Tuesday, May 20, 2014
John Winters, 59th Regiment, catches a woman's eye
During the winter of 1770-1771, a young man named John Winters enlisted in the 59th Regiment of Foot in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He started off as a drummer, but soon became a private soldier. He was so proficient in that capacity that he was put into the regiment's light infantry company, the fast-moving skirmishers recently embodied in each British infantry regiment. He was in this company when the 59th was sent to Boston in 1774 to reinforce the garrison there amid growing tensions.
Having enjoyed peacetime service in Nova Scotia, it was perhaps out of naivity that Winters strayed from his regiment's Boston Neck encampment on 5 October 1774. He went with a fellow soldier to Dedham, a town some miles southeast of Boston, where he was "seduced" by his comrade and a local resident to abscond from the army. He went to New York, where many deserters from Boston were sent, apparently aided by inhabitants who were keen to get former soldiers away from the British army. He found work as a servant for the keeper of a tavern in the city.
War broke out. The few British troops in New York abandoned the place by sea and joined the army in Boston, which was soon surrounded by a nascent American army. Although desertion put him in mortal danger, Winters was far away from any possibility of capture. To further improve his situation, in December 1775 his regiment was sent back to Great Britain. Whatever his intentions, it looked like Winters would spend the rest of his life in America.
Within six months, however, things changed dramatically. The British army evacuated Boston, regrouped in Halifax, and landed on Staten Island to threaten New York. In late August this powerful force won a devastating victory over American defenders on Long Island, and began preparations for an assault on Manhattan. The western end of Long Island was teeming with British soldiers.
On the evening of 7 September 1776, John Winters was out walking on Long Island when a couple overtook him. The woman recognized him immediately and addressed him by name; the man took hold of him. It was a soldier and his wife, former fellows from the 59th Regiment; when that corps left America, many of the men transferred into other regiments rather than going home. It was Winters's amazing luck to run into a man and woman he'd known since his enlistment, now in the 5th Regiment and part of the army that had just arrived in his neighborhood. They took him into custody.
Just two days later Winters was on trial for desertion. Two former comrades, both now serving in the 5th Regiment, testified against him. They verified his enlistment, his desertion, and that he didn't admit to being a deserter until after he was apprehended. This latter point was significant, because deserters who returned of their own volition were often treated with lenience.
Winters was not. Although he pleaded that he had come to Long Island explicitly to turn himself in, and had gone so far as to enlist with the then-raising 84th Regiment (which included many American prisoners of war in its ranks), he was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was approved by the commander in chief and carried out on the morning of 11 September. As he may have supposed he would when he deserted, he spent the rest of his life in New York, but it was a shorter life than he'd expected.