Thursday, May 17, 2018

John Young, 5th Regiment, Sees a Shot Fired in Boston

A shot was fired in Boston at the British soldiers garrisoned there. It was not the celebrated "shot heard 'round the world" fired in Concord, Massachusetts on 19 April 1775, but a pointed show of disdain towards the military force that had been sent to enforce the Coercive Acts, the punitive measures imposed upon the Massachusetts colony after the Boston Tea Party.

Several British regiments arrived in Boston in the early summer of 1774 and encamped on the common, the largest military force that had been assembled in America since the French and Indian War. Citizens of Boston and neighboring towns took umbrage at this martial imposition, as military posts were established and guards marched regularly through the town. They found ways to harass the soldiers, inveigled them to desert, sometimes plying them with cheap liquor and spiriting them out of town. On 18 July, a shot was fired.

The incident was recorded by a young officer of the 43rd Regiment, Lieutenant Alexander Robertson. He was in command of the guard on Boston Neck that night, the narrow stretch of land that connected peninsular Boston to the mainland. He wrote a report about what happened:

On the 18th July 1774, having the Command of the Guard posted at the Neck, and at sun sett after examining the arms &c of the Guard as usual, the Men were standing in a group upon the Neck about Ten or Twelve paces from the Guard room, when they heard the Report of a Gun, and imediatly called out that it was a Ball that was fired, for they distinctly heard it whiz, and observed it fired from a Boat loitring off the Neck with three People in it, and the Centinel ( - Young of the 5th Regt and in Earl Percy's Company) who was posted upon the Wall call'd out, that he saw the Ball strike the Water about Twenty yards from where the Group of Soldiers were standing and in a direct line with them, and about Ten yards from the Wall where he was posted.

I was at the time looking at the Boat, saw the smoke & heard the Report and firmly believe it was in a direct line with the Soldiers who were talking together, and after the gun was fired I observ'd the Boat row off, with the utmost expidition towards the Town, and imediatly sent a soldier to watch its motions, who return'd & told me he saw it row towards the centre of the Town. A. Robertson Lieut. 43d. Regt. Boston Camp 19th July 1774

Nothing came of the incident. No investigation, no arrests; most importantly, no further gunshots. If Lt. Robertson had not put it in writing, there would probably be no record of the event at all.

As for the soldier who saw the bullet splash, John Young would see more gunfire in the coming years. He served with his regiment throughout the occupation of Boston including the outbreak of war on 19 April 1775 and the battle of Bunker Hill the following June. He took part in the rapid campaign that drove American forces out of the New York City area and across New Jersey in 1776, and that tried unsuccessfully to bring about a pivotal battle in New Jersey in 1777. Later that year he sailed up Chesapeake Bay, then marched and fought through Delaware and Pennsylvania to Philadelphia.


Not long after that city was seized by the British army, John Young saw his last shots fired. He was killed in the battle of Germantown on 4 October 1777.


Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Monday, January 15, 2018

Elizabeth Morrison, Royal Artillery, has her pocket picked

In May of 1777, at the Presbyterian Church of New York, Elizabeth Driscoll married George Morrison, a matross in the Royal Regiment of Artillery. She was the widow of a soldier in an infantry regiment. The marriage record as published by the New York Historical Society in 1881 calls her a widow of the 57th Regiment, but the muster rolls of the 57th Regiment show no man of that name having died or even belonging to the regiment between 1775 and 1777; perhaps the number of the regiment was recorded incorrectly in the original record, or transcribed incorrectly in the publication.

That September, Elizabeth, now Elizabeth Morrison, was at the house of another Royal Artillery wife, Mrs. Connor. Several other men and women from the artillery were there, including a soldier named Edward Bullin. Morrison felt a hand in her pocket, and saw that it was Bullin's; he withdrew his hand, causing a guinea - a gold coin worth twenty-one shillings - to fall from her pocket to the floor. This clearly distracted her, and she picked up the coin rather than immediately question Bullin's motives.

A woman's pocket was usually a sort of pouch tied around the waist, not unlike a modern pocket except that it was a separate garment unto itself. It could be worn outside of or underneath petticoats. In this case, we assume it was underneath, for Morrison "imagined he was taking a freedom with her" rather than thinking he was trying to steal. The next morning when she counted her money, she found that she was missing a substantial sum: "six Guineas, three half Johannes’s, two Dollars, six English Shillings & an English half Crown." Six guineas was more than half a year's typical wages for a soldier's wife's job like working as a hospital nurse. We don't know Morrison's profession, but this was a lot of money for anyone of her station. That her pocket contain Portuguese Johannes, and dollar coins from an unspecified nation in addition to English coinage, shows the diverse currency in circulation in New York at a time when the value of these coins was based on the quantity of precious metal they contained. Also gone was her handkerchief.

Within the next few days, though, several people noticed that Edward Bullin seemed to have more money that was usual for him. When he bought some liquor from a woman (apparently another Royal Artillery wife), she happened to ask him if he knew whether Mrs. Morrison had gone to Staten Island, to which he gave the cryptic response, "if you see Mrs. Morrison do not tell her you saw me or know any thing of me." As word of the crime and Bullin's behavior got around, he was arrested and taken to the guard house.

Ultimately, it was the handkerchief that proved his undoing. When Elizabeth Morrison went to the guard house (presumably because she learned that Bullin was held there), she saw that Bullin had her handkerchief, the one stolen item that could be identified unequivocally. Bullin was brought before a general court martial and charged with "picking Elizabeth Morrison’s Pockets of six guineas three half Johannes and some silver;" the stolen handkerchief was not included in the charge.

At the trial, Morrison related the incident at Mrs. Connor's house and other witness told of Bullin's behavior and unexplained wealth. Bullin questioned why Morrison didn't accuse him immediately; that's when she deposed that "she imagined he was taking a freedom with her, & did not suspect him of picking her pocket until she recollected the Circumstances of his hand having been in her pocket, when she missed the money next morning." Bullin then asked "What was your reason for accusing me of picking your Pocket, more than any one else in Company?" Her reply was simple enough: "Because I found your hand in my pocket."

Edward Bullin was found guilty and sentenced to receive 600 lashes as well as being confined until the money was paid back. If he didn't still have some of the money, or other savings, it would take quite some time for him to earn this much money solely through his base pay - and, being confined, he would not be able to do any other work as soldiers often did to earn additional sums. We have no information about how long he was confined.

And we have no other information about Elizabeth Morrison. She is unusual, in fact, that we know so much about her - he marriage date, from a church record, and the events recorded in the trial proceedings. For most of the several thousand wives who accompanied British soldiers in America, we know nothing at all about them as individuals.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!