The Revolutionary War encounter in August of 1777 between detachments of British General Burgoyne's army and American forces under General Stark took place near the tiny rural hamlet of Walloomsac, New York. It became known as the "Battle of Bennington" after the goal of the expedition - the capture of rebel stores at Bennington, Vermont.
During the two days the armies occupied this otherwise insignificant parcel of rural frontier farmland, a map of the battlefield was prepared by Lt. Desmaretz Durnford, the Engineer assigned to the British expeditionary force, which was mostly made up of Germans, Loyalists and Indians.
This map (above), being only 31 by 39 centimeters and rendered in fine inkwork, is very detailed and extraordinarily accurate, when compared to the virtually unchanged landscape of the battlefield today. The square mile it records, as it was at the time of the battle, allowed me a rare opportunity to attempt the reconstruction of the civilian rural agricultural landscape as it existed on the American frontier in the late summer of 1777.
This research was published in 1989 (above) as "War over Walloomscoick: Land Use and Settlement Pattern on the Bennington Battlefield - 1777" (NYS Museum Bulletin No. 473) This book is now out of print but copies are available from various online vendors.
The research project, which spanned the years 1983 to 1989, was possible only because Durnford was a meticulous observer and superb draftsman, and this small fragment of 18th century cartography, nearly lost in an early-19th century London scrap drive, and now in the Library of Congress, is a priceless window into the past in an area of rural economy rarely recorded in such detail.
As I surveyed the modern battlefield terrain (above), spending many days walking in the very footsteps of the map-maker, I felt as though he were present with me, over 200 years later, guiding me as his map did among the landmarks and features of this tiny and complex country landscape.
The small size of the battlefield, and the small-scale irregularities of the terrain, made it relatively easy to find the spots where Durnford actually stood as he mapped the area. Using viewshed analysis, a technique that determines what areas of the landscape can and could be seen from various particular locations on the battelefield, and knowing also what areas would have been "off limits" to him due to occupation by American forces, which had arrived and established themselves before the British, I could actually stand where he stood and "see" what he would have seen. Comparing this with his map, the locations he was in are known and one can stand in his footsteps even today.
As an excellent example of this, we can identify one spot on which he spent some time, inside the Dragoon redoubt being constructed on the highest point of land accessable to the British force on the battlefield (above). And as an engineer, the placement and erection of this fortification would have been one of his primary assignments, so time spent here could be expected.
The proof? At the far left edge of the map Durnford has recorded a small frontier homestead, with house and fields emerging from the forest (above). The topographical situation of this house is that it stood, a house still in the same spot today, on the back side of a rather pronounced hill, that separates it from the river valley. Having spent many, many hours walking every square foot of this battlefield, I can say without doubt that this house can never be seen except from two very specific places; right next to it on the backside of the hill itself, and way across the valley on the top of the mountain on which the Dragoon redoubt stood.
Since access to the hill behind which the house stood would have been denied him, Durnford undoubtedly stood at the summit of the mountain, within the Dragoon redoubt, or else he never could have drawn the homestead at the far left margins of his map.
Just as his map was nearly lost in a London scrap heap, his very authorship of this priceless map was also nearly lost. Virtually every documentary history credited this map of the Bennington Battlefield to other Durnfords, variously "Elias Durnford" or "Andrew Durnford"...both British engineers and both in service in America at the time.
The source of this error is hard to trace, but it may be rooted in a couple early 19th century publications of journals kept by soldiers who were in the Burgoyne expedition in 1777, and served alongside Durnford.
The publication of "Lieut. Hadden's Journal" (above) describes briefly the defeat of the British force sent toward Bennington, and merely mentions that "an English Engineer with him" was a "Lieut D--". Names were often given by first initial only, so there is nothing inaccurate in this account. But the editor who transcribed this journal for publication entered the following as a footnote to this reference:
And in an introductory "Explanatory Chapter" the editor makes the following additional statement:
Twiss was Durnford's supervisory engineer, but he supervised Desmaretz, not Andrew, Durnford.
Another eyewitness journal, this by a Lieutenant Digby, was also published in the 19th century (above). Aside from misspelling Durnford's name, in listing casualties at the end of the Burgioyne campaign, this entry is also accurate. But again, the editor footnotes the reference as being to "Andrew Durnford" (below).
Even the US Library of Congress, which holds the original in its collections (detail below), listed it incorrectly, this time as being drawn by "Elias Durnford".
This attribution no doubt came from a misinterpretation of how Desmaretz signed his map (above). It could, and was, read as follows:
Lieut: E Durnford Engineer
But in fact the "E" is really just a superscript lower case "t", meant to be a closing consonant of the word, and should be read as follows:
Lieut:t Durnford EngineerSo as I discovered the true identity of the engineer behind this document, first revealed in 1976, but largely ignored, it became my mission to undo this error and give Desmaretz Durnford his due credit for this magnificent achievement. The fact that he died before his 30th birthday added a certain poignancy to this quest, as this map, therefore, became not just a minor part of what should have been the early part of a long career, but instead is a major part of his life's work!
Philip Lord, 2012
Having failed to be identified with the "Battle of Bennington" for almost two centuries, by the time I began this research in the 1980s Desmaretz Durnford had remained a virtual unknown. While other Durnfords in service in America during the Revolution, namely Elias and Andrew, were well documented, Desmaretz, even if he was known as the author of the battlefield map of 1777, may have seemed too insignificant to have been pursued, just as the Battle of Bennington in August of 1777 was soon eclipsed in American and British military history by the much larger Battle of Saratoga in October. This was where Burgoyne surrendered his entire Army, bringing in the French on the side of the Rebellion, and considered by military historians as one of the ten most important battles in history.
What follows is an attempt, continued since publication in 1989, to present Durnford the man, not just the author of the battle map at "Walmscock".
Desmaretz Durnford was born in 1752, the only son of Stillingfleet Durnford and Mary Desmaretz, who were married in February 1749 (modern date 1750). He was given the first name after his mother's maiden surname, "Desmaretz" which repeated the pattern followed for his father. Stillingfleet Durnford was the son of Thomas Durnford and Susanna Stillingfleet.
Douglas Marshall, credited with first discovering Durnford's correct identity in the manuscript collections of the Corps of Enginners Library in England, suggested he was named after Colonel John Peter Desmaretz, Tower of London Draughtsman until 1762. Marshall's genealogical data suggested that Durnford's mother, Mary, was the famous draughtsman's sister, later marrying Stillingfleet Durnford. But data more recently obtained prove that Desmaretz' mother was actually the daughter of Colonel Desmaretz, who died in 1768.
Although Desmaretz Durnford's father Stillingfleet was not an Engineer, his uncle, Augustus Durnford, was an Engineer in American service at Louisburg, Nova Scotia, during the French and Indian War (1758), and Desmaretz's sister, Charlotte, married Andrew Frazer of the Corps of Engineers in London in September of 1773. So the occupation of engineering is intricately woven through his line of the family (see extract below). The "Desmaretz" this extract is about is John Peter Desmaretz, the Tower of London Draughtsman.
This confirms that Desmaretz Durnford's father, Stillingfleet, worked for ten years in the Ordnance Department (above). He was in the "civil branch", as described below:
At this time the Board of Ordnance was responsible for the supply of armaments and munitions to the Royal Navy and British Army. It was also responsible for providing artillery trains for armies and maintaining coastal fortresses and management of the artillery and engineer corps. It also produced maps for military purposes and had its headquarters in the Tower of London (below).
So Desmaretz's father, Stillingfleet Durnford, and his mother's father, John Peter Desmaretz, the famous Tower draftsman, worked together in the same building. Perhaps his father-in-law obtained the civilian position for Stillingfleet using his considerable status? This may be suggested by the fact that Stillingfleet ended his employment in the Tower in 1768 - the year J.P. Desmaretz died. That may just be coincidence. (See notes at end for new information suggesting he was still working there when he died in 1778.)
That Desmaretz's mother, Mary, was the daughter, not sister, of John Peter Desmaretz is, in fact, carved in stone. A monument in the north wall of the Royal Garrison Church at Portsmouth was raised to Colonel Desmaretz by his daughter "Mary Desmaretz Durnford" in c.1771 (below, note inconsistency of erection date of 1761, before his death). It survived the bombings of WW II, but is so deteriorated as to be illegible. The text was taken from church records.
The birth of Desmaretz Durnford is confirmed in National Debt Office files that record the existence, on September 6, 1766, of two children: "Charlotte, aged 15 1/2" and "Desmaretz, aged 13 1/2", children of "Stillingfleet Durnford & Mary his wife." One could imagine a bond of affection for a sister only two years his senior that would prompt Desmaretz to will his fortune to Charlotte's children, as he did in 1781. This would also suggest that there were no other surviving children from the union of Stillingfleet Durnford and Mary Desmaretz, and none are mentioned in the Desmaretz's Will (presented later). A reference in parish records to the christening of a "Stillingfleet Durnford" on October 18th, 1753, would seem to relate to a birth soon after Desmaretz's (near February, 1753) and suggests that this son died before 1766, the date of the National Debt Office entry. Or could it be an adult christening of his father?
From this we can estimate that Durnford was just 24 years of age at the Battle of Bennington, and not yet 30 when he died. His death is recorded in a terse entry in the Connolly manuscripts as "1782. Died, so marked in ink." T.W.J. Connolly created a hand-written summary history of the "British Military Engineers" in the 1850s, now housed at the Royal Engineers Library at Chatham. His entry (below) refers to the Annual Army Lists of active service, from which his service record can be reconstructed. I have entered his estimated age in brackets.
Commissioned as Ensign 4 Dec 1770 (age c.17)
Promoted Lieutenant 10 Jan 1776 (age c. 23)
Served in America 1776 - 1778 (age c. 23-25)
Cape 1780 (age c. 27)
Died in India 1782 (age c.29)
Note, these are entries made into the official service record in England. We will address the 1782 death date later on.
How Durnford became enlisted into training as a member of the Royal Corps of Engineers, at Chatham, Kent (below) is unknown, except that his father Stillingfleet Durnford was already a civilian clerk at the Ordnance Board, headquartered in the Tower of London. Evidence given in the Will of Mary Desmaretz Durnford, the wife of Stillingfleet, confirms her husband was buried at the Tower of London Chapel. (More on this later).
Durnford beame an ensign in the Corps of Engineers on December 4th, 1770, and was promoted to Lieutenant on January 10th, 1776, at the estimated age of 23, which was probably average in that time for an officer in the Corps.
Of course 1776 was a significant year for Britain, with its American colonies in open rebellion. That year saw the first major push by British troops and naval vessels south out of Canada along the Champlain corridor. And while the British captured New York City with relative ease (above) the effort to establish a foothold in the Champlain Valley failed and the Army was pushed back to Canada to await the next campaign season - 1777.
The "Battle of Bennington" at which Durnford drew his amazing map was part of the British invasion of the northern colonies in 1777. But the army that was to be the invasion force for Burgoyne in the spring of 1777 actually crossed from England the year before - in early 1776.
Numerous ships departed Portsmouth and Plymouth between February and May, 1776, and by the end of July most of the force had arrived at Quebec, shown above in the summer of 1776. Some of the German troops did not arrive until September.
There can be no doubt, when consulting the 19th century Connolly manuscript biographies in the Corps of Engineers Library, that Durnford was part of that deployment. He had just earned promotion to Lieutenant in January, 1776 and in the spring Connolly gives the following cryptic note:
"1776. Mar. 5. Relieved by Holloway."
There was a Charles Holloway in the engineers: "On 16 Jan. 1776 he received a commission as a second lieutenant of the royal engineers." It is reasonable to conclude that Durnford was about to be dispatched to Canada in the spring of 1776, with the rest of Burgoyne's expedition, and was "relieved" of his duties in England by this same Lieutenant Holloway, who was commisoned a lieutenant the same week as Durnford.
But Connolly's later published service histories for the engineers mention Durnford's service in America in a way that left some doubt whether he came over with the spring 1776 deployment, and instead came in the spring of 1777, when Burgoyne returned to Canada to organize the invasion:
"Served in America - 1776 - 1778"
And in his manuscript biographical notes, he records another ambiguous reference:
"1776 - 1778. Quebec"
But he also enters the following:
"1776 Canada" "1776 Battery Train to Mar." "1776, 2nd Brig. of Engineers under Major (---)(---) Mar(?)"
