Thursday, July 14, 2016
William Wood, 54th Regiment, makes a fatal crawl
There's a common misconception that during the American Revolution the ranks of British regiments were filled with "the scum of the earth." That's certainly not true as a generality; the majority of British regulars were career soldiers who volunteered for the job and served dutifully, faithfully and well. But any large population is bound to have a few bad eggs. In spite of the efforts of recruiting officers, incorrigible men did make it into the ranks.
The 54th Regiment of Foot sailed from Ireland to America at the beginning of 1776, serving first on the abortive expedition to establish a foothold in the southern colonies, then joining the army in New York. At the end of the year they were part of the force that landed in Rhode Island, where they settled into a garrison routine that was frequently interrupted by alarms and incursions from nearby American forces.
Like all British regiments in America, the 54th had several officers and men in Great Britain recruiting to make up for the inevitable attrition of a wartime deployment. In the spring of 1777, recruits raised during the previous year embarked for New York. Upon arrival there, those of the 22nd, 43rd and 54th Regiments were sent up Long Island Sound to join their regiments in Rhode Island. They arrived on 20 June and were quickly integrated into their corps. They had already been trained in the basic aspects of soldiering while with their recruiting parties in Britain, but had much more to learn. Just days after landing, the recruits were practicing with live ammunition.
The island called Rhode Island, now referred to as Aquidneck Island, was a front line, separated from the mainland by only narrow channels in a few places. Because parts of the shoreline were within easy cannon shot of the mainland, the British established lines that were in many places well back from the shore. By day, the land between the lines and the shore were well protected by British positions. At night the area became a no-man's land, where marauders from the mainland could land to attack sentries or raid houses and farms, island inhabitants could meet agents from the mainland to provide intelligence, mischievous British soldiers could attempt to sneak off of the island, and other illicit activity could occur.
Encounters between British sentries and people lurking outside the lines took place almost daily, or nightly, in Rhode Island. One instance occurred on 2 September, when sentries noticed two men between them and the waterside. One quickly returned and was taken by the sentries; he proved to be a soldier of the 54th Regiment. The sentries saw the other man crawling on hands and knees towards them. They challenged the intruder, but got no response. Following their training, they fired. The crawling man was struck twice in the body and died almost instantly.
The man was William Wood, a soldier in the 54th Regiment. A very new soldier, in fact: he was one of the recruits who had arrived in June. After 74 days with the regiment, he was dead. But an officer of the garrison indicated that Wood had earned no sympathy during his short career: "The man who was shot, was of a very bad Character, and if he had no intention of deserting, of which however there is little doubt, deserved his fate, as he had no business in front of the advanced posts at night, and should have answered when challenged.”