Thursday, January 21, 2016

John Alexander, 4th Regiment of Foot, heard the important Article

We know very little about John Alexander, but what we know is provides some insight about the legal aspects of enlistment into the British army. He enlisted in the 4th (King's Own) Regiment of Foot, probably on 14 November 1777, in Philadelphia. It was unusual for men in America to enlist into regular British regiments during the war. Most who wished to join the army in America enlisted into the many Loyalist corps raised to augment the British army.

It's possible that Alexander was a deserter from the Continental army; a soldier named John Alexander went missing from the 5th Pennsylvania after the battle of Brandywine, but the name was common enough that we can't assume it is the same man. Several hundred men deserted from American service in the Philadelphia region in late 1777, discouraged by the string of defeats that Washington's army suffered. A substantial portion of those men are known to have enlisted into Loyalist regiments. It is entirely plausible that a few enlisted into regular British regiments, particularly if they were men with prior British army service. John Alexander may have been an escaped prisoner of war, a returned deserter, or even a veteran who had been discharged and wished to enlist again.

Whatever his background, Alexander was a British soldier from November 1777 until 4 March 1778 when he deserted. He took his spare clothing with him, but not his musket.

On 10 June, as the British were preparing to leave Philadelphia, a patrol of dragoons from the Queen's Rangers, one of the most storied Loyalist regiments, went out of Philadelphia to investigate a report that people coming in to the market from the countryside were being robbed by rebels. The dragoons scoured some woods were the rebels were reported to be hiding. One of them came upon a man "dressed in blue Coat & red Waistcoat with a Gold button and Loop to his hat, standing with a Woman," holding a musket with the butt resting on the ground. The dragoon was able to approach fairly close and challenge the man, brandishing his sword. The man claimed to be a member of the New Jersey militia, and the dragoon took him prisoner.

The militia man was put into the new jail in Philadelphia with other rebel prisoners, but was lodged in a dungeon with suspected deserters. He tried to escape by tunneling through the floor. It was his particular misfortune, however, that the jailer happened to be the former drum major of the 4th Regiment of Foot, who recognized Alexander and questioned him. Alexander initially denied his name and having met the former drum major, but when the jailor struck him with a cane Alexander admitted to both things. He was transferred to the old jail and held there with other deserters.

Preparing to march from Philadelphia to New York occupied the time of the army's administration, so Alexander was kept in confinement until the move to New York was completed; it is not known how the prisoner was conveyed. He went before a general court martial on 24 July in Brooklyn. A serjeant of the 4th Regiment testified to Alexander's enlistment, and deposed that he'd received pay and clothing from the regiment - in other words, that the army had fulfilled its obligations of the enlistment contract. An officer and a trooper of the Queen's Rangers described Alexander's capture.

Put on his defense, John Alexander gave an interesting argument. He claimed that he had not been properly enlisted and assumed himself to be only a volunteer, free to leave at any time he pleased. If he could prove this, he would have a valid case and could not be considered a deserter. He called upon a corporal in the 4th Regiment and the court questioned him:

Was Alexander ever attested as a soldier, that is, did a magistrate attest that he was legally enlisted? The corporal did not know. That worked in Alexander's favor.

Did the corporal have any doubt about the legality of Alexander's enlistment? "Not the least." Bad for Alexander.

"Did he ever hear the Prisoner say whilst he was with the 4th Regt. that he never had been attested?" "Yes he has frequently heard him say so." That was favorable for Alexander; he'd complained about not being attested, and the corporal knew it.

"Does he know of the Prisoner having ever heard the Articles of War read?" This was important, because the Articles of War spelled out the army's obligations to the soldier, and vice versa; hearing them read would mean that Alexander was aware of the laws governing enlistment and desertion. "Not the whole, but he had heard such as Circumstances would occasionally admit of." Not a clear answer. Apparently Alexander had heard only some of the Articles, those which pertained to specific events.

"Did the prisoner ever receive pay as a Soldier?" This was crucial. Alexander said that he'd never been paid, and therefore was under no obligation to the army. The corporal replied, "He received Pay from the Witness himself." Now things looked bad for Alexander.