The Journal of Burgoyne's expedition kept by Lieut. Hadden begins in England in March of 1776 and has six references to the "2nd Brigade". They are noted as in action along the St. Lawrence River in Canada as early as late July, 1776. This may be confirmation of Durnford's arrival in Canada early in 1776.
So it had already seemed beyond a reasonable doubt, from this documentation, that Durnford arrived in North America in the spring of 1776.
Just found by the purest luck, and Google, the text of a journal kept during the May 1776 passage to Quebec of a British "Ordnance transport" has been located. The text (below) speaks for itself, confirms Durnford's arrival in the spring of 1776, and reveals, perhaps, a comical aspect to his personality.
Regulations of the United Assembly on board the "Charming Nancy" - 1776
The cover of the journal quoted above is titled "George William, 27th March, 1776". The commander of thr Artillery unit aboard the ship was Major Griffiths Williams, and notes following the text above indicate that "George Williams" was a "volunteer" in the company and Major Williams's nephew. The note goes on to say Major Williams fought at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, when Burgoyne was defeated, that he was captured, and that his nephew, George, was the one who carried the flag as the troops marched out to surrender.
The voyage, and the journal, began at the end of March, entering the St. Lawrence the end of May, and arriving in Quebec in June. The interesting "Regulations..." cited above were recorded and signed on April 3rd, as the ship was leaving England.
"Charming Nancy" - the ship
There were a number of ships named "Charming Nancy" listed in the 18th century. At this point it is impossible to narrow the search to just one. But there are records in the British Archives that clearly belong to this specific ship.
The first mention of this ship being used as a shuttle between England and the British port at Boston is in the following when she arrives in England early in the winter of 1775:
The record then suggests she was sent back to Boston with supplies for the army in April 1775:
This, as in those following, confirms this ship was a transport, not a warship. Others, below, confirm it was a merchant ship under contract, not a Royal Navy ship.
The next mention we have of the ship is in Boston on August 17th, 1775 (below), when she is sent back to England with the survivors of the Battle of Bunker Hill:
But in addition to the wounded from Bunker Hill (below, right), along with widows and family, a more notable passenger also went aboard the Charming Nancy that summer - the American wife of the commanding General at Boston, Thomas Gage (below, left).
Because she was an American, she was suspected, perhaps with good reason, to have betrayed her husband's confidence and passed information to the Rebels, thus helping them to defeat the British at Concord and Lexington earlier in 1775.
In spite of this high profile woman aboard ship, the voyage was apparently a miserable affair. When the ship put in at Plymouth for a new mainmast, one observer reported the following:
After sailing from Boston back to England, the ship was apparently dispatched to Gibraltar, returning to England in April 1776 and in need of repairs. The urgency mentioned was that she was supposed to immediately depart for Canada. The dates given for these documents must refer to recording or receipt dates, since the ship had already left England by April 9th:
The following two documents clearly refer to the ship on which Durnford is sailing to Canada in 1776:
Major Williams is, of course, the one who was on board with Durnford as cited in the extract above published in 1901. We know by May 30th the ship was already in Canada, so the date suggests when the reports were made or recorded?
The document below, dated earlier in May, suggests the "transport" "Charming Nancy" could not sail due to a lack of men, yet of course, it did sail in March and arrived in Canada in May/June.
The name "Charming Nancy" for a ship seems to have been popular and based on an old seafarer's ballad, one version which is appended below:
While there were more than one ship named "Charming Nancy", this particular one is noted once more in 1897, with reference to the 1775 Diary mentioned at the top of this section:
After living on the relatively flat lands of Kent for his entire life, the towering headlands bordering the St. Lawrence river (above) must have seemed a dramatic introduction to the New World for Durnford. No doubt everyone lined the rails as the ship began its final approach up the river to its destination.
When the troop ships arrived in the spring of 1776 they found a ragged American army beseiging Quebec, as the American forces had invaded Canada late in 1775, controlled Montreal and now threatened to capture the main British stronghold in North America. It was in response to this threat that this massive military buildup was ordered. And General Burgoyne, who would also lead the 1777 invasion of New York, was assigned leadership of the 1776 counter-attack.
As a result, the seige of Quebec was lifted and the Rebel forces were quickly driven off toward Montreal, and eventually forced to retreat back into the Lake Champlain region of New York and Vermont (see above on 1776 map).
Burgoyne's intent was to drive rapidly southward along the Lake Champlain corridor using a fleet of batteaux, protected by a small fleet of warships being constructed on the outlet of the lake (see map below) or being dismantled on the St. Lawrence, hauled overland, and re-assembled on Lake Champlain. Would Durnford have been assigned, as an engineer, to this effort? We don't know, but it seems likely, since this was the major military push of 1776.
At the same time the Rebels were building their own small fleet at the southern end of the lake. Delays in the British boatyards, and weather, meant the two fleets would meet at Valcour Island (below, inset at right) on October 11th. The Americans hid in a bay behind the island, forcing the British to sail back into the wind to attack, but still were severely damaged during the battle (see painting below, bottom). The American fleet was commanded by Benedict Arnold, later becoming infamous for defecting to the British.
The delays caused by this naval action meant the full army did not reach Fort Ticonderoga, the main objective of the campaign, until very late in the season. General Phillips, the head of artillery, reconnoitered near the fory and decided it was too strong to attack and a seige would take too long. So the effort was abandoned. The British retreated to Montreal and Quebec and the Americans retained possesion of the fort for the winter.
It is unknown, yet, whether Durnford accompanied the army all the way to the fort. But as an engineer, he would normally be moving with the artillery, and since the original intent of the 1776 campaign was to attack this major fortification, perhaps even anticipating a seige, Burgoyne and Phillips would have wanted as many engineers attached to the expedition as possible.
Since he was clearly listed from "1776 - 1778" as assigned to "Quebec", he would have been involved in preparations for the new campaign. Quebec was the entry port for all arriving British troops to be engaged in the war to the south. Durnford was without doubt attached to the proposed invasion force under General Burgoyne (below), who arrived in back in Quebec from a winter trip to London on May 6th, 1777.
For the British, the campaign of 1777 was going to end the rebellion by driving a wedge through the heart of the Colonies, from Canada to New York City. The Army would drive south from Montreal to Albany and the Navy would drive north from New York City to Albany. In addition a forced would drive eastward from Lake Ontario to take control of the Mohawk River valley.
The base of operations established at St. Johns in the previous year (below, as seen in 1776) became the jumping off point for Burgoyne's 1777 invasion of the Lake Champlain region.
Ships had to be completed (see background, right of center above) and a huge fleet of batteaux (foreground, left above) assembled to transport his nearly 8,000 troops, artillery, and supplies southward.
It is obvious from the record that Durnford was a member of a fairly exclusive group in that army.
"Originally, when Burgoyne's Army from Canada set out on its invasion of Northern New York in June 1777, there were five officers from the British Corps of Engineers present:
Sub Engineer/Lieutenant William Twiss (commanding)
Sub Engineer/Lieutenant Desmaretz Durnford
Practitioner Engineer/2nd Lieutenant John James Robertson
Practitioner Engineer/2nd Lieutenant Richard Hockings
Practitioner Engineer/2nd Lieutenant Benjamin Slack"
We can be certain that everything history documents as happening to Burgoyne during this campaign Desmaretz Durnford was also experiencing.
Meanwhile, up on Lake Champlain, the expedition of 1777 is being assembled. Believing the campaign would be simple, Burgoyne was soon disappointed at the minimal support he received from Loyalists along the campaign route.
As with all major military operations in the 18th century, there were ample causes for delay, and it was June 20th before the army began moving toward the American stronghold of Fort Ticonderoga, the capture of which they had been forced to abandon the previous year. As with all British campaigns in the region, the army moved by water (above), this time Lake Champlain, Lake George and the Upper Hudson River.
By the end of June, Burgoyne's flotilla had reached the most southern outpost of British control in the Champlain Valley - Crown Point (below). Here he faced the most northern outpost of American control in the valley - Fort Ticonderoga.
Here the General made a strategic decision, to divide his army into two wings - the right being essentially British and the left being made up of the numerous German corps under General Reidesel.
The reason for the decision to divide his army, roughly into British and German sections is unknown.
The first mention we found of Durnford on American soil is in entries in Burgoyne's Orderly Book at Crown Point (above, as it was in 1777).
Crown Point June 26, 1777: "Lieut. Twiss, Aid de Camp to Major General Phillips, has the command of the Corps of Engineers and is to be obeyed accordingly."
June 27, 1777: "Lieut. Dunford is attached to the left wing of the Army under the command of Major General Reidesel."
Being assigned to the left wing, under Reidesel (below), placed Durnford with the detachment designated to attack Bennington a few weeks later, which was largely made up of German troops, such as the Brunswick Dragoons (below, right), for which Durnford would shortly design and supervise the building of a redoubt on the Bennington Battlefield.
Having established a supply depot at Crown Point, Burgoyne pushed on south toward Fort Ticonderoga, held by the rebels (below).
As the army approached the fort on June 30th, General Burgoyne issued a proclamation to the troops, which Durnford would certainly have read:
"The army embarks tomorrow, to approach the enemy. We are to contend for the King and the constitution of Great Britain, to vindicate Law, and to relieve the oppressed - a cause in which His Majesty's Troops and those of the Princes his Allies, will feel equal excitement. The services required of this particular expedition are critical and conspiciuous. During our progress occasions may occur, in which, nor difficulty, nor labour nor life are to be regarded. This Army must not Retreat."
Was Durnford, a 24 year old engineer engaged in his first combat mission on foreign soil, inspired by these words, or was he cynical enough at that age to see it as just another speech by those whose position did not require them to risk "difficulty... labour... nor life"?
Arriving at Fort Ticonderoga in early July, Burgoyne faced a major Rebel strongpoint, with the potential of inflicting delay and loss on the British expedition.
But it was quickly pointed out, perhaps by his engineer corps - perhaps even by Durnford himself - that an opportunity presented itself for a quick and effective way to effect the defeat of the fort, and without cost in lives.
The 1777 map above, shows how well defended the fort was. But a mountain across the water from the fort, known as "Sugar Hill" (and since known as "Mount Defiance") was seen to both overlook the fort, and to have NOT been defended by the Americans, believing that no-one could ever get guns up the steep slope. General Phillips, of the artillery, thought otherwise:
"General Philips saw at a glance that Sugar Hill easily commanded the fortress; and remarked that 'where a man can go, a mule can go; and where a mule can go, a gun can go.' He called in the Lieutenant who was Engineer-in-Command of the Army (probably Lieut. Twiss), and asked whether he and his sappers could in a reasonably short time construct a road to the summit, up which gun-teams could haul howitzers of eight-inch calibre, light twenty-four pounders, and medium twleves. The Engineer visited this place (possibly with Durnford?) ... and was at first staggered by the broken rocks, the matted creepers, the huge fallen timber that encumbered its sides."
But it was decided it was an obstacle that could be overcome and "under the Lieutenant's direction, we heaved, pushed, fetched, carried, and sweated..." until the guns were in place (below).
This compelled American Major General Arthur St. Clair (below) to abandon the post. It was July 4th, 1776 - a day for celebration among the British troops, as well as the Americans.
Since Durnford had just been attached to the German left wing, it may be he did not even set foot near the fort itself. The rebels, believing the old fort would be hard to defend, had recently established a sprawling fortified encampment on the slopes of the heights opposite (below, right - this view looking north toward the British approach).
While the "English" branch of the army, being the right wing, approached the fort along the west side of the lake, the "German" branch, the left wing to which Durnford was attached, moved down the lake in 41 batteaus, each holding up to 35 German soldiers, and made a landing on the east shore of the lake. The intent was to move directly against the encampment (red arrows above).
But, as one historian describes it, the concept was a lot simpler than the execution:
"Across the lake (from the British main force), the Germans were having a rough time of it. Before they came within range of Mount Independence they had to cross East Creek - a deceptively named body of water that was all but impossible for an army to negotiate on foot. The stream runs for some four miles from southeast to northwest, effectively blocking an approach to the Mount from the north, since it is less a creek than a bog, a half mile across in places. It took Breymann's corps a full day to move twelve hundred paces closer to the rebels, and the Brunsick brigades to their rear gloomily resigned themselves to bivouacking for the night in dense forest on marshy ground infested with insects."*
*For a detailed description of this campaign read "Saratoga" by Richard Ketchum, from which this extract was taken.
The Americans, after being driven out of Fort Ticonderoga and scattered to the east into Vermont, had intended to re-group at Skenesboro at the south end of the lake. But before they could get there, Burgoyne had beaten them to the place, using a fast approach up the waterways, ordering the boats sent south with stores, guns and equipment. The army was to march there overland.
