandal on misappropriation of funds or embezzlement could have dramatic negative effects on the army’s funding for the subsequent year. While plenty of period sources suggest that mustering was often accompany by significant bouts of corruption, with officer’s servants mustered to bring up the numbers of soldiers in a company to establishment strength, in general this process seems to have been taken fairly seriously by the Revolutionary War era. It is always important to note the date and location where the muster was taken and the dates the muster covers: in many regiments, several muster periods would be accounted for at one time, covering lengthy periods (sometimes extending to years) wherein the regiment could not be gathered and formally counted. A British regiment was expected to be mustered at six month intervals, so twice every year. Even if those musters couldn’t be made at the established intervals, the paperwork needed to be filled out at some juncture to satisfy officials in the Treasury Office.

Heading back to the top, we see the first of the detailed name information contained in this return:


IMG_2350 Clayton Dec 1775-June 1776 detail1


Beneath the unit identification and the colonel’s name, you see a list of the company’s officers: Captain Robert Clayton, Lieutenant Richard Norris, and Ensign Mervin Murray. Murray is listed on the recruiting service, meaning he is back in the British Isles with a serjeant and detachment of men attempting to drum up new recruit. Clayton and Norris were present with the company on the day of the muster— when you see notes on the return that explain a man’s absence, that is only the excuse given for him being absent that day. So Clayton could have been on command at headquarters, far away from his company, the preceding day. That was one way officers could, theoretically, cheat the system: by being absent every day save for the muster and hiring local men to stand in for soldiers for the muster. Not as easy to pull off in America, however.

Below the officers, you have the list of non-commissioned officers. These are the serjeants, corporals, and drummers. In most returns, they will be labeled as such, though not here. Looking at the information from the bottom of the return, we would expect to see two serjeants, three corporals, and one drummer listed, and so they are. As in that synopsis, Serjeants John Neaile and James Richardson are present, along with Drummer John Harrison. Corporal Daniel Webb and Corporal James Wilson were ill on the day of the muster, while Corporal Morris Rew was off on the recruiting service, probably with Ensign Murray.

Now moving to the center portion of the return, we see two primary sections. The two columns to the left list all of the men who were expected to be with the company on muster day, including the excuses for those men who were not physically present. The right-hand section lists all of the causalities for the period of the muster: that includes men who left for any significant reason.


IMG_2350 Clayton Dec 1775-June 1776 detail2


Focusing in on the casualty list, we see that it covers the same period as the rest of the muster and provides some interesting casualties beyond the men who died.


IMG_2350 Clayton Dec 1775-June 1776 detail4


Here’s another transcript for you:


“Sick                                                       William Walker

Guard                                                      John Wright

Died 29th Feby 76                                  Benjamin Haken

Died 22d May 76                                    Simon Rampley

Transfered 35th May 76                       Michal Kelley

Dischd 7th May 76                                  Stephen Bratt”


Walker and Wright both stand out as outliers—plenty of the soldiers listed to the left were either sick or on guard. Perhaps the muster master forgot to list them and thus stuck them under the Casualties? Maybe Walker was seriously ill and Wright had been sent to a long-term guard detachment? The return doesn’t indicate answers, hence we call these leads for further research.

Beneath Walker and Wright, one sees the standard list of men who died. It was highly unusual for a six month period to pass without deaths in the regiment. You’ll see both the soldiers killed in battle as well as those who succumbed to disease, wounds, or accidents listed in this area, usually without any further explanation other than their official date of death. We also have Private Kelley, who transferred out of this company, probably into another company of the 17th. Often, when a regiment is drafted, you’ll see notations made adjacent to soldiers’ names about when they left and which corps they joined. Similarly, when men are drafted into a regiment, you’ll see that noted, usually with the comment “Enter’d” followed by the date. The same style is used for new recruits, so sometimes things can be a bit confusing when you know that men are being drafted and recruited in, but the muster master didn’t make a note. That’s why we use a range of sources together to correct for the weaknesses in individual sources. This particular sheet is fairly routine, only have a mix of sick and guard duty listed.

