Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Alexander Robinson, 57th Regiment of Foot

This blog has featured many stories of deserters, some recaptured, some not. Occasionally deserters turned up in the in highly unexpected places.

A man named Alexander Robinson enlisted in the 57th Regiment of Foot in March 1769, and deserted the following year while the regiment was in Dublin. This in itself was not unusual, nor was the fact that Robinson was never apprehended in Ireland. The 57th Regiment continued serving on the Irish establishment until the beginning of 1776 when they embarked for America as part of the expedition against Charleston, South Carolina. They then sailed to Staten Island and participated in the campaign that gained control of New York city and the surrounding area. The summer of 1777 found them settling in to garrison New York where they would remain for the rest of the war, engaging not in major campaigns but in numerous foraging expeditions and other incursions in the region. Deserters, however, were not forgotten...

Among the expeditions in which the 57th Regiment participated was the October 1777 capture of Fort Clinton and Fort Montgomery on the Hudson River. This venture was intended to provide some relief to General Burgoyne's beleaguered army, bogged down north of Albany, but it was too little, too late. It was nonetheless a bold action, with a violent struggle for control of the forts in which the British forces prevailed. Nearly 300 American prisoners were taken. Among them was Alexander Robinson, who was recognized by some of his former comrades in the 57th Regiment.

It is no surprise that Robinson was put on trial for desertion. During the war a number of other British deserters were taken up while serving with the enemy; bearing arms with the enemy was a much more severe crime than desertion alone, and most of these men were found guilty and sentenced to death. Several aspects of Robinson's trial, however, indicate that his case was not so clear cut.

Although witnesses at the trial testified that Robinson was "taken prisoner at Fort Montgomery" he was tried only for desertion and no evidence was presented that he was armed, in uniform, or in any way acting with the American army. The only testimony was that he had, in fact, enlisted in 1769, deserted in 1770 and was taken again on 6 October 1777 at the fort. He offered nothing in his defense except to acknowledge his crime and throw himself on the mercy of the court. Indeed, the brief trial seems to be almost a matter of form rather than a detailed inquiry into a severe crime.

Robinson was found guilty of this capital crime, but instead of death he was sentenced to 1000 lashes, a typical punishment for desertions when soldiers were gone for only a short time and surrendered willingly. Given the circumstances, this punishment suggests that the court was privy to information that does not appear in the trial record - perhaps Robinson surrendered himself and offered a plausible story about why he had deserted and how he came to be in America. Unfortunately we have no record of it, or any indication of why he was at Fort Montgomery on that fateful day.

The muster rolls for the 57th tell us simply that Alexander Robinson "returned from desertion" on 6 October 1777. He continued to serve in the regiment after that for several years until he died in New York on 28 August 1782. There is no indication of any other remarkable events in his military career, and typical of muster rolls there is no indication of the cause of death.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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