The destination for Burgoyne's rapid push south was Skenesborough (above, right), which had been a base for American fleet operations on Lake Champlain, and was intended by them to be a strong point of defense after their retreat from Fort Ticonderoga. It was named for Loyalist Philip Skene (above, left), and Skene was coming south with the British army to retake his town.
By July 10th, it was the British, not the Americans, who made Skenesborough a base of operations.
As noted in Burgoyne's orders to the German commander (above), the left wing, with Durnford attached, and including a detachment of British, was not brought quickly to Skenesborough, but was sent eastward into Vermont to chase the fleeing Rebel army and cut off support from the American Fort No. 4 on the Connecticut River.
The Americans made a stand at Hubberton (below) and the British corps, in advance of the Germans, was fought to a standstill, and had actually begun to lose ground, when the arrival of the German wing turned the tide and gave them the victory on July 7th.
No doubt Durnford witnessed, and perhaps even participated in, the battle, and was on that day somehwere on the battlefield preserved today as a state historic site (above, right). The combined left wing, having driven the Americans well away from any hope of reaching Skenesborough, now turned west to rejoin the main army at that town.
Regrouping, Burgoyne pushed south towards Forts Anne and Edward. His advance was slowed by American forces which felled trees and burned bridges along the route, but also by the inadequacy of his own transport:
"The road between Skenesborough and Fort Anne was so treacherous that packhorses and oxcarts had to travel without loads; otherwise the animals would have been up to their bellies in mud. Not until the empty wagons arrived at Fort Anne could the men pack them - lightly, according to orders - with muskets, tents, and other necessities, but the orders against overloading were issued repeatedly - and futiley. Meantime the flimsy carts, made of green lumber, creaked and groaned over the forest track, inching through muck to the crack of whips and sutlers' curses."
The traverse of these forest presented other harassments than just the ever present enemy, as described by a British soldier on that march:
"I have spoken of the mosquitoes of Skenesborough, that bred there in the stagnant waters under the protecting shade of great trees, as the most malignant of all in America. The inhabitants were proof against their venom, but on us they raised great watering pustules precisely like those of the small pox. The only sure relief was to be looked for in volatile alkali, of which we possessed scarcely any; but immediate bathing in cold water was better than nothing at all."
One historian described it this way: "July was excessively rainy, hot, and humid, and the weather brought forth swarms of blackflies, horseflies, deerflies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, gnats, ants, ticks, and chiggers - to torment these poor devils stumbling through thickets in their woolen uniforms."
But the unfamiliar American wilderness held another natural threat that was far more dangerous; terrifying instead of just annoying.
Rattlesnakes - "many of the Britons and Germans never knew such creatures existed and were understandably terrified of being bitten."
But the natural environment was soon to be an enemy in itself. Roads in that region were little more than narrow tracks through impenetrable forests (below), which forced marching troops to thread their way, often single file, and were so thick that scouts could not even be sent out laterally to secure the line of march. And moving wagons and carts became a nightmare, even in normal conditions.
In this situation the Rebels best weapon was the axe (above), which was used to drop trees across the route that stopped the march while soldiers laboriously chopped, sawed and dragged the obstructions aside. The Rebels, using the simple axe as a weapon, held back the most powerful army in the world with all its weapons and artillery.
The 18 mile road from Fort Anne to Fort Edward also included three miles of swamp that could only be crossed by a narrow log causeway (an example above), which the rebels had torn up. This had to be replaced, and even improved, before Burgoyne's army, with its thousands of marching men, artillery and innumerable wagons and carts, could cross. The building of bridges was one of the duties of the Corps of Enginners, along with fortifications and artillery emplacements, so we can imagine that Durnford was engaged firsthand in this operation.
When they reached tiny Fort Ann (above, right) the Rebels still held it, but were soon driven off. The fort stood guard on the head of navigation of Wood Creek, which provided a link between Lake George/Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Today a replica of the fort, which was little more than a palisaded blockhouse, stands on the same spot (above, left), housing a bank.
The delays imposed on the column with which Durnford moved southward were as significant as they were frustrating as described by one soldier who accompanied the army:
Delayed by these obstructions the army, and Durnford, finally reached Fort Edward (below):
"It was the last day but one of July before we reached Fort Edward, having taken twenty days to cover as many miles. This place consisted of a large redoubt with a simple parapet and a wretched palisade, and barracks for two hundred men, and stood in a little valley near Hudson's River upon the only spot not covered with forest."
On an 18th century map (above, right) we can indicate the routes taken from the conquered Fort Ticonderoga, to the objective of Fort Edward (above, left), which was on the upper Hudson river that Burgoyne would use to head south toward Albany. While the "British" wing of the army used both water and land routes to move southward (red arrows above) the "German" wing, with Durnford, had been dispatched eastward (dashed red line above) from the fort into Vermont, where they went via Hubberton and Castleton to Skenesboro, which had become the main British supply depot. Here they re-joined the main army and moved over Wood Creek and the parallel road to Fort Edward.
By mid-July, Burgoyne's army was suffering. It lacked sufficient transport - horses, oxen, wagons and carts - that could traverse the region's rough roads.
But as Durnford was settling back into his position in Burgoyne's camp, far across the ocean he was suffering the first of many identity confusions. Evidence just uncovered shows that the confusion over his identity is not just a 19th century accident, but goes all the way back...to his own land, England, and his own time, the 1770s.
The July 26th issue of The London Gazette in 1777 (above) lists military promotions, including those for officers in service in America. Among these is one for "Desmaretz Durnford, of the Engineers to be Assistant Deputy Quarter-Master General".
This is a major jump in status for a humble engineer now struggling through the wilderness south of Fort Edward. But three days later, in the July 29th issue of the Gazette, we see an explanation:
The error is revealed, for it was Andrew Durnford, also an enginner in service in America, but far away from Fort Edward, not Desmaretz, who was promoted. And although later Andrew was consistently given credit for the work of Desmaretz, in this case the paper was correct. Desmaretz was still only a Lieutenant.
This is confirmed a few weeks later, in early August, as Burgoyne encamps on the banks of the Hudson River near Fort Miller and prepares to try and solve his lack of wagons and horses by sending an expedition eastward toward the Rebel storehouse at Bennington, Vermont. Fredeich Wasmus, the German physician who accompanied the Bennington expedition, states on August 10th:
"Major General v. Riedesel came to us today and conferred at length with our Lieut. Colonel Baum. Upon his departure he left behind with us our own Captain O'Connel and the English engineer Lieut. Donforth."
At least one historian suggests that by being assigned to an expedition under Baum (above), Durnford had been placed in the hands of an incompetent:
"Burgoyne seems not to have examined very carefully the qualifications of the man recommended by Riedesel for this ambitious mission. Friederich Baum was a capable, conscientious, fifty-year-old professional soldier....saw action in a number of minor engagements in Europe during the Seven Years War.... but he had never led more than a few score men into battle, and had no experience whatever waging war in the wild lands of America... and .. spoke not a word of English. The last shortcoming was to be remedied by the three Englishmen who went along on his 'secret mission'... Captain O'Connell, Lieutenant Durnford, and Philip Skene."
In general the British had a low regard for the German mercenaries who had been hired to fight alongside them, as expressed by one soldier in the Burgoyne expedition in 1777:
"We served beside the Brunswickers on several occasions during the campaign in the North but seldom with any sense of pleasure or security in their companionship. Except for 'Old Red Hazel,' as our soldiers named General Riedesel, their commander, his two well-trained regular battalions, and the dragoons, they were like a stone around our necks. There seemed no intermediate age among them between grandparents and grandchildren, with the grandparents in the majority; they marched ill, worked slowly, complained much, were ridden with terror of death and were, in brief, wholly unfitted for an active and stern campaign in the frightful woods and deserts that we were to pass through"
But this friction between the British and German forces was not just on the British side. The Germans felt misused and, as one historian described it "occasionally they took out their anger and frustration on anyone who spoke English." Was this an uncomfortable position for Durnford, who in a way had been stuck with the Germans, perhaps to bridge that language gap?
In mid-August, Burgoyne dispatched this force toward Bennington under Lieut. Colonel Baum. In the command were over 200 Brunswick (German) Dragoons (above), who normally rode horses, but had very few at this point, two crews of Hesse-Hanau (also German) artillery, dragging two small 3-pounder brass field guns, a small number of British marksmen, 150 Tories from Peter's Provincial Corps, 56 Loyalist volunteers, and 100 Mohawk Indians from Canada. And of course, Lieut. Desmaretz Durnford as Engineer; one of a handful in this operation who spoke English!
After a skirmish on August 13th near Cambridge, and another on the 14th near San Coick (North Hoosick), the British force encountered a large American force arranged to meet them near a bridge over the Walloomsac River. This bridge is the central feature of Durnford's map (below).
The Americans were ranged along an elevated ridge on the east side of the river valley (bottom edge of above map), and rather than try and cross this flat ground, which was all cleared farmland with no protective cover (see map above), Baum decided to halt, establish a defensive position, and send back to Burgoyne for reinforcements.
The remainder of August 14th was spent securing their position. Perhaps the most important of these defensive positions was the so-called "Hessian Redoubt" on the top of the mountain, which we already know was a place Durnford spent a significant portion of his time. The scene may have looked much as this, above.
On the 15th of August reinforcements were on their way, but were being delayed by muddy roads caused by the same day long rains that protected the British force arranged around the Walloomsac bridge from attacks. It was perhaps this extra day of immunity from attack that allowed Durnford to record with such accuracy the features of the battlefield. The fact that he captured in his drawing such non-military features as field boundaries, different crops, fences, marshes and even differentiating dead trees in wetlands from those living in dry areas (below), with such perceptive detail, speaks to the acute awareness and observation of the natural world that he, and other engineers in British service, exhibited as gentlemen and, sometimes, scholars.
General Burgoyne himself recognized the inborn talents that went into the field service of men like Durnford, who often had to prepare accurate maps from severely restricted observation posts:
"If a man has a taste for drawing, it will add a very pleasing aspect and useful qualification; and I would recommend him to practice taking views from an eminence, and to measure distances with his eye. This
would be a talent particularly adapted to the light dragoon service."
The morning of August 16th dawned clear, and while Baum would certainly have preferred to wait for the reinforcements from Burgoyne, which did not arrive until late in the afternnon, he was forced into engagement before noon with the Americans.
The American forces, now greatly outnumbering the British/German troops, surrounded them and overwhelmed them (above) by early afternoon, with many of the defenders killed, or wounded and captured, including Durnford. While the late-arriving German reinforcements turned the tide of battle for a while, equally late arriving American reinforcements pushed them back, and as the British side ran out of ammunition, they took advantage of the closing darkness to retreat back to Burgoyne's main Army.
The fact that almost none of the troops under Col. Baum spoke English produced a tragedy in the aftermath of the conquest of the British forces, especially at the Dragoon redoubt where Durnford may have been stationed. The Brunswick troops, out of ammunition, fled away from the Americans down a steep hillside covered in forest, and as overtaken by the frenzied victors in blood-lust, tried to surrender. But as the Americans did not understand what they were saying, many were slaughtered where they stood. Perhaps Durnford, able to speak English, saved himself by being among the few the Rebels could understand.
The only clear evidence we have of Durnford on the battlefield during the preliminary to battle on August 14th and 15th is the battlefield map itself, although his presence is suggested by Wasmus on the 15th when he states that "several Englishmen had to lay out a fortification". Such would be the task allocated to engineers, and we have already seen that Durnford was at the "Hessian Redoubt".
Proof of his presence on the day of battle - the 16th - is ample. Information recorded back in Burgoyne's camp on the Hudson on August 17th, the day after the battle, suggests some doubt about Durnford's fate after the battle: "... Lieut. Colonel Baum has been wounded in the stomach and also Lieut. Bach from the Hesse-Hanau Artillery has been wounded, but the Engl. Eng. Lieut. Dunford has remained on the field of battle."
The official report issued by General Riedesel (below) documents that Durnford is unaccounted for:
But the German physician Wasmus, captured on the field and an eyewitness to the aftermath, confirms Durnford's capture when he lists "Lieut. Bach of the Hessa-Hanau Artillery, the English Engineer Lieut. Donforth & Ensign Baron v. Salens wounded and captured."
