Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Merits of Muster Rolls

Veteran British Army Researcher and Library Patron Don Hagist writes in with a commentary on muster rolls, a class of document that features significantly in the Library's collections. Muster rolls for British, Loyalist, Congressional, and German units may be found in both our microfilm and printed collections by searching our catalog at, or reviewing the list of microfilms on the same site.

Will Tatum

The Merits of Muster Rolls

by Don Hagist

Literature on the campaigns of the American Revolution is replete with data on the strengths of the armies involved, expressed in terms of hundreds or thousands of men. Missing from these numbers is the realization that they represent individuals, each with a name, personality and set of circumstances that put him in the army at the time of interest. While we will probably never know the full story of all of them, it is actually not difficult to learn the names of most of them - and the names are the gateway to finding additional information.

For soldiers in the British army, the names of each man in each regiment were recorded twice a year on documents called muster rolls. These rolls were prepared with the ultimate goal of reconciling money. They record the names of the men in each company of each regiment for each half-year period and include the dates of any changes that affected the man's status as a paid soldier during that period: the date he joined the company, changes in rank, and the date that he left the company due to transfer, discharge, desertion or death. Copies of the rolls were sent to the War Office in London, and survive today in the British National Archives.

The David Library has acquired copies of the rolls of several regiments, and possesses the single largest collection of British muster rolls in the United States. These rolls are a rich resource on the British army that has only just begun to be tapped by researchers. Besides the obvious value to genealogists and historians trying to trace the service of individuals, the muster rolls reveal a great deal about the internal workings of British regiments and give valuable insight on their operational capability.

A straightforward example is an event that preceded the war itself, the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Because the British soldiers involved were put on trial, we know their names. Were these men new recruits with little military experience or seasoned soldiers who could be expected to keep their cool under pressure? The muster rolls allow us to trace their individual careers before the event and answer these questions. They also allow us to follow their subsequent service to see what effect their trial might have had on their military careers.

On a larger scale, we can study the juxtaposition of events such as the expedition to Lexington and Concord in April 1775, and the Battle of Bunker Hill two months later. Many of the same British companies, the light infantry and grenadiers, took heavy casualties in each of these actions. Could the casualties from the April action have influenced the performance of the British forces in the second action? Were men transferred within the regiment after 19 April to bring the light infantry and grenadier companies up to strength, resulting in a companies of men who had not worked together for very long? Or were the companies that went into action at Bunker Hill under-strength? Muster rolls provide answers to these questions.

During the course of the war, attrition caused losses in strength, losses that were restored by transferring experienced soldiers and recruiting new ones. How many British soldiers were discharged from a regiment each year? How many died, and how many deserted? How frequently did new recruits arrive, and how were they distributed within the regiment? How many experienced men were transferred in from other regiments? When corps such as the 23rd and 33rd Regiments of Foot charged Continental troops who heavily outnumbered them at the battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, what portion of them were veterans of other campaigns and what portion were new soldiers? How long had those new soldiers been in America? What was the real rate of desertion from a British regiment, and were deserters more likely to be new recruits or long-serving soldiers? Muster rolls provide answers to these questions.

Muster rolls can be challenging to use because of the time required to assimilate the information that they contain. The resultant information, however, is extraordinarily useful in providing texture to the otherwise-hollow numbers often used to characterize the army. The collection of British army muster rolls at the David Library is a remarkable resource for making new contributions to our understanding of the regular soldiers who formed the backbone of the British army during the eight-year conflict in America.

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