James Buchanan was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1742. We don't know when he joined the army, but by 1775 he was a corporal and was appointed serjeant some time in 1776. (As might be expected, the name 'Buchanan' is spelled various ways in the muster rolls and other documents.) Like many British soldiers he was married and his wife and child accompanied him to America. As far as can be discerned from the muster rolls, he saw all of the 9th Regiment's service in America from its arrival in Quebec in 1776, the rapid campaign to Lake Champlain that immediately ensued, the winter at posts in Canada. When the 1777 campaign began, Buchanan marched with the regiment while his family remained behind in Montreal; although some wives accompanied their husbands on campaigns, it was common for some to remain behind in anticipation of joining the regiment again when the campaigning ended. She would never see her husband again.
The fateful 1777 campaign culminated in the Convention of Saratoga, which saw six British infantry regiments (as well as companies from several others, several German regiments, and a contingent of artillery) surrendered. The Convention directed that these men be returned to Europe, and they were marched to Boston in anticipation of board ships. Instead, they were put into hastily-build barracks outside of town while politicians and military officials dickered about whether one side or the other had violated the terms of the Convention. Campaigning had been difficult, but was the sort of hardship that soldiers expected to endure. Captivity, on the other hand, brought unfamiliar challenges for career soldiers - boredom, lack of purpose, and myriad temptations.
Around the time that Corporal Buchanan was getting into his own troubles, Serjeant Buchanan was entrusted with money from his company officer to purchase shoes for his fellow prisoners. This was a typical task for a serjeant, but Buchanan succumbed to unmilitary influences and squandered the money in a way that has not been recorded. Fearing the punishment that was surely due to him, he determined to at least earn back the money. He deserted the barracks and made his way to the area of Worcester, Massachusetts. Whether he worked there, or for how long, is not clear, but at some point he met up with another fugitive from the 9th Regiment, private William Brooks.
Brooks was from Wednesbury, Staffordshire, was 27 years old, and had also been in the regiment since before 1775. A bizarre event involving Brooks had occurred during the regiment's voyage to America in 1776, as recorded by Roger Lamb:
April 20th. Our ship sailing at the rate of five miles an hour, a soldier whose name was Brooks, leaped off the forecastle into the ocean; the vessel in a moment made her way over him, and he arose at the stern. He immediately with all his might, swam from the ship. The men who were upon the deck alarmed the captain and officers, who had just sat down to dinner; the ship was ordered to be put about, and the boat hoisted out, and manned, the unfortunate man was soon overtaken, and it was with difficulty that the sailors could force him into the boat. When he was brought back he was ordered between decks, and a centinel placed over him; the next morning he was in a high fever, and continued very bad the remainder of the voyage. The fear of punishment was the cause of this desperate action, as the day before he had stolen a shirt from one of his messmates knapsacks.
Buchanan and Brooks set out further into the country towards Worcester in February, looking for work. In the town of Brookfield they passed by the well-appointed house of one Joshua Spooner where they were invited in. There they met the lady of the house, Bathsheba Spooner. She was the daughter of Timothy Ruggles, a prominent Massachusetts loyalist. She was young, beautiful, seductive and in an unhappy marriage.
The ensuing events need not be detailed here because an entire book has been written on the subject. Murdered by his Wife by Deborah Navas (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999) examines in detail how these two British soldiers were ensnared in a murder plot that resulted in their executions in Worcester on 2 July. Not only did the two of them acknowledge the justice of their demise, but it induced them to a dramatic spiritual transformation. Buchanan was particularly penitent. He wrote letters to his officers "full of religious contrition" and impressed upon Brooks the importance of such a viewpoint. As a soldier Brooks had been "notoriously prophane, and almost illiterate." During his confinement of only a few months, he learned to read the scripture and discuss it with his fellows facing execution - Buchanan, Bathsheba Spooner, and a young American soldier named Ezra Ross.
Roger Lamb was allowed by his officers and the American authorities to visit the doomed prisoners and witnessed their execution:
The malefactors had to pass two miles to the gallows, and, although the former part of the day was serene and fine, of a sudden, as they approached the place, the sky was covered with clouds, and a storm of thunder followed with copious rain, attached additional terrors to their ignominious catastrophe.