Monday, September 12, 2011

Robert Nun, 43rd Regiment of Foot

Many of the vignettes presented here are drawn from the proceedings of British military courts. These documents, rich in details on the minor events that did not change history but which were the substance of the lives of those who lived it, survive in manuscript form at the National Archives of Great Britain, and are available on microfilm at the David Library of the American Revolution. Today, instead of distilling one of these cases into a story, we'll present the complete text of a trial. Some details of the handwritten manuscript do not lend themselves to the formatting conventions available on this forum, but we'll present the complete text including the original spelling and abbreviations.

The accused soldier was Robert Nun (or Nunn) of the 43rd Regiment of Foot. He was recruited after the war began, and joined his regiment in Rhode Island in 1777. Two years later, for strategic reasons, the British chose to evacuate their garrison in Rhode Island and return the troops there to New York. The 22nd, 38th and 43rd Regiments were the only British regulars remaining by October 1779, along with several regiments of Germans and Loyalists.

When British regiments stayed in one play for an extended period, then moved elsewhere, an interesting phenomenon usually occurred: the rate of desertion increased. We can ascribe this to two possible reasons. Some soldiers probably developed local attachments that they did not wish to leave, while others who were discontent with military service saw the regiment's movement as an opportunity to desert with less likelihood of being caught. Robert Nun literally made a break for it on the very day that the 43rd was preparing to embark, the last day of the British occupation. The proceedings of his trial reveal many interesting details of military culture, but leave ample room for discussion of Nun's actual thoughts and motivation:

At a General Court Martial, held at New York on Wednesday the 26th Jany & continued by Adjournment to Saturday 11th March 1780 by Virtue of a Warrant bearing date the 25th Jany from His Excellency Sir Henry Clinton, Knight of the most Honorable Order of the Bath, General and Commander in Chief of all His Majesty’s Forces within the Colonies laying on the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to West Florida inclusive &c. &c. &c.

Major John Small of His Majesty’s 84th Regt. of Foot, President

Members: Major James Cousseau 37th Reg; Major David Furguson 43d Regt.; Capt. Thos. Brady R. Artillery; Capt. William Farquhar 20th Regt; Capt. Stephen Cook 37th Regt.; Capt. Alexr McDonald 76th Regt.; Capt. David Anstruther 42d Regt.; Capt. Willm Richardson 43d Regt.; Lt. John Robertson 42d Regt.; Lt. Norman McLeod 42d Regt.; 1st Lt. Francis Laye R. Artillery; 2d Lt. Charles Frazer 23d Regt.

Ensn. Mathew Wood of His Majesty’s 64th Regt. Foot Deputy Judge Advocate

The President Members and Judge Advocate being duly Sworn.

Robert Nunn, private soldier in His Majesty’s 43rd Regiment of Foot, was brought prisoner before the Court and accused of Desertion, & the following Witnesses were examined in support of the Accusation Vizt.

Serjt. William McCoy of His Majesty’s 43d Regt. Foot being duly sworn, deposed that he knew the Prisoner to have received Pay & Cloathing as a Soldier in the said Regiment, that on the 25th of October last when the regiment was going to Embark at Rhode Island, the Roll was called by a Corporal, who found that the Prisoner was absent, upon which he (the Corporal) reported him to the witness, that he (the Witness) was ordered to go & search for him, & that about three quarters of a Mile from the Encmapment he saw the Prisoner go up from behind some Bushes in his shirt sleeves, & run away, upon which he (the witness) pressed an Inhabitant to go with him; that they pursued him and secured him.
Q. (by the Court) Was the prisoner in Liquor?
A. He did not seem to him to be in liquor.
Q. Did the Prisoner carry off his Arms or Accoutrements?
A. He carried off his Accoutrements.

Serjeant Luke Touridge of the 43d Regiment of Foot, being duly sworn deposed that he knew the Prisoner to have received pay & Cloathing, as a Soldier in the 43rd Regiment & that on the 25th Octr. Last the Serjeant Major went to him (the Witness) and desired him to take a file of Men and go in search of the Prisoner; that he accordingly went, & as he was jumping over a Stone Wall he saw a Coat Waistcoat, & a Hat laying under the Wall; the hat he knew to be the prisoners; that he went up to Serjt. McCoy (who had been likewise ordered to go in search of the Prisoner) and desired him to proceed further into the brushy Wood; that they separated in the Wood & scour’d it and some little time afterwards he (the Witness) heard a Shouting, upon which he ran out of the Wood & saw the Prisoner running away in his shirt sleeves, and Serjt. McCoy with his party running after the Prisoner; the Witness further says that he did not see the Prisoner after that time till he was brought back Prisoner.
Q. (by the Court) Did he carry off his Arms or Accoutrements?
A. He carried off his Accoutrements.

Christopher Willow, private soldier in the 43d Regiment Foot being duly sworn, deposed that he was one of the party that was ordered to go with Serjt. McCoy in search of the Prisoner on the 25th Octr. Last; that about three quarters of a Mile from the Encampment he saw the prisoner in a field without his hat, Coat or Waistcoat on, that upon the Prisoners seeing the Party, he ran away; upon which they pursued him, & the Serjt. pressed an Inhabitant to go with them, that they soon came up with him, & secured him; that upon his (the Witness) coming up to the Prisoner he had a Stone in one hand, and a Knife in the other, but that he immediately threw down the Stone and put the Knife in his Pocket, & gave himself up, without making any resistance.
Q. (by the Court) Did the prisoner carry off any of his Arms or Accoutrements?
A. He carried off his pouch & Waistbelt.
Q. What sort of a Knife was it the prisoner had in his hand?
A. A common Clasp Knife.
Q. Did the Inhabitant come up with the Prisoner first?
A. Yes.
Q. What distance was he (the Witness) from the Prisoner, when he first saw the Inhabitant with him?
A. About an hundred Yards.
Q. Could he (the Witness) see the Prisoner when the Inhabitant first got up to him?
A. No, there was an Orchard between.

The Prisoner being put upon his Defence says that about a Week before the regiment Embarked at Rhode Island, Serjeant McCoy had struck him & used him very ill, upon which he went to Camp to complain to his Captain, who told him that he would see him righted, and that he had no occasion to go to the Commanding Officer; that he was in liquor at the time that he went off & did not know what he was doing and begs the Mercy of the Court.

The Court having considered the Evidence for & against the Prisoner Robert Nunn, together with what he had to offer in his Defence, is of Opinion that he is Guilty of the Crime laid to his Charge in a breach of the first Article of the Sixth Section of the Articles of War, & doth therefore sentence him to receive One thousand Lashes on his bare back with Cats of nine Tails.

John Small, Majr Comdg 2d Battn 84th Regt of Highlanders, President.
Mattw. Woodd Deputy Judge Advocate

Approved, Wm. Tryon M. G.
Confirmed HClinton

We lack certain information on whether or not Nun received the full punishment that he was sentenced. If he wasn't discontent with the army before, the harrowing experience of awaiting punishment probably influenced him even if, like many soldiers under sentence of corporal and capital punishment, he was subsequently pardoned.

Whether Nun had planned his desertion attempt or was in fact out of his senses, he seems to have learned something from the experience. In May 1781 the 43rd Regiment again embarked on transports, this time to voyage from New York to Virginia to join Cornwallis's army. But, on the day of embarkation, Robert Nun deserted once again; we've found no record of him being caught this time.

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