Wasmus's journal goes on to suggest, in the days following, that Durnford was confined with other wounded officers in the "Tavern at Bennington" (above) on August 17th, where Wasmus assisted in treating them. The tavern, long gone, is now monumented with a stature of a mountain lion - the "Catamount" after which the tavern was named (above, right). It is ironic that the Rebel storehouse they had intended to capture was just a stone's throw up the street from this tavern. They had at last reached their objective.
Today a huge obelisk (above, left) stands on the site, erected in the 19th century by Vermonters as a memorial to the battle, even though it happened in New York, not Vermont. Next to the gift shop at the monument is a stone commemorating the victory (above, right). As he lay in the tavern recovering from his wounds, Durnford was merely yards from the Rebel storehouse he had expected to capture (below).
On the 19th, Wasmus left Bennington (above) to begin the march toward Williamstown, Massachusetts, and notes: "Lieuts. Gebhard, Donforth and Bach, Pastor Melsheimer, Coronet Stutzer and Ensign Specht, all 6 wounded, went with us."
Although not mentioned by name below, Durnford is identified as being among the more seriously wounded from the following statement by Wasmus, recorded in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on August 22nd:
"Everyone not wounded is marching to Great Barrington today. Lieut. Bach and Ensign Specht have only been slightly wounded and went along... the other 4 officers, whose wounds had not been so light and who had contracted a little fever on the strenuous marches through the large woods, remained behind unable to continue."
We can trace Durnford's travels on the above 1770s map. He departs the main army at Burgoyne's camp near Fort Miller (A) on August 12th, right after being attached by Burgoyne to Baum's expeditionary force. By August 14th he is mapping at Walloomsac (B), trapped in the battle on the 16th, where he is wounded and captured, then taken with other prisoners to Bennington (C). He is well enough to accompany the other prisoners to Williamstown (Massachusetts) (D). Suffering from his wounds, aggravated by the journey from Bennington, he remains behind while the others continue on to Great Barrington on the August 22nd.
Durnford apparently later continued on, for although his date of arrival is not recorded, he was already at Woburn, near Boston, where prisoners from the failed Burgoyne campaign were held. By this time, they were being joined by those defeated at Saratoga in October. This map (above), made in 1775 in London, shows the major roads of the period available for travel. The route probably walked by Durnford during the late fall of 1777 is indicated. This is an arduous road, pitching up into ranges of rugged mountains that had presented essentially an unbroken barrier to east-west travel through much of the 18th century. While being in the Army the common soldier would be expected to endure such marches, but gentlemen officers of the Corps of Engineers would expect a horse. Perhaps he was provided one.
According to sources we read: "Durnford, Andrew, engineer lieutenant in Burgoyne's staff, was captured at the Battle of Bennington and exchanged on October 24, 1777." We now know, of course, that Engineer Andrew Durnford was nowhere near the Bennington Battlefield in 1777, and the entry actually refers to Desmaretz.
It was during this period that negotiations to exchange officers captured during the Burgoyne Campaign, including both the Bennington and Saratoga defeats, were underway. It was on the date indicated above, October 24th, an agreement was signed in Albany (below) whereby American officers taken by General Burgoyne were to be exchanged for British officers taken by General Gates. Among those to be exchanged were "First Lieut. Bradford" for "Lieutenant Twiss Eng." and "Moses Dustin" (who had been captured at Hubbardton, Vermont on July 7th) for "D. Durnford Eng." By this agreement, Burgoyne would recover both his top engineers.
We do not know exactly where Durnford was during September and October of 1777, beside being enroute to the Boston area with other prisoners. We do know his batman (servant) accompnaied him wherever he was from the following evidence. On December 1st, at Woburn, outside Boston, Durnford consented to having his servant working in the area for a "cordwainer" (shoemaker, below) to be paid for his labor:
"Petition of Benjamin Simons of Woburn, Cordwainer, Boston, Dec. 1, 1777: William Mathews a Regular Soldier and Servant to Lieut. Dunford late of the British Train of Prisoners in Woburn Precinct, they were taken in the late Battle at Bennington... Ordered that William Mathews ... be, and hereby is permitted to remove from Woburn Precinct (where he is now confinded)... and to Labour with Benjamin Simons ... the said Simons paying him a reasonable reward for his service ... the said Lieut. Dunford is consenting thereto."
This practice was common for officers on parole and probably provided Durnford with some coin, which his extended stay in the area, without his usual Army pay, required.
As far as can be determined, Durnford settled in at Woburn for the winter. As 1778 dawned, he was, apparently, still technically a prisoner on parole. The exchange that would have returned him to British Army control was delayed. On February 13, 1778 an appeal from Cambridge, a suburb of Boston, "for Passports for Captains Green and Blomefield, and Lieuts. Durnford and Yorke, for them to proceed to Rhode Island or New York as you shall see proper..." was apparently granted.
Having prisoners forwarded to Newport, Rhode Island was logical since it had been occupied by the British in 1776 and developed as a major naval base; a port of embarkation for any returning to England.
Coincidentally, on February 6, 1778, the week before Durnford's pass to Rhode Island came through, France and America concluded an alliance, inspired by the American victory at Saratoga four months before, by signing two treaties, a treaty of amity and commerce and a military alliance. The nations exchanged ambassadors, and France and England were soon at war. It was the uniting of the two military powers against Great Britain (above) that turned the tide of the war.
On March 5th, 1778, a list was carried by "Lieut. Durnfort and Captn Green" to Rhode Island, and the diary of a prisoner at Newport, Rhode Island (above) records that on March 15th:
"Mr. Merceraue, a Rebel Commissary, came down from Bristol with five Officers and five Soldiers of General Burgoyne's Army, who were taken prisoner during the last campaign, and are to be exchanged for Rebels of equal rank. The officers are Capt. Green ... and Lieut. Durnford, of the Engineers."
This entry shows that Durnford, being still escorted by Rebel military at that date, was still, technically, a prisoner of war. Apparently all the top officers of the 1777 campaign, including their General, came to Rhode Island during March.
The same diary records on April 15th, 1778: "General Burgoyne, and the other officers going to England, embarked this morning on board The Grampus, Storeship, which with the other vessels, immediately got under way; and about 11 o'clock the whole fleet, consisting of about 30 Sail, were safe out of the harbor."
Durnford no doubt was among the "other officers" being repatriated on HMS Grampus, which began life as HMS Buckingham (above, shown at launch), a 70-gun third rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, launched in 1751. In 1771, she was converted to serve as a storeship and was renamed Grampus. She remained in this role until her loss in 1778. Since the British Army Lists state that Durnford: "Served in America 1776-1778", we may assume Durnford returned to England on this cargo ship.
The fleet of ships with the defeated soldiers of the 1777 Burgoyne Campaign then arrived at Portsmouth, England (above) on May 13, 1778. This was two years, almost to the day, since Durnford first arrived on North American soil. (Note: Sailing time was faster going east, but should have been closer to 8 weeks than 4. His arrival date in England is correct.)
After his return to England, Durnford resumed his duties as an Engineer, apparently attached to the port at Plymouth. In late July of 1780, according to the 19th century manuscript notes of Major Connolly in the Royal Engineers Library, he was ordered to Fishguard, in the southwest corner of Wales.
"July 26. ordered by Col. Dixon to go to Fishguard to examine soundings of harbour & fix on a site for a battery."
Why would Durnford be ordered to such a remote and seemingly insignificant town on the far west coast of Great Britain? The answer is found in the late-18th century history of the town, and the description of the tiny Fishguard Fort (seen below):
"The fort was built following a raid on Fishguard in 1779; the privateer vessel Black Prince demanded �1,000 to return a captured local ship and as a ransom for the town. When this was refused it bombarded Fishguard, damaging St. Mary's Church and some houses. As Fishguard was a prosperous port, protection was vital. As a result, Fishguard Fort was completed in 1781, overlooking Lower Fishguard. It was armed with eight 9-pounder guns manned by three invalid gunners from Woolwich, and became the headquarters of the Fishguard Fencibles."
So in 1779, while Durnford was back home, re-adjusting to life in England during the year after his return and perhaps still recuperating from his wounds at Walloomsac, an attack was taking place on this tiny coastal village in Wales. He no doubt read of it in the newspapers, and the fact that he was selected to be the one to survey the place and come up with a plan for its defense, suggests his status among his peers in the Corps of Engineers.
The fort was being built during the year 1780, perhaps based on plans he himself drew up, which may yet be discovered, and perhaps under his supervision.
In late winter of 1780/81, before the Fishguard Fort was probably finished, Durnford found himself once again assigned an overseas mission. The gravity of this assignment, at least as it appeared to him, and perhaps his near-death experience four years earlier during a similar assignment to America, prompted him to take time to prepare his will. This document, which fortunately has survived (link to full image of will), was drawn entirely in his own hand on February 1st, 1781, just six weeks before he left England for the last time:
He apparently wrote this in his own hand, with a single witness, perhaps in his lodgings while waiting for the boarding notice on a ship that may have been within view of his window in the harbor. He signed it and affixed a wax seal, impressed with his signet ring (below).
This the the second page of the will, signed and sealed.
The seal was at first confusing, but on receipt of a close-up image (below, left) it became clear what it was. An inclusion of wax, perhaps, on the matrix had left a gap in the impressed image. His "signet" appears to have no particular family or heraldic significance. It is of the type of intaglio-carved jewel mounted in men's rings commonly worn in that period (below, right). Ancient examples of these were often made using Roman carved jewels and this may well have been a Durnford family heirloom. Note, as in rings of this type, the right-facing intaglio, when used as a signet, leaves a left-facing portrait in the wax, as in the case of Durnford's will (below, left).
Attached to this will, which survives in the National Archives, is a notation:
"THIS WILL was proved at London the eighteenth day of November in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty two ... lawfully instituted by the oath of Mary Durnford Widow the Mother of the deceased and sole Executrix named in said Will to whom administration was granted of all and singular the Goods Chattels and Credits of the deceased having been first sworn duly to administer."
Attached to this was an affidavit by "Mary Gestter, Spinster, of Rochester in the County of Kent" who stated that she "knew and was well acquainted with Desmaretz Durnford late a Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers in the East Indies, deceased" and was familiar with "his manner and Character of handwriting and subscription, having frequently seen him write and subscribe his name."
Does this suggest Durnford lived in Rochester (above) during those years?
Rochester is a very short distance from Chatham, the headquarters of the Corps of Engineers (see above), and he may in all likelihood have had lodgings in that town while attached to the Corps. (New evidence, added at end of this page, shows his mother also lived in "Rochester" at the time.)
If nothing else, these documents do confirm that Durnford's sister was married to Andrew Frazer. The "three thousand pound" he left to her three children was a sizeable fortune in those days, confirming Durnford's status as a gentleman of some standing. That he left this in trust to his niece and nephews, and essentially everything else to his mother, suggests Durnford never married, and that his father had predeceased him.
On the original will, written by Durnford and kept by his mother as executrix of his estate, various notations were made during the proving of that will on November 18th, 1782. The will was proved in London and was copied and recorded at that time. On the original, however, it is noted that on November 15th, Mary Gestter, the witness to Durnford's signature and writing, was sworn and gave her affidavit, and the day before, November 14th, Mary Durnford appeared and was sworn, thereby initiating her role as executrix. All these notations were written in the same hand on the original will, including the statement:
"Testator died in Oct.r 1781 - and was late a Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers at the East Indies."
This fixes more precisely his date of death, and given the delay for word to travel back from India to England in the late 18th century, and for time needed to arrange the probate hearing, the fact that it was over a year after his death is not surprising.
His will was written in Portsmouth, the embarkation point for major foreign expeditions, as he was waiting, perhaps anxiously, for it to begin. But what was this new overseas assignment?
We know the final entry in Durnford's service records is "Died in India - 1782". So we can assume this final segment of military service was attached to the other foreign conflict, besides the colonial rebellion in America; namely, the maintenance of the empire in India.
But prior to his death in India we see the entry above: "Cape ... 1780".
How Durnford found himself in India is revealed by the following somewhat fragmentary hand-written excerpts from his military record (recorded by Connolly):
"With 73 Regt. - Joined Exped. fitting out at Portsmouth under Meadows & Commodre. Johnstone for Cape. Jan. 1781: sailed 12. March: touched St. Iago in April: there attacked by French Squadron under Suffren who was repulsed: then to Cape. Suffren pre-arrived there. so attempt there abandoned. first capturing a valuable convoy of Dutch East Indiamen sheltered in Suldamba Bay. Troops shared the prize money. their right disputed by Commodore Johnstone as the troops had not landed: after many years the right was determined in favor of troops. D. may have parted with the Exped. in the Myrtle... which mentions D. among the officers in that ship. If hereafter found to have landed with the main Exped., he can be traced in Stewarts sketches. So also from the time the Myrtle arrived in India."
