Thursday, May 17, 2018
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.
Monday, January 15, 2018
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.
Monday, December 11, 2017
When war broke out in America, Arthur Petty was a soldier in the 13th Regiment of Foot. The regiment was in Minorca, having been there since 1769; in September of 1775 they were sent back to Great Britain. The regiment would not be sent to America, instead remaining in England where their exposure to rebellious colonists came from guarding captured American mariners held in British prisons. Some soldiers of the 13th, however, were drafted into regiments sent to America. Arthur Petty was among them.
Petty joined the 20th Regiment of Foot as that regiment prepared for embarkation in early 1776. The 20th was among the regiments that sailed up the St. Lawrence River and landed in Quebec, relieving a siege that Americans had maintained for several months. The 20th was part of the force that drove American forces out of Canada and up Lake Champlain before the onset of winter stalled their advance. After enduring the winter in posts along the Richelieu river, the 20th Regiment set off on the 1777 expedition under General Burgoyne that ultimately resulted in their capture at Saratoga. Petty, however, was not among the soldiers who endured years in captivity; instead, he was part of the small detachment of each regiment left behind in Canada.
How men were selected to remain behind is not known. Those who were not fit enough to endure the campaign certainly stayed behind, and perhaps that was the case with Petty. By July of 1778 he was fit enough to do duty again, as he and others from the 20th Regiment, seventy men altogether, were drafted into the 53rd Regiment of Foot. Although the 53rd had been on Burgoyne's expedition, they had not been at Saratoga, instead having been posted at Fort Ticonderoga and other posts along the supply lines. A portion of the regiment was captured in September of 1777 in an action called Brown's raid. The drafts from the 20th Regiment helped bring the 53rd back up to fighting strength.
No regimental records survive to tell us about Arthur Petty's character in the 13th and 20th Regiments, but in the 53rd he ran into trouble. After four years in the regiment, Major John Nairne sent a letter from the 53rd's current post at Isle aux Noix on the Richelieu River to the adjutant general for British forces in Canada, at headquarters in Quebec. Nairne's letter, dated 3 September 1782, read in part:
Give me leave also to represent to you that a Soldier of the Regt. named A: P: being such an incorrigible Thief, after repeated punishments in the severest manner to no purpose, is now under the Sentence of a Regimental Court Martial to be Drummed out of the Regiment, and his Captain (Scott) joins me in requesting leave to discharge him accordingly; he has been a Draft from the 20th Regt: is about forty five years of age, not a very Stout man, however he might perhaps be of some use to His Majesty’s Service as a marine, or, in Africa.
Given that most British soldiers enlisted in their early twenties, Petty's age in 1782 suggests that he had been in the army for quite some time, and it's difficult to image that his behavior had been consistently bad throughout. He may, however, have been an exception, either in terms of when he enlisted or how well he endured punishment. Drumming out was the period equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, reserved for cases where the army decided that a man simply wasn't worth the effort of further attempts at discipline. Sometimes men like this, who were able-bodied but incorrigible, were handed over to the navy, presumably because that service offered fewer ways for a man to get into trouble. Men whose lives were not valued might be sent to British posts on the disease-ridden west coast of Africa.
A month later, on 1 October, Major Nairne sent an update to the adjutant general. This time he reported that the regimental court martial's sentence of 500 lashes had been carried out in part. Petty had endured 250 lashes, after which he was given a break. It was common practice to administer large numbers of lashes in several groups, with a few weeks in between for the man to recover somewhat; the goal of lashes, after all, was to punish but not to disable or kill the man. Major Nairne reported that Petty's behavior had improved, so the remaining 250 lashes were forgiven, and that he would be spared the humiliation of a drumming out ceremony.
In spite of this improvement, Major Nairne must not have believed that Arthur Petty would become a good and trustworthy soldier. He was discharged from the regiment that same month.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Benjamin Noble had not learned a trade in his teen years, putting him into the broad category of "laborers" who worked England’s farms and fields, or at whatever other work they could find. He'd had enough of that by the time he was twenty years old, and joined the army. He enlisted in 1765 in the 14th Regiment of Foot, on service at Windsor, west of London and about 45 miles south of his native Bedford; whether he enlisted with a recruiting officer in his home town or elsewhere is not known.
