Thursday, November 10, 2016

"The Art Military" - How a British Deserter was Recruited to Train Massachusetts Minute Men

As war loomed between Massachusetts and England, a strong emphasis was placed on military drilling and training by most of the towns in the colony.  Following the recommendations of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Andover ordered “[Soldiers] on the said first said day of December meet together and chuse such person only for leading or instructing as shall appear to them to be most skillful in Military Discipline and that they be well equipped with good guns, and other necessary warlike armour in order for their performing of all military maneuvers.”  Amesbury resolved that its minute men would engage in “exercising four hours in an fortnight.”  Two weeks later, the town modified its order and instructed its minute men to “[exercise] four hours in a week.”  The residents of Boxford voted on March 14, 1775 “that the minute-men shall train one half day in a week, for four weeks after this week is ended.”  The Reverend Jonas Clarke noted Lexington's militia was often drilling and "showing arms". Methuen simply ordered its minute company be “drawn out or exposed to train.”

Haverhill initially voted that its minute men “be duly disciplined in Squads three half days in a Week, three hours in each half day.”  On March 14, 1775, the town also voted to raise thirty dollars “to procure a military instructor to instruct the Militia in the Art Military.”  One week later, it was voted that the minute-men should train one whole day per week, instead of three half days as previously voted.  Furthermore, the minutemen were to be trained by a “Mr George Marsden, whom we have hired.”  

Interestingly, this is not the only record of a George Marsden being hired to train minute companies in the Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts. A Haverhill “Independent Corps” commanded by Captain Brickett passed their own resolution “that we hire Mr George Marsdin for 4 days at 12s a day, & that he be paid out of the fines.” Similar records from Andover and Bradford Massachusetts also reference the hiring of George Marsden to train their minute companies.

So who was George Marsden?

Marsden was a grenadier from the 59th Regiment of Foot. He and his regiment arrived in New England in 1768. However, by 1769 the 59th was in Nova Scotia. A muster roll from October, 1770 reveals Marsden was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Unfortunately, by 1774 he was demoted back to a private. The reason for the demotion is unknown but the regimental muster rolls indicate that on July 24, 17774 he deserted from his regiment. Afterwards, Marsden fled to Haverhill.

Haverhill was historically friendly to British deserters. For example, in 1773, armed residents attacked a party of British soldiers escorting deserters from the 14th Regiment of Foot back from Derry, New Hampshire to Boston. Afterwards, the two deserters successfully escaped.

Marsden was the logical choice to train the minute companies of Andover, Bradford and Haverhill. He was intelligent and had extensive experience with the British army. In March and April of 1775, the units actively worked with Marsden to prepare for war.

It is unknown if Marsden fielded with any of the minute companies he trained on April 19, 1775. On May 19, 1775, he appears on the muster roll of Colonel Scamman's Massachusetts Regiment. Marsden became the regimental adjutant and fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. When he testified against his regimental commander at a court martial hearing, Marsden described his role in the engagement: "Adjutant Marsden was sworn at the desire of the complainants and deposed that we were three-quarters of an hour on the little hill and continued about twenty minutes after we heard of the firing on the hill in Charlestown. I went half-way up Bunker’s hill with Col. Scammans when I left him and went to the breastwork, where I got before the enemy forced it; the confusion was so great when we got to Bunker’s-Hill we could not form the regiment"

Later in the year Marsden became a lieutenant in Colonel William Prescott's Regiment. He married Wilmot Lee on November 25, 1775.


  1. I've got more about George Marsden and Wilmot Lee here. Someday a bunch of us should collaborate on a list of all the British army deserters from the enlisted ranks who ended up as Continental officers.

  2. Would love to compare notes sometime! I recently came across a reference to a British soldier named John Whitley who allegedly deserted, settled in Newbury, became an officer and served the American cause. I'm trying to confirm the info.

    Thanks for the info on Marsden and Lee.

  3. Fascinating. I'm doing research on the 14th Foot and would like to reference the advertisement for the reward for the deserters. If you have the newspaper, date and page I would appreciate getting that reference. Thank you, Roy Randolph

    1. Roy...let me see if I can find that reference for you!