Friday, June 5, 2009

Deserter: James Armstrong, 15th Regiment

In September of 1775, the army was struggling to raise new men not only to bring regiments up to wartime strength, but to accommodate the 200-man-per-regiment augmentation that had recently been ordered for regiments on service in, or going to, America. Desertion was a significant problem for recruiters in Ireland. Liberal Irish newspapers attributed this to patriotism and sympathy to the American cause:

"Saturday a recruiting party of the 53d regt. beat up for volunteers at Blarney, and brought away only one recruit."

"Waterford, August 12. A recruiting party of the 19th regt. is now beating up in this city for volunteers, but meets with extremely bad success, owing to the general dislike of being transported to America for the purpose of slaughtering our oppressed fellow subjects."

British officers on the recruiting service had different views of why recruiting was so difficult. One officer wrote that "It is not possible... to conceive the difficulty there is in getting Men in Ireland; Besides they are the very Scum of the Earth, and do their utmost to desert, the moment they are Cloathed," while another complained that "the Recruiting here is not likely to be attended with much success. The men who Engage themselves are Chiefly White Boys, who unless very closely watched, desert as soon as they can find the opportunity." People in Strabane were thought to have made "a trade of Desertion and too often with impunity." Another recruiting officer believed that men could not be kept in the army "whilst surrounded by their Friends and Relations who employ every allurement to prevail upon them to desert."

Precise information about desetion rates from recruiting parties has yet to be found. Newspaper advertisements were published for some deserters; among them is the following:

From a recruiting Party of his Majesty's 15th Regiment of Foot, recruiting at Belfast under the Command of Lieut. Courtney, Dennis McPeak, aged 21 Years, 5 feet 8 Inches high, short brown hair, born in Shamescastle, formerly lived with John O'Neill, Esq. of said Place; had on when he deserted a blue coat and waistcoat and a pair of buckskin breeches, the coat without buttons.
Likewise, John McCollester, aged 16 years, 5 feet 5 inches; had on a short blue coat and waistcoat, with a pair of greasy leather breeches, supposed to be concealed in or near Belfast.
Likewise, James Armstrong, born in the Parish of Moira, County Down, aged 23 Years, 5 Feet 6 Inches and a half high, by Trade a Weaver, stout and well made; had on when he deserted a light coloured Frize Coat and Waistcoat, with a Pair of Fustian Breeches, and a Pair of unbleached Thread Stockings. If either or all of the above Deserters will join their Party at Belfast by the 14th October, they will receive their free Pardon, otherwise any Person apprehending either of them, and lodging them in any of his Majesty's Gaols, shall receive Guinea over and above what is allowed by Act of Parliament for apprehending Deserters, by applying to Lieut. Conway Courtney at Belfast. [Belfast Newsletter, 29 Sept 1775]

The recruits described in this advertisement had not yet been issued any regimental clothing. Two of the men are consistent with expected age and height standards for this time period (but, later on in the war, these standards changed). John McCollester is both young and short, but presumably he was a likely prospect to grow into requirements of a soldier.

One of the deserters in this advertisement, James Armstrong, did find his way into service with the 15th Regiment, although we do not know whether he took advantage of the pardon offered in the ad or was apprehended. The 15th Regiment was sent to America at the beginning of 1776 as part of the abortive assault on Charleston, South Carolina. Armstrong, however, did not embark for America until January 1781. The fleet of transports that brought him and hundreds of other recruits sailed first for Charleston – by then a British garrison - then to New York, arriving in late June. The 15th Regiment had gone to the West Indies three years earlier. Following a typical practice, the recruits for the 15th Regiment were drafted into regiments still serving in the New York area; James Armstrong and 23 other recruits for the 15th Regiment were drafted into the 22nd Regiment of Foot.

At the end of the war the strength of British regiments was reduced, and James Armstrong was among those soldiers discharged in America. Like many men so discharged, he immediately reenlisted into a regiment being sent to Canada, in this case the 54th Regiment of Foot. While serving in that regiment, James Armstrong died on 20 May 1785.

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