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.

1 comment:

  1. "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. "

    Nonetheless, the question begs itself: if they did desert willingly, then why did they return, knowing they would face severe punishment? I should think many returning soldiers' accounts of coercion and deceit regarding their promises by the colonists desertion are true.

    The colonists were desperate to sap the morale and fighting spirit of the British army, sow division among the men and officers, acquire modern military weapons by any means necessary, and, if possible, to augment their ranks with these disaffected, but already trained, fighting men.

    But, regarding the soldiers themselves, why should the colonists' promises be fulfilled? Once the men were gone from the British Army, the rebels' purpose was served. The news was out about yet more soldiers deserting, which could hardly help morale in the garrison. The deserters could hardly go back and tell all that they had been deceived by the colonists. Who would believe a deserting soldier?

    Because of the propaganda value alone, this policy of empty enticement was a slam-dunk for the rebels, even if the real numbers of deserted soldiers was low.