The story of General John Burgoyne's ill-fated 1777 campaign is well known, for it resulted in the capitulation of a substantial British army. The prisoners of war were marched to hastily-built barracks outside of Boston, expecting to be sent back to Great Britain. Among them was a corporal in the 9th Regiment of Foot named John Buchanan. Among his comrades in the 9th were corporal Roger Lamb who chronicled the regiment's two years of campaigning in America,
and corporal Samuel Reeves.
Tensions ran high between the British prisoners, the American soldiers who guarded them, and the local populace. It didn't help that the British prisoners were crowded into decrepit barracks in cold weather, had nothing to occupy their time, and were guarded by local militia who did not have the professional acumen that they were accustomed to as soldiers. Among many incidents, in December 1777 John Buchanan was confined to the guard house for insulting a local inhabitant and Samuel Reeves was confined for insulting an American officer.
On 19 December the commander of the American troops guarding the prisoners, Colonel David Henley ordered those prisoners who were confined for various infractions paraded so that he could review their cases. Buchanan, Reeves and a few other confined prisoners were brought out of the guard house. Other British soldiers gathered to see what was going on. Henley, on horseback, asked the paraded prisoners one at a time why they had been confined. Henley was already unpopular with the British prisoners because of his volatile temper, and his discourse with Reeves quickly got out of hand. Reeves said that he did not recognize the man he'd insulted as an officer, or he would not have done so. Henley called him a rascal, and Reeves retorted that he was not a rascal but a good soldier, and hoped soon to be able to prove it when free to fight again for his king and country. This so enraged Henley that he ordered a sentry to run Reeves through with his bayonet. When the sentry hesitated, Henley dismounted his horse, seized the sentry's firelock and thrust the bayonet at Reeves' breast. Buchanan grabbed the firelock, but not in time to prevent Reeves receiving a slight puncture wound. Reeves continued to argue in spite of his wound, but Buchanan and the other soldiers managed to separate him from Colonel Henley. Reeves and Buchanan were ordered back to the guard house and the other prisoners were dismissed. Buchanan was told that he would be released after writing an apology to the inhabitant that he had insulted.
Apparently Buchanan wrote the apology and was released but just a couple of weeks later, on 8 January 1778, he was attempting to cross a bridge near the prisoners' barracks when he encountered Colonel Henley and another officer. Buchanan presented a pass, but Henley examined it and determined that it was
not written for Buchanan but for another man. Henley ordered a corporal and two soldiers to take charge of Buchanan and take him to the guard house in the prison compound, setting in motion a series of events that very nearly turned riotous.
A large party of American militia was marching past the British barracks. About sixty of the British prisoners gathered to watch them march by; they crowded close to the road so that it was difficult for the American soldiers to pass. In the crowd, one British soldier inadvertently stepped on the foot of Thomas Tragget (or Tredgett) of the 24th Regiment. Tragget cried out with an epithet. One of the American soldiers, thinking that Tragget was taunting them, lunged at Tragget and stabbed him with a bayonet. As Tragget and other soldiers protested, the militia man stabbed Tragget a second time, then hit him once with the butt of his firelock. The wounds were not dangerous, and within a few days Tragget was on the mend.
Soon after, the three American guards escorting John Buchanan approached the guard house. This caught the attention a British soldier who ran over and started talking to Buchanan. Unaccountably, the guards allowed the British prisoner to walk alongside Buchanan conversing with him. Moments later, they came upon the growing crowd of prisoners that was already agitated from the stabbing of Tragget.
The British prisoners crowded around Buchanan and the three guards. As the guard party attempted to push through, a British soldier slipped beside Buchanan, and suddenly took his place as Buchanan slipped into the crown. Other prisoners held onto the coat tails of the guards, preventing them from immediate pursuit.
Attempting to follow Buchanan, the guards pushed into the crowd with charged bayonets as the British soldiers cheered. Thomas Willson of the 9th Regiment, confronted with a guard's bayonet, parried when suddenly the other guard stabbed Willson in the left side. Buchanan, though, had made good his escape.
Colonel Henley, on foot this time, led a dozen or so soldiers in to disperse the British prisoners and restore order. The soldiers loaded their firelocks and Henley ordered the British prisoners to disperse. The crowd was thick by now, and the men did not move off quickly enough to satisfy Henley; he
cursed the scattering prisoners, and in his agitation stabbed Corporal Hadley of 9th Regiment in the side with such force as to bend his sword. Henley continued to shout at the dispersing prisoners, attempting to straighten his sword while threatening to run stragglers through. Several British and American soldiers received blows and minor injuries in the confused scuffling.
The British prisoners finally cleared the area and ordered was restored. Buchanan was at large among the scattered prisoners; when an American serjeant saw him and attempted to seize him, Buchanan's comrades blocked the serjeant's way, hustled Buchanan into a barracks and blocked the door. Colonel Henley, at the advice of one of his subordinates, chose not to further pursue Buchanan but instead to ask the senior British officer present to turn Buchanan in.
British officers paraded the prisoners, an American officer identified Buchanan, and he was taken away under guard. The next day he was tried by a British regimental court martial which heard testimony from American as well as British witnesses, and the British court sentenced Buchanan to fifty lashes. The next day, however, when the punishment was to be carried out, Buchanan was pardoned and set at liberty.
With three British prisoners stabbed in a single day, along with a number of minor injuries and the incidents of the preceding weeks, Colonel Henley's treatment of the prisoners was called into question by Major General John Burgoyne. Burgoyne demanded that Henley be brought before a court martial. The court sat from 20 January to 25 February, with Burgoyne himself in the roll of prosecutor. The full proceedings of the court were published and are available here.
Burgoyne delivered summaries that made full use of his literary and dramatic talents, and many incidents of the preceding months were described in detail by British and American soldiers and officers.
Unfortunately, we know no more of John Buchanan. Muster rolls were not kept for the British regiments during the time that they were in captivity. He has yet to be discovered as having escaped and joined the ranks of another British regiment, or on the lists of men receiving pensions. He may have died in captivity, escaped and settled in America, or rejoined the British army in circumstances that have yet to be determined.