So there you have your basic guide to reading a British regimental muster roll sheet: while they can be tiresome one at a time, taken collectively they open up grand new vistas on the busy internal life of the British Army. We are reliably informed that Don Hagist is working on a massive muster roll project, recording all of the surviving data on British regiments that served in America into an interactive digital spreadsheet. Can’t wait to see those results! For more 17th Regiment-specific data, keep your eyes out for future posts here.

received his BA in History from the College of William & Mary in Virginia in 2003, and his MA and PhD from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2004 and 2016. His exploits in Revolutionary War Living History began with a chance encounter at Colonial Williamsburg’s Under the Redcoat event in 2000.

Over the subsequent years, he has traveled throughout the United States and Great Britain researching the eighteenth-century British Army and used the results of those labor to improve living history interpretations. The beginning of this journey in 2001 marked the start of the current recreated 17th Infantry.

“Sprang interlinked:” The Construction of Eighteenth-Century British Army Sashes

This week we are thrilled to welcome Suzannah Emerson from Old Fort Niagara, who kicks off a new element in our continuing blog adventure: interviews. From time to time, we’ll be posting the results of questions asked remotely via email or in person to shed light on interesting things happening in the larger living history community. In today’s installment, Suzannah explains her recent research and experiments into spranging, opening a window into eighteenth-century fibre arts.

Will Tatum


Thanks for taking on this interview request, Suzannah. For starters, we hear people saying that sprang is the proper method for constructing officers and sergeants sashes during the eighteenth century, at least for the British Army. So what is sprang anyway?

Sprang has a fascinating history! Peter Collingwood’s The Techniques of Sprang (the bible on sprang construction) states it can be dated back as far as the early Danish Bronze age (1700-500BC). Several sprang clothing items were found on the numerous “bog people” who pop up in Northern European countries.

Okay, now mentally prepare yourself for some jargon! Let’s start simply, think of a 3- strand braid; there are only 3 pieces of yarn/hair/whatever (a warp), and there are no new perpendicular pieces (a weft) added to the warp like you see in a weave. Now think of sprang as a very fancy braiding process, one uses his or her fingers to manipulate a series of strands in a particular pattern to form a piece of cloth. Like the braid, there is no weft, only a warp. If you are familiar with some of the wonderful oblique finger-woven products used by Native American reenactors, these are made by a process closely related to sprang.



From The Techniques of Sprang, pg. 31 the structure of sprang (a) and oblique
finger-weaving (b)


Many people seem to confuse sprang with crocheting. Let’s get this straight right now people; Crochet was not around in the 18th century! The structure of sprang produces a very stretchy fabric. Ye olde spandex anyone? The technically correct term is not “sprang woven” but “sprang interlinked.” The structure of a chain linked fence looks very similar to sprang! It is this interlinking, that makes the stretch possible.


This royal blue striped sergeant sash shows off the stretch and structure of the


Up until the early 21st century, I had never seen a sprang sash for sale. Now we have a lady in Canada making them, and they seem to cost an arm and a leg. Does that have something to do with the difficulty of “spranging,” if that is the proper term? What kind of set-up is required to making sprang items?

Like many hand-made and finger-woven items, the cost is probably 95% labor. Manipulating over 150 strands to make 8-10ft. of sash takes a good deal of time, and one’s fingers can only move so quickly. There is one beauty to sprang that other  fingerweaving processes are not capable of implementing. With the correct setup, with one row of strand manipulation one can achieve two rows of textile. Yes folks, that is sprang one get one free.

Let’s go back to the braid example, if you have ever braided before, you might have noticed that the free ends of the braid can get tangled at the bottom. This tangle is actually the mirror image of the braid you are trying to produce. If your braid were secured at both ends while you were working it, you would find that the work meets in the middle. Sprang production often takes advantage of this two for one deal. If this were not the case, I don’t know if I would have the patience to complete an entire sash. There is one problem with this deal, one side of a sprang project is the mirror image of the other. Therefore, if a mistake is made it shows up twice on the sash. If there is a mirror image structure in a “finger-woven” type item, this is one way to identify sprang. There are three options when setting up (i.e warping) a sprang project, two of which allow for one row manipulation for two construction. The braiding example from earlier is using a “figure-8 warp.” The setup I use for sashes is called a “circular warp,” the advantage here is that I only need a “loom” a little over half the height of my desired project length. This comes in handy when my formidable 5’1” self is trying to make a 10 foot sash.


