Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lance Corporal John Lee, Brigade of Guards

We welcome your comments, questions and observations on these blog posts. A comment to our previous installment about Corporal John McChesnie brings up several interesting points. The observation that "Some English officers weren't always the calm, collected bunch they wished to portray..." is certainly true. Think of any professional organization where the entry-level people are in their late teens and early twenties - some are focused on learning and making the best impression possible, while others are cocky, headstrong and act with a sense of entitlement. Among British officers there were all sorts of personalities, from the reserved to the arrogant.

It is also important to note that this was the British army, not the English army. Lt. John Wallace of the 22nd Regiment was Irish; Corporal McChesnie was Scottish. The British army included many officers and soldiers from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as a smattering from America and from various European countries. In general this multinational group functioned well, but occasionally language and national pride became issues.

The comment goes on to say "...quite a few veteran soldiers were being outranked by more colorful men half their age." True enough, but this is the reality in most professional armies even today. Regardless of the factors that allow men to choose their paths, some men begin their careers as officers while others serve their entire careers in the ranks. Even today many soldiers are commanded by officers barely half their age, with varying results depending upon the personalities involved and the quality of training.

And the comment includes a question: "Do you know what prompted the Light Dragoons into a scuffle against the lieutenants in the first place?" Sadly, the court martial proceedings that give us our information on these events give no details about the scuffle that initiated things. The dragoons escaped into the night and apparently no attempt was made to identify them. Altercations between officers and soldiers (and between officers and other officers) happened from time to time, particularly in garrison towns when there was much idle time. Darkness and alcohol were often a factor. When these misadventures led to courts martial, the testimony often illustrate the confusion and uncertainly of the events themselves. Thanks to the research of Linnea Bass we have a good example in the case of another soldier of the Brigade of Guards, John Lee.

In January 1779, Lee was a lance corporal in the brigade. This meant that he was officially a private soldier, but was doing the duty of a corporal for the time being and was to be recognized as such. On the night of 15 January he was in a house being used as a barracks on Dock Street in New York City duly washing one of his shirts. Suddenly the sentry posted outside the barracks came to the door and called for help because someone had been knocked down in the street. Lee and two other soldiers went out into the dark night, where they saw a man writhing on the ground across the street and another man standing over him. Acting quickly, Lee ran over and pushed the standing man away, asking him what he intended to do to the stricken man. The pushed man lunged back at Lee, grabbing his collar with one hand and sinking his fingernails into Lee's cheek with the other. Lee demanded that he desist or be struck, and pushed the assailant away. The man lunged back; they struggled and exchanged harsh language. Soldiers poured out of the barracks, civilians poured out of houses, and several officers walking in the area rushed to the scene. The sentry who had originally called for help managed to separate the two.

As if there were not already enough people in the street, the relief guard (that is, a party of soldiers on guard duty) came up to relieve the sentry. The first person they encountered was Lee, who was bleeding and complaining of having been assaulted. Just then his assailant came up, seized him by the collar and called him the rascal who assaulted him. The man was Lieutenant Edmund Prideaux of the 7th Regiment of Foot, known as the Royal Fusiliers.

This was profoundly unfortunate for Lance Corporal Lee, for he had unwittingly assaulted an officer. Lt. Prideaux was still highly agitated, but other officers who were now on the scene advised him to have Lee confined. Lt. Prideaux attempted to write down a charge to be delivered with Lee to the provost guard, but was unable to collect himself enough to do so. The other officers took over the formalities. They went into the barracks to collect Lee (who had gone back inside) and get names of other soldiers who may have struck or insulted Lt. Prideaux. Although the soldiers in the barracks were insolent, they begrudgingly complied with what was demanded of them. John Lee surrendered himself angrily, insisting that he had done nothing wrong, and was put into confinement. People in the street took the stricken man - who proved to be an officer of a Loyalist regiment - into a house to attend to him. The disturbance was over.

The court martial of John Lee occurred a week later. Lt. Prideaux testified that he was assisting the Loyalist officer (a colleague in a regiment that Prideaux himself had recently served in) to get home because he was very drunk. When they happened to be opposite the Dock Street barracks, by chance the drunken officer collapsed in a fit. Lt. Prideaux called to the nearby sentry for help and water, the sentry called forth men from the barracks, but Lt. Prideaux was stunned when instead of receiving help he was pushed away.

Prideaux called five witnesses including a soldier who had been helping him to escort his comrade, a local resident and another soldier who saw the initial struggle, and two officers who came up as the events unfolded (or unraveled). Lee called seven witnesses including the sentry, other soldiers and non-commissioned officers who had been in the barracks, an officer who arrived late on the scene and the regimental surgeon who had attended to his wounds. The disagreements in the testimony are striking: those who testified for Prideaux insisted that he was sober while those who spoke for Lee said that he was in a drunken rage; some said that Lee struck Prideaux, some that he did not, while others could not say one way or the other. They all agreed that the night was dark enough that it was not immediately obvious that Prideaux was an officer, but some stated that he wore a blue great coat while others said he was in his regimental coat, red with blue facings (it is possible that Prideaux had been wearing the great coat initially, and shed it when the struggle ended).

Lance Corporal Lee made a good argument that he acted as the situation seemed to warrant when he pushed Lt. Prideaux, and after that acted only in his own defense. Three officers of the Brigade of Guards gave him excellent character references, stating that this was the first complaint that they had received about Lee and calling him a "clean, regular and obedient soldier," "as good a Soldier as any in the British Army," whose "particular good behavior" had led to his recommendation for lance corporal. He was nonetheless found guilty and sentenced to receive one thousand lashes. We do not know whether the punishment was actually inflicted.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, yes, the British Army-- my mistake. I called them “English officers” as a way to denote them from American officers, (comparing men from opposite sides of the Atlantic) but I did not do so as in direct reference to their nationalities. Obviously, I’m a little new to this, but I appreciate the critique.
    Thanks so much for answering my question and also for discussing the particulars of my comment! Your reply was constructive and delightful, and I now see that the cause of the fight between the Dragoons and the two Lieutenants couldn’t possibly have been pinned down. Some of those altercations just have to be left to the imagination, I guess.
    I also wish to say how wonderful these in-depth posts on the common soldier are. I was linked here by the Boston 1775 blog, which deals exclusively with the American side of the war. I enjoy this refreshing change of scenery; glimpsing through the golden veneer of the leading British generals to the everyday, month-to-month occurrences in the lives of British soldiers.