Major George Williams, 20th Regiment of Foot, ca.1800
by Frederick Buck (1771-ca.1839)
Born: St. John's, Province of Newfoundland (Baptized 23 June 1765)
Regimental commission dates:
Ensign, 20 September 1777
Lieutenant, 30 October 1782
Captured: possibly Battle of Bemis Heights, 7 October 1777 (prisoner of war)
Retired: additional company reduction half-pay, 1784
Exchanged into another regiment: 27 August 1785 (with Lieutenant Walter R. Gilbert, 20th Regiment)
Died: "at half-past six o'clock [a.m.]...at his residence, in Woolton" near Liverpool, England, 19 December 1850
12-year-old George Williams, nephew of Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne's Royal Regiment of Artillery commander, Captain and Major Griffith Williams, served during the Northern Campaign of 1777 as a volunteer matross in his uncle's artillery company. Williams holds the singular distinction of having been promoted to the rank of ensign in the 62nd Regiment before the officer he replaced was dead. Ensign Levinge Cosby Phillips was mortally wounded and captured during the Battle of Freeman's Farm on 19 September 1777 and died two days later while in rebel hands. Volunteer George Williams was given a free ensigncy in place of Phillips on the 20th. Acquiring a volunteer from outside the infantry is a testament to how strained the regiment was in finding men for promotion to commissioned rank following that horrible battle—especially one who was only 12 years old.
The circumstances of Williams's subsequent captivity are difficult to trace, as contemporary evidence is lacking and later references are inconsistent. Of the many official and unofficial period British officer casualty lists covering the Northern Campaign of 1777, only one lists Ensign Williams: in a monthly return recording the dispositions of British officers of the Convention Army dated 1 April 1778, Williams was returned as a "Prisoner with the enemy" since 7 October 1777. However, not only do other officer captivity lists not record Williams's capture, even his very existence generally went unrecorded. Interestingly however, 19th century publications not only acknowledged George Williams's service with the army, but provided anecdotes of his service. All were derived from his obituary published in the
Liverpool Mercury dated 20 December 1850:
It is with the deepest regret that we record the death of a gallant soldier and a true patriot. Colonel George Williams, late M.P. for Ashton, died yesterday morning, at half-past six o'clock, in his 86th year, at his residence, in Woolton. To those who know the history of Liverpool for the last half century, and particularly to those who have been habitual readers of this journal, it is unnecessary to recall in detail the history of the gallant colonel. Since the year 1811 the columns of the Liverpool Mercury have given the history of many a struggle made for popular rights in bad times, and many an effort made for the people, when, to make it, was a service which brought to such men as Colonel Williams unmerited opprobrium. From his earliest youth to his latest manhood, the career of Colonel Williams has been one which excited the sympathy and commanded the praise of the most enlightened portion of his fellow citizens. In every relation of life he was a rare example of exact fidelity, of the highest courage, and of integrity which was never questioned. In all essentials in public life he was eminently an Englishman: he was of approved courage, of great knowledge, of unswerving honesty; and on every occasion his conduct gave the assurance that he had no object but to discover what was right and to do it.
Colonel Williams, though of English, or rather Welsh, extraction, was born at St. John's, Newfoundland, of which island his father was lord chief justice, and whither he had gone in early manhood in company with his eldest brother, Griffith Williams, a major in the Artillery, and an officer of considerable distinction in his profession. In the corps to which his uncle Griffith Williams belonged, Colonel Williams, at the age of twelve years, joined Gen. Burgoyne's army in America, as a kind of volunteer, according to the custom of those days, and went through all the hardships and disasters which attended that expedition. After the battle at Stillwater, (the last general engagement before the surrender of the British troops,) at which his uncle and Major Ackland were wounded and taken prisoners, he was one of those selected by General Burgoyne to escort Lady Harriet Ackland in her perilous voyage in an open boat down the Hudson river, when she went, in a wild and stormy night, to entreat permission to enter the American camp, that she might share the captivity of her husband. Either owing to the courtesy of General Gates, or on account of his extreme youth, Colonel Williams was not detained as a prisoner; for, six days later, when General Burgoyne surrendered at Saratoga, he carried the flag of truce sent into the enemy's camp. There being an exchange of prisoners, Major Williams returned to England with the regiment to which he belonged, bringing with him his nephew, whom he immediately entered as a pupil at the academy of Woolwich, at which place he himself held an honourable appointment, and where he died some years afterwards, with the rank of Colonel.
On the completion of his studies at Woolwich, Colonel Williams entered the twentieth regiment of foot, in which he served for about twenty-five years. During the whole of that period he was in constant active service, and not more than once or twice, we believe, even asked for leave of absence. He served in Nova Scotia, St. Domingo, and Jamaica, and during the Maroon war, a period of great danger. We have heard that he defended a small fort against the maroons for a considerable length of time, and with a degree of gallantry and success that called forth general admiration amongst all to whom the circumstances were known.