Please excuse my poor drawing skills, this image shows two warps used to
make sprang.

The image below shows the heavy duty frame I use. It’s made from two 7-foot tall 2x4s, various dowels, pipes and rods. The top PVC pipe can be moved depending on the desired length of the project, and the bottom pipe can be adjusted for project tension. I could easily make a 12 foot sash using this frame. The vast quantity of yarn necessary for a sash is wound around the two PVC pipes, creating one large yarn circle. After the warp is secured, it’s time to start making sprang!


Sprang “loom” set up for a shorter project, sprang is a very versatile textile.


Recall that one manipulation of the warp produces two rows of sprang. The first row created by a manipulation is pushed up and over the top PVC pipe, and then the second row is pushed down under the bottom. These rows meet in the middle back of the circular warp. The sash itself is actually made from the middle outward! On many original sashes you will see a line across the weave in about the middle of the sash.This is where the first two rows were pushed, and the body of the sash began to form. This is one sign that a textile could have been made using sprang.


The work begins from the middle and works out, the white strings are a safety
measure in case I mess up, I can take the work out to that point and try again. After I am
finished with the sash the strings are easily removed.


Here I am pointing to the center meeting line of the completed sergeant sash.



I understand you are combining your adventures in making sprang items with examining existing originals. Would you tell us a bit about your research to date: how does one study an original sash? Have you found any interesting insights in your research?

I had looked at one original sash before I began my sprang adventures. I noticed that there were some oddities in the products I made, and I had a very difficult time eradicating these issues from my work. Then, I began to have more opportunities to study originals. This is when I discovered that those “oddities” were perfectly normal in original sashes! Through these studies I have answered a great many questions which had come up during my sprang sash productions. Many of them are trivial in the grand scheme of things, but they have made the process more efficient.

One thing which seems to be repeated throughout the study of extant clothing items and accoutrements, and is the same for sprang: many things were not made perfectly. I find a great deal of charm in finding little hiccups in these items.

One of the first photos we saw of your sash work was a cat wearing a sash. Can you explain how cat help features in the your process?

If you have ever lived with a cat, you will quickly come to realize that they believe you should never be without supervision. My cats certainly follow through on this belief, not only supervising the process, but also checking for quality.


Waldo checking for yarn strength during the warping process.


Waldo continuing his work by making sure the first few rows are properly carried out. This also shows the circular warp right at the start of production.


Madam doing the final check while the sash is blocked. I no longer use this process to “set” the sprang, but it was an interesting experiment.



What are some of the greatest hurtles you’ve encountered so far in the research and replication processes?

There are two:

My first challenge was finding the materials of the appropriate color, weight, and fiber. I had a hard time finding a “crimson” wool yarn that wouldn’t pill and get fuzzy. Thanks to the weavers at Colonial Williamsburg, I was able to find the Jagger Spun line from Halcyon Yarn. The line is a long staple wool, that pills relatively little. As for silk, this was easier to find. I use the hand-dyed silk yarns from Treenway silks. I have compared the silk yarns from Treenway to several originals, and I believe I have found a near perfect match!

My second, and ever-ongoing challenge, is dating the sprang sashes I study, unless we are talking about the Braddock sash, which has “1709” emblazoned on it for all of time. This is unusual, and many sashes have little to no designs that might suggest from when they date. Sure, the curator/collections manager usually has some note on the provenance. Unfortunately, this is usually a statement from someone’s great-great-great Aunt Susie-May who claimed that her great-great Uncle’s 3rd cousin twice removed wore it at Yorktown. Who knows, Aunt Susie-May could be correct, but I have found sashes in collections that could not possibly date to the purported time period.

Therefore, I am cautious but, I believe it is safe to assume that a “crimson” silk plain sprang sash, with no designs is probably appropriate for most 18th British military officer interpretations. This claim also holds for British 1812 impressions.

Do you have any particularly exciting sprang projects on the drawing board?