"Does he know of the Prisoner having heard the 1st Article of War of the 6th Section read?" This Article was important for this particular case. It read,

The Penalty of Desertion: All Officers and Soldiers, who having received Pay, or having been duly inlisted in the Service, shall be convicted of having deserted the same, shall suffer death, or such other Punishment as by a Court-martial shall be inflicted. 

Notice that is says "received pay" OR "inlisted", not AND. Although he denied it, Alexander had done one of these things, received pay. As for having heard the Article, the corporal said that Alexander "has heard it frequently & the Witness himself had told him that he must look upon himself as a Soldier in His Majesty’s Service, as much as if he had been attested before a Magistrate in England."

Things looked very bad for Alexander now, but he put his own question to the corporal, perhaps in the hope of convincing the court that his enlistment was not properly handled: "Did the Prisoner ever receive any Bounty or inlisting Money?" The corporal did not know abou that, but had told him that the enlistment bounty was Guinea and a half. This was similar to peacetime enlistment bounties in Great Britain, but less than typical bounties offered there in 1778. Maybe that's what Alexander's complaint was about; perhaps he'd heard from other recruits about higher bounties. The corporal also indicated that he'd given Alexander "about three quarters of a Dollar which he had at three different times."

Alexander told the court that he'd received only a Pistereen from the corporal, "and that having lent the Corporal money, he thought that that was given him part of Payment." He said that he did not intend to desert, but had gone for wood and was captured, put into jail, and consented to join the militia to escape confinement. He explained that he'd seen the Loyalist dragoons and hidden from his comrades so that he could surrender, and that after he was in captured he sent word to the 4th Regiment so that he could return to their service.

The court was not impressed by John Alexander's testimony, particularly in light of statements by a witness that he himself had called. He was found guilty, and sentenced to death.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Three Brave Army Wives

Learning about British soldiers of the American Revolution is challenging: Muster rolls give us their names, but personal information is harder to come by. It is even more difficult to learn about their wives. From documents like provision receipts and embarkation returns, we know the numbers of women who accompanied British regiments; some ten to twenty percent of British soldiers were not only married but had their wives with them in America (other wives stayed behind in Great Britain; we have no way of knowing how many). There are no lists of names of these women. From time to time we encounter stories about them, and some of those stories reveal bravery, perseverance and devotion. Here are three:

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Garrett Barron, 29th Regiment, keeps the best Public House

At the end of a long career, a British soldier had a decision to make. When he was discharged, he could go to London and stand before the out-pension examining board at Chelsea Hospital, in the hope of being awarded a pension that would provide a small but steady income for the rest of his life. He could reenlist, either in another marching regiment if he was fit enough, or in one of the many garrison battalions that maintained installations throughout Great Britain. In some cases he could accept a grant of land in a far-away place that the British government was trying to settle; men who enlisted for service in the American Revolution, for example, were offered land grants in Nova Scotia (men were eligible for these grants if they'd enlisted after 16 December 1775 and had served for at least three years).

Or, he could leave all of these options behind and pursue a life of his own choosing. Tempting though the other offers were, a man with a homestead to return to, a trade that he was fit to practice, or connections in an place he had visited during his career might seek a future of his own choosing. That's what Garrett Barron did. He landed in Quebec in 1776 as a thirty-two year old corporal in the 29th Regiment of Foot. He was born in the parish of Davidstown in County Wicklow, Ireland, and had joined the army at the age of sixteen or seventeen. After serving three years in the 18th Regiment of Foot, he joined the 29th Regiment of Foot, the corps in which he would spend the rest of his career.

Much of that career was spent in North America. The regiment sailed from Corke, Ireland to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1765. Along with the 14th Regiment, the 29th famously moved to Boston in 1768. Townspeople already inflamed by unacceptable government policies aggressively showed their resentment to the troops, and tensions culminated in the Boston Massacre in March 1770. There's no evidence that Barron was directly involved in any altercations, but he surely knew the soldiers who were. The regiment was moved out of town, first to New Jersey and then to Florida where the harsh climate claimed a number of lives. Garrett Barron not only didn't succumb to disease, but advanced in rank, being appointed corporal in 1772. The following year the regiment's overseas tour ended, and the 29th returned to Great Britain for what the soldiers probably assumed would be a long period of rest and recovery.

