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British Soldiers Family-Napoleonic Era.

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British Soldiers Family-Napoleonic Era.

Postby Connaught » September 1st, 2011, 6:48 pm

Piecing together the experiences of the common soldier's family is a very difficult task. Unfortunately there appears to be no written letters or journals from wives of privates or non-commissioned officers from the War of 1812. Therefore evidence has to be gathered from (1) any entity that may have regulated their activities or provided services to them in some manner or another; (2) husband, father or other witness accounts on the family experience in the army; (3) surviving pictorial representations and associated archaeological specimens; and (4) primary source material related to the social tier which the soldier's family occupied. Obviously unlocking the secrets of the soldier's family could be a lifetime pursuit. The goal in this article is to offer some insight and possible approaches one could take in studying the subject. In particular, there will be some decision on the number of families in a given regiment and how this number was affected by various regulations and their application.


Who married a soldier and why? Simple questions not easily answered but at least almost everyone has some idea of the possible responses. Love, economics, and social pressure are but a few of the ideas that come to mind when one thinks of marriage both in 1812 and today. There are stories of love and tragedy in the numerous soldier accounts of the early 19th century. As well when you look at the various church records further stories hide in between the entries. For example is the marriage of Alexander Forbes to Ann Bennett. The 31 year-old Ann Bennett until July 1811 was the wife of Private William Rhodes of the 41st Regiment. On the 23rd of that month William died. Alexander was a 29 year-old widower living in Quebec City and was a free mason. On new year's day 1812 Alexander and Ann got married. Was William a friend of Alexander? Where they fellow masons? With snow on the ground in Quebec City since the beginning of November, was Ann's marriage to Alexander an act of survival? Similarly, in another example, why did Catherine Murphy, widow of a private in the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, marry a private in the Canadian Fencibles in December 1812? Was she considered undesirable by her former husband's regimental comrades? Unfortunately these are questions that will likely never be answered and they can only be left to one's imagination.

This said there is surviving information on some of the reasons why a soldier married. Writing in 1812, one officer noted a certain practice where "women in the lower orders of society are apt to swear children to soldiers often when they are not the fathers, and the soldier is imprisoned to satisfy the parish." Jailing of the soldier by the parish was so the parish could garnish the soldier's pay to cover any expenses the parish 'might' incur for taking care of the woman and child. Being in a parish jail was not a pleasant one:

A recent instance occurred, where a soldier was taken up by the civil power on a charge of bastardy. He could not procure bail, twenty pounds being demanded: he was committed to the county prison, where he was two days confined in a cell, so cold and damp, that the poor man lost his hearing. His friends were refused admittance to him; nor would the jailor allow victuals to be sent him by them. The effect of this conduct is, that the man will never recover his former health, and of course his discharge from the service must be granted.

In this situation the wrongfully accused soldier was left with three options: prison, marriage, or desertion. The marrying of an "abandoned" woman by a soldier appears to have been widespread. For example the 7th Regiment in 1812 specifically ordered: "no irregular woman will be allowed to remain with the regiment, much less a drunkard or an abandon, any woman of the last description will be sent from quarters with disgrace, having just sufficient to take her home." Did this occur in North America? There are a number of entries in church records were soldiers marry then a few months later a child born, but there is no evidence pointing to any such practice being common.

Of course there are two faces to every coin. Soldiers abandoning their family responsibilities were also common occurrences. Indeed some soldiers took on numerous wives throughout his service as they moved from station to station: "Many marry wherever they may go, and there are instances, by no means uncommon, of soldiers having three and four wives, with children by each, which become burthensome to the parish, and expensive to the state." Some soldiers simply chose to support a woman without marrying her. In his work London Labour and London Poor (1851) Henry Mayhew of Punch Magazine fame reproduced an interview he had with a woman who followed a regiment for years cycling from one relationship to another but never marrying. While published in 1851, her story is only first person account of its type for the early 19th century and offers important insight into this side of the service.
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