At the moment, I am focusing on research and the 21st century job market. One question I would like to dive into is what 18th century sprang frames looked like. I have a descent hypothesis, but I would like some more evidence to support my ideas. Also, I hope that in the next few months I’ll be able to exactly reproduce some intricate details I have found throughout my sprang sash studies. Who knows, maybe I’ll make a cat equivalent of the Braddock sash.


Resident cat, Leopold, at Old Fort Niagara wearing my first sprang sash, and a
cocked hat found at Walmart.


currently serves as the Special Projects Coordinator and Field Music Supervisor at Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, NY. She holds a BA in Mathematics from Gettysburg College. When not delving into the secrets and mysteries of numbers, she enjoys fibre arts and exploring eighteenth-century German culture.

Captain Robert Clayton: Officers of the 17th, Part 1

In today’s installment, we feature legendary eighteenth-century British Army Historian Mark Odintz, PhD.  Mark is the world’s foremost authority on the trials, tribulations, and civilian origins of Revolutionary War-era British officers. His doctoral dissertation remains the definitive work in the field. We look forward to his occasional dispatches detailing the service histories of the 17th’s officers and encourage him to prepare that dissertation for publication!

— Will Tatum 

Way back in 1988 I completed a dissertation on the British Officer Corps in the mid-18th century. It is a collective biographical study of some 395 officers who served in four regiments of foot, the 8th, 12th, 17th and 35th, between 1767 and 1783. I used the sample to explore the social backgrounds, careers, attitudes and service experiences of British officers for a somewhat wider period, from the Seven Years War to the end of the American Revolution. The past few years I have been revisiting the project, seeking out further biographical details, revising, etc. with the hopes of producing a book down the road. What I would like to do for the blog of the 17th is to run an occasional series of biographical portraits of the company level officers of the regiment from the period of the American Revolution. It was an active regiment that saw more than its share of combat and non-battle attrition and as part of larger organization that was expanding rapidly it also saw a fair amount of regiment hopping among its officer personnel. Some ninety officers served in the 17th Regiment of Foot between 1775 and 1781. Twenty of these either left the regiment in 1775 or did not join until 1782-83. A further eight served in regiment very briefly, if at all, as they promptly transferred to another regiment. Six were field officers or colonels of the regiment. Twenty-three served in the regiment for three years or less during the war, leaving it through promotion, death or retirement. This left a core of thirty-three men who spent most of the American Revolution officering the 17th. This entry will focus on fairly typical member of the thirty-three, Robert Clayton.

17th Regt belt plates and buttons

Robert Clayton had the kind of career a fairly well-connected member of the gentry (not as elite as some, but better than most) could expect to have in the army of George III. He was a younger son of a younger son, but the family used their wealth, political influence and connections in several professions to ensure successful careers for their male offspring.  The lottery of family demographics also played its usual part, leaving a childless Robert Clayton in possession of the estate as the last man standing at the time of his death in 1839.

By the early 18th century the Clayton family were landed gentry with several manors in Lancashire near Wigan and urban property in Liverpool, as well as considerable electoral interest in the borough of Wigan.  Robert’s grandfather Thomas inherited the family estate and had five sons. The youngest, Robert’s father John, was described as a “gentleman, of Cross Hall, near Chorley, Lancashire” when young Robert entered Manchester Grammar School in 1762, and was the only son to produce male heirs. Among Robert’s uncles were a Major Edward Clayton in the army and Richard, a Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in Ireland. The family continued to concentrate on the law and the military in Robert’s generation. His older brother, another Richard, was a successful barrister and diplomat and was created a baronet in 1774. Richard, as head of the family, periodically petitioned army administrators for higher rank and leave for his brother Robert. -family information derived from Henry Hepburn, The Clayton Family (1904), R. Stewart-Brown, The Tower of Liverpool (1910), The Admission Register of the Manchester School (1866).


