Friday, July 6, 2012

Drummer John Brayson, 57th Regiment of Foot

The word "mutiny" brings to mind the most heinous of military insubordination, of sailors taking over their ship and setting their officers adrift or soldiers going rogue and establishing their own private outpost. While those things certainly constituted mutiny, the crime applied to much simpler acts of insubordination. A 1779 military dictionary defined mutiny as "to rise against authority." It listed explicit types of mutinous behavior including traitorous or disrespectful words against the monarch, contempt or disrespect towards a commander in chief, striking or offering any threat of violence against an officer, or disobeying "any lawful command" of a superior officer. All serious crimes, but in actual application, sometimes the circumstances were not as scurrilous as the definition suggests.

When the 57th Regiment of Foot arrived in America early in 1776, their ranks included a young drummer named John Brayson. We do not know his age, but as a member of the Light Infantry company he'd certainly been in the regiment for at least a year. With a minimum age of 12 to appear on the muster rolls, we can be sure that Brayson was at least 16, probably older, when he ran afoul of military justice in early 1779.

By this time Brayson had served in several very active campaigns with the British Light Infantry. As such, he probably mastered the skill of sounding signals on a hunting horn, an instrument that proved more practical than drums for the rapid open-order style of maneuver used by the British army in America. In July 1778 the Light Infantry company of the 57th received a new commanding officer, Captain James Graham; it appears that there was a conflict between this officer and drummer Brayson the following winter.

Brayson was tried and convicted by a regimental court martial on 24 March 1779. Unfortunately we have no record of the crime for which he was charged. He was sentenced to be lashed - we don't know the number of lashes sentenced, but regimental courts typically sentenced anywhere from 50 to 500 - and was brought before the Light Infantry battalion in Southampton, New York a week later to receive his punishment.

As he bore the pain of the lash, John Brayson had a few things to say about his commanding officer. He called out, asking if Captain Graham was present.

He called for "Captain Graham, that rascal & Gentleman, that very honorable Gentleman."

It is not known whether Captain Graham was present at the punishment. Brayson nontheless called out, "Damn you, I know you. I know what you are!"

To the soldiers and officers witnessing the punishment, Brayson bellowed, "his honor is like mine – damn his honor!"

"He has no more honor than a pig in a potato garden!"

"He is a damn’d Lousey Scoundrel!"

"He is like a pig in a Potato Garden!"

These epithets were repeated throughout the lashing. They brought repercussions.

The officer commanding the Light Infantry battalion had witnessed the scene and charged Brayson with mutiny. Brayson was brought to trial by a general court martial on 9 April, just 11 days after bearing the sentence of the regimental court. There was no question of what had happened; several witnesses testified hearing the various expressions used by Brayson, over and over again. One witness indicated that Brayson appeared to have been "in liquor."

Brayson's only defence was "that the extreme pain of punishment might have extorted expressions from him which he don’t recollect, and denies his having any intention of mutiny." He called on two officers as witness, who both said that "during a Campaign he served with them, he was remarkable for being a well behaved lad."

In spite of the amusing nature of Brayson's outburst, the court did not deem it benign. They could not allow such behavior to go unpunished, for it would encourage soldiers to use abusive language towards their officers and perhaps incite other types of insubordination. Brayson was found guilty and sentenced to receive 1000 lashes.

We do not know whether this severe punishment was inflicted. On 30 May he was transferred out of the Light Infantry company and into the main body of the regiment, a move that could've been the result of physical incapacity, inability to do his duty because of continued confinement as a result of his conviction, disharmony between him and his company officers, or some combination of these things. On a muster roll prepared on 6 September 1779, Brayson is listed as being a prisoner in the provost, perhaps indicating that he had yet to receive his full punishment.

The next day, 7 September 1779, drummer John Brayson was discharged from the army. Occasionally this was done when a man was deemed such a discipline problem that the army simply didn't want him anymore; it could also be an indication that Brayson's punishments had so incapacitated him that he was no longer fit for service as a soldier. Lacking further information, we can only wonder what happened to this "well behaved lad" whose colorful language brought charges of mutiny.

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