Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Prisoner of War: John Buchanan, 9th Regiment of Foot

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.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Phineas Baker and Henry Drennan, 38th Regiment

You can't believe everything you read in the newspapers. This guidance, familiar today, was also true in the 18th century; in fact, it may have been more true then than now. Period newspapers are outstanding sources of information filled with advertisements and notices that provide rich insight on the culture of a region, but the actual news that they contain is profoundly unreliable. Publishers relied heavily on accounts and hearsay brought to them by travelers and correspondents, and had no ability to verify (in a timely manner) much of what they published. During times of political unrest and war, exaggerated and fabricated information could be used to inflame the readership.

Captain Hugh Maginis of the 38th Regiment of Foot complained of this type of exaggerated reporting by American newspapers early in the war. In a letter to his brother in Ireland in December 1774, he wrote:

The people here and we are on bad terms, ready to cut on another’s throats. We often see here in the English papers accounts from America, not one of which contain a word of truth; they mention a great deal about the desertion from our troops, some are gone off, but not the tenth part of what they say, for our whole army, consisting of 105 companies, have not lost 120 men, although the people make use of every stratagem to make them desert, and supply them with horses and carriages to go off.

Maginis's complaint is proven legitimate by muster rolls. The ten companies in the 38th regiment had 20 desertions from the time of their arrival in Boston in June 1774 until the end of that year; they did not occur at a steady rate, but included 5 in July, 8 in September, and only one or two in each of the other months. Extrapolating to 105 companies yields a figure similar to Maginis's. Whether this was a high or low rate of desertion is a matter of perspective. It is notable that some men listed as having deserted before 19 April 1775 managed to rejoin the army later in the war and brought tales of having been coerced away or even kidnapped. It is difficult to determine whether these were factual reports or alibis designed to avoid punishment for desertion. After hostilities broke out in earnest on 19 April, desertion decreased significantly; the 38th regiment lost only 3 men to desertion from 19 April to the evacuation of Boston in March 1776. Whether the decrease was due to martial spirit or to the city being closed off from the countryside is debatable.

Continuing his thought about the local inhabitants' schemes to inveigle men away, Maginis described the exploits of two of his soldiers:

But I believe that will be a good deal stopped by the good behaviour of a young lad, a corporal in my company; he with another of the company went to a public-house, where they met some countrymen, who advised them to desert, and that they would supply them with disguises, that they might escape the easier, whereupon the corporal put on a disguise, stuffed his regimentals into one of the men’s saddle bags, and after settling their expedition, the countryman offered to take the corporal behind him, but he told him he could not ride without stirrups, so he got on the saddle, and took the countryman behind him, and set a galloping towards the nearest barrack, which, when the other observed, he leaped from behind him, and made his escape, swearing he would not wait to be shot, the corporal drove on to his own barrack with the whole prize, and no one dare to own the horse or cloaths; the corporal is thanked by the whole army, and the horse given up to him; there was no horse for the other, or he would have done the same. The corporal is one Baker, a Yorkshire-man; and the soldier’s name is Drenning a Heart of Steel from the county of Antrim.

There is one aspect of this account that casts doubt on it: the letter itself was published in a Dublin newspaper, the Hibernian Chronicle of 23 January 1775. Is this letter a piece of propaganda fabricated by the publisher or a legitimate record of an event in Boston?

It is plausible for a letter dated 14 December 1774 to have arrived in Dublin in time to have been fresh news for the 23 January 1775 newspaper, given that the journey from America to Britain was must faster than travel in the other direction. The veracity of the letter is further supported by the names that it provides, Corporal Baker and Private Drenning. The muster rolls of the 38th Regiment confirm that Phineas Baker was appointed corporal in Maginis's company on 20 August 1774, and that Henry Drennan was a private soldier in Maginis's company (variations of spelling are quite common among the names recorded on muster rolls and other documents).

The young and clever Corporal Phineas Baker whose exploit earned the praise of the army died on 17 July 1775 of wounds he received at the battle of Bunker Hill a month before. The steel-hearted Henry Drennan fared much better. The same battle that resulted in the death of his comrade created a vacancy that allowed Drennan to be appointed corporal (but not the same vacancy created by the death of Baker; Drennan was appointed only three days after the 17 June battle). Five months later he became a serjeant. When a cadre of officers and men was sent to Great Britain in December 1775 for recruiting, Serjeant Drennan was among them. He remained on this service for the entirety of the war, and took his discharge in August 1784.