Our Robert purchased an ensigncy in the 17th regiment on Dec. 9, 1767, at the age of twenty-one. He received his Lieutenantcy in the regiment without purchase on July 19, 1771, following the death of Lieutenant William Byrd (or Bird), an American belonging to the well-known planter family of Virginia. Vacancies by death ordinarily could not be sold, and the promotion went to the senior ensign within the regiment. The next step in Robert’s career illustrates how officers attempted to use family connections to get ahead in the Georgian army. When a company became vacant for purchase in the 17th in 1774, brother Richard contacted General John Burgoyne (of future Saratoga fame and an acquaintance of Richard’s) and requested that he write to the secretary at war soliciting the promotion for Robert. Burgoyne wrote to Secretary Barrington describing Richard as “a gentleman of great fortune and worth, a steady supporter of Govt., & a friend to Lord Stanley and myself in Lancashire.” (Barrington Papers, J Burgoyne to Barrington, Dec. 26, 1774) This is classic patronage language of the time, offering political support in exchange for favors. In this case the letter was unsuccessful and the company went to an officer with considerably more service experience, but Robert was able to purchase the next vacant company (over the head of a senior lieutenant who lacked the money to purchase) six months later, on May 1, 1775, thus rising to command of a company after some seven and a half years of service. This was pretty fast promotion for peacetime service. In 1774, a look at the seven captains then serving with the 17th shows that five of them had reached the rank after thirteen or more years of service, one after ten years of service, and only one had been promoted about as rapidly as Clayton.

17th officer miniature full

Unknown officer of the 17th Regiment, possibly William Leslie, mourning miniature

Clayton served throughout the American Revolution with the regiment. In a memorial for promotion he submitted at the end of the war, he summarized, slightly out of order, his service: “went to America 1775 a Capt, was at Staten Is., Brooklyn, Brandy-Wine, White Plains,  German-Town, White-Marsh, and storm of Stoney Pt where taken Pris. On being exchanged had leave to go to Europe, but declined and went with regt to Virg. and did duty till Yorktown, again Pris.” (WO1:1021, f. 193, memorial of Robert Clayton enclosed in Richard Clayton to Secretary at War, 19 Jan 1784). Clayton’s commitment to the struggle was discussed in a September, 1781 letter from brother Richard petitioning leave for Robert. He apologized for bothering them with a second request for leave, but the first had arrived as Robert’s regiment was embarked for Virginia, and Robert had refused it, writing back “ the duty he owed to the King was superior with him to every other consideration and…he would willingly run any loss or suffer any inconvenience, rather than leave the Regiment situated as it then was.” Richard stated that his brother had been in no less than twelve actions,  and “that he was an Enthusiast of the American Service, in refusing to leave the Regt when they had any immediate objective in view…” (WO1:1010, f. 599, Richard Clayton to Jenkinson 30 Sept 1781).

The only glimpse of Robert Clayton on active service that I have found comes from the court-martial of Henry Johnson following the loss of Stoney Point. Clayton was serving as commander of three companies of the 17th that formed part of the garrison of the upper works of the position. Soon after the action began Lieutenant John Roberts of the artillery encountered “Clayton and a party of men lining the parapet; that Captain Clayton seeing that he (the witness) belonged to the Artillery (tho he believes he did not know him to be an officer, from the manner in which he spoke to him) said ‘For Gods sake, why are not the Artillery here made use of, as the Enemy are in the hollow, and crossing the Water’”.  Roberts answered that there was no ammunition for the guns, as it was not customarily stored with them, and these guns could not bear on the enemy in any case. Clayton clearly had a temper, and artillery lieutenants were not used to being yelled at by infantry captains. (WO71:93, Court Martial of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Johnson, Jan. 30, 1781, p. 55).

Stony Point

Map of Stony Point, courtesy of Mount Vernon

It is worth noting that at the time of his memorial in 1784 Robert Clayton was commanding the regiment, as he had at several points during the war when more senior officers were absent. Colonels did not generally serve with their regiments, and lieutenant colonels and majors were often absent commanding larger forces, on staff duties, or due to illness or leave, and it was quite common for regiments to be commanded by the senior captain present. The 1784 memorial was prompted by the attempt of William Scott, a more junior captain in the 17th, to purchase the majority of the regiment ahead of Robert Clayton. The following year Robert achieved his goal and purchased the majority of the 17th on July 27, 1785.