It was not to be. When the British government committed to a protracted war in America, several regiments including the 29th were ordered to Canada. They arrived in Quebec at the beginning of summer in 1776, and immediately dislodged an American force that had the city under siege. They pursued down the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain, liberating posts along the way that had been captured the previous autumn. By October, the 29th Regiment was embarked on board a makeshift fleet of warships assembled on the lake to drive a similar, but weaker, American force off of those waters before the onset of winter. In the battle of Valcour Island, several soldiers of the 29th were killed. Brown, now a serjeant, received a wound in his thigh that required a lengthy recovery. He was reduced to a private soldier, probably to allow a healthy man to take his place as serjeant. The 29th spent the remainder of the war primarily in garrisons along the Richelieu, sending out detachments that were involved in many actions that are overlooked by most histories but which were very real to the soldiers participating in them. By 1781 he'd advanced to serjeant again.
 
In spite of the long, cold winters and rugged conditions that characterized rural Canada, Barron grew fond enough of the region to settle there when he was discharged from the army in June of 1784. He obtained land and established a farm at Caldwell Manor, Quebec, at the head of the Richelieu River just over the border from the new United States. His regiment had spent several years in the area, and he was certainly quite familiar with the place. He married a local woman (apparently his second marriage, although no details are known of the first). Being on the main route to Montreal and Quebec city, they took in north- or south-bound travelers. One of their guests in November 1787 was an officer of the 29th Regiment with whom Barron had served, who recorded in his diary:
 
we Rowed as far as Barrons farm where we stopped to breakfast and were entertained with very excellent Tea and sausages. The owner of the house was an old acquaintance of mine having been a Sergeant in the 29th Regt many Years. His house is extremely neat and clean and is by far the best Public house on the whole Communication between Albany and Montreal.
 
In spite of having established such a comfortable situation, Barron sold his property and moved into the wilderness; his father-in-law did the same, and they settled on adjacent properties in Hinchinbrook, a settlement forty miles directly west of Caldwell Manor. An 1888 history of the region offers a little bit about his life there:
 
Garret Barron was an Irish Protestant, from the county Wexford, and had served in the army. During the American war he rose to be quarter-master's sergeant of his regiment, and, at the close of the struggle, got his discharge and a grant of land in Caldwell's manor, where he became very comfortable. One of his neighbors was John Nichols, from the English side of the Borders, and his daughter he married as his second wife. When, father and son-in-law sold their places on the Champlain and moved into Hinchinbrook Barron (called captain from his rank in militia) when asked why he moved, gave as his reason that he wanted to be again in the woods. Barron squatted on 33 and Nichols on 34. Mrs Barron felt very lonesome in her new home, when her husband remarked that with 5 gallons of rum she had all the company needed. Like all old soldiers of that time, he was fond of his dram, but never got intoxicated. He was tall, over 6 feet, and in his prime must have been a powerful man. He was rough-spoken, and fond of contradiction, and especially prone to controversy with Presbyterians (he was an Episcopalian) and Catholics. There were two large stones, one on each side of his door, on one or other of which he was generally to be found in fine weather, ready for a talk with the first passer-by. He left work to his sons, and they lived poorly, as was indicated by his remark to a stranger whom he had invited to share their dinner, "Eat away; it will be long before you get as good a meal again," the bill of fare beginning and ending with potatoes and milk. Despite his provoking mode of speech, he was at heart a kindly man, and ready to share his last loaf with a neighbor. He was a Freemason and regularly attended the lodge at Chateaugay, N.Y., which he continued to call by its old name of Seventhtown.
 
When war visited the region in 1813, the almost-seventy-year-old Barron determined to be of assistance:
 
The loyal soul of old Barron was stirred by the tidings that the Americans had at last crossed on to British soil, and stiffened as were his arms he thought he could deal one more blow for his king and country. Keeping quiet his purpose, he one night took possession of his father-in-law's horse, the only one in the settlement, and getting on its back, clad in his old regimentals and his sergeant's sword by his side, struck through the woods to gain the British camp by the Chateaugay. When Nichols went out in the morning to his barn, he discovered his loss and guessed the perpetrator of it. Running into the shanty he cried to his wife, "Barron's gone to the camp and taken the old mare, and won't bring back even a hair of her tail." In this he erred, for both Barron and the mare came back safe and sound, the former much disappointed that he failed to reach the British lines until after the fighting was over.
 