When the twentieth regiment went out to the West Indies, it was one of the finest in the service; but so terrible were the effects of war and climate, that Colonel Williams was one of only four officers that returned with it to England. We have heard that when they landed at Plymouth, after an absence of only three years, the whole regiment consisted of thirty-three individuals; and so miserable was their appearance, from suffering and hard service, that, in marching to Exeter, they were taken for a mere recruiting party. Colonel Williams was on service in Ireland at the time of the French invasion in 1798, and being on the staff of General Champagne, his situation was a responsible one. The Colonel also served in Holland. In the year 1800 he sold out of the army, with the rank of major. His subsequent command of the Liverpool Volunteers, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, is well known; and when that corps was disbanded, he was presented by the regiment with a valuable piece of plate, as a token of the esteem in which he was held.
On retiring from the army, Colonel Williams married Mrs. James, the widowed daughter of the late Nicholas Ashton, Esq., of Woolton, and the mother of William James, Esq., of Barrock-lodge, late member for Carlisle. Changing a sword for a ploughshare, Colonel Williams purchased and cultivated a small estate at Little Woolton. When, however, the threat of invasion raised the country, Colonel Williams organized a regiment of volunteers. His regiment, composed of the merchants and tradesmen of Liverpool, was one of the finest volunteer corps ever seen. The members of it were almost all of the middle class, who, on the first alarm, flew to arms in defense of the integrity of English soil. All who remember that regiment (and we have spoken on the subject lately with some veterans) will readily acknowledge that, under the vigilant care and discipline of Colonel Williams, there were in its ranks as fine materials for war as ever the call of patriotism drew from the ranks of civil life. On the 23rd of February, 1809, Colonel Williams was made a free burgess of the borough of Liverpool .
Living in the immediate neighborhood of Allerton and Gateacre, it may easily be imagined that Colonel Williams found congenial companions in Mr. Roscoe and Dr. Shepherd. For many years, indeed, until the deaths of these excellent men, he lived on terms of the closest intimacy with them. The scholar and the patriot soon formed a true estimate of the somewhat stern soldier; and he, not less apt, discerned in the literary men, those who were able to acquire the triumphs which peace has, no less than war.
Those who remember the days of which we speak, will think, with gratitude and respect, upon the boldness, the honesty, and the activity of the gallant colonel. They will remember the rage and the bitterness engendered in the fierce party strife of those days. And they will only be able to appreciate the courage of a soldier of character and high honour, who dared to take an unequivocal part with the people.
The Colonel was, by his position, supposed to be essentially an aristocrat. He was, in truth, simply what every gentleman is, a lover of justice and fair-play. Having become a citizen and a justice of the peace, (for he was at his death the senior magistrate, with one exception, for this county), he saw that the people did not get either justice or fair-play, and he resolved, so far as his exertions could be available, that they should have both justice and fair-play. If the colonel incurred the hatred of one section, he gained the applause of another. If the Tories assailed him, and stabbed his horse under him during Mr. Roscoe's election, the great body of the people felt they had a friend, and they gave the colonel all the moral influence which could be derived from their support.
An anecdote has reached us, touching the colonel about this time, alike honourable to him and to Lord Sidmouth. When Lord Sidmouth was in Lancashire, on one occasion, some of those whose reverence for mere authority was greater than their regard for justice, applied to Lord Sidmouth to have Colonel Williams removed from the commission of the peace. His lordship said he would inquire about the matter. He did so; and, at a subsequent meeting of the parties who applied to him, his lordship said—“I find that Colonel Williams is really the poor man's magistrate; that he hears and settles causes at five in the morning, before the labourer goes to his work, and so saves his day. Do you, gentlemen, know who will take this line of business, if the colonel is removed?” Lord Sidmouth thus met the complaints against a political opponent.
When the Reform Act became a law, the electors of Ashton-under-Lyne, knowing Colonel Williams by his public acts as a magistrate and as a politician, sent a deputation to Little Woolton, to invite him to become a candidate for the representation of their borough. The deputation found the colonel with a spade in his hand and good strong clogs on his feet, working on his farm. He declined to give any other reply to their request than that, if he were elected, he would serve them. He refused to canvass the constituency, or to take any part whatever in the matter. To the honour of Ashton, the electors returned the Colonel, and he sat as their representative in the first Reform Parliament.
In the estimation of many of our readers the character of Colonel Williams will be considerably raised, and in the estimation of none will it be depreciated, by the fact that, for the greater portion of his long life, he not only totally abstained from intoxicating liquors, but discountenanced their use by others.
We feel how inadequate this brief and necessarily hasty notice is to do justice to Colonel Williams. He spent his youth and his early manhood in arms, in the service of his country; his riper years were devoted, as a citizen, to the spread of true knowledge, to the administration of justice, and to the promotion of the cause of civil and religious liberty; and of him it may be truly said that, from his boyhood upwards, he had no aim, no object, but to uphold the honour of his country and to promote the happiness of his countrymen.