Robert retired in 1787 by exchanging with a half pay major of the 82nd Foot. This arrangement illustrates how officers overcame the absence of a formal retirement system by using what the army made available to them. The half pay system provided a stipend to officers who had been retired by the army when the forces were downsized at the end of a major conflict. A high numbered regiment like the 82nd was disbanded at the end of the Revolution and its officers were placed on half pay. If they wanted to get back onto active service, they would exchange with officers like Clayton who wanted to retire with some form of pension. According to a memorial Clayton submitted to the War Office when he was 80, they used an arrangement called “paying the difference.” The value of seven years of half-pay was subtracted from what Clayton had paid for the majority in 1785, and the officer of the 82nd paid the difference in cash to Clayton. This was probably a relatively small sum for the half-pay officer, and if Clayton lived for more than seven years on the half-pay (as he did, receiving half-pay for more than fifty years), the rest was gravy. (WO25:752 f, 121)

In 1786, near the end of his military career, he married Christophera Baldwin, daughter of a clergyman. They lived at the Larches, Wigan during the remainder of his long life. In 1828 the wheel of inheritance took another turn with the death of his brother, Sir Richard Clayton, Bt, who had already inherited the family estate on the death of their remaining uncles back in the 1770s. Robert inherited the family manors and his brother’s title of baronet, and was thus Sir Robert Clayton, bart. on his death in 1839. He died childless, and left his estate to his wife and to a niece, the daughter of his brother Richard. (PCC Will of Sir Robert Clayton Bart. Proved 1839)


Opening page of Captain Clayton’s Orderly Book, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

An orderly book kept by Clayton in 1778-79 can be viewed on microfilm at the David Library, and excerpts have been published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, v. 25,(1901).

biopicDr. Mark Odintz

conducted his graduate work in history at the University of Michigan back in the 1980s and wrote his dissertation on “The British Officer Corps 1754-1783”. He became a public historian with the Texas State Historical Association in 1988, spending over twenty years as a writer, editor and finally managing editor of the New Handbook of Texas, an online encyclopedia of Texas history. Since retiring from the association he has been working on turning his dissertation into a book. He lives in Austin.

Founding the Recreated 17th: A Research Story, Part 2

In our previous installment of this series, I discussed how stumbling across Chelsea Pension documents for soldiers of the 17th who had served in America began the research that led to the initial recreated unit. Having identified named individuals, the next logical step was to visit the muster roll data contained in the WO 12 series, also housed at The National Archives (UK).

In conducting research on practically any topic, the most profitable means of proceeding is usually to follow the money trail. One of History’s great constants is that fiscal specie talks and everyone, particularly government agencies, are keen to keep track of it. This golden rule was especially true for the eighteenth-century British Army. Always a controversial arm of the state, the army and the government ministers who labored to keep it standing throughout the century had to defend against two popular avenues of political assault: that the army cost too much and that it constituted a threat to English liberty. To justify the price tag associated with maintaining thousands of soldiers on duty during peace time, the civilian government developed a variety of paperwork-heavy procedures, for which historians should be quite thankful today.

Mustering was chief among these financial protocols. With origins stretching back to the Middle Ages, mustering had developed into a highly-developed ceremony of bureaucracy by the 1770s. Twice per year, muster-masters or deputy muster-masters would visit each regiment, which would form up on the muster field. At that time, the muster master or his deputy would roam through the ranks, paperwork in hand, insuring that each company had exactly the number of men in it that the officers claimed and would record the names of each man. If a man supposedly in the company was absent from the muster field, regulations required that the officers provide convincing proof that the soldier was either ill or “on command”—that is, on a detached duty. Contemporary critics claimed that the whole spectacle was rife with corruption: for a good account, check out John Railton’s The Army Regulator, which you can also find on ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) and potentially on googlebooks.

Despite being a procedure that was a pain to carry out even in peace time (especially in America), regiments prepared musters twice a year, every year, through the American Revolution. Sometimes, due to the exigencies of active campaigning, these muster rolls were prepped many months past their formal date (sometimes years later), but with that said, these are the foremost documents for understanding who was in a particular British regiment and how internal personnel management changed over time. A complete set for the 17th exists at the National Archives in Kew, England, reaching all the way back into the 1760s. When I pulled up the first set of musters covering 1776, I was slightly surprised.


