Friday, October 16, 2009

Criminal: Alexander Murray, 81st Regiment

Escaped from Dunfernline Gaol, the evening of the 27th ult. Alexander Murray labourer, apprehended as a disorderly person guilty of crimes, and inlisted with Lieut. Gregor Farquarson of the 81st regiment, as a volunteer under the impress act, and was by him secured in gaol till an opportunity should occur to transmit him to the regiment.
He was born in the parish of Muthil, Perthshire, is about 26 years of age, 5 feet 7 3/4 inches high or thereby, fair complexion, black hair, dark grey eyes, stout built, and a little droop shouldered, had on when he went away, a big blue duffil coat, with dark grey cloaths, and light blue stockings.
Whoever shall apprehend said deserter betwixt and the 1st of April next [sic], and lodge him within any secure gaol in Great Britain, shall be intitled to L. 2 ½ ster. of reward over and above the premium allowed by act of parliament by applying to the treasurer of the burgh of Dunfermline, or to Mr. John Flockart writer in Edinburgh.
It is hoped that no officer will inlist that man, nor none pretend to secret him, otherways they will be prosecuted in terms of law for secreting deserters.
[Edinburgh Advertiser, 23 February 1779]

The 81st Regiment did not serve in America during the 1775-1783 war. This advertisement, however, affords an opportunity to dispel popular bits of dogma about the soldiers who fought in America during that conflict. The key misconceptions are that men were impressed into the army, and that convicted criminals were routinely put into the army instead of into jail. While examples of both practices can be found, they represent only a very small portion of the army and, more importantly, not the soldiers who were sent to fight in America. The idea that the British Army was made up primarily of the lowest and foulest men that society had to offer is the result of generalizing these specialized activities - enlistment of criminals and impressment - which actually applies only to very specialized circumstances.

An excellent article on this topic is "The recruitment of criminals into the British army, 1775-81" (Stephen R. Conway. Historical Research, lviii (May 1985) 46-58). Conway explains the laws that allowed, under very specific circumstances, convicted men to be offered military service as an alternative to prison. He also presents records which show that, although legal, the practice was not at all widespread; only 784 convicts in England and Wales were pardoned between 1775 and 1781 on the condition that they join the army or marines.

A key reason for the low numbers is that the army didn't want convicts any more than the general population did. Not being a bunch of complete idiots, army officers did not for a moment think that men who were poor citizens would somehow be good soldiers. For this reason, the vast majority of these convicts-cum-soldiers were, in the spirit of transporting criminals, sent to undesirable locations plagued by high mortality rates such as Africa, India and the West Indies (the British army had a corps referred to as the “Africa Corps” during this era). There is no evidence that any appreciable numbers of these men served in regiments in America.

A related misunderstanding is that men were pressed into the army, when in fact it was primarily a volunteer force. For most of the 1770s and 1780s, British law prohibited impressing or conscripting men into the army. Enlistment was voluntary. A brief exception occurred during the American War between May 1778 and May 1780 when acts were passed allowing the army to press men – that is, force them into the service – under certain conditions. The first law was passed in May 1778, revised in February 1779, and suspended in May of that year. It was resumed in November but repealed once and for all in May 1780. Under these laws, civil officials could turn over to the military “all able-bodied idle, and disorderly Persons, who could not, upon Examination, prove themselves to exercise and industriously follow some lawful Trade or Employment, or to have some Substance sufficient for their Support and Maintenance.” Also eligible for press were those convicted of theft-related crimes of goods valued under 40 pounds Sterling.

The press acts were passed because of the urgent need to expand the armed forces when France entered the war. Their repeal was due not only to reduced fears of invasion two years later, but also because they were extremely unpopular with both the populace and with the army. No one expected pressed men to make good soldiers. In his popular book Military Antiquities published in 1786, British militia officer Francis Grose described the sentiments clearly:

An act for impressing soldiers took place in 1779, when all the thieves, pickpockets and vagabonds in the environs of London, too lame to run away, or too poor to bribe the parish officers, were apprehended and delivered over as soldiers to the regiments quartered in the very townes [sic] and villages where these banditti had lived and been taken; these men being thus set at large in the midst of their old companions and connections, immediately deserted, whereby the whole expence, by no means an inconsiderable one, was thrown away: nor did the soldiers of the regiments on which they were imposed, take the least pains to prevent their escape, or to retake them; as they justly considered being thus made the companions of thieves and robbers, a most grievous and cruel insult, and loudly complained of it as such, to their officers. Indeed it seems to have been a very ill judged measure, tending to destroy that professional pride, that esprit de corps which ought most assiduously to be cultivated in every regiment. The profession of a soldier has long ceased to be lucrative, if it ever was so. If it is likewise made dishonorable, where shall we get soldiers on whom we may depend? when the exigencies of the time make it necessary to take such men into the service, they should at least be sent to regiments quartered in a distant part of the kingdom, where they and their characters are equally unknown, or divided among the regiments on foreign service.

The best that can be said of the press acts was that they induced able men to enlist voluntarily rather than risk being pressed, which at least afforded them some opportunity to choose the regiment and therefore the location in which they might serve. From March through November 1779, for example, a total of 1,463 men were pressed in England and Wales, and another 61 in Scotland between March and July. If these men were distributed evening throughout the army, it is easy to see that no one regiment received many of them.

The impact of the press acts on regiments in America was minimal. No records have been found describing which regiments pressed men were put into, but clearly only men recruited at certain times between May 1778 and May 1780 could legally have been impressed. The 22nd Regiment of Foot, which served in America from 1775 through 1783, provides an example of the proportion of pressed men that could possibly have been in a regiment, regardless of the actual number. During its eight years in America, just over 1000 men (not counting officers) spent some time serving in this regiment. Of those, no more than 150 were recruited during the time window of the press acts. We do not know if any of these men actually were impressed, but this illustrates the maximum proportion that could have been. Other evidence suggests that impressed men were not preferred for service in America. A newspaper reported that “In order to expedite the embarkation of the troops intended for America, government mean to draft most of the men from the old corps in England to complete the regiments abroad, and the new levies, now about to be raised by the impress act, are to fill up their vacancies.”

The term “criminal” also carries a connotation that overstates the notoriety of lawbreakers who were given the option to become soldiers. Besides the “thieves, pickpockets and vagabonds” noted by Francis Grose, men convicted of sheep-stealing, burglary, orchard robbing, abandoning their families, indebtedness, smuggling, poaching and other petty crimes were given the option of soldiering instead of prison. The press acts briefly widened the range of convictions that might land a man in uniform rather than prison. For magistrates, the army offered an opportunity for wayward men to get their lives on course, and to this day military service is often recommended for those with minor criminal records who nonetheless have some promise. More hardened criminals were not given the enlistment choice, for the simple reason that the army did not want them any more than the civilian population did. Army officers did not for a moment think that men who failed to follow civil laws would succeed as soldiers.

To summarize, it was possible to for criminals to be pardoned on the condition that they serve in the army, and during a specific time period it was possible for men including criminals to be pressed into service. Alexander Murray of the 81st Regiment, described in the advertisement above, is an example of the latter. This type of recruiting, however, did not characterize the army as a whole, but provided only a small fraction of its overall strength. The number of pardoned criminals and impressed men that served in America was negligible.

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