Monday, July 1, 2013

Randall McDonell, 52nd Regiment of Foot

We recently discussed men who rose through the ranks to become officers, and provided a rare example of such a man. Looking only at muster rolls, one gets the impression that many men (fewer than 1%, but that works out to a large number in an army of tens of thousands) enlisted as common soldiers and received promotions strictly based on merit, but things aren't as simple as the rolls make them appear. My book British Soldiers, American War discusses at length men with the qualifications to become officers who lacked the influence or patronage to obtain a commission, so instead enlisted in the hope of gaining the necessary recognition to earn an officer's rank.

This career path was deduced after careful study of many men who enlisted and were appointed as non-commissioned officers almost immediately - instead of the more typical duration of many years as a private soldier - and then were promoted to commissioned ranks only a few years after enlistment. Some men received commissions after only a few months as private soldiers. Careers like these, along with a few first-hand accounts by men who expected promotions but did not received them, and several instances of men who deserted from the British army and quickly became officers in the American army, led me to conclude that not all enlistees expected to spend their lives as private soldiers, but instead enlisted with the expectation of becoming officers. 

It seemed clear enough, but some aspects were nonetheless confusing. Young men hoping for commissions often went into the field with regiments to learn the military arts while they waited for a vacant position. These young gentlemen were volunteers (often called "gentleman volunteers" today, but that phrase rarely appears in period documents), and might spend years in that capacity waiting for a vacant commission. Why did some aspiring gentlemen enlist while others volunteered their time?

Recently a document provided by expert historian Todd W. Braisted spelled out the exact circumstances that led to one man's decision to enlist. Randall McDonell, Lieutenant in the 84th Regiment of Foot (whose name is given as Ronald in some sources), wrote a memorial (undated, but apparently from 1779 or 1780) explaining his conduct in a dispute with another officer. In it, he related his early career:

The Memorialist entered the service as a Volunteer about twenty years ago when very young with recommendations from two of the first Noblemen in his own Country he served in that station till the peace when the Regt. was reduced and he was left without the least inclination to follow any other than the Military profession his finances were so low in a strange Country that he had no other resource than to enlist as a private man in the 52d Regt. where he soon acquired the good will of his officers perticularly the late Major General Valentine Jones who showed him the greatest kindness but had no opportunity of doing any more than promoting him as Corporal & Serjt till the Royal Highland Emigrants were ordered to be raised by Genl Gage when he was recommended to Major Small who at first obtained an Ensigns Commission for him in consideration of his character and the wounds he had received in the service.

The Royal Highland Emigrants regiment was raised in 1775 and 1776; in 1779 they were established as a regular regiment, receiving the designation of 84th Regiment of Foot. McDonell served until the regiment was disbanded at the end of the war in 1783, settled in Canada, and saw additional sevice in the late 1790s.

For our purposes, though, it is his early career that is significant. He came to American during the French & Indian War, volunteering like many young men in hopes of obtaining a commission. The end of the war brought force reductions, though, and his regiment was disbanded. With vacancies hard to come by and lacking funds to remain a volunteer, this gentleman entered the ranks as a common soldier. The 52nd Regiment arrived in Quebec in 1765, and McDonnell probably enlisted soon after. A gap in the regiment's muster rolls prevents us from tracing his career, but when they pick up in 1774 on the regiment's arrival in Boston, Randall McDonell is listed among the serjeants in the regiment's light infantry company. This company participated in both the march to Concord on 19 April 1775 and the assault on Bunker Hill the following June; this may be where McDonell received the wounds he speaks of, as the company suffered casualties in both actions.

On 7 October 1775 Randall McDonell finally received the commission that he'd aspired to for some fifteen years, showing the lengths to which some men would go to follow their chosen profession. His example provides the clue that is probably the reason that many young men enlisted while awaiting their chance to become an officer.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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