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Sunday, July 13, 2014
Richard Cotton, 38th Regiment, is drafted twice
Some books and articles suggest that British soldiers were fiercely loyal to their regiments. If this was true during the 1770s and 1780s, there's no direct evidence of it. None of the handful of narratives by British soldiers make any particular mention of pride in their regiment, and many soldiers changed regiments for one reason or another at least once during their careers. Even officers changed regiments for the sake of career advancement, giving promotion or security priority over loyality to a specific corps.
One way that soldiers changed regiments was by being drafted. Unlike the modern parlance that uses the word to refer to civilians obliged to join the military, during the era of the American Revolution the British army used the term to refer to men drawn from one regiment to serve in another. There are a few highly-publicised cases where soldiers objected to this and even mutinied because of it, but the objection was generally to serving in a different location than promised, rather than in a different regiment. writers who focus on these incidents fail to consider the thousands of soldiers who were drafted, some more than once, during their careers. Drafting orders often directed that volunteers be taken first before ordering men into other regiments. The usual cause for a draft was to keep regiments on overseas deployments up to strength. In some cases men were drafted from regiments in Great Britain to serve in regiments bound for, or already on, overseas service; in other cases, regiments being sent home to Great Britain drafted their able-bodied men into other regiments remaining overseas.
Among the former was Richard Cotton. As war loomed in America, he was serving in the 3rd Regiment of Foot in Ireland. On 23 February 1775 a regimental court martial found him guilty of “stealing a silver table spoon from an inhabitant," for which he receive 250 lashes. Just two weeks later he was drafted to serve in the 59th Regiment of Foot, a regiment already in Boston. We could assume that the 3rd Regiment was trying to get rid of him, but it's more likely that he jumped at the opportunity to leave the officers who had just punished him. Drafting orders required that only men in good physical condition be sent to as drafts, with the receiving regiment allowed to reject any that did not measure up. How a man who'd just been subjected to 250 lashes could be considered fit for overseas service is a mystery.
Cotton, along with other drafts and recruits, arrived in Boston in May to learn that war had broken out. He joined his regiment and served until the end of the year. Then he was drafted again. The 59th Regiment had already been overseas for several years and was due to go home, but their able-bodied men were drafted; Richard Cotton joined the 38th Regiment of Foot. In March 1776 he was put into the regiment's light infantry company, meaning that he was a particularly active and capable soldier; his discipline must have been reasonably good. There's no evidence that these two changes of regiment in rapid succession were in any way objectionable to him, or to the hundreds of others who went through similar transfers.
The light infantry company of the 38th Regiment saw many years of hard service on the front lines of the war's famous campaigns. The battle of Long Island in August 1776, the rapid movements around New York and into New Jersey later that year and into 1777, the campaign that took Philadelphia in late 1777 and the abandonment of that city that culminated in the battle of Monmouth in 1778 - during all of these campaigns the 38th's light company was part of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, always on the forefront of the action. Immediately after returning to New York from Philadelphia, the company rejoined the 38th Regiment and sailed to Rhode Island where they reinforced the garrison and spent three weeks under siege, then fought in the battle of Rhode Island on 29 August. They remained in Rhode Island through August 1779 when that place was evactuated by British forces.
The 38th's light company rejoined the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry. They spent the beginning of 1780 on the expedition that laid siege to Charleston, South Carolina. After that city capitulated, they returned to the New York garrison. The summer of 1780 found them on the front lines again, this time in coastal Westchester County, New York on the border of Connecticut. This was a region characterized by raids, skirmishes and incursions as scouting parties clashed between fluid front lines. For reasons that aren't clear, discipline suffered in the British battalions, and there was a spate of desertions from these normally-reliable ranks.
Early on Monday morning, 17 July 1780, two Loyalist refugees - soldiers who may not have been uniformed - were following a road from the area of Horse Neck, Connecticut towards the British encampment at Rye, New York. They saw someone coming towards them and climbed over a wall to let the man pass. As he went by, the refugees discerned him to be an unarmed British soldier, so they decided to question him. They called out to the man, who stopped, and asked him where he'd come from. The man, Richard Cotton, responded that he'd just left a British command of some 4000 soldiers. The two refugees suspected that he was a deserter and offered to take him to an American post; Cotton went with them. By odd mischance, they soon encountered an American flag of truce - an officer or a small party of American soldiers with official permission to visit British lines on some sort of official business, usually to discuss matters relating to prisoners of war. Richard Cotton begged the refugees to let him go with the flag, but they refused. Cotton tried to make a run for it, but they grabbed him and conveyed him back to the British camp. There, his welcome was not a warm one.
Having been caught on a Monday morning, Richard Cotton was put on trial for desertion on Thursday (for some reason the trial transcript calls him Benjamin rather than Richard, but muster rolls leave no doubt that it's him). The men who captured him testified, as well as a man from the 38th Regiment who gave some simple facts of Cotton's term of service in the regiment. Put on his defense, Cotton claimed he'd gotten drunk and "perplex’d in his mind" on Sunday afternoon, having not enough shirts, shoes and stockings and also believing he was going to be sent from the Light Infantry, where he'd served for so long, back to the regiment. He wandered away from camp, and claimed not to have known where he was until he met the two refugees. He asserted that when the refugees had asked where he belonged, he told them the British company he was from; he also denied mentioning the strength of the British force or having attempted to go with the flag of truce. But when he asked one of the refugees, "Did not you ask me that if I had my Choice whether I would go to the Continental Army or back to the British Troops and what Answer did I make?", he said Cotton's reply was "the Prisoner answer’d him, it does not signify your giving me the choice now as I know very well what you are going to do with me."
Cotton probably did know full well what would be done with him. There had been several desertions from the light infantry battalion already, so a clear message needed to be sent. Cotton was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum penalty for desertion. Regardless of whether he intended to desert, his dissatisfaction was not related to having been drafted twice some years before, but with the prospect of being transferred out of his regiment's light infantry company. Had he not strayed from camp, whatever his motive, this veteran of three regiments would've had the opportunity to see out the war with the 38th Regiment and return to Great Britain. Because of his transgression, on Sunday 23 July 1780, "that man of the 38th Light Infantry who was tried at East Chester for desertion was executed today after the troops came to their ground, hung on a tree at the road side."
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