This campaign is relatively well documented, primarily in the histories of various Highland Regiments, which made up the bulk of the expedition to India. As most accounts agree closely, we can amplify Connolly's sketchy summary from start to end.
In February of 1781 a fleet was being assembled at Portsmouth, made up of naval ships and troop transports. One account states:
" (we)... removed from thence to Queensferry, and embarked for Chatham in December 1780, to form part of an expedition then fitting out at Portsmouth, under the command of Major-General William Meadows, and Commodore Johnstone, intended for an attack on the Cape of Good Hope."
The British naval ships were under Commodore Johnstone (above, right), with General Meadows (above, left) in command of the troops, including Durnford. As Durnford was most likely already stationed at Chatham, headquarters for the Corps of Engineers, he probably witnessed the arrival of the Highland troops during December, and departed with them for Portsmouth.
The following proves it:
"This force embarked (from Chatham) in January 1781, and consisted of (lists regiments involved)... and a detachment of Royal Artillery, under Lieutenant William Hislop, brother to General Sir Thomas Hislop, and Lieutenant Durnford, of the Engineers, also accompanied the expedition."
Typical of Army operations for all time, which seem to be guided by the mantra "Hurry up.. and wait", Durnford, along with the collection of troops sent down in January from Chatham, had to bide his time in Portsmouth for over two months!
"Various delays detained the expedition till the 12th of March, when it sailed..."
While accounts vary, this squadron generally consisted of 6 Royal Navy warships and 21 transports for troops and cargo. Portsmouth harbor (above) must have been a very busy place during January and February of 1781.
At the same moment a similar squadron was formed in France under the command of Admiral Suffren (above). It also embarked in March, bound as well for the Cape of Good Hope. The Highlander account continues:
"...touching at St. Jago in April, was there attacked by the French squadron under Admiral Suffrein, who was repulsed with little loss on either side."
The intermediate object of both was the possession of the Cape of Good Hope; but each had to pass around the west coast of Africa to get there, and the island group of Cape Verde (above) was a usual place to put in for water, etc. This was a place also given attention by the French, as exhibited by their charts (below), made a few years before this encounter. The bay in which the British convoy anchored is shown in the upper left corner of this chart.
The British convoy reached there on April 11th, and not anticipating an attack, the entire fleet was anchored in the harbor (see below).
What happened next is summarized in one brief account:
"Johnstone, having the start on his rival, was lying at his ease in the neutral port of Porto Praya in the Cape de Verd Islands, off the west coast of Africa, when his squadron was suddenly attacked by Suffren. The French were repulsed, and the British continued toward the Cape (of Good Hope)."
The naval engagement map (above) confirms the account. The British squadron, perceiving no threat from the French, had anchored in the ample harbor at Porto Praya, when the unexpected French ships attacked. A painting of the battle shows the penetrtion of the forward section of British warships by he French (below, white flags).
Depending on where Durnford would have been when the French attacked, he may have stood on deck witness to the first taste of fire on his new campaign. If not on one of the warships, he may have been quite far from the action as most of the troop transports were anchored well back from the front of the bay (see battle map above, and another post-battle painting below).
But there may be reason to believe Durnford was at the moment of the attack, enjoying an excursion on land, which, after England and a dreary voyage of exactly one month, would have seemed wonderful (the bay of Porto Praya below).
The likelihood is presented in the miltary record:
Since Durnford was attached to the land-based forces under General Meadows, not the naval ships under Commodore Johnstone, it is more than likely he was ashore on the 16th, when the French came into view. We know from the Bennington Battlefield map, he was an observant student of his natural surroundings. Porto Praya bay in the Cape Verde Islands may well have been the most exotic place Durnford had ever seen, and having been at anchor for nearly a week, could he have resisted making an excursion into his surroundings (St. Jago, Cape Verde, below, right), perhaps even making maps of the area, as was his training (officer of the 74th Regiment, like the one to which he was attached, below, left).
But a well hidden fragment in a recently published journal of Johann Specht, one of the German commanders in the invading Burgoyne Army of 1777, may shed light. The item is a short biographical footnote for "Desmaretz Durnford" which cites his role in the Battle of Bennington and the 1781 expedition to the Cape, whereat he is described as the "commanding engineer". and as one of the sources for the biographical sketch the book cites a letter:
"Durnford to General Lord Amherst, Union Ordnance Store-Ship, Praya Bay, Island of Jago, April 29, 1781."
It is of interest to note that Connolly makes an entry for "1781" that in part states Durnford was "with train of artillery" and "on bd the Prudence & Union, armed ordn. sloops...". In his letter, following, he mentions these same two ships as the "ordnance transports" with the expedition.
This letter (below), preserved in the Public Record Office in London, would have been written on board ship, well after the battle and just as, or right before, the fleet departed from the Cape Verde Islands, heading for the Cape.
Union Ordnance Storeship
Praya Bay, Island of Iago
April 29th 1781
A sloop going home with Dispatches from Commodore Johnstone I think it my Duty to acquaint your Lordship that the Ordnance Transports the Union and Prudence arrived in the Bay with the rest of the Squadron on the 10th Instant after a very favorable Passage from England - - The Prudence proving leaky has since coming to anchor been examined and repaired by order of the Commodore and judged fit for proceeding on the voyage - The Superintendant has been desired to make his Report of her condition to the Right Hon.ble Board - - I have likewise the Honor to communicate to your Lordship that a sudden attack was made upon our Fleet at anchor in this Bay on the morning of the 16th by 5 French Line of Battle Ships who after closely engaging us for an Hour and a Quarter sheered off in a very shattered condition. For Particulars of this affair I must beg leave to refer your Lordship to government Dispatches - - The Ordnance Storeships tho much exposed to the Enemies Fire were fortunate enough with the People on board to escape the most trifling injury - - The Damages received in the late affair by our Fleet being nearly repaired we expect to proceed immediately to our Destination.
I have the Honor to be
most obed.nt and very humble
on a secret Expedition
Right Honb.l Lord Amherst. &&C&C - -
Beside being only the third document known to exist in Desmaretz Durnford's own hand, after his Bennington battle map and his Will, this letter is of great interest and a source of historical detail.
First, there is no doubt this letter (being one sheet, written on both sides and folded) is the original, in his own hand. Not only would a copy made into a letter book be an unfolded page in sequence in a bound volumn, a comparison of the signatures on this letter (below, upper) and his February 1781 Will (below, lower) show they are clearly indentical.
In additon the form of the word "Engineer" in each is a perfect match. And in both documents, one can see his tendency to have his writing creep upward to the right when signing, producing a decided slope to the text.
One is first puzzled why, in a fleet such as this, with both a Commodore and a General in command of the expedition, that a relatively junior officer would take it upon himself to address a report to the Commander and Chief of all British Forces. But it is noted that this letter addresses only the issue of the two "ordnance storeships" (also termed "ornance transports). And Durnford is at the time traveling aboard one of them. This implies his responsibility on this expedition was particularly those ships, which carried weapons, ammunition and supplies for the army in general and the artillery in particular.
Traditionally, engineers and artillerymen were closely linked (above), and even part of the same organization. That, plus the fact that Durnford identifies himself as the "Commanding Engineer", suggests he had a major role to play in the care of these vessels and the reporting on their condition.
But of particular interest is the way he identifies his assignment - "on a secret Expedition". Was this just to prevent the destination from being discovered if the dispatches were intercepted by the French? Or was there more to the secret than just that they were bound for the Cape? Surely, having encountered and fought with the British fleet, the French already knew where they were going and the reason why.
It is also interesting to speculate whether Durnford, on board his ship, was using what was, for that year, cutting edge technology - namely, a steel nib pen instead of the more common quill. The script left behind by a quill pen is somehwat irregular, with thin and thick lines caused by the shape of the tip and the changing flow of the ink. An example of this is found on the entries on his will made at the time it was proved (below, top).
The February will itself, written in his own hand, is much more regular, but still appears to show some of the thin and thick lines associated with fine quillwork (above, middle). But his letter of April (above, bottom) exhibits extremely uniform and constant line, which very strongly suggests he is using a steel nib pen.
Was his use of a new metal pen part of the modernization of the Corps of Engineers, where the drafting of plans and maps was so crucial, or was it something he purchased for himself?
The answer is provided by the curator at the Corps of Engineers Museum in Kent:
"The writing and drawing equipment of an officer in both the Corps and wider British army during the 18th and most of the 19th Century would have been purchased privately."
So as preparation for his new adventure, Durnford went out and purchased this cutting edge writing technology, the way a 28 year old today might go out and buy the latest new thing - a new smart-phone with GPS, for example - before heading out on a cross-country auto trip? Does this say something about the man?
But how was he able to obtain a metal tipped pen in 1781, over a decade before they supposedly were even available in England? A comment about the 1792 metal pen advertisement in the Times may shed some light:
"The advertisement implies metal nibs had been in use for some years, but had not been generally accepted due to lack of flexibility and tendency to rust. It refers to 'Ivory Handles' with 'Gold Silver or Steel Pens to each', and says that 'new pens may be fitted in at pleasure', indicating only the nibs were metal. It also claims the pens have 'well-tempered Elasticity' and that the 'Steel Points' are treated to be rustproof, rust being 'a circumstance that has been long and universally complained of in this article'. "
The availability in England, in special instances, of steel nib pens before 1781 is proven by the following reference from the Diary of John Byron, who "required them when writing short-hand." In a letter dated August, 1723 he writes:
"Alas! Alas! I cannot meet with a steel pen, no manner of where I believe I have asked at 375 places, but that which I have is at your service, as the owner himself always is."
A doctor writes in the mid-18th century of "our steel pens" as if they were common, and when the poet Churchill's effects were sold after his death in 1764, it is recorded that "a common steel pen" brought a very good price. One historian suggests these may not be nibs for writing, but steel pens for drafting lines and circles. But the quotes above certainly seem to suggest a writing instrument.
But even so, Durnford acquiring one of these new pens, either as part of his "job" or as personal property, might be seen the way people today rush out to get the latest thing, perhaps even on impulse. And one must remember, at this time he was only 28 years old.
The question arises whether this ship Union from which he was writing was a Royal Navy ship, or one under contract from the merchant fleet. It is not listed in rosters of warships for the expedition (below):
Another listing is more specific:
But none mention the Union "store-ship", and general searches under "HMS Union" produced references to ships launched well after 1780, except for one, a 90-gun second rate warship launched in 1756, that was converted to a hospital ship years after this expedition in 1799. As this seemed an unlikely candidate, it was assumed the Union from which Durnford wrote was one of the lesser, and not named, ships, or perhaps one of the merchant fleet - the "Indiamen".
But a document in the National Archives confirms its identity. It is described as "Will of Thomas Reid, belonging to HMS Union" and while this might have been one of the other "Union" ships recorded in the histories, the date of the will is "31 August 1782", which fits perfectly the Johnstone and Meadows expedition to India on which Durnford sailed, which reached India in March of 1782. And further searches in the British National Archives produced several listings for a ship, or ships, named Union. Some were additional wills written in 1782, from a ship "Union" and others were records of a ship "Union" preparing for a voyage in 1781; both of these would fit the timing of the Johnstone & Meadows expedition.
The person to whom Durnford addressed his letter from Praya Bay was General Lord Amherst (above), the Commander of British forces. As such he was Durnford's ultimate supervisor. A question remains whether his brief letter was just official business, or if there was another connection, perhaps through his mother, to John Peter Desmaretz, the Tower Draftsman at the time when Amherst was a rising force in the British military.
In spite of the realization that the French could well get to the Cape before he did, Commodore Johnstone kept his fleet bottled up in Porto Praya bay for two weeks (below), thus delaying his departure until about May 1st. Durnford's letter suggests this was necessitated by the repairs needed after the French attack:
In spite of suffering embarrassment at being caught, the British moved on to the Cape, which is the reason for the designation on Durnford's service record of "Cape ... 1780".
The route to the Cape was not, geographically speaking, a direct one. The winds and currents in the north Atlantic rotate clockwise, which aided the convoy's passage from England to the Cape Verde Islands (above). But in the south Atlantic the currents and winds rotate counter-clockwise, which would resist ships trying a direct run down the west coast of Africa. So ships went southwest to the coast of South America, near Brazil, and there picked up the eastward flow to make a faster run to the Cape (above).