If he enlisted out of a thirst for change, he didn't have to wait long. In 1766 the 14th Regiment left England for Halifax Nova Scotia. By 1769 they had moved to Boston, where soldiers of the regiment, as well as men of the 29th Regiment, were involved in some of the unrest that led to the Boston Massacre the following year. Following that incident, the 14th stayed at Castle William in Boston harbor until 1772, when a new crisis required them.
On the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean, Carib tribesmen inhabiting the island had been fighting British attempts to survey and acquire land since 1769. The British government decided to try a big military push, and sent the 14th and several other regiments to the island in late 1772. The ensuing fighting led only to a stalemate, and a peace treaty was signed in 1773. Benjamin Noble was wounded in the campaign.
The ten companies were sent to other places, some to St. Augustine in Florida and others to the Bahamas. As tensions rose in the colonies, in 1775 part of the 14th Regiment was sent to Virginia to serve under Lord Dunmore. Benjamin Noble was now thirty years old, a combat veteran in the regiment's grenadier company. He saw combat again on 9 December when the grenadiers attempted to drive rebellious colonists from a strategic position overlooking a critical bridge in Virginia's tidewater region. The battle of Great Bridge was short, and disastrous for the 14th's grenadiers. All of their officers were dead or wounded. Fourteen other ranks were also killed, and most of the rest wounded, including Noble; unlike fifteen of his wounded comrades, he avoided capture and was able to rejoin Dunmore's little army.
British military efforts in Virginia soon collapsed, and the 14th Regiment, severely under strength after ten years and two wars in North America, sailed to New York to join the British army there. At the end of 1776, they were drafted - that is, the private soldiers who were fit for service were put into other regiments, the unfit soldiers were discharged, and the officers, non-commissioned officers and drummers returned to Great Britain. Benjamin Noble, despite having received two wounds, was still deemed fit for service and drafted into the grenadier company of the 44th Regiment of Foot.
The 44th's grenadier company was detached from the regiment, serving as part of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers in New Jersey. This battalion was among the troops involved in the battle of Princeton on 3 January 1777. Benjamin Noble had wasted no time getting to his new company, for he was in this battle - and for the third time, he was wounded. And for the third time, his wound did not prevent him from continuing in the ranks. He remained in the 44th Regiment during its service in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and then sailed with it to Quebec in 1779.
The 44th Regiment stayed in Canada for over five years, finally returning to Great Britain in 1786. Benjamin Noble and many others in its ranks had been in North America for twenty years. Noble nonetheless continued to serve until 1790, finally taking his discharge on 25 November after 25 years as a private soldier. He went before the examining board at Chelsea and was awarded a well-deserved pension in recognition of his wounds and being "worn out with long service."
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Thursday, September 21, 2017
The army got John Adcock out of prison. It wasn't a dramatic rescue, but a bit of administrative good fortune. Adcock had been convicted of "riot", a crime more or less equivalent to disturbing the peace, and was sentenced to six months in prison in Warwick, England. The fact that Adcock was a private soldier in the 38th Regiment of Foot did not exempt him from being convicted and having to serve his time.
As long as the regiment was on service in Great Britain, that is. In early 1774, while Adcock was in prison in Warwick, the regiment was ordered to America, part of a military force that was expected to quell the rebellious spirit that had taken over Massachusetts. The 38th was currently in Ireland; how Adcock came to be in prison in Warwick is not known - he may have been on recruiting service, or on furlough. When word came that his regiment was to embark for America, his sentence was remitted, and on 31 March 1774 he left Warwick to join his regiment.
The 38th arrived in Boston that summer and encamped with several other regiments on Boston Common, a strong military presence intended to restore order through intimidation. There seem to have been no repercussions for Adcock's having been in a civilian prison. He was, in fact, a good enough soldier that he was appointed corporal on 17 September, but his time in that capacity was short; on 15 October he was reduced again to the ranks. Such short-term appointments were not unusual, and did not always denote poor discipline. Sometimes men were appointed to temporarily replace corporals who were indisposed, and sometimes men who were appointed didn't care for the roll and requested to be reduced.
Whatever the reason for his reduction, it didn't prevent him from being put into the regiment's grenadier company on 15 April 1775, a move probably made to bring the company up to strength for the impending expedition to seize rebel stores in Concord. There's no indication that he was wounded in that action, or in the assault on Bunker Hill in June. The next detailed information we have about John Adcock is from June 1779.
