Thomas was born on 13th August 1837 in Radcliffe on Trent, the eldest son of David Rolleston and Mary Richmond; they had married on 26th December 1836. He had two brothers Albert born 1840, Samuel born 1845 and a sister Jane born 1843.
Thomas’s father David, a basketmaker, died in 1849 and his mother in 1851. Mary’s sisters, Ann, Rebecca and Jane took over the care of the children.
In 1851 Thomas was a servant boy with the Raworth family of Bingham Road, his paternal aunt’s family, and in 1861 he was working as an apprentice to his uncle, William Roulston, near Castle Donington where basket making was extending into the manufacture of cane furniture.
By August 1862 Thomas had sailed for the United States and joined the Unionist Army in the Civil war. It is not known the reasons for his decision though in later life he would maintain he was violently opposed to slavery. About 50,000 men from the British Isles fought in the Civil War, though most of those were Irish, Scottish and Welsh. It was estimated only about 10,000 were English and many were already living in the US. He signed up for the 5th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry, Company H.
The 5th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry had agreed to serve the government for an initial period of nine months and were mustered at Camp Lander, Wenham, south of Boston, Massachusetts, Company H on September 16th 1862. They moved to Boston on October 22nd and were transported about 800 miles on the steamer “Mississippi” to New Berne in North Carolina and on to Washington arriving there on 31st October.
Company H saw service during the following conflicts:
Maj. Gen. John G Foster
Foster’s Expedition to Williamston November 2-12, 1862.
Duty at New Bern till December 10. New Bern was captured from the Confederates in 1862 and a camp of around 10,000 freed slaves was set up by the Trent River.
Foster’s Expedition to Goldsboro December 11-20; action at Kinston December 14 and Whitehall December 16, reaching their target, Goldsboro on December 17, where they unsuccessfully attempted to take over the railroad junction with extensive losses.
Duty at New Bern until June 1863 with action at Deep Gully, New Berne, March 13-14, operations on the Pamlico April 4-6, an expedition to the relief of Washington April 7-10, Kinston April 27-May 1, Wise’s Cross Roads April 28, a demonstration on Kinston May 20-23, and Gum Swamp May 22.
Embarked on the steamship “Guide” for Boston June 22-25, and there mustered out July 2, 1863.
His next period of service during the civil war was with the 14th Maine Infantry, Company I. It appears that he joined his new regiment around July 31st 1863 when they had moved to Washington, D.C.
General Philip Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign August 7-November 28:
Berryville September 3-4, Battle of Opequan, Winchester September 19. Victory here was a turning point in the Campaign.
Fisher’s Hill September 22 and Battle of Cedar Creek October 19, a victory for the Union. At Cedar Creek until November 9. Moved to Kernstown until November 24. Guarded train to Martinsburg.
Moved to Camp Russell December 1, and duty there to December 22.
Veterans and Recruits consolidated to a Battalion of four Companies, and served at Stevenson’s Depot to January 6 1865. Moved to Savannah, Georgia, January 6-20, with General Sherman and 60,000 troops. On duty there until May 6. During this time many thousand slaves were freed and given land. March to Augusta, Georgia, May 6-14, and return to Savannah May 31-June 7.
Darien June 9-10, and duty there until August 28. Mustered out August 28, 1865
According to the memoir dictated to John Cullen Vicar of St Mary’s Church in 1907 he continued service until the civil war ended. Only the second page of the memoir now exists, however most of the details of Thomas’ service is available in USA records and they do confirm the accuracy of his memory.
He was unable to find employment and after a short period in Boston in a Home for Soldiers he enlisted in the Regular Army, 3rd Regiment, D Company, US Infantry on 17th November 1865 in Boston, Massachusetts; he is described in the USA Army records as a basket maker from Nottinghamshire with hazel eyes, fair hair and complexion, height 5ft 5½inches. It confirms his discharge on 28th November 1868 from Fort Zarah, Kansas.
Historical records for Fort Zarah confirm that there were skirmishes with local native American tribes exactly as described, the Kiawa and the Comanche. Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson were at Fort Zarah during his period of service there.
He arrived back in the UK on December 21st 1868 and married Elizabeth Thraves in June 1869. For a short period the family were living on Goose Gate in Nottingham and described in the 1871 census as flour, fruit and provisions dealers. However by June of that year they had returned to Radcliffe. The will of his aunt, Ann Richmond, signed at that time, states that Thomas and Elizabeth were living with her and taking care of both her and her smallholding. She died on 1st December 1871 and he was the only beneficiary. He inherited the tenancy of the cottage on Vicarage Lane and several fields both to the east and south east.
Thomas and Elizabeth had 2 children Harry, born 1871 and Ann Mary known as Polly. Harry, described on the 1891 census as a professional cricketeer, had moved to Bromsgrove, Worcs where he married and had 4 daughters and a son. Harry’s wife Ellen died after a long illness in 1909. Their daughters however lived in Radcliffe with their grandparents and aunt and are recorded in the 1901 census on Vicarage Lane. A Radcliffe on Trent school exercise book from 1901 confirms Florrie was a pupil.
It may have been this increase in the size of his family that was the incentive for his application sometime before 1906 for a disability pension from the US government which he did receive. Unfortunately all the correspondence was recently destroyed.
Before the First World War the cottage was being run as tea gardens and when the Manvers estate was being sold in 1920 Thomas purchased the cottage and land for £500.
Thomas died 15th March 1923 and his wife Elizabeth 4 months later on 26th July 1923.
The cottage remained a tea garden until the 1950’s run by Thomas’s daughter Polly until her death in 1947, when Harry’s daughter Florrie inherited the cottage.
Click here to read Thomas’s memoir