On Saturday, 17 December 1774, the 10th Regiment of Foot marched out of Boston and into the Massachusetts countryside “to give the men a little exercise.” Marches like these were common enough and caused some minor alarm among the locals, but none in 1774 had serious consequences like those in the coming year would. The most noteworthy event for the 10th Regiment involved none of the soldiers on the march, but one who had remained in barracks recovering from illness.
After the regiment returned from its march the roll was called at 8 PM, well after dark at this time of year. One man was missing, a twenty-eight year old private soldier named William Ferguson. A tailor by trade, he had been in the regiment since April 1772 and had never attempted to desert; he had not been on the march that day, and there was no immediate reason to suspect that he had absconded. Nonetheless, typical protocols were followed: two corporals went to the regiment's barracks, found Ferguson's knapsack and examined it. Finding “only the Stiffening of an old Stock in it” their suspicion was aroused because deserters often took with them all of the extra clothing they could. The corporals reported Ferguson’s absence to his company serjeant.
At about the same time as the roll call, a sentry on Boston Neck, the isthmus that connected Boston to the mainland, raised the alarm because saw someone on the ice that laced the shores of the neck. The guard turned out and manned the redoubts that covered the neck, and parties were sent along the beaches. A private soldier in the 4th Regiment, a grenadier named Samuel Lewis, stooped down to get a view along the water’s edge in the moonlight and perceived a man near the water. Lewis made towards the man and called for him to stop, upon which the man instead tried to make his way past Lewis towards Boston.
Lewis pushed the man down with the muzzle of his firelock and asked why he had not stopped. The man, an intoxicated William Ferguson, claimed not to have heard Lewis. Lewis asked “what brought him there & if he had an intention to Desert for a parcel of Rascals?” to which Ferguson responded that he had merely lost his way in the darkness. Captain Charles Cochrane of the 4th Regiment, coming up to them, heard this discourse and the two men of the 4th took Ferguson into custody.
They brought Ferguson first to Major Roger Spendlove of the 43rd Regiment who commanded the lines that night, then to the guard room where he was turned over to Lieutenant Poole England of the 47th Regiment and Ensign James Goddard Butler of the 4th. These officers asked Ferguson where he had been going, and he said that he was going to visit a townsman (presumably meaning a native of his own home town) but had lost his way because he was unfamiliar with the area. Butler searched Ferguson’s pockets and found “two Shirts, one clean, the other dirty,” “two white Stocks, two pair of thread Stockings, one pair & a half of Yarn or Worsted Stockings,” “one pair of unmade black Cloth Leggins with binding,” “thread and a Taylor’s Thimble, the Stockings appeared clean but not ironed.” The officers wryly asked Ferguson if he was going for a long visit, to which Ferguson replied that he was taking his necessaries (that is, his shirts and stockings) to a washerwoman.
Ferguson was put on trial for desertion, a crime punishable by death, in Boston on 20 December 1774, and delivered his own defense on the 22nd. His situation was dire: he had been caught at night, carrying his spare clothing, on the road out of town. He nonetheless gave an eloquent explanation for his actions:
Last Saturday Morning the Regiment being Ordered to march some Miles into the Country, I was left at home, being in the sick reports, tho not so bad, but I could work at the Regimental Leggins which I was ordered to work at after the Regt was marched from the Barracks. I sent out for some Liquor of which I drank pretty freely, & which made me incline to have more. In some time after a Townsman of mine came to my room to see me, & asked me to go and drink a Dram, on which I went & then returned to my work, but finding myself incapable of working I proposed to myself to take my linen & stockings to a namesake’s wife in the 52d Regt who washed for me in Quebec, & pleased me much better than she who washes for me at present, & I imagine in my hurry in putting up my Linnen & Stockings, together with being intoxicated with Liquor, I likewise put the Leggins I was working on into my Pockets. The reason of my having the clean Linnen and Stockings with me was to have them done over again to my liking. I went in search of the 52d Barrracks & in my way met with two Sailors, they asked me if I wou’d have a dram & to which I unluckily consented. They had a bottle of Rum which they gave me & of which I drank out of the Bottle, they pressed me to drink again, which I did & got entirely insensible of what I was about or where I was going to, so staggered along, sometimes falling, sometimes walking, until stopped by the Sentries at the advanced Lines, & was taken Prisoner to the Guard, where the Field Officer on seeing me, told me I would pay for what I had done, for I should be either hanged or shot, which put me in such a Panic that I found myself got quite sober. I was searched for Necessaries and Ordered Prisoner to our Own Barrack Guard Room.
I sincerely believed my missing my way was occasioned by my being a stranger & so much in Liquor, as I am not acquainted in the Town not having mounted at any other Place but the Barrack Guard.
It’s very well known in the Regiment I never made the least attempt to Desert and I solemnly declare to God, a notion of the kind never entered my Breast, as I always have been well used, & payed by the Regiment I serve in, & never had any other inclination but to serve his Majesty in any part of the World, where called upon.
He called upon a fellow soldier of the 10th who deposed “that last Saturday the 17 inst about four o’Clock in the Afternoon the Prisoner came to Deponent for a pair of Scissors & that the Prisoner appeared to be very much in Liquor.” A soldier of the 23rd Regiment deposed ”that the Prisoner appeared to be very drunk when he was brought into the Guard Room at the Lines on Saturday Evening the 17th Inst Staggering too & again being scarcely able to make a walk of it.” Alexander Ferguson of the 52nd Regiment testified that his wife had indeed done laundry for William Ferguson when the two regiments were quartered together in Quebec, and added “that on the Prisoner’s being ordered to some of the Forts and owing Deponent a trifle of money, he promised to pay him when he returned & when he did not return he told Deponent that as the two Regiments were going to the same place, Viz Boston, he would pay him when they got there, & that he would again employ Deponents Wife to wash for him.” The court also heard the adjutant of the 10th Regiment confirm that Ferguson had only done duty at the regiment’s barracks since arriving in Boston earlier that year and had never mounted guard at Boston Neck or the lines, so it was plausible that he was unfamiliar with the area.
This well constructed defense did not sway the opinion of the court. Ferguson was found guilty and sentenced to death. General orders on 23 December presented the commander in chief’s approval of the sentence and directed that it
be put in execution, to morrow at nine o'Clock, by shooting said William Ferguson to death, by a platoon of the Regiment, to which he belongs. The picquets of the several Regiments, Commanded by the field Officer of the day, will attend the Execution which will be performed on some proper spot at the back part of the common near the water.
That the execution was carried out is confirmed by Lieutenant John Barker of the 4th Regiment, who wrote unsympathetically:
Sat. 24th. A soldier of the l0th shot for desertion; the only thing done in remembrance of Christ-Mass day. It is said Genl. Gage never pardons Deserters; at the same time I don't think his manner of executing 'em sufficient examples, as he has only the Piquets of the Army out, instead of the whole, which wou'd strike a greater terror in the men. Punishments were never meant only to affect Criminals, but also as Examples to the rest of Mankind.