Only a few years later, Lord Mahon's A History of England from the Peace of Utrecht to the Peace of Versailles 1713-1783, (volume VI, 1774-1780; third edition, revised. John Murray, London: 1852) incorporated the story of Williams being part of Lady Acland's party as well as bearing the flag of truce:
Next day, accordingly, a flag of truce was despatched to the enemy's head-quarters, with a message from General Burgoyne. That flag of truce was borne by Mr. George Williams, a young gentleman from Newfoundland, and one of the few who had escorted Lady Harriet to the enemy's lines. In after years became a Colonel in the army, and the first Member of Parliament for Ashton-under-Lyne, and he survived until December 1850—the very last, in all probability, of Burgoyne's expedition. The reception of the message, sent with Mr. Williams, gave little hope.
William Stone's Ballads and Poems Related to the Burgoyne Campaign (Joel Munsell's Sons, Albany: 1893) focused solely on the anecdote that Williams attended Lady Acland, clearly siphoning his language from Lord Mahon:
In the midst of a driving autumnal storm…Lady Harriet [Acland] set out at dusk in an open boat for the American camp [in order to remain with her captured husband, Major John Acland]. She was accompanied by Rev. Edward Brudenel, by Hannah Degraw [sic], her waiting maid, and by her husband's valet…. Another of her companions was Mr. George Williams, a young gentleman from Newfoundland, who in after years became a colonel in the army and the first member of Parliament for Ashton-under-Lyne. He survived until December, 1850—the very last, in all probability, of Burgoyne's Army.
Yet another researcher, H. M. Batson, ignored the possibility that Williams attended Lady Acland and focused instead on the anecdote that he bore the flag of truce to the rebel camp (Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc., 9 February 1901):
He [Griffith Williams] was an elder brother of George Williams, chief magistrate of Newfoundland, who married Marie Monier [on 1 June 1762 at St. John's], of a French refugee family. This George and his wife were the grandparents of the late Sir Monier Monier-Williams, and one of their sons, George also by name, accompanied major Griffith Williams to America on this voyage [to Canada aboard the Charming Nancy] in 1776, although he was at the time only eleven years of age. In the following year, at the Capitulation at Saratoga, it was this small boy who carried the flag of truce to the camp of the victorious party. He was afterwards colonel of the 20th Regiment and M. P. for Ashton-under-Lyne, and died in 1850. His uncle, Griffith Williams, died Colonel Commandant of Woolwich in 1790, leaving no male issue.
Williams was either captured during the Battle of Bemis Heights on 7 October 1777 (as stated in the period officer return), set off with Lady Acland and her company on 9 October 1777 and was captured, or he remained with the army to the end and was able to carry the flag of truce and message; he could not have done all three. However, because this specific flag of truce sent to Gates is documented to have been carried by a more appropriate officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Kingston, Burgoyne's Deputy Adjutant General, on 14 October 1777, Williams's involvement is unlikely. Also, none of the period accounts of Lady Acland's famous voyage refer to Williams's presence—even her own daily journal is silent on that head.
Lady Harriet Ackland
published by Robert Pollard, 15 November 1784
This scene depicts Lady Harriet Acland, the Reverend Edward Brudenell (chaplain to Burgoyne's
general staff), Sarah Pollard (Lady Acland's servant) and Major John Dyke Acland's soldier-servant.
Included amongst the boat's passengers in 19-century anecdotes—but missing from 18th-century
references and artwork—was Ensign George Williams of the 62nd Regiment of Foot.
There is one other possibility. A memoir later recorded by rebel Daniel Granger, who in 1777 was a teenaged drummer in Captain John Adams's company, Colonel Samuel Johnson's Essex County MA Regiment of militia, included an anecdote in which Granger may have come into contact with George Williams:
The next Morning I went again down to the Guardhouse, where there was brought in two Prisoners taken that Morning, they were Officers Servants, who had come out to cut Grass with their Knives under the fences & heges, for their Masters Horses, which were starving. One of them was an Irish Man...The other was a Son of one of the Officers, about 14 Year of age, had a Lieutenants Commission, dressed in the British Uniform, and appeared much greived, was very polite, answered, directly any questions put to him and without any apparent reserve. & I talked with him a good deal. I could but pitty him, but could not release him. They were soon taken before the Officers for examination, and I saw them not afterwards.
Although difficult to determine due to Granger's rambling narrative style, this event took place sometime during the siege of Saratoga in October. If the generalities of this anecdote are true, only George Williams comes close to matching the description of the young captured officer referred to by Granger.
1781 and 1782 pay lists place Ensign George Williams as the ensign of Captain Erle Hawker's battalion company, listed as “absent by leave of Gen. Mathews.” By 1784, Williams was placed on half-pay due to post-war army reductions. On 27 August 1785, Williams exchanged with a lieutenant in the 20th Regiment of Foot and was placed on active duty with that regiment, in which he served for the remainder of his army career. He served in the First Reformed Parliament in the House of Commons as the first representative of Ashton-under-Lyne (Lancashire), serving from 14 December 1832 to 8 January 1835. He married Elizabeth Ashton in 1801 and they had four children: Caroline, Francis, George Monier (died 1826), and Arthur Yates (died 1823).
Our thanks to Mr. Patrick Ingram of England, a great-great-great grandson of George Williams (through his son George Monier), for his generous sharing of Williams genealogy and biographical information.