Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thomas Cook, 54th Regiment, gets the King's pardon

In early 1775, the 54th Regiment of Foot sent 29 men to serve in America. These men were transferred to other regiments already on service in Boston, and to regiments about to embark for that place; with tensions building in America, the army saw the advantage of bringing the regiments there up to strength with experienced men rather than new recruits, so the 54th and other regiments in Ireland each contributed a share. Then they began recruiting to make up for the losses.

In May, a 24-year-old tobacconist named Thomas Cook from St. Mary's Parish, county Limerick, Ireland, joined the ranks of the 54th. Before the year was over, the 54th Regiment was ordered to America, and filled out its own ranks with equal portions of new recruits and experienced soldiers drafted from other regiments.

The 54th Regiment was part of the expedition that sailed in January 1776 to secure the southern colonies, which culminated in the failed attempt to take Charleston, South Carolina. The 54th and other regiments spend some time on shore encamped in hot, sandy coastal areas. In the summer they sailed north and joined the army on Staten Island, a verdant paradise compared to the places they'd recently been. After the campaign that drove American troops out of the New York area and into New Jersey, the 54th boarded ships once again and landed in December in Rhode Island, which would be their home for the next two and a half years.

The regiments in the Rhode Island garrison spend the winter quartered in buildings left vacant by inhabitants who had fled before the troops landed. In late spring, when roads were firm and ground was dry enough, encampments were established in the countryside. Rhode Island (the name for the island that today we call Aquidneck, or Newport) had points that were particularly close to the mainland; it was at those locations that redoubts were built for defense, and the encampments were usually within easy reach of these earthen fortifications. While encamped, the soldier's daily ration (served out not directly to individuals but to groups of five soldiers called messes) consisted of one and a half pounds of meat and a similar amount of bread each day. This diet was expected to be supplemented by vegetables purchased or foraged locally. The island's bountiful farms provided ample supplies, which British soldiers became quite proficient at obtaining both legally and illicitly. Thomas Cook may have become proficient at foraging. Or he may have decided he'd had enough of military service.

Late in the afternoon of 30 July 1777, Cook showed up at the advanced guard post on Common Fence Point, a neck of land at the northern tip of Rhode Island that juts eastward, creating a narrow but turbulent channel between the island and the mainland. The point itself was too close to the mainland to be safe, so the advanced sentries were posted well back from the shoreline, out of cannon shot from the mainland, with a number of arable fields and orchards between them and their opponents. Some distance behind the sentries was a redoubt where some fifty soldiers were posted. Cook asked a corporal of the advanced guard, who happened to be from his regiment, for some water, and the corporal noted that he was "seemingly a little in liquor." Cook wore a haversack, a canvas bag slung over his shoulder designed for carrying three or four days of rations on a march. He wandered away after getting his water.

Cook walked on towards Common Fence Point. Someone called to him, from behind. He began to run. Suddenly there was gunfire. Fearful of being shot, he ran into a field of Indian corn, then lay down for cover. The shooting stopped, but suddenly two soldiers appeared and seized him. They asked if he intended to desert, to which he answered no.

He was brought back to the redoubt, where he asserted that he had only gone to gather greens. The corporal's guard had fired at him, though, because there was a strict order against anyone passing the advanced sentries without a pass. Examining Cook's haversack, the men of the guard found a pair of shoes, a pair of stockings and some biscuit, signs that Cook had planned a journey rather than a brief foraging walk. And he was wearing two shirts, a further indication of trying to sneak away with essential extra clothing.

When brought before a general court martial on 7 August and charged with desertion, Thomas Cook had little to offer in his defense. He said that he went to gather greens, and ran into the corn field to avoid being killed when the corporal's advanced sentries fired on him; that he had no intention of deserting, and didn't know that the clothing and food were in his haversack. The court did not believe a word of this, and sentenced him to death.

Cook was held in confinement, awaiting the execution of his sentence. He waited. And waited.

In the meantime, the commander in chief of the army in which the 54th Regiment served, General Sir William Howe, received a copy of the trial proceedings and the sentence. He had to approve capital punishments, and it was his prerogative to grant stays of execution. He could also defer to a higher authority, namely, the king himself. A royal pardon was a way of communicating to the troops that their sovereign was merciful, that being tried and sentenced was punishment enough and that the life of a soldier was valued by the monarch. So General Howe sent a letter to the king recommending clemency for Cook and another soldier who'd been tried in New Jersey in April 1777. In January 1778, a letter was sent from the War Office in London indicating that pardons had been granted. It took some time for the letter to reach Rhode Island, but when it finally did, Thomas Cook was a free man.

Or, rather, a free soldier. He returned to the ranks of the 54th Regiment and resumed his duties. Some soldiers who endured such an experience of being tried, convicted, and confined for many months became bitter and deserted, but not Thomas Cook. He served in the regiment for twenty-one years, after which he joined the 63rd Regiment of Foot. He was discharged from the army in 1797 when the 63rd was posted at Spanish Town in Jamaica. In typical fashion, he was given two extra weeks of pay "to carry me to the place of my abode" on the document that he signed by making an X. The army also provided passage for his return to Great Britain, where he was awarded a pension for "being worn out" in the service.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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