This sounds like a typical fanciful tale, but it is corroborated by a report from the Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the advance guard that was pursuing a retreating American force. The officer's report indicates not only that Barron was useful as a guide, in gathering intelligence, and in procuring provisions, but that his wife (who was nineteen years younger than he) made use of her non-combatant gender and local connections to gather intelligence:
 
In obedience to your orders, I proceeded, in advance of your party, at 8 o'clock on the morning of the 24th, with Capt. Barron, by the road followed by Gen. Hampton's army in their retreat, and, from near the Lines, went eastward to the first house, from whence I sent a man, under pretext of business, towards Four Corners, to ascertain, as far as possible, the strength of the enemy's force, the position of the pickets, &c, and to return to me at Capt. Barron's. From thence, I proceeded to Capt. Barron's, where we got at 4 o'clock p.m. He sent his wife across the Lines 5 miles, for one Hollenback (from whom he has occasionally received intelligence), in order that he might affirm before me on oath his losses by the Indians, for which Colonel Boucherville promised remuneration. Mrs Barron returned at 8 o'clock, saying that Hollenback having killed a heifer, had baked it, and was gone to the camp to sell it in pieces, and that on his return, which was hourly expected, his father would send him forward...

Capt. Barron was to have followed me down as soon as Hollenback came to his house. I presume he will be here to-day, and I will report to you the information he has got from Hollenback.

Apprehensive that your men would be short of provisions, I caused Capt. Barron to send his son and another with 3 head of cattle.
 
Garrett Barron lived for another twenty-two years. After twenty-three years in the army, and another fifty-one as a farmer in Canada, two marriages and eight children, he died in 1835. The funeral provided one last anecdote related to this loyal old soldier:
 
Dying at a great age, he was buried on his own lot. At his funeral, old Mr. Gentle got annoyed at the long continued hammering, for there were no screws then, in putting on the coffin-lid, and exclaimed, "That will do." "Abundance of law is no breaking of it," retorted the carpenter, a bachelor named Fisher, as he drove in another nail. None of Barron's descendants remain in the county.

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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Richard Roberts, 33rd Regiment, Gets a Break

There's a perception that British officers were totally aloof from the common soldiers they commanded. While military discipline and bearing required that officers maintain a degree of separation in order to maintain authority, wise officers were invested in the welfare of their men and took their personal well-being seriously. It's not unusual to find writings by officers that casually mention individual soldiers. When officers commanded individuals from their own neighborhoods, letters home sometimes include requests to pass information of a soldier's well-being on to that man's family.

A fine example comes from the letters of Major William Dansey of the 33rd Regiment of Foot to his mother. A career officer who had served in the Seven Years' War in Germany, Dansey had spent time recruiting in his native Herefordshire on the Welsh border, and frequently boasted of his Hereford recruits in letters home to his parents. Dansey arrived in America with the 33rd Regiment in 1776 and was frequently in harm's way during active campaigning throughout the next few years, but personal business brought him back to Great Britain for a period in 1780 and 1781. It was by this twist of fate that he missed the 33rd Regiment's service on the fateful southern campaign under Lord Cornwallis. 

By the time Dansey returned to America and arrived in Charleston in January 1782, most of his regiment was imprisoned after the British surrender at Yorktown. There were elements of the 33rd and other British regiments in Charleston, South Carolina, however, including men who had been unfit to serve on the campaign and new recruits who had arrived too late to follow their corps. Among the latter was a soldier in the 33rd Regiment named Richard Roberts. 

Roberts had arrived in America in 1780 with a number of other recruits for the 33rd and other regiments. He may have enlisted anywhere from a few months to a few years before embarking for America. When Major Dansey arrived in Charleston, he took command of the soldiers of the 23rd, 33rd and 71st Regiments there, 300 or so men altogether, including Roberts. They were sent to garrison James Island, hot, uncomfortable and in danger. Cornwallis's army had surrendered, but the war continued. Dansey, a seasoned veteran of two wars, made sure that his small post was ready for whatever might occur.