Having discovered the British expedition at Porto Praya, the French fleet had raced ahead to the Cape, arriving there first. The Highlander account continues:
"The expedition then sailed for the intended attack on the Cape of Good Hope; but Suffrein having arrived there before them, the attempt was abandoned, and the troops ordered to proceed to India."
Another writer states: "(Commodore Johnstone) ...though not seriously damaged was distanced in the race to the Cape. He therefore returned to England with his frigates, and sent the remainder of his ships, together with the transports, to Bombay..."
The original objective of this expedition was to capture and occupy the Cape, thus presenting England with an important strategic base on the commercial passage between Britain and India and the East Indies. Since landing the troops at the Cape was prevented, and returning them to England was a wasted effort, they were sent on to India, where the British were also in need of reinforcement. Later, in 1806, an almost identical expedition left England bound for the Cape. With no French warships to prevent it, the troops were landed and the Cape was occupied.
The British were under substantial pressure from the French in Mysore in 1780-81, and so with the warships meant only to assist the occupation of the Cape returning to England the transport and supply vessels, escorted by the remainder of Royal Navy vessels, continued on.
However, before their arrival at the Cape (above), the squadron had an encounter which would have been of extraordinary interest to Durnford, and to his fellow soldiers. It happened in an elongated bay just before arrival at the harbor at the Cape, which can be seen at the top of the above map - Suldanha Bay - on July 21st.
A description of the encounter has all the romantic flair of a Horatio Hornblower novel:
"The Dutch had, as a precaution, directed their westbound merchant fleet, laden with goods, to anchor in Saldanha Bay where they would be concealed from the British fleet. They were under orders to ground and burn their ships if the British were to appear; however they were not vigilant in their watches. One of Johnstone's frigates, flying French colours, intercepted a Dutch merchantmen that had left the bay several days earlier, heading east. From this ship Johnstone learned of the whereabouts of the Dutch fleet. Bearing off Saldanha Bay Johnstone sighted the Dutch fleet, and entered the bay flying French colors. He then raised the British ensign and opened fire, totally surprising the Dutch. The Dutch could not escape .."
One of the Dutch ships captured by the British, perhaps with Durnford watching at the rail of his transport, was the Middelburg, shown being taken in Suldanha Bay by the British warships in the above painting.
A history of the encounter provides some additonal insight of what followed:
"All Dutch shipping at the Cape – mainly richly laden East Indiamen en route to Holland – were ordered to remain together until a well protected convoy could be assembled to escort them home. As a further precaution the Governor of the Cape, Baron Joachim van Plettenberg, dispatched five of these merchantmen to Saldanha Bay, where they were ordered to shelter.
They had clear orders to ensure that under no circum�stances these vessels should be allowed to fall into English hands. Orders were also given that the ships were to be destroyed if they could not escape capture. Each captain was instructed to load his vessel with combustibles, and if capture seemed likely, to set fire to his ship. Most of the Dutch commanders and crew did not take this order seriously and treated their time in Saldanha Bay as a holiday, socialising and hunting. Captain Van Gennep of the Middelburg was the only officer to comply with these instructions by preparing his ship to be set alight.
Late in May a French frigate, the Serapis, arrived at the Cape carrying word that both French and English fleets were en route to the Cape – the former to strengthen the Dutch defences and the latter to take the Cape, if possible."
The highlander account describes what happened, stated in terms of consolation for the loss of the Cape to the French soon after:
"However, a valuable convoy of Dutch East Indiamen, who had taken shelter in Suldanha Bay, was captured there. The troops shared the prize money. Their right to share was, however, disputed by Commodore Johnstone, on the plea that the troops had not landed; but, after a lapse of many years, it was determined in their favor."
This matches the entry in Connolly's manuscript biography:
"... first capturing a valuable convoy of Dutch East Indiamen sheltered in Suldamba Bay. Troops shared the prize money. their right disputed by Commodore Johnstone as the troops had not landed: after many years the right was determined in favor of troops."
The account of the engagement gives color to the event, but also provides details on the ships in the British fleet on which Durnford traveled:
The English fleet under Commodore George Johnstone was also nearing the Cape. Unbeknown to the Dutch, Johnstone had decided to take his huge fleet – comprising of the battleships Hero (74 guns), Monmouth (64 guns), Romney (50 guns), Jupiter (50 guns) and Isis (50 guns), the frigates Apollo (38 guns), Jason (36 guns), Active (32 guns) and Diana (28 guns) – and some twenty other supporting vessels including four troop transports carrying three thousand soldiers and thirteen Indiamen – to Saldanha Bay. Johnstone entered the bay to reconnoitre, with a view to possibly landing his troops there instead of nearer Cape Town.
(Just a sidenote on the fleet identification details above. We see five major warships and four frigates named. None of these are either the "ordnance store-ship Union", from which Durnford wrote in April, nor the "Myrtle", mentioned later. It is unlikely he traveled on a merchant ship, so that eliminates the "thirteen Indiamen". This leaves one of the un-named "four troop transports" or one of the three ships in the remainder of "some twenty other supporting vessels".)
At any rate, Durnford no doubt had a front-row seat to the action that followed:
"On 21 July 1781, Commodore Johnstone, at the helm of the Romney, sailed into Saldanha Bay ahead of his fleet, his vessels again disguised by flying French flags. The bored Dutch sailors were initially jubilant, mistaking the English vessels for the long-awaited reinforcements due to escort them home. They soon realised that the pre-arranged signal had not been given and they then saw the French flags being hauled down and English colours run up. Followed by the Jason, Lark, Jupiter and the rest of the squadron, the Romney opened fire on the anchored Dutch ships. Chaos reigned. The Dutch hastily tried to set their ships alight and cut their cables to run the vessels ashore before abandoning ship. The English crews, however, were prepared for fire fighting and quickly extinguished the fires as they boarded the abandoned vessels.
The only exception was the Middelburg, where the success of Van Gennep’s preparations to destroy his vessel were assured when the first mate, Abraham de Smidt, stayed behind with the steward and a sailor to light several fires deep in the belly of the ship. The vessel was soon fiercely ablaze, and the flames spread through the hull to the powder magazine, whereupon she exploded and sank. The Middelburg was the only Dutch vessel in Saldanha Bay that day not to fall into English hands. The loss of six Indiamen and their cargoes and a number of other small vessels must have been a serious financial blow to the already struggling Dutch East India Com�pany and may well have been one of the factors that contributed to its final bankruptcy in 1796."
But while the explosion of the Dutch ship Middelburg may have been seen as a loss for the British crews, it was more of a loss than they knew:
"Another loss experienced that day was by the French naturalist, Fran�ois le Vaillant (above), later to become famous for his books on his travels in South Africa. Le Vaillant, recently arrived in the Cape aboard the Held Woltemade, had obtained an invitation from Van Gennep to sail on the Middelburg to Saldanha Bay and had taken all his possessions, including his priceless collection of natural history specimens, with him.
"On the morning of the attack, Le Vaillant was out hunting with one of the local farmers and upon hearing gunfire, hastened back to the coast. He arrived just in time to see the Middelburg go up in flames and explode. Burman and Levin quote Le Vaillant’s reaction: 'The Middelburg blew up and in a moment the sea and sky were filled with burning papers. I had thus the cruel mortification of seeing my collections, my fortune, my projects and all my hopes rise to the middle regions and evapor�ate into smoke.'”
Had Durnford, the emerging naturalist in evidence in his Bennington battlefield map, known the true depth of the destruction he was watching as the Middelburg blew up, might he have attempted to recover some of the cloud of papers lifting into the air?
In naval warfare in the 18th century a captured enemy ship could be "cashed in" for money, as a "prize". This was determined by a board and distributed according to very precise formulae. Dutch East Indiamen were often the richest prizes taken. The fact that troops, merely traveling on transport ships in a fleet partially made up with warships, could share this money seems to be based on the Royal Navy principle that any ship within sight of a capture was eligible to share in the prize award.
Given the huge number of troops potentially taking a cut of the award, it can easily be seen why Johnstone would wish to eliminate them from eligibility. Was this the subject of many heated debates on the ship on which Durnford was traveling? As an officer his cut would be greater than the common soldiers and sailors on board.
Unfortunately, the government decision upholding the troops' right to a share of the prize did not take place until May 1796, (below), citing the King's decree of 1780, too late for the many soldiers who had died by then, including Durnford.
Another account suggests this was, for the expedition, very much of a "consolation prize", and no doubt took much of the sting out be being beaten to the Cape, at least for the Navy. It states: "In 1781 a British squadron under Commodore George Johnstone seized six Dutch East Indiamen, which, fearing an attack on Cape Town, had taken refuge in Saldanha Bay. This was the only achievement, so far as South Africa was concerned, of the expedition despatched to seize Cape Town during the war of 1781-1783."
So the adventure of Durnford so far had taken him from Portsmouth on March 12th (A) by sea to the Cape Verde Islands on April 16th (B), where the convoy was attacked, then to Suldanha Bay on July 21st (C), where they captured some Dutch merchant ships, and finally past the Cape of Good Hope (D), which they avoided as it was already occupied by the French.
Durnford may have thought the objective of his expedition was the Cape when he left England nearly half a year earlier, but now he would have just stood at the rail as his ship, and the 20 others in the convoy, slipped past the coast, which would have looked much as in the 1777 illustration above. Or given the often turbulent seas of the Cape (below), he might have spent it below decks, hunkered down and letting the sailors deal with the passage.
Whether right here, or soon after passage, the convoy encountered storms, as evident from the Higlander account:
"The Myrtle transport, on board of which were Lieutenant-Colonel Macleod and Captains Macdowall and Dalyell, separated from the fleet off the Cape, and never afterwards joined."
Certainly in a convoy of this size, and in the dangerous waters of the Cape, at least one ship becoming separated in the storm would not be considered unusual.
Why this single errant ship should be of interest comes from the Connolly's manuscript service record notes for Durnford:
"D. may have parted with the Exped. in the Myrtle... which mentions D. among the officers in that ship."
If this was the case, Durnford was in for yet another unanticipated adventure, again the stuff of naval fiction - except that it really happened! The Highlander account goes on:
"This vessel had neither chart nor map; and the master being an ignorant seaman, it was owning to Captain Dalyell, who kept a kind of reckoning with deficient instruments, and no maps, but those in Guthrie's geographical grammar - that he made Madagascar, the appointed rendezvous."
Above is the very map Captain Dalyell would have used, in Guthrie's Geographical Grammar, published in 1770. Guthrie was a Scot, so one would expect his book to be aboard a shipload of Scottish Highland soldiers. The probable area where the Myrtle became lost is suggested (red oval), and the apparent rendevous of the fleet, perhaps anticipating scattering by weather at the Cape, was the Island of Madagascar (in red box, above).
But although this simplistic map was sufficient to allow the Myrtle to locate Madagascar, the trials of navigation were not over, as the Highlander account continues:
"...he made Madagascar, the appointed rendezvous. Seeing no appearance of the fleet, they again sailed, and made their way back to St. Helena. Here they procured charts, and at length reached Madras, on the 23rd of May, 1782."
The main fleet arrived in Bombay, India, on March 5th, 1782 and sailed on to Madras two months after, on April 30th. The Highlander account notes "the Myrtle not having arrived".
The route of the troop transport Myrtle (estimated above), possibly, but perhaps not probably, with Durnford on board, from late June 1781 to May 1782....an entire year! ... deserves treatment in a volume of historical fiction, because no-one would ever believe it as straight historical record. Yet it was.
Perhaps someone will dig through ships records in England and determine whether Durnford was still on this ship in the late summer of 1781. There is tantilizing evidence suggesting he was, however, with the main squadron, not the Myrtle. This evidence is found in the continuing Highlander's account:
"The scurvy attacked the troops on the voyage, which induced the Commodore to put into the Island of Joanna, where fresh provisions were abundant."
Although Googling seems to find almost anything, "Island of Joanna" could not be found, not on maps, not in websites, seemingly it did not exist. Yet the fleet stopped there in 1781! Finally a old text reference targeted it (below).
Clearly this fit with the apparent sailing plans of the fleet, which was to rendezvous at Madagascar. But they probably did not go ashore at Madagascar, and after being cooped up in ships since the Cape Verde Islands, way back on April 16th, if even then, and the lack of fresh produce, the disease of scurvy became a problem.
