Monday, June 2, 2014

John Cuthbertson, 40th Regiment, misses the war

We've seen many soldiers with very short careers, men who joined the army, came to America, and met their demise due to death or desertion. Other careers were short for much more benign reasons.

Regiments on service overseas required a steady stream of new recruits to make up for attrition. Each year in peace time, some men grew too old for active service and were sent home, a few deserted, a few died of illness, and a few were disabled by service-related injuries. Warfare accelerated this attrition, and the increased size of regiments on a war footing further added to the need for recruits. Each regiment had reruiting parties in Great Britain, and each year a convoy arrived in America carrying the men the recruiters had dilligently raised and trained. Depending upon when a man enlisted, he might spend a few months to a couple of years in Great Britain before embarking for America.

One regiment that particularly needed recruits was the 40th Regiment of Foot. They'd arrived in Boston shortly after the battle of Bunker Hill, and subsequently participated in the vigorous campaigns around New York in 1776, New Jersey and then Philadelphia in 1777, and the retreat from Philadelphia in 1778. Then they were sent to the West Indies to fight against the French and suffer the ravages of a hostile climate. In a particularly unusual move, the 40th was sent back to New York in 1781. In September of that year they fought in the savage action at Fort Griswold on the Connecticut coast. Keeping the regiment at fighting strength was a particular challenge.

By 1782, though, it was clear that the war would soon be over. Recruits for the 40th and other regiments embarked in May of that year but, rather than proceeding to New York, they were diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia to reinforce the British garrison there. One of those recruits was named John Cuthbertson. Very little is known about him, including when he enlisted.

With the signing of a peace treaty in 1783 the army was reduced in size and the 40th Regiment was sent home from New York to Great Britain. Men who'd enlisted after 16 December 1775 were entitled to be discharged if they'd served at least three years. Those who wished to could be discharged in New York and sail to Nova Scotia where they'd receive a land grant.

John Cuthbertson was in Halifax when word came that he was eligible for discharge (indicating that he'd probably enlisted some time in 1780). He left the army and "immediately went up the country to work for an honest livelihood," a move that suggests he was a farm laborer by trade. He soon found that his plan was a poor one; "things being so dear & work very slack" caused him to return to the city. There he learned about the option of land grants.

In the summer of 1784, Cuthbertson wrote (in a good hand) a brief but well-stated petition requesting a grant of land. It was not acted on, however; the reasons aren't clearly stated, and no other document exists besides the petition itself. Because there were others in Nova Scotia with the same name, this short-time soldier becomes too difficult to trace with cursory research. All we know is that he enlisted with every intention of going to war but never made it to the region of hostilities. Perhaps that was his good fortune.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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