Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sarah Muncrief meets Cpl. Charles McKenny, 5th Regiment of Foot

Our previous installment concerned a soldier who made good by joining the army, getting 50 acres of land for serving only one year abroad and seeing no hostile action. It's important to know that sort of story because many men experienced it, but it is, let's face it, boring. This week let's look at something less common but more, um, exciting.

The story begins when Boston resident Sarah Muncrief went to the outhouse on 2 August 1774. This would not normally be something worth noting here, but her visit soon became non-routine. Corporal Charles McKenny of the 5th Regiment of Foot suddenly threw the door open, rushed in, grabbed her arms and pushed her backwards. She screamed "Murder!" a few times, until McKenny put one hand on her throat and lifted her petticoats with the other.

Kate Darby, who lived in another part of the same house as Sarah, heard Sarah's cries; she ran to the outhouse and pulled McKenny off of Sarah. Kate (or Katey) called McKenny an impertinant dog and swore to have him punished. McKenny drew his bayonet, upon which Sarah escaped into the house; McKenny attempted to pursue her but was restrained by Kate Darby.

Sarah lodged a complaint and Corporal McKenny was immediately incarcerated. He was brought before a regimental court martial four days later on charges of "abusing and ill-treating a Town's Woman." Sarah Muncrief (who was 17 or 18 years old if we've identified her correctly) told her story but called no witnesses. She explained that McKenny had come to the house a few minutes before the assault and asked for Kate Derby or another person named Delbrenton. Sarah told him she didn't know the whereabouts of either person, and McKenny went away; the assault occurred shortly after, and Sarah was sure she knew who the attacker was.

McKenny gave perhaps the worst imaginable defense in such a situation. He told the court that did in fact assault a woman in the outhouse, but he couldn't say whether the woman was Sarah Muncrief. He also claimed that when she told him to desist, he did. It's no surprise that the court found McKenny guilty. He was sentenced to be reduced in rank to private soldier and to receive 100 lashes. But his actual fate was different.

In an attempt to show forgiveness, and perhaps in revulsion to the concept of corporal punishment, Sarah Muncrief met with General Hugh, Earl Percy who was both Colonel of the 5th Regiment and commander of the garrison in Boston (General Gage, the commander in chief, was at his summer home in Salem). Even though McKenny had "assaulted me in my privy and used me in a ridiculous manner," she asked Percy to forgive his punishment on the condition that he never again molest her or any of her family nor come near her home lest he receive triple the punishment sentenced by the court. The general gave his word that he would abide by these terms; the muster rolls of the 5th Regiment confirm that McKenny retained his place as a corporal.

Sarah's graciouness was not well received by the townsfolk who were in general at odds with the soldiery and happy to see a British regular punished. Rumors spread that she was a lewd woman, that she showed lenity because she admired McKenny. She became an object of ridicule.

In an effort to clear her name, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Gazette explaining her case. She included the proceedings of the court martial as proof that she had, in fact, lodged a complaint against McKenny and seen him sentence, then forgiven him out of goodness. She concluded her entreaty with, "If I had been a lewd woman I should perhaps laid ten times the punishment on him to make me appear virtuous to the eyes of the world." Her letter and the court proceedings were published on 29 August 1774.

This appears to have been the end of the matter. No more is known of Sarah Murcrief. As for Corporal McKenny (or McKinny, as his name is sometimes spelled on the muster rolls), he continued to serve in the 5th Regiment. The Irishman was reduced to private soldier on 8 March 1776 but we do not know the reason; while we could guess that it was because of a disciplinary action, there were other more mundane reasons for men to return to the ranks. In 1777 he was transferred into the grenadier company as a private soldier. With the 5th Regiment he saw service on the Philadelphia campaign, then went to the West Indies in 1778. He survived that harsh climate, and was still in the ranks when the regiment returned to Great Britain in 1781.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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