Thomas Plumb, British Soldier, Writes Home From Rhode Island
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By Don N. Hagist
Previously published by Journal of the American Revolution at www.allthingsliberty.com. Republished with permission.
“Dear Brother,” wrote Thomas Plumb from Newport, Rhode Island, on February 22, 1777, “this comes with my kind Love to you and hope these lines will find you, my Wife, Child & all Enquiring Friends in as good Health as they do Leave me at this Present time.” Plumb has been in Rhode Island for almost three months, and it was important to let his family and friends know that he was in good health and spirits. He was a soldier, a British soldier, in a war that had been raging in America for almost two full years.
Plumb had joined the 22nd Regiment of Foot at the end of December 1765, according to the regiment’s muster rolls. He may have enlisted with a recruiting party anywhere from a few weeks to several months prior, before arriving at the regiment’s post at Chatham Barracks near London. The regiment had recently returned from several years in America, and was recruiting and training new career soldiers for what was to be almost a decade of service in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
By the time the regiment arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, just days after the battle of Bunker Hill, Thomas Plumb was a well-seasoned professional soldier. With his regiment, he endured a difficult winter in besieged Boston, followed by two months of reorganization in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before landing on Staten Island in June 1776 and quickly securing the region around the City of New York during the ensuing months. When the regiment landed, unopposed, in Newport on December 8, 1776, Plumb was a veteran of several battles, skirmishes, and dangerous days and nights at war. After his opening comment of his good health, he wrote, “I thank God for it.”
“I am Resolved to Relate our present state and situation in this country at the present time,” he wrote. Although the town of Newport was on an island, much of the shoreline was very close to the mainland. This afforded ample opportunities for rebel raiders to harass British soldiers on duty at the island’s many outposts. “Our duty is very hard Upon the Accounts as we receive from the Rebels daily such as we are not in sight of as we are day & night within musket shot of each other,” Plumb wrote. He ended this sentence with a phrase that has the final word obscured by a tear in the page: “& they are as numerous as Motes in the Sun,” is likely what he wrote, assuming he used a metaphor common during the era, but only the S is legible. “But we still keeps them in constant employ,” he assured his brother, continuing with the freestyle spelling and punctuation typical of the era, “but the cowardly rascals will not stand their ground But watching all Oppertunitys by lying in Ambush behind some trees which is the cause of us looseing so many men but thank God where we loose 10 they loose 100.”
Plumb’s next sentence referred to the campaign he had been on in New York between August and October, where British troops repeatedly routed American forces around the City of New York. “But as we routed them from so m any places so that they are in the greatest consternation,” he wrote, “possibly they may give us a field day for it early this spring.” He was optimistic that a decisive fight was in the offing, that the rebel army would have no choice but to fight a major battle in the open. “I do not doubt but they will,” he continued, “as they are almost surrounded by our troops and they must fight or die.” He closed this long paragraph, the one begun “Dear Brother,” with his opinion of Americans as soldiers—although they were “numerous as Motes,” he doubted their will to fight: “But had they the heart as we Britoners have we should stand no chance with them.” He saw American soldiers as willing to harass, but not fight in a pitched battle, based on his own observations so far during the war.
That Thomas Plumb wrote a letter is not, in itself, surprising. The rate of literacy among British soldiers is not known, but the army valued education; surviving documents indicate that over half of British soldiers could at least sign their names. For those who wrote letters, the army provided opportunities to send them home; “A Man of war will sail for England very soon; the Deputy Adjutant General will take care of all letters which may be sent to him,” read general orders in Rhode Island on January 3, 1777, and similar orders on later dates. Very few letters from soldiers are known to survive—as unofficial, personal correspondence, no duplicate copies were retained in government records. Thomas Plumb’s letter, and a number of other letters from Rhode Island, apparently were captured in transit, and eventually deposited in a large collection of “intercepted mails and papers” in the National Archives of Great Britain. The letter never reached his family, and there is no way to know whether he wrote others that did.
Thomas Plumb ended his short, one-paragraph letter with a sentimental closure, “No more but my kind respects to my loveing Wife & Child Uncle Wood, Molly & little William and all Enquireing friends.” He signed it with two lines, “Thomas Plumb Soldier 22d Regiment” “Captn McDonalds Company.” An additional note in the margin had one word blotted out by the wax seal used to close the letter: “Your [illegible] by the first opportunity.”
Thomas Plumb may have written more letters home, but he never saw his family again. He was killed on August 29, 1778 in the Battle of Rhode Island.
Thomas Plumb to Alexander Johns, February 22, 1777, Intercepted mails and papers, America, 1777-1779. HCA 30.272, The National Archives of Great Britain.
Muster rolls, 22nd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3871, The National Archives of Great Britain.
Don N. Hagist, Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers who fought the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2020), 35–36, 151–153.
Don N. Hagist, General Orders, Rhode Island, December 1776 – January 1778 (Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2001), 17.
Muster rolls, 22nd Regiment of Foot, WO 12/3872, The National Archives of Great Britain.
About the Author:
Don N. Hagist, managing editor of Journal of the American Revolution, is an independent researcher specializing in the demographics and material culture of the British Army in the American Revolution. He maintains a blog about British common soldiers (http://redcoat76.blogspot.com) and has published a number of articles in academic journals. His books include The Revolution’s Last Men: the Soldiers Behind the Photographs (Westholme Publishing, 2015), British Soldiers, American War (Westholme Publishing, 2012), A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution (Ballindalloch Press, 2004), General Orders: Rhode Island (Heritage Books, 2001) and Wives, Slaves and Servant Girls (Westholme, 2016). Don works as an engineering consultant in Rhode Island, and also writes for several well-known syndicated and freelance cartoonists. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.