Muster roll for Captain Robert Clayton’s Company, HM 17th Regiment of Infantry, December 25, 1775-June 24, 1776; WO 12/3406/2; Crown Copyright, Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England.

Bear in mind that in 2002, your average digital camera was the size of a small current-production desktop printer. And I did not have one on me. We won’t even discuss the image quality that available units offered at that time (low single-digit megapixels…). So while I was overjoyed to see sheet after sheet like the above. I was also dumbfounded. How was I supposed to record this information and use it in a meaningful way? What was a meaningful way to use this information for living history? So, as in many other pickle-y research situations that year, I emailed Don Hagist for advice. Having been in my shoes before (decades before), Don advised that I move through as many muster rolls as possible, recording officers’ names and noting the inevitable changes in command that happened when men died or found promotion in other regiments. He also recommended that I note which officers remained in the regiment for the entirety of the war, which would provide a strong foundational name for the recreated unit.

There was only one. His name was Robert Clayton and he had risen to command the junior company of the 17th on May 1, 1775, at the age of 27 with 7.5 years of service. He was commissioned as an ensign on December 9, 1767, then promoted to lieutenant on July 19, 1771. He remained a captain for the entire war, eventually achieving the rank of major on July 27, 1785. I focused on recording relevant information for his company, then ended up transcribing information from all of the 17th muster rolls covering 1776, having in mind that the initial focus of the impression would be the 17th as it appeared on January 3, 1777, at Princeton, New Jersey. Over subsequent years, I returned with a succession of digital cameras to photograph all of the 17th’s muster rolls. Some interesting stories came out of these documents…but that is a tale for another time.


Will Tatum
received his BA in History from the College of William & Mary in Virginia in 2003, and his MA and PhD from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2004 and 2016. His exploits in Revolutionary War Living History began with a chance encounter at Colonial Williamsburg’s Under the Redcoat event in 2000.

Over the subsequent years, he has traveled throughout the United States and Great Britain researching the eighteenth-century British Army and used the results of those labor to improve living history interpretations. The beginning of this journey in 2001 marked the start of the current recreated 17th Infantry.

Founding the Recreated 17th: A Research Story, Part 1

This week we have on the blog we have a guest writer who knows the ins and outs of the 17th Regiment of Infantry after establishing the Regiment back in 2002. When the 17th was recreated and established again in 2015 Dr. Will Tatum was the person that the newly formed 17th organization reached out to. Over the next couple weeks there will be a series of articles about the research and the hard work put into creating an organization. Hopefully, our readers will find the writing of Dr. Will Tatum insightful.

Mary Sherlock
– An attached Follower of the Recreated 17th Regiment

Founding the Recreated 17th: A Research Story, Part 1

By Will Tatum

Every living history group has a history apart from the subject or topic it represents, an origin story all its own. Most of these stories begin in someone’s basement or garage, in a bar, or result from dissatisfaction with an existing unit. The recreated 17th’s story began with my research at the British National Archives (TNA) over the academic year of 2001-2002. In the summer of 2001 I completed my first year in the hobby and was just beginning to struggle with the process of turning research into a living history interpretation. Other members of the unit to which I belonged at that time suggested that, to avoid hobby politics, it would be best to select a corps around which I could develop my own impression as a sideline project. I reviewed a list of British regiments that had served in America during most or all of the war and had a short list of candidates in mind as I shipped out to Britain that September. Little did I suspect the ah-ha moment that awaited me in the greater London area.

After spending the autumn conducting research in Exeter, where I was studying abroad, I traveled to the TNA for the first time at the end of February 2002. One of my assignments from my then-unit was to track down records relating to soldiers who had served in America, in an attempt to flesh out data from muster rolls. British Army Historian Extraordinaire Don Hagist had suggested examining records from the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which King Charles II established in 1682 to care for deserving army veterans. Only a small set of soldiers were ever selected to receive pensions and even fewer were permitted to reside at the facility, which still exists today. Nevertheless, the surviving records of these “deserving” men provide important insights into the trials and tribulations of the eighteenth-century British soldier. Each of these men had earned referral to the Royal Hospital admission board through exemplary service, which left them physically battered and worn out, no longer capable of fending for themselves.

