Wednesday, September 11, 2013

John Stewart, 7th Regiment, is overpersuaded

Knowing that between ten and twenty percent of British soldiers were accompanied by their wives on service, it stands to reason that many children were born in garrison towns, encampments and on the march. Unfortunately there are no known comprehensive records of such births, only a few anecdotal accounts and indications survive. Some of those children became soldiers themselves; although there are also no comprehensive records of soldiers' birth places, among those that we do have are a few men who were "born in the army."

One such man was John Stewart, a soldier in the 7th Regiment of Foot. Born to a soldier and his wife, he was enlisted as a drummer at an early age (not all drummers were young "drummer boys", but some were), and also learned to play the fife. When old enough, probably in his late teens, we went into the ranks as a private soldier. He did his duty well; one of his officers commented that "he would sometimes drink but he was in general looked upon as a smart clean Soldier." Smart enough that, by the time the regiment came to America in the early 1770s, he had been appointed corporal in the regiment's light infantry company.

In 1775 war broke out and John Stewart's career took a bad turn. The 7th Regiment garrisoned posts between the northern end of Lake Champlain and Quebec. An American expedition quickly seized all of these posts, ultimately laying siege to Quebec itself. Most of the 7th and 26th Regiments were captured piecemeal, including corporal John Stewart who was taken when the fort at St. John's fell early in November 1775.

Stewart and hundreds of other prisoners were sent to various locations in Pennsylvania and Connecticut; Stewart was sent to Lancaster, Pennsylvania with many others from his regiment. Stewart endured about nine months as a prisoner, but in July 1776 he gave in to overtures from his captors, accepted an enlistment bounty, and joined an American regiment. An officer of the 7th Regiment went to American authorities and demanded him back, but in spite of assurances Stewart was not seen again.

At least, not by his immediate comrades. Stewart's new regiment marched from Lancaster to Philadelphia; upon arrival there they marched into the city with some fanfare, Stewart wearing a new blue rifle jacket and playing the fife. An officer of the 7th Regiment and his soldier servant happened to be in Philadelphia at the time; the servant saw this rebel corps marching by and recognized their fifer as a former fellow soldier. Stewart also recognized the servant and, in a remarkably bad career move, stopped playing his fife and bowed to the man as he passed. The servant spotted Stewart again the next day in company with other American soldiers.

Stewart's regiment moved on into New Jersey, taking station at Fort Lee on the Hudson River opposite Manhattan. They retreated hastily from that place in the face of a rapid British advance. In early December the Americans in New Jersey were in full retreat. John Stewart separated himself from his regiment and turned himself in to British soldiers in Newark; he was taken prisoner and sent to British headquarters in New York.

In February 1777 Stewart was put on trial for desertion and bearing arms in the rebel service, perhaps the most serious crime a soldier could commit. soldiers of the 7th Regiment, having been exchanged from captivity and now serving in New York, testified to his service in that corps, his desertion from captivity, and his appearance as a fifer in Philadelphia. In his defense, Stewart claimed that he had run out of money and clothing, and was "overpersuaded" to enlist by offers of money. He pointed out that he had deliberately sought out the British lines in New Jersey and identified himself when taken in. He called an officer as a character witness who testified to his long and generally good service.

All of this was not enough to pursuade the court. The fact that he had deserted was unquestionable. The charge of bearing arms was somewhat doubtful because Stewart had only been seen playing the fife, but doing so at the head of a corps of armed men was sufficient to bear out the charge. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. At this writing it has not been determined whether the sentence was carried out or if he was pardoned.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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