Saturday, October 1, 2011

Robert Vaughn, 52nd Regiment of Foot

On 3 March 1775 a detachment of the 52nd Regiment of Foot in Boston was ordered to practice firing with live ammunition. Firing at marks, as the practice was called, was a common exercise in the months approaching a campaign season even in peace time; along with day-long marches carrying knapsacks, these activities helped insure the fitness of the soldier for whatever the service might require. In Boston, rafts with targets were placed in the water off of Boston Common (which at that time was on the shoreline; extensive filling has dramatically changed Boston's topography). The soldiers formed and each man took his turn firing at the targets.

Robert Vaughn was among the soldiers of the 52nd Regiment ordered to fire that day. He was a 9-year veteran of the 52nd, but needed to practice his marksmanship just like everyone else. When roll was called for the detachment formed for the firing exercise at 2 in the afternoon, however, Vaughn was missing. A sergeant of his company “went to examine his Necessary’s", that is, to see if Vaughn's shoes, shirts and stockings were properly packed into his knapsack in the barracks. When a soldier was missing, it was a standard practice to determine whether he had taken belongings with him; if he did, desertion was immediately suspected. The serjeant found that Vaughn's necessaries "were all gone except a few old Things.”

At about 6:30 that night, two sentries from the 23rd Regiment posted at a way leading to a ferry were approached by the fully-uniformed Vaughn. Vaughn called out to some boatman and inquired for someone. The sentries told him he ought to go home; Vaughn claimed to have a pass to be out until ten o'clock, and had no cause to go until then. He claimed to be looking for a ferryman who was an acquaintance, and finally attempted to pass the sentries and go to the ferry. The sentries stopped him and after some more discourse Vaughn, apparently very drunk, “placed himself against a Post, and soon dropt down as if Dead, and did not say any thing more.” The sentries called for assistance and other soldiers took Vaughn to the officer of the guard.

There is a popular misconception that British uniforms did not have pockets. That they did in fact have them is proven by cases like Vaughn's; when a deviant soldier was taken to the guard is was standard procedure to search his pockets for stolen goods or for extra clothing that signified an intention to desert. When the officer of the guard searched Vaughn's coat pockets “two pair of Stockings was found, and on opening his Waistcoat to give him Air, a clean Shirt was found tied round his Waist.” The officer then searched the pockets of Vaughn’s breeches but found nothing in them.

Vaughn was tried the next day by a general court martial. Among the questions asked by the court was whether Vaughn’s necessaries had been examined recently before he was taken, to which the sergeant replied that they had; it was therefore clear that things were missing. Vaughn, in his defense, offered that he was “so much in Liquor, that he has not the least rememberance of what he was about, that he had not any intention to desert.” Hoping to win the favor of the court, he also pointed out that he had “been a long time in the Service, and at several Sieges.”

To support his claims Vaughn called on an officer from another regiment as a character witness; presumably Vaughn has served with this officer, Lieutenant Thomas Hewetson of the 59th Regiment, at some time earlier in his career. It was a poor of witnesses; Hewestson testified only that “the great length of time which has elapsed, since the Prisoner says he serv’d in the same Corps with him, has entirely remov’d any recollection at all of the Prisoner.”

The court found Vaughn guilty of desertion and sentenced him to the maximum penalty, death. Even though Vaughn was absent only for a matter of hours and was drunk when apprehended, the court no doubt looked on the methodical way in which he concealed his spare clothing, along with his attempt to get to a ferry, as proof that he was trying to leave the British garrison. Vaughn’s sentence was quickly approved, and General Thomas Gage, commanding the army in Boston, ordered on 8 March that it be “put in execution to morrow morning at seven o'Clock, by shooting the Prisoner Robert Vaughan to death by a platoon of the Regiment to which he belongs. The place of execution to be near the water below the Guard on the common.”

That night at around 9, however, in one of the many acts of clemency shown after capital sentences, the announcement was made that “The Execution of Robert Vaughan, private soldier in the 52nd Regiment, is respited till further orders.” Vaughn was fully pardoned a few days later. The death sentence was supposed to deter desertion, and remitting it was expected to endear the soldiery to their commander. The ineffectiveness of this gestured was immediately apparent, for on 14 March, less than a week after staying Vaughn’s execution, Gage notified the army that:

The Commander in chief flattered himself that the instance of mercy shewn Robert Vaughan of the 52nd Regiment would be the most eligible means to bring the soldiers to a sence of their duty to their King and Country, and to reflect more seriously on the sin they Committed in deserting the service of both; He is greatly mortified to find that clemency is so little regarded, and assures the Regiments that this is the last man he will pardon who shall be condemned for desertion.

Being sentenced to death and then pardoned certainly seems to have had an effect on the veteran soldier Robert Vaughn, but not the desired effect. On 21 April, just over a month after his pardon and days after the outbreak of hostilities, he deserted again, this time never to be apprehended.

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