His preparation paid off on 14 November 1782, when an American force under Col. Thaddeus Kosciusko descended on James Island. They encountered a forward position well-placed and manned with brave, alert British soldiers. Although outnumbered, they held off the attackers long enough for Dansey to bring up reinforcements and push them back to the mainland. Among those defending the advanced post was Richard Roberts; the connection between him and Dansey is not known, but the officer wrote enthusiastically to his mother,

You will be pleased that Dick Roberts was one of those brave men, he is wounded in the Arm but doing very well, I can't help saying I was pleased to see him wounded it has open'd a road to my sincere Friendship for him. I shall take care he never wants any Comforts to his station of Life can admit of and if he behaves well he may expect my Maintenance and Protection.

True to his word, Dansey appointed Roberts corporal on 16 December, affording the young soldier greater prestige and responsibility. The skirmish in which Roberts was wounded was the last in South Carolina, and among the last of the war. The men of the 33rd and other British regiments soon moved to New York where the climate was much more to their liking. In March 1783 Dansey wrote again about Roberts, making it clear just how severe the young corporal's wound had been:

I have the pleasure to tell you that Dick Roberts is very well. as his arm was broke I don't like to let him do duty till he has recovered strength by the Spring. He promises to make as pretty a soldier as any in the Regiment and is behaving very well, from me he shall not want for Encouragement if he continues it. As he was above being a Tradesman he must take his chance as a soldier and I hope he will behave as well as he did brave.

Although Dansey's assessment of Roberts's choice of career choice is colored by the officer's own attachment to the army, it puts into perspective the dogma that enlistment was a choice of last resort. In the same letter, Dansey related more about the aftermath of the November skirmish; Roberts was having his wound dressed when an officer carried in another wounded man who was about Dansey's size:

I cou'd not help being pleased and smiling at him when I saw him wounded, while he was dressing Ensn. Lockhart was carrying in wounded and being about my size some of the soldiers said it was the Major upon which this poor Boy burst out a crying not having flinch'd before but berg his wound very patiently, he has suffer'd pretty well for his folly.

Mail between Great Britain and America traveled regularly on fast packet ships, usually once a month. Correspondence was nonetheless a slow process and the fate of each mail delivery far from certain. Under these conditions, Dansey sometimes related similar things in successive letters to his mother; in April he wrote:

As Dick Roberts is going on very well I have a Pleasure in mentioning him to you. I hope I shall make a very pretty soldier of him, he has hardly yet got the full strength of his arm, but the spring will set him up, it was a lucky shot for him had it not been for it, I shoud have been a long time before I promoted him, for had I a Brother, I would not favor him before a deserving soldier

With peace declared, the mechanics of taking the British army down off a war footing began. Even though the 33rd Regiment had suffered much during the war, it was directed from New York to Nova Scotia rather than returning to Great Britain. Men who had enlisted after the war began had the option of being discharged. Richard Roberts was discharged on 11 September 1783, but Major Dansey's care and attention had had a good effect on him: the following day he reenlisted in the 33rd Regiment of Foot. The remainder of this faithful soldier's career has not yet been traced; we can hope he fulfilled the promise that his devoted officer saw in him.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

John Hutton, 10th Regiment of Foot, loses his savings

Some writers point out that the British army in Boston in 1775 was experienced, a factor which contributed to its performance during the retreat from Concord and the assault on Bunker Hill. Lacking in the assertion is any quantitative information: what portion of the soldiers in Boston had been in the army for a significant length of time? While we don't have a comprehensive answer at this time, we can certainly identify individuals who had decades of military service when hostilities broke out.

Take, for example, Serjeant John Hutton of the 10th Regiment of Foot, a weaver from County Tyrone in Ireland. He had joined the army back in 1745 when he was twenty years old, and was a thirty-year veteran when troops of his regiment marched out to Concord on 19 April 1775. Hutton was probably not on that expedition, not being a member of the regiment's grenadier or light infantry companies. Late in that same year, orders came to send a few experienced officers and soldiers back to Great Britain for recruiting, something that regiments serving overseas typically did anyway but which was now formalized as the army put itself on a war footing. A man like Hutton would have been a likely candidate to go home, but he remained in America instead, soldiering through the regiment's active campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776, 1777 and 1778.