The 38th Regiment's grenadier company, as part of the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers, had spent the winter quartered on Long Island, part of the British garrison centered in New York City. With the opening of the campaign season, the battalion was part of a force sent up the Hudson River to secure British points at Stony Point and Verplanck Point. The grenadier battalion was among the troops that established an encampment on the east side of the river, fortifying Verplanck Point while awaiting their next move.
Something was amiss with discipline in the battalion, however, which led to a spate of desertions. It may have been simply the relative freedom of being out of quarters, or the opportunities for marauding afforded by close proximity to the front lines, or issues internal to the battalion itself. Several grenadiers were caught and brought to trial, but about two dozen got away, including John Adcock.
The 38th Regiment served out the war in America and was among the last to leave New York in November 1784. They returned to Great Britain, and there soldiers who were no longer fit for service were discharged. But amid all of the discharges, a man was added to the rolls: John Adcock, "joined from desertion" on 23 April 1784. We've found nothing about his whereabouts for the intervening years, including how he managed to get back to Great Britain. Quite possibly he had joined an American privateer crew, been captured at sea and sent to a British prison. He may have enlisted in a Loyalist regiment that was disbanded at the end of the war and received passage to Great Britain from the army. There are many possibilities. No matter; his soldiering days were over. Just a month after rejoining his regiment, John Adcock was discharged, and there's no evidence that he returned to the service.
Wednesday, August 30, 2017
Something went wrong in Ralph Brunker's career. We don't know what it was, but we have some clues.
Brunker, also spelled Bunker, came to America in 1776 as a corporal in the grenadier company of the 33rd Regiment of Foot. For a rank-and-file soldier, this was a reasonably prestigious post; the grenadier company, ten percent of the regiment's strength, was formed of men who had at least a year of experience, had good physiques including being among the tallest men in the regiment, and were generally reliable soldiers. Being appointed as a non-commissioned officer indicated that Brunker was a trustworthy, well-disciplined soldier; there were only three corporals and three serjeants in a company that included (at full strength) fifty-six private soldiers, so Brunker was in the top ten percent of an already-elite ten percent.
Things began to change for Brunker in the middle of 1777. After a year of hard campaigning with a grenadier battalion, he was transferred out of the grenadiers and into one of his regiment's eight battalion companies. This in itself wasn't unusual; men who had been wounded, fallen ill, or in some other way were unfit to continue the very active duties of a grenadier were always transferred back to the regiment and replaced with fit men. But Brunker was also reduced to be a private soldier before the end of 1777. While this, too, could have been due to physical incapacity, both the transfer and the reduction could have been caused by poor discipline.
A year later, in June 1778, Brunker was put back into the grenadier company, still a private soldier. The 33rd Regiment's grenadier company spent the winter of 1778-1779 as part of a grenadier battalion on Long Island, living in huts and, as is often the case with enthusiastic but bored soldiers, causing a fair amount of trouble with local inhabitants. When they finally went on campaign again in the late spring of 1779, it was difficult to contain the men who had been cooped up for months. When the grenadier battalions established a camp at Verplancks Point on the east bank of the Hudson River, the many of the soldiers set to plundering outside of their own lines. Several deserted. A few were caught a tried by courts martial.
In July the grenadiers moved south and east into Westchester County. The discipline problems continued. It was in this area that Ralph Brunker's career came to an abrupt end. He and another grenadier "went off"; whether for plunder or with an intention of deserting is not known. A local Loyalist named Elijah Vincent, who served as a guide for the army and later became an ensign in the Guides and Pioneers, came upon the two wayward soldiers in New Rochelle. He arrested them and brought them into the grenadiers' camp, where they were put in confinement. They could expect to be charged by a regimental court for being absent from camp, or by a general court for desertion. Either way, the likely punishment was lashes.
Ralph Brunker probably already knew the pain of lashing, the most likely explanation for this next move. And the army's response is indicative that he had already established a reputation as a bad character. An officer recorded, “Two from the Grrs went off & were taken up at New Rochelle by a young man call’d Vincent of East chester who march’d them into Camp, they were lodged in the Qr. Guard & in the Eveng one of them (Bromker the 33d) cut his throat & dyed & was buried in the highway with a stake thro’ his body.”