An account of the 72nd Highlanders, which accompanied the expedition, suggests that the voyage itself was itself as lethal as the enemy:
"...they embarked for the East Indies, amounting to 1110 rank and file, all in high health, and well disciplined. But however hardy their constitutions, and however capable of active exertions on land, they did not withstand the diseases incident to a voyage of eleven months, in bad transports, and living on food so different from that to which they had been accustomed... Before they reached Madras, on the 2nd of April, 1782, 230 men had died of scurvy; and out of the 1100 men who has sailed from Portsmouth, only 390 men were fit to carry arms when they landed."
The Comoro Island Group (above and below) was apparently a popular stopping point for British convoys, and the name "Joanna" can be seen attached to one of the islands on the 18th cntury map above. Perhaps it is the island named "Anjouan" (below) was then known, phonetically as "Joanna".
If Durnford was with this convoy, which seems as likely as him being on the Myrtle, was he astounded, when finally setting foot on land after a voyage of over half a year, at the natural beauty of Joanna Island (below)?
Well, the historical record suggests this natural beauty was deceptive. The Highlander account describes what happened:
"...put into the Island of Joanna, where fresh provisions were abundant. But, in attempting to cure one evil, they unfortunately encountered another; for, after the troops had landed, and were encamped, for the benefit of air and exercise, they caught the fever of the country, and, carrying the contagion on board, a great many of the men fell a sacrifice to it. Towards the end of September, the squadron sailed, and arrived at Bombay on the 5th of March 1782..."
The note on Desmaretz Durnford's will states: Testator died in Oct.r 1781. This of course falls between the date the convoy left Joanna Island, infected with fever, and when they arrived in India; i.e. between September 1781 and March 1782, but closer to Joanna Island than to Bombay.
Given the Corps of Engineers reference "Died in India ....1782" it had been assumed he died after the troops disembarked in India. The fact that the circumstances surrounding his death were unknown, suggested he died on land.
It is known that during the 18th century, many more soldiers died of disease than in battle. So it seemed a toss up whether Durnford died in India or not, and of disease, or not.
The proof is found in a brief notice in the Winchester Chronicle, a newspaper edition dated Monday, October 14, 1782:
"Winchester, Saturday Oct. 12.
By the last advices from the East-Indies, we hear, that Captain Demeretz Durnford (Nephew to Alderman Durnford, of this city) who went out Chief Engineer with the troops under General Meadows and Governor Johnstone, died at sea of a putrid fever on the coast of Arabia, the 20th of Oct. last. He served in America with Gen. Burgoyne, and was taken prisoner at Bennington, after making a most gallant defence, a little before the surrender at Saratoga. He was an exceeding good scholar, and acquainted with many languages, was very skillful in his profession as an Engineer, of a humane soldier-like disposition, and well beloved by all who knew him."
The "Alderman Durnford" of Winchester is George Durnford, cited below:
What this brief notice in the local paper by an affectionate uncle confirms is that, first, Durnford was the "Chief Engineer" for the entire expedition - certainly a measure of his status -, and second, that he died of disease on his endless sea voyage to India, not within the land of India as suggested by his service record. The first fact is also confirmed by Connolly who enters for the 1781 expedition "Durnford was C. Engr...".
We know, from the Higlander account, that the fleet sailed from "the Island of Joanna... toward the end of September." We know, from the newspaper item, as well as from the note written on Durnford's will, "Testator died in Oct.r 1781", that he died enroute from Joanna Island to India, and chronologically much closer to the island than to the destination. The statement "died at sea ... on the coast of Arabia" certainly means opposite the coast of Arabia, suggesting a place much further north on the transit than the five month duration of the voyage from the Comoros to Bombay would seem to suggest. But perhaps the early part of the voyage covered a great deal more distance than the average, and the fleet was slow getting from there to India. Ships were often delayed by weather, as well as military and political considerations.
So we know when Durnford died, and we know approximately where he died. But how did he die?
His uncle states he died "of a putrid fever", which is 18th century termonology for typhus; also called "ship fever" :
"Ship fever (Med.), a form of typhus fever; -- called also putrid fever, jail fever, or hospital fever."
Standard medical dictionaries provide insight into both the cause and the consequences:
"TYPHUS: a severe human febrile disease that is caused by one (Rickettsia prowazkii) transmitted especially by body lice and is marked by high fever, stupor alternating with delirium, intense headache, and a dark red rash."
Lice and fleas were were the constant companions of 18th century sailors and soldiers, but normally did not cause disease. It appears that Typhus was present on Joanna Island before the ships arrived, and vermin on the island transmitted the disease to the troops, and then once confined to the ships again, enroute to India, the vermin spread the disease.
The fact that Durnford died about three weeks after the fleet departed Joanna Island fits with the average schedule of progression of the disease, which is one to three weeks. Of course he may have already been seriously ill on land before the troops were placed back aboard.
It must not have been a pleasant passing, given the symptoms of the illness, especially when confined in a hot and stuffy ship, full of other sick and dying sailors and soldiers. A passage (below) from a novel based on Royal Navy operations in the late 18th century may well give some insights. Were these his last thoughts as well?
In my original biographical sketch, published in 1989, the details surrounding Durnford's death remained a mystery. I suggested "somewhere in India a grave holds the answer." Now we know.
Somewhere in the vast Indian Ocean (below) the last worldly evidence of the existence of "Lieut. Desmaretz Durnford, Engineer" was passed into the deep. But because of the creativity he exhibited throughout his life, his memory affords him some degree of immortality. I trust this webpage contributes to that memory.
(This remains a work in progress. Several new leads may yet add more to this story. I have left off footnotes and sources for the time being in the interest of making this more readable. Perhaps it will attract feedback and new information I have overlooked. Questions and comments may be emailed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
There are several aspects of this project which present supplemental information or could yet be explored to advantage.
Durnford Family Tree
(Note: Mary Desmaretz Durnford's Will lists the grandchildren (below) as "George William Frazer, Simon Augustus Frazer, and Ernestine Maria Frazer...", but Desmaretz Durnford's Will lists them as shown above, and the historical record confirms the names as such.
The family tree is bracketed with connections to military engineering and work in the Tower of London. Desmaretz's grandfather on his mother's side, J.P. Desmaretz, was a famous draftsman in the Tower, his father was a clerk in the Ordnance Department in the Tower, and his brother in law, Andrew Frazer, described as "a Scottish Engineer", was an assistant to J.P. Desmaretz in 1763, who was Commissary in charge of the removal of works at Dunkirk (below) in conformity with the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which ended the Seven Years War between England and France, that in America was known as the "French and Indian War".
These fortifications had been allowed with limitations under a treaty in 1713, and were greatly expanded under a treaty of 1748. But in 1763, fearing the French would use these massive fortifications to launch attacks on England, they were ordered returned to their 1713 scale. Overseeing this must have been a huge and complex responsibility, for which Durnford's grandfather was seen as best equipt.
Later in 1767 Frazer took over that role, perhaps due to the poor health of J.P. Desmaretz, who died the following year. Following the tradition, Col. Fraser's son, Augustus Simon, was a very famous engineer as well. (Note: "Frazer" is sometimes given as "Fraser".)
Lt. Desmaretz Durnford was given the surnames of his mother ("Desmaretz") and his father ("Durnford") just as his father's name Stillingfleet Durnford had combined the surname of his mother ("Stillingfleet") and of his father ("Durnford"). Lt. Durnford also was not directly related to the other Durnfords who were engineers in American service during the Revolution, although one source suggests they were cousins.
His sister, Charlotte, was the only sibling, so this line ended with his death at sea in 1781, at least as genealogy computes lines on the male side only. His sister and brother in law reportedly both died in 1792. It is recorded that Col. Fraser died on the way to Geneva, and that his wife died in Geneva. Charlotte would have been 58 years old. But her death in 1792 is in error (see following). The cause of death is unknown at this time, but the reason they were travelling to Switzerland is explained below.
There are no known images of any of Durnford's immediate family**, but there is one of his brother in law, Andrew Frazer (above).
**Recently images of Andrew Frazer and his wife, Charlottle Durnford Frazer, Desmaretz's sister, have come to light and are described at the end of this webopage in more detail.
His sister's husband has a long list of engineering accomplishments to his credit. He was made a Burgess of Edinburgh "in recognition of his services to King and Country in general, to this city in particular in the line of his profession."
Perhaps the most dramatic accomplishment to the credit of Lt. Durnford's brother-in-law is St. Andrew's Church in Edinburgh, Scotland (above), for which he was the architect! The Town Council held a competition for the design, and "Captain Andrew Frazer" was the winner. It was founded in 1781, the year Lt. Durnford died, and opened in 1784.
And from an architectural standpoint, it stands out because it is one of a slim tradition in the world of elliptical churches. Breaking the tradition of rectangular church design (below, left) we can see examples where an elliptical interior design is inserted into a rectangular structure (below, center). But Frazer took it all the way to where the entire structure is elliptical in design (below, right).
This was the first elliptical church built in Great Britain! The steeple was added in 1787, while Frazer was deployed to the West Indies.
All this has nothing directly to do with Lt. Desmaretz Durnford, except that when this church was being designed and built, between 1783 and 1784, his sister, Charlotte, with whom he must have had a close attachment as his only sibling, and her husband lived a couple doors down the street, at No. 5 George Street, the church being at No. 13. But since Durnford died in 1781, he probably never visited them there unless the Frazers moved immediately to Edinburgh on their marriage in 1773. If so, it is very likey Durnford's first travel outside England was to Scotland.
Frazer was returned to active military service as an engineer when the church was finished, and perhaps beforehand, his designs being his crucial contribution. But the end of his career was not as brilliant as his tenure as architect in Scotland:
"Unfortunately his service in the West Indies, where he was sent in 1785, was to have a less happy outcome and ended in his being cashiered in 1792.... In 1788 he became a Colonel and worked on the fortifications of Barbados, Grenada and Antigua. Unfortunately he had received no written orders for the work on the latter two islands and was summoned back to England to be tried in 1791."
In spite of supporting testimony from his fellow engineers "Frazer was cashiered in 1792, leaving the country almost immediately. He died and was buried at Chalons (France) on his way to Geneva."
Researching Andrew Frazer is an exercise in misinformation. One biographical sketch, published in Edinburgh in the 19th century, with an engraving of the man (below, left, dated 1785) cites his death as being in 1795.
But even more strange is that it states (above) that Frazer married a French woman who had an author sister. We know, however, he married Charlotte Durnford, Desmaretz Durnford's sister, and she had no sisters. It correctly cites the illustrous career of Charlotte and Andrew's son, Augustus Simon (above, right), but suggests that the other son, George William, was a failure who died in Switzerland. Switzerland is, of course, significant in the Frazer family as Andrew was on his way there when he died in 1792, and George's mother, Charlotte, according to some sources, died there "in 1792". There is in the British Archives a "Will of George William Frazer of Paris" which may well be evidence of this other son. It is dated 1832.
The supposedly good son, Augustus, was apparently suddenly left behind in England without parents in 1792, and that same year, at just age 17, entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich as a "Gentleman Cadet", and went on to a brilliant career in the Royal Artillery. But his mother had not died!
By good fortune, we have the text of both the will of Charlotte Durnford Frazer and her husband Andrew Frazer, preserved in the probate records in England. And from these documents we can clarify some of the misinformation the published biographies and histories contain.
Charlotte Durnford Frazer's Will
18th Century Vienna
The will of Lt. Durnford's sister, proved in London on the 15th of January 1824, is headed as "Charlotte Frazer otherwise Charlotte Durnford Frazer", and from the body of the probate description it appears establishing her name as such was important. The opening is as follows:
"I Charlotte Frazer, daughter of Stillingfleet Durnford Esq of the Tower of London, residing for many years at Vienna in Austria... the will of my late husband Colonel Andrew Frazer's will dated at Tortola in the West Indies the twenty eighth day of September in the Year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety one..."
This reference to living in Vienna is interesting because one of the published biographical notes claims that her daughter, Maria Ernestine Frazer, lived in Vienna. But according to the historical record Charlotte died in Geneva in 1792. Obviously she was still alive at the time she wrote her will in 1824. And she goes one to cite the other members of her family:
"...and to my dearly beloved children, George William Frazer, Sir Augustus Simon Frazer, Maria Ernestine Frazer to be divided between them share and share alike..."
And she adds a "Codicil" that confirms the notation about her son George's residence:
"My dear son George William Frazer (---) died at Paris (--) the writing(?) of the above will viz. in the month of March 1821..."
And in further confirmation that George William died, she continues:
"...my property in (---), in lieu of being divided into three shares, is to be equally divided between my two surviving children, Colonel Sir Augustius Simon Frazer and Maria Ernestine Frazer..."