It was in early 1778 that the regiment suffered one of its greatest losses of the war, not of men but of material. The regiment was part of the expedition that seized Philadelphia from American control. For the campaign, much of the "heavy baggage" had been left in New York, things such as spare clothing and equipment that was an impediment to rapid marching. Each regiment leased storage space in a garrison city for things that did not need to be close at hand. Soldiers carried only a few spare shirts and pairs of shoes and stockings in their knapsacks, leaving other clothing accumulated over many years of service behind in the regimental store. Quartermasters lodged spare regimental clothing and camp equipage there. Officers left their elaborate field furniture, useful for standing summer encampments but an unnecessary encumbrance on the march. The instruments of the band of music might be lodged in the store, to be brought out for the social events of winter. When the 10th and other regiments were firmly established in Philadelphia for the winter, they sent to New York for their heavy baggage which was put on board ships for the relatively quick voyage out of New York Harbor and up the Delaware River. But the ship carrying the 10th Regiment's baggage fell into enemy hands, and a huge quantity of goods were lost.

The 10th Regiment of Foot had come to America in 1767, spending seven years in Canada before moving to Boston in 1774. By late 1778, it was time to send the corps home. Following typical practice, the able-bodied private soldiers were transferred into other regiments serving in North America, worn out men were discharged, and the officers and non-commissioned officers were sent home to recruit and train a new cadre of soldiers. Serjeant Hutton, though, did none of these things. He retained his position in the regiment but also remained in North America, working as a jailer in the famous Sugar House prison in New York City. The regiment's muster rolls list him as "on command" for the next several years. A number of American soldiers who spent time under his supervision mentioned his name years later in pension depositions, sometimes favorably, sometimes less so.

When peace negotiations began in 1782, the British army in America began the massive administrative process of ending operations in what had once been thirteen North American colonies. Great numbers of soldiers, dependents and civilians had to be relocated, some to Canada, some to the West Indies, some to Great Britain. Serjeant Hutton decided it was time to retire, but before he did so he submitted a memorial, one of hundreds or thousands that crossed the desks at headquarters in New York, seeking compensation for what he had lost when the regiment's heavy baggage was captured in 1778. He was "bereft of all his Stock," which may have included a considerable amount of clothing and other possessions. The one thing that he explicitly named in the memorial was his life's savings, "three hundred Guineas and upwards," which he had saved "by his frugality & care while in the Service of his King."

A Guinea was a gold coin worth twenty-one shillings, or one pound one shilling. Hutton had saved a considerable sum of money, on the order of seventeen years' worth of a serjeant's base pay of a shilling a day. Such a feat required more than just "frugality & care"; Hutton certainly earned income over and above his base pay. This was a common occurrence for soldiers. Much is made of the scant 8 pence per day that British private soldiers earned, and the many stoppages or withholdings from it that paid for his food, clothing, health care and other things - but the low base pay was intended to be only enough to cover essentials, to insure that the soldier had the very basic things required to live. The army offered myriad opportunities to earn more. Soldiers regularly worked at tasks such as building and maintaining fortifications, roads, barracks and other military facilities, cutting firewood, gathering the hay required for military draft animals, rowing boats to provide ferriage for the army, hauling goods at river portages, and innumerable other tasks. Pay for this work could be substantial, as much as a shilling a day, and that was over and above the base pay that already covered basic needs; in other words, it was all pocket money. Men with skills at a trade such as tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, blacksmithing or others could earn money working for the military; soldiers could also work at trades or labor privately during their free time. A serjeant like Hutton was invariably skilled at writing and had additional opportunities in the army administrative machinery, as well as in overseeing all of those activities at which the private soldiers were earning extra money.

Hutton's work in the New York prison certainly earned him money, so he wasn't destitute from the loss of his savings in 1778. It is clear that he was an enterprising soldier who'd done well in a career that spanned nearly four decades; he must have found work in the army all along the way to have amassed the fortune that was lost to the fortunes of war. In response to his memorial, he was recommended for the "twelve pence list," that is, he was recommended for a pension of twelve pence per day instead of the usual five pence awarded to most pensioners. He returned to Great Britain, and in April 1783 he went before the pension board. He never recovered his savings, but he did have an income for the rest of his life after giving thirty seven years of it to the army.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Yes, British Soldiers were taught to Aim

With surprising frequency, modern writers who discuss military aspects of the American Revolution mention that British soldiers were not trained to aim their muskets when firing upon the enemy. Some writers go so far as to say they were actually trained not to aim. These claims have no basis whatsoever in fact, and yet they are repeated again and again.