Monday, August 14, 2017
Stories from the first half of the nineteenth century are notorious for containing exaggerations, convolutions, and outright falsehoods about the American Revolution. The passage of fifty or more years left memories muddled and faded, and tales passed by word of mouth were conflated, elaborated, and sometimes even invented. This means that such stories must be evaluated carefully for plausibility, comparing details carefully with more reliable information. One such story concerns a British serjeant in New Jersey in 1777.
After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, British forces settled in to a string of posts in New Jersey, quartered in abandoned buildings, barns and other shelter in the area around Amboy and New Brunswick. American forces were centered in Morristown, separated from their opponents by a ridge line called the Short Hills. A number of battles and skirmishes occurred during the ensuing months, none of which had an impact on the overall disposition. It was a long, difficult winter for soldiers on both sides.
In May, the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot was quartered in Piscataway, just north of the Raritan River. While most of the soldiers went about the routine duties required to maintain sufficient food, fuel, cleanliness and general readiness, a portion did duty as piquets (or pickets), individuals placed around the perimeter to detect any approaching threats. On the afternoon of 10 May, a threat came, and it was a big one.
A force of some 2000 American troops had carefully made their way towards Piscataway, making use of the terrain to remain concealed for as long as possible. When they could get no closer undetected, the rushed upon the picquets. The highlanders, vastly outnumbered, nonetheless fought back, and were quickly joined by additional men on guard duty who were not already posted. They put up the best resistance that they could, but were forced to retire all the way back to their own quarters, leaving the garrison dangerously exposed. They had bought enough time, however, for the remainder of their regiment to put aside their other task and form for battle. Other regiments quartered in the area joined the fight as well. The tide was soon turned and the Americans were chased back from whence they had come. A dozen men of the 42nd Regiment had been killed, and just over three times that number wounded.
In 1822, General David Stuart published a substantial work in Edinburgh entitled Sketches of the character, manners, and present state of the Highlanders of Scotland: with details of the military service of the Highland regiments. He gave a brief account of the battle in Piscataway, and included this anecdote:
On this occasion, Sergeant Macgregor, whose company was immediately in the rear of the picquet, rushed forward to their support, with a few men who happened to have their arms in their hands, when the enemy commenced the attack. Being severely wounded, he was left insensible on the ground. When the picquet was overpowered, and the few survivors forced to retire, Macgregor, who had that day put on a new jacket with silver lace, having besides, large silver buckles in his shoes, and a watch, attracted the notice of an American soldier, who deemed him a good prize. The retreat of his friends not allowing him time to strip the sergeant on the spot, he thought the shortest way was to take him on his back to a more convenient distance. By this time Macgregor began to recover; and, perceiving whither the man was carrying him, drew his dirk, and, grasping him by the throat, swore that he would run him through the breast, if he did not turn back and carry him to the camp. The American, finding this argument irresistible, complied with the request, and, meeting Lord Cornwallis (who had come up to the support of the regiment when he heard the firing) and Colonel Stirling, was thanked for his care of the sergeant; but he honestly told him, that he only conveyed him thither to save his own life. Lord Cornwallis gave him liberty to go whithersoever he chose.
This story sounds fanciful, but it does contain details that can be compared to a reliable sources. British reports of this action show that the 42nd Regiment had three serjeants killed and three wounded in the action. The regiment's muster rolls show that there was a serjeant named Duncan McGrigor in the 42nd at this time. More telling is that this Serjeant McGrigor was discharged in November 1778, and returned to Great Britain to go before the pension board. The pension examiners recorded that he was forty-six years old, had served in the army for twenty-three years, and was a native of Perth. Most important, he was discharged because wounds rendered him no longer fit to serve.
The actions of the 42nd Regiment on 10 May 1777 received the praise of General Sir William Howe, commander in chief of the British army in America, as recorded in general orders four days later:
His Excellency the commander-in-chief has requested Earl Cornwallis to communicate his thanks to the Forty-Second Regiment, for its spirited behaviour on the 10th instant, when it defeated a body of the enemy much superior to itself in numbers; and he is much pleased with the alertness with which the second brigade got under arms to support the Forty-Second Regiment.
Did a badly-wounded Serjeant Duncan McGrigor really get carried around the battlefield by a plunder-seeking American soldier? We don't know for sure, but the facts we have show that the story is plausible.