It probably started out as a good party, but it ended badly. That's nothing new, and it happened during the American Revolution just as it does today. This particular party occurred in New York city on 30 November 1780, and although a tragedy occurred it resulted in a record that provides us with many details of how British soldiers and their wives lived during the war. All of the information that follows is divined from testimony given at a court martial; there were many confusing and contradictory statements, so this account is as accurate as we can discern from the various accounts of the affair.
I didn't have enough space in my book British Soldiers, American War to go into detail about married soldiers and their wives. For this story, it is sufficient to know that about a fifth of the British soldiers in America had wives, and sometimes families, with them, and that these women were part of the military society. Central to this story are two couples in the 57th Regiment of Foot: Patrick and Peggy McGuire and John and Elizabeth Jones. McGuire had arrived in America in late 1777, while Jones had arrived just a few months later; it is possible that they had known each other as recruits in Great Britain. Unfortunately there are no records to tell us whether these men were married when they joined the army, or if they met their wives after arriving in America. Also key to the story were James McCullough and Thomas Campbell, also of the 57th Regiment, who had arrived in American with McGuire.
On the night of 30 November three of these soldiers - Jones, McCullough and Campbell - were on guard at their barracks. Being on guard didn't mean standing at a post, but rather being available for duty during a period of 24 or more hours; some of that time would be spent actually manning posts, while the rest was spent in barracks or a guard room ready to turn out at the sound of an alarm. The men in barracks were apparently in high spirits, drinking and dancing, and Peggy McGuire was there too even though her husband was not on duty at the time. Married couples were sometimes allowed to live in their own quarters out of the barracks, and the Jones's and McGuire's lived in a house not far away; Patrick McGuire asked Mr. and Mrs. Jones if they knew where his wife was, and they directed him to the barracks.
At around 7 PM John Jones left the barracks to dine with his wife, an indulgence allowed to married men. Not long after that, Peggy McGuire decided she'd had enough of the party, perhaps because she was also due at home for dinner, perhaps because the men were becoming too rambunctious, and certainly because she was by this time rather intoxicated. She left the barracks, but James McClullough, also "very much in liquor," followed her closely enough that some said they left together. In a field adjacent to the barrack he assaulted her, taking her shoe buckles, tearing the handkerchief from her neck and opening the breast of her bed gown (a garment which, contrary to what the name suggests, was a common form of casual wear). Whether his intentions were robbery or worse is not known. She resisted and cried out "Murder!", then managed to get free and return to the barracks door where she collapsed.
Her husband Patrick, meanwhile, was on his way to the barracks to inquire whether he had duty the next day and also to find Peggy. He heard the cry, recognized her voice, and hurried towards the scene. Others soldiers also heard Peggy's cry and called for the guard to turn out. This resulted in soldiers, some armed and some not, running about in the dark from all directions. Before the guard turned out, a soldier came upon Peggy McGuire sitting shoeless and dishevelled, helped her up and started to take her home. McCullough appeared and grabbed her, and the two soldiers both held her as she begged McCullough to go home. Then a drunken Thomas Campbell joined the fray, knocked Peggy down, then fell down himself. The soldier who'd initially helped Peggy called for the guard. Then Patrick McGuire arrived on the scene.
Patrick came up just as Campbell knocked his wife down; Campbell got up and fled, but McGuire quickly caught he and gave him a sound thrashing. Peggy, meanwhile, with the assistance of the other soldier, still tipsy and carrying her shoes, managed to get to her house where she was greeted by Elizabeth Jones.
A corporal and a few men of the guard, fully armed but not particularly steady after their evening of drink and dance, tumbled out of the barracks and came upon McGuire beating Campbell. The corporal, not knowing the full situation and hearing Campbell cry out in pain, made a stroke at McGuire with his firelock (musket), but in his drunken state succeeded only in falling to the ground. McGuire, having easily fended off the clumsy stroke, seized the firelock and headed towards home where he found his wife in the care of Mrs. Jones and another corporal of the regiment. The McGuires each began giving their accounts of the events, but the night was not yet over.
Within a few minutes there was a pounding at the door. It was Thomas Campbell and James McCullough, now armed and supported by some other soldiers. Campbell bellowed that he demanded satisfaction from Patrick McGuire for the beating he'd received. The corporal in the house, attempting to diffuse the situation, posted John Jones at the door with strict orders to prevent any violence, stepped outside and closed the door, told the agressors that they would receive all the satisfaction he could offer once he'd investigated the matter, then went to report the situation to an officer. Jones opened the top half of the door, saw the bloody-faced and bayonet-wielding Campbell and McCullough, and quickly closed and bolted the door again. There followed angry knocks, and someone demanded that if one of the McGuires was not sent out they'd blow a ball through the door. Peggy McGuire told her husband that she feared they meant to take her life or his. Patrick called to McCullough by name, saying that he didn't wish to hurt him. But the still-inebriated Peggy intoned that if he did not hurt McCullough in retaliation for his assault on her, she would never sleep with Patrick again.
This remark inflamed Patrick McGuire anew. Jones held his collar and tried to restrain him, but McGuire growled that he'd hurt even his own brother if he tried to stop him. Jones was pushed aside as McGuire seized a firelock and threw the door open. Thomas Campbell burst in and the bayonet on his firelock tore Elizabeth Jones's gown; a crowd of soldier flooded into the house, some scuffling ensued and then the light went out. McGuire, fearing for his life, ran out of the darkened house into the night. Elizabeth Jones and Peggy McGuire stepped out after him and saw James McCullough lifeless on the ground; Peggy knelt down and took her own shoe buckles from his pocket. Other soldiers sallied out and lifted McCullough, finding a fracture in his skull the shape of rounded object such as a musket butt. He was taken to the general hospital where surgeons did everything they could, but he died after languishing for ten days.
Patrick McGuire went to an officer and reported what had happened, then returned to his quarters and his wife. Things had calmed down. In the morning he reported for duty, but was soon relieved and confined along with Thomas Campbell. He remained confined until 19 Feburary 1781 when he was put on trial for murder. One can only imagine the thoughts and expressions of the 15 officers who sat on the court martial, listening to confused and contradictory testimony, perhaps making mental notes about ancillary details such as dancing in the barracks and the guard turning out drunk. After hearing depositions from ten witnesses over two days, they acquitted McGuire because there was insufficient evidence that he had ever struck McCullough; the only person to testify that he did was Thomas Campbell whose testimony can hardly be considered credible given the circumstances.
All four of the soldiers discussed here had enlisted in the army after the war began; as such, they were entitled to be discharged at the close of hostilities. Thomas Campbell and John Jones took advantage of this offer; it is not known whether either of them took land grants in Canada or returned to Great Britain. James McCullough was dead; were it not for the record of his trial, we would have only the muster rolls to tell us this, documents that give the date of death but no explanation. We would assume that he died of illness, ignorant of the bizarre circumstances that led to his demised. And so it is with Patrick McGuire, who died on 26 June 1781, just four months after being acquitted of murder. We know nothing about the cause of his death, nor what became of his wife Peggy.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!
Tough life in the barracks.ReplyDelete