The very flimsy foundation for these false assertions seems to be a change in terminology between the manual-of-arms used by the British army, and the one introduced to the American army at Valley Forge by General von Steuben. In the British manual, the command for aiming was called "Present"; the description for this command very explicitly described closing one eye while sighting down the barrel with the other eye. The new American manual used approximately the same description, but changed the name of the command from "Present" to "Take Aim." The change was nothing more than using a different word to describe the same concept; von Steuben may have introduced the new terminology to avoid confusion with an unrelated use of the term "Present" in the British manual. Some modern authors, apparently looking only at the words of command and not the descriptions of what they meant, seem to have interpreted von Steuben's use of the word "aim" as a great innovation rather than a simple one-word replacement, leading to a misconception that British soldiers were (illogically) not even trained to aim their weapons.


For more details on this subject, including discussion of target practice by British soldiers, see my article in the Journal of the American Revolution: http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/08/the-aim-of-british-soldiers/

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

William McDonald, 38th Regiment: The War's First Escapee?

From the first day of hostilities, prisoners of war began to accumulate on both sides. British soldiers on the 19 April 1775 expedition to Concord, Massachusetts, were many miles from their quarters in Boston when the countryside suddenly turned hostile. Not having anticipated this violent turn of events, no provision had been made to transport wounded soldiers back to Boston. Most of those who were not ambulatory were left behind. For the most part, they were well cared for by inhabitants of the communities around Boston. Although it was not at all clear how things would develop during the coming months, the convalescent soldiers were held as prisoners, prisoners of a war that was not yet fully instantiated in the minds of all participants.

Among the wounded British soldiers was a thirty-year-old Scotsman, William McDonald, a grenadier in the 38th Regiment of Foot. A laborer from the town of Abernethy in Morayshire, Scotland, he had joined the army ten years before. At some point during the fighting on 19 April he received a shot through his foot, leaving him immobile and in the care of his captors. Soon after being taken, he was brought together with four other prisoners to a home in the town of Lincoln near Concord. There, representative from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, sought depositions from participants in the fighting that had broken out in Lexington, attempting to prove that British soldiers had fired first. McDonald gave no deposition; being in a grenadier company, he probably didn't witness the initial shots in Lexington which had involved several British light infantry companies. A light infantry soldier of the 52nd Regiment, John Bateman, did write a deposition on 23 April stating that the British had been ordered to fire, and a visitor to the home said that McDonald and three other captives had watched Bateman write his deposition. They corroborated that Bateman had sworn on oath to the truth of it, but they did not themselves give testimonies or even indicate agreement with Bateman.

McDonald's whereabouts for the next ten months are not known. His wound healed. In fact, it healed well enough that he was able to take to his heels, finding a way to escape from his captors and make his way back into besieged Boston. We've found no details of how he accomplished the feat. Getting away from his captors may have been relatively easy, as prisoners were often allowed to take jobs in the region of their captivity and many used this relative freedom as an opportunity to abscond. Getting in to the besieged city, on the other hand, was no easy task, faced with perils by both land and sea. Whatever the means, McDonald was back in Boston by 20 February 1776, when a British officer of the 40th Regiment wrote,

"A grenadier of the 38th regiment, who was wounded and taken prisoner on the 19th of April (the affair at Lexington) has found means to make his escape. He says, there are many friends to Government who would be happy to get under the protection of our troops, but are apprehensive of failing in the attempt."

Although he'd managed to return to service, McDonald's wound caused him trouble. He was removed from the grenadier company in May when the army was preparing for a new campaign in which the grenadiers would take a particularly active role, expected to march for long distances at high speeds. The following February, a year after he's returned to the British army, McDonald was discharged. Because of his disability, and no doubt in consideration of his exertions, he was recommended for a pension. He returned to Great Britain, appeared before the pension board in Chelsea, and received his reward in October 1777.


At only 32 years of age, however, he still had some fight left in him. In the 1790s, a rapid expansion of the British military in response to conflicts in Europe led to the raising of many new corps for local defense. McDonald enlisted in the Strathspey Fencibles, a regiment raised in his native region of Scotland for service only within the confines of that country. He served until the corps was disbanded in 1799, when he returned once again to the pension rolls.

Learn more about British soldiers in America