The date of Charlotte's will is confirmed by the closing phrase of this codicil:
"...as inserted in the will, witness my hand at Vienna this thirtieth day of January in the Year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and twenty two..."
So Durnford's sister did not die in Geneva in 1792, but in Vienna after 1822. The next section is headed "Translated from German" and confirms the will was proved in Austria on the 8th of November, 1823. Did she go to Vienna to live near or with her daughter, who reportedly lived there, after her husband's death in 1792? Impossible to confirm at this point.
Major Frazer's Will
We examine Andrew Frazer's will in so far as it sheds light of the history of his wife, Charlotte, who was Desmaretz Durnford's sister. Recall that Charlotte and Andrew Frazer were married in 1773, while Durnford was still in England, so he no doubt attended the wedding.
"I Andrew Frazer of the Corps of Engineers going immediately to embark for England and sensible of the uncertainty of this life do make this my last Will and Testament having already disposed to my dearly beloved wife Charlotte Durnford Frazer my House and Stables in George Street Edinburgh in the month of November 1785 I now confirm the same. My Will further is that she shall have all the furniture, plate & more Etc together with my carriage and all effects or money whatsover..."
This confirms they lived on George Street, as indicated in the biographical entry, had a property of considerable status, and he had turned over his interest in that to his wife when he left Edinburgh to take his assignment in the West Indies in 1785. He goes on to bequeath considerable items to his own family, the Frazers, plus items to each of his children. And closes with:
"Witness my hand at Tortola this twenty eighth of September one thousand seven hundred and ninety one years..."
Less than a year later he would be dead!
Tortola is the largest island in the British Virgin Islands (above) and he had been summoned to sail back to England to stand trial for his misdeeds in the West Indies. Being found guilty and stripped of his military career, the next summer, 1792, he started through France on the way to Geneva, and died. His will was proved on November 30th, 1792.
Why was he on the way to Geneva, when his wife, apparently, still lived in Edinburgh? Or did she? Perhaps she was already in Vienna. Or perhaps she moved there after learning of her husband's death. And the will reveals nothing of his "French wife" the biographical sketch suggested.
We have no surviving image of Charlotte. The closest we can get is the two images (above) of her husband. But we have evidence another member of the family left behind an image of himself, and in Durnford's immediate line; namely his grandfather.
His mother's will cites a portrait of her father (below):
"To George William Frazer beside the above mentioned hundred pounds I give his Great Grandfather's picture, the later Colonel J P Desmaretz..."
What became of this picture, perhaps a miniature like that above, is unknown. But if George William was down on his luck, as suggested, and died before any of the rest of his family in Paris, the picture may have ended up in a Paris pawn shop, and certainly was not easily recovered by the family from Vienna.
George William Frazer's Will
18th Century Paris
The text of this will is preseved in the British Archives, titled in their listing as "Will of George William Frazer of Paris." But it is a bit unusual. It does not follow the normal and more formal format of a standard English will of the period, and is more like a statement, or even a letter.
The heading of the will (above) is a text that claims to be a "Litoral Copy of the Will of Mr. Frazer". It also states it has been "Translated from the French" (A). This suggests he did in fact live in Paris, as other references suggested. A date of "6th November 1809" (B) is given at the top, and in the body of the opening it states "the sixth of November one thousand eight hundred and nine", suggesting this is the date of the will. (We will come back to this point.)
At the right margin is a note (C), which appears to relate to an asterisk in the body of the will after the name "Catherine Porter+" and elaborates that as "+Daughter of Jacob and Catherine Porter".
As best can be made out, the opening of the will reads as:
"...as I have (--) the foolish presumption to believe that their lives will be of long duration and the childishness to drive away all ideas which remind them of death, many die without putting their affairs in order or of declaring their last wishes I (--) I leave at my decease all my (ready money?) and all furniture found in (---etc---)... that I should quit this life for a life (--) more peaceful unto Catherine Porter+ born (--) of (--) in the canton of Berne in Switzerland of whom I am Godfather..."
This extract indicates he leaves everything to a Catherine Porter of Switzerland, and not to any of his family. It is noted that it was to Geneva, Switzerland, that his father was apparently traveling in 1792 when he died. The connection remains a puzzle.
And where we might expect this will to have continued, it ends! The next notation states "(SEAL) Signed George William Frazer".
The next text states: "At foot is written Registered at Paris the seventh of April one thousand eight hundred and tweny one..."
A note appended at the bottom of this translated will (above) shows the estate was settled in 1825 and the wishes of George William were not carried out:
"On the 21st June 1825 admin. (--) of the goods chattel & effects of George William Frazer late of the Rue du Faubourg* du Roule in the (--) of France Bachelor deceased was granted to Sir Augustus Simon Frazer (--) the natural & lawful brother ...(etc)."
*Rue du Faurbourg is a street in the Montmartre district of Paris.
So this matches the timeline revealed in his mother's will. His will was apparently written in 1809. She states, in 1825 that he died in 1821. The date of this will being registered in Paris, given above, is 1821. And it was in 1825 that her son, Augustus Simon, came forward to claim George's property.
Note that the issue of George William Frazer's existence must have been a matter of some import, since he was, reportedly, the eldest son of Andrew and Charolotte Frazer, and therefore stood to inherit before August Simon (above). The fact that the "bad son" stood in the way of the "good son" getting his inheritance must have been frustrating. Especially since Charlotte Durnford Frazer's wealth was considerable given she got everything from her parents' estate and her brother's as well.
First, given that Durnford's major assignment between his repatriation after Bennington, in 1779, and his final overseas assignment to India in 1781, was the engineering of the new fortification at Fishguard, in Wales, (below) we might expect to find some documentary evidence of that activity.
Connolly's manuscripts suggest there may be more to discover:
"July 26. Ordered by Col. Dixon to go to Fishguard to examine soundings of harbour & fix on a site for a battery..see his report. xx.59"
Whether the "report" cited was by Durnford or by Dixon is not clear, and it may yet be discovered.
However, from the entry above, dated at about the time he would have ordered Durnford to Fishguard, we see a reference to a "An officer of high reputation, an engineer now in the service, Colonel Dixon." Surely more than a coincidence.
The location where the fortifications planned by Durnford were erected in 1781 became even more significant a few years after when the French attacked it (below):
The Battle of Fishguard was a military invasion of Great Britain by Revolutionary France, a brief campaign, which took place between 22 February and 24 February 1797. This was the most recent effort by a foreign force that was able to land on Britain, and thus is often referred to as the "last invasion of Britain".
City of Rochester?
Also, by just taking a peek at the family he left behind, in 1781, we find some tantalizing clues that may reveal more of his life.
His father, obviously, had died before 1781 when he wrote his will. At the proving of that will in late 1782, his mother is recognized as "Mary Durnford Widow the Mother of the deceased". The fact that the witness to the authenticity of his signature was "Mary Gestter, Spinster, of Rochester in the County of Kent" had suggested he lived there for a considerable time, perhaps as a lodger while serving at the Corps of Engineers in Chatham, across the way.
A reading of his mother's will (above), written in 1786, brings additional light to this idea. The will begins:
"In the Name of God Amen, I Mary Desmaretz Durnford of the City of Rochester Widow..."
So his mother was a resident of the same city he seems to have lived in some time before his death. Could it be the family was, in fact, established in Rochester, Kent, for a considerable time? And if so, does this suggest another new avenue of research?
"Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School (above, prior to its relocation) is a boys' grammar school with academy status in Rochester, Kent, often known as Rochester Math or The Math. It was founded by the 17th-century politician Sir Joseph Williamson, who left �5,000 to set up the school and another in Thetford in Norfolk. The school was called a mathematical school because it specialised in teaching navigation and mathematics to the sons of freemen of the city of Rochester, the Chatham Naval Dockyard being nearby."
Will we find Desmaretz Durnford on lists of students there in the 1760s?
Mary Durnford's Will - proved December 15th, 1789.
A further reading of his mother's will, which was proved in London in 1789, reveals interesting clues about her husband, Desmaretz's father Stillingfleet Durnford.
"...that I may with as much privacy as possible be directly buried as near as conveniently can be to the remains of my well beloved husband the late Stillingfleet Durnford in the Chapel of the Tower of London, but should this request be impossible I desire to be deposited in the parish church where I may happen to be at the time of my decease..."
This reference to the "Tower of London" recalls the occupation given for Stillingfleet Durnford, that he worked for ten years in the Ordnance Department. Another source states he "lived at the Tower of London", but this is one of those mass genealogy database websites where anything can be entered with little confirmation in primary sources (see notes following below).
Mary's will continues:
"The fortune left me by my late husband by the death of my dearly beloved son Desmaretz Durnford and the Will of Mr. Stillinglfeet Durnford becomes the sole and entire property of Mrs. Charlotte Frazer, Daughter of Stillingfleet and Mary Durnford - Wife of Major Andrew Frazer of the Corps of Engineers.."
This merely confirms family facts we already knew. But the details of the will of Desmaretz's mother accounts for considerable wealth in money and property, to be distributed to Mary's grandchildren, by her daughter Charlotte. Her use of the word "fortune" (above) is not unwarranted (see notice below of her death):
The question was what is the reference to the "Chapel of the Tower of London" about? The answer was obtained from the "Yeoman Warder (Beefeater), Her Majesty's Palace and Fortress, The Tower of London" as follows:
"He was buried at the Tower of London 8/2/1778 and a Mary Durnford from Rochester was buried 25/11/1789."
In response to the question of whether status, political connections or his employment would have qualified him, and his wife, for burial there, it was suggested that "status was an important factor, however many years of emplyment there would have helped the process."
Stillingfleet Durnford's Will proved February 13, 1778
The signature of Stillingfleet Durnford on an Indenture dated February 1, 1777, when his son was being held captive near Boston, between "Colonel Sir Rowland Alston and Stillingford Durnford of the Tower of London" (displayed on a website of "The Konia Collection - Authentic Finds from Hawaii's past"). Note that he is still identified as "of the Tower of London" even though his biographical entry given above on this webpage states he left Tower service in 1768.
Yet primary evidence, namely the will of Stillingfleet Durnford (above) suggests he worked there well beyond 1768, as he described himself as "Stillingfleet Durnford of the Office of Ordnance in the Tower of London" on January 4th, 1775.
A year after he signed this Indenture, he was dead, the will being proved February 13th, 1778.
Connolly in his manuscript history of the Corps of Engineers states Durnford:"With 73 Regt. - Joined Exped. fitting out at Portsmouth under Meadows & Commodre. Johnstone for Cape. Jan. 1781:"
Tracing the history of the 73rd takes a few twists and turns. The 1st Battalion 73rd (Highland) Regiment of Foot (MacLeod's Highlanders) was raised in Scotland in 1777, as Durnford was fighting for his life in a field on the American frontier at Walloomsac, New York. A second battalion was raised in 1778. The regiment served in Gambia in West Africa in 1779 and in the Second Anglo-Mysore War "from 1780 where they served alongside the 2nd/42nd Highlanders who would become the future 73rd Foot" after 1782.
The 2nd/42nd Highlanders Regiment was raised in 1780 as the 2nd Battalion, 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot, with eight officers from the 1st Battalion being detached to help raise the new battalion. "In 1781 the they were sent to India" where in 1782 they saw action in the Second Anglo-Mysore War.
So an avenue to searching for details of Durnford's experiences in 1781, on the expedition to India, seems linked to one of the above regimental histories. ((Pending deciphering the fragmentary histories cited above.))
New material added 1/2015.
I don't think we can overestimate the closeness of Desmaretz to his sister, and only sibling, Charlotte. In his will, written before his final embarkation in February 1781, he disposes first of property to his sister and her children, and secondarily to his mother, his only other living family member.
At the time of his will, his sister had been married to Col. Andrew Frazer for just eight years. And it is through the Frazer lineage that two hand-sized portraits of the couple have come to light (below).
Courtesy of a private collection, UK.
These portraits were perhaps done on the ocasion of their marriage in 1773. The image of Col. Frazer reveals the same man displayed in the larger painting (below), painted by Johann Zoffany.
But of course the prize in this discovery is the portrait of the Colonel's wife, Charlotte - Desmaretz Durnford's sister!
This is the face of the woman who perhaps knew Desmaretz better than any other person and who was closest to him to the end. And this is probably as close as we will ever get to seeing him as she saw him. We can only imagine what those eyes had seen and what resemblence that face may perhaps have had to the man remembered in this tribute.