The specific records in question were contained in WO (War Office) 121, one of several series pertaining to the Royal Hospital’s operations. The documents contained therein mostly date from the mid-1780s onward, with the earlier ones covering men who had served during the American Revolution. While looking through these records, I repeatedly came across discharge documents for soldiers of the 17th Infantry, which I took to be a sign of the regiment that I ought to pursue. If for no other reason, there certainly seemed to be a great deal of surviving documentation on these men. Most of the would-be pensioners I encountered (these documents related to their applications for pensions and did not contain any signification of their success) were simply “worn out in service.” For example, William Dick, a common laborer from Auchtermuckly in Fife, Scotland, played the fife for 17 years before Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Johnson (who took over command of the 17th in 1778) recommended him for a pension in 1787. Joshua Waddington, another 17-year veteran discharged the same year, came from the parish of Litchcliff in Halifax, Yorkshire. At forty-two years of age, with no trade background other than unskilled labor, Waddington was disabled through “having sore legs & being Worn out in the Service.” Private Archibald McDonald of Fort William, Inverness, Scotland, had served 16 years during which he was “twice wounded” and listed as “under Size” at the time of his discharge in 1787.

These men, and many others, had served in the regiment during its service in America, though their discharges made no direct comment on that war. Others, however, contained much more pointed statements that testified to the 17th’s extreme service during the Revolution. On December 4, 1790, then-Major T. Pitcairn of the 17th (not a Rev War veteran) signed Private William Clarke’s discharge. On it, Pitcairn noted that 44 year-old Clarke, a 23-year veteran and native of Castle Carey in Somerset, by trade a cordwainer (shoemaker) was “entire worn out in the Service thro’ hardships & Fatigues sustained when in the Lyht [sic] Infantry during the late War.”


Discharge of Private William Clarke, WO121/9/352; Crown Copyright, Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Private John Clarke, a 47 year-old laborer from the town of Hereford in England, a 22 year veteran of the regiment, was discharged the next day, due to “his being Worn out in the Service thro’ hardships sustained during the late War.” Private William Boyd, a 13-year veteran of the regiment and by trade a breeches maker, received his discharge on December 11, 1790, at the age of 42. His paperwork noted that he was “Dropsical through hardships sustained when a Prisoner with the Enemy during the last War in America.” What does “dropsy” mean? Essentially, Private Boyd suffered from uncontrolled water retention between his skin and various body cavities, resulting in painful swellings.


Discharge of Private William Boyd, WO121/9/350; Crown Copyright, Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

If you think that is bad, I refer you to Serjeant Robert Saunders, a 25-year veteran of the 17th Regiment and a native of Amersham, Buckingham, by trade a baker, discharged on May 10, 1787, at age 42. Saunders had sustained wounds from “long & Severe Service & [was] Severely afflicted with a Fistula, rendred [sic] Incapable of Further Service.” I’ll let you look up what a fistula is on your own. For more tales like these (only with expanded details), check out Don Hagist’s blog British Soldiers, American Revolution.


Discharge of Serjeant Robert Saunder, WO121/2/35; Crown Copyright, Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England

Seeing these documents and considering what they represented on a human scale decided me on exploring the 17th. In subsequent posts, I will explain how the other document series I examined accumulated to form the critical mass for creating a new style of living history group. In this respect, the recreated 17th stood apart from most other units existing at the time and since, in being a response to a research agenda rather than a hobby need. In essence, the horse came before the cart (the history came before the hobby politics) from the beginning.

biopicWill Tatum
received his BA in History from the College of William & Mary in Virginia in 2003, and his MA and PhD from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2004 and 2016. His exploits in Revolutionary War Living History began with a chance encounter at Colonial Williamsburg’s Under the Redcoat event in 2000.

Over the subsequent years, he has traveled throughout the United States and Great Britain researching the eighteenth-century British Army and used the results of those labor to improve living history interpretations. The beginning of this journey in 2001 marked the start of the current recreated 17th Infantry.