Sunday, March 27, 2011

John Pearce, 3rd and 22nd Regiments

John Pearce joined the 3rd Regiment of Foot (the Buffs) in October 1763. We know nothing of his age, nativity or background, and we have no details of the first 11 years of his military career. Whether he was a good, steady soldier during those years or a difficult discipline case remains unknown, but a surviving set of records for the 3rd Regiment that begins in 1774 gives a startling picture of him during a brief period in 1774 and 1775.

According to a summary list of regimental courts martial conducted in the 3rd Regiment in Ireland from August 1774 through December 1777, John Pearce was tried on 17 November 1774 “For being out of his Barracks till 10 O'Clock at night, & breeding a Riot in a beer house.” This unruly activity earned him a punishment of 100 lashes, which he received. Infractions like this, and the corresponding punishment, were not unusual, but it bears noting that only a small portion of the regiment ran afoul of military justice in this way; the majority of men in the 3rd Regiment do not appear in the court martial list at all, and among those who do appear are many repeat offenders.

It is difficult to imagine suffering 100 lashes, and such a punishment was intended to humble a soldier and make an impression on his comrades. Nonetheless, only four days later Pearce was tried again, this time “For making away with his necessaries.” This time he was awarded 300 lashes, and the record shows that once again he received all of them. How a man could survive such a punishment is difficult to image. Among the duties of the regimental surgeon was to help insure this survival by observing the punishment, seeing that the lashes were laid on in such a way as not to endanger vital organs and monitoring the victim's health throughout the punishment; the surgeon had the authority to stop the punishment if he believed the victim might die from its effects. Indeed, one regimental surgeon wrote an entire chapter concerning details to be observed while men were lashed, including specific examples from his own service.

Only four months later, in March 1775, Pearce was once more brought to trial, now “For selling a pr of Stockings, being out of his Barracks at 9 O'Clock & defrauding a Publican.” He was again sentenced to 300 lashes, and again received all of them. 700 lashes within a four month period. Recall that Pearce was not a new soldier; by March 1775 he was in his 11th year in the army and was certainly in his late twenties or thirties in age. Since the surviving trial records begin only in August 1774 we have no way of knowing whether he had a sudden turn to poor discipline or if he was routinely in trouble with his superiors, but it is difficult to imagine that he was punished at this rate year after year.

Events in America brought a turn of fortune for Pearce. A large reinforcement was being sent to quell the rapidly deteriorating situation there, and men were needed to fill out the ranks of those regiments. Men were taken from regiments that were to remain in Ireland and put into those going on service. The regiments that provided the men were ordered to give preference to volunteers, and order men only if enough suitable volunteers did not come forward. We don't know whether Pearce saw this as his opportunity to escape the officers who enforced discipline on him, or whether the officers were the ones who took the opportunity to get rid of Pearce. Perhaps it was a mutual agreement. Regardless, Pearce was drafted from the 3rd Regiment to the 22nd Regiment on 9 May 1775. This says something about Pearce's fortitude, because only men suitable for campaigning were allowed to be drafted and the receiving regiment had the right to refuse men deemed unsuitable. In spite of his recent 700 lashes, Pearce was accepted into his new regiment and within days was sailing with it to America.

John Pearce arrived with the 22nd Regiment in Boston in late June or early July (depending upon which ship he was on). He must have remained reasonably fit in spite of his punishments, because he was soon put into the light infantry company. A final testimony to his physical fitness, his boldness, and to his discontent with the army is that he made off from the encampment on Boston Common on the night of 18-19 August and swam to Roxbury where an American soldier made a diary entry recording the arrival of a British deserter. To date we have found no further information concerning his whereabouts. What his legacy tells us is that it was somehow possible for men to survive the seemingly outrageous punishments inflicted by the lash, and remain in a state of health that allowed them to accomplish rigorous physical activity.

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