Sunday, July 13, 2014

Richard Cotton, 38th Regiment, is drafted twice

Some books and articles suggest that British soldiers were fiercely loyal to their regiments. If this was true during the 1770s and 1780s, there's no direct evidence of it. None of the handful of narratives by British soldiers make any particular mention of pride in their regiment, and many soldiers changed regiments for one reason or another at least once during their careers. Even officers changed regiments for the sake of career advancement, giving promotion or security priority over loyality to a specific corps.

One way that soldiers changed regiments was by being drafted. Unlike the modern parlance that uses the word to refer to civilians obliged to join the military, during the era of the American Revolution the British army used the term to refer to men drawn from one regiment to serve in another. There are a few highly-publicised cases where soldiers objected to this and even mutinied because of it, but the objection was generally to serving in a different location than promised, rather than in a different regiment. writers who focus on these incidents fail to consider the thousands of soldiers who were drafted, some more than once, during their careers. Drafting orders often directed that volunteers be taken first before ordering men into other regiments. The usual cause for a draft was to keep regiments on overseas deployments up to strength. In some cases men were drafted from regiments in Great Britain to serve in regiments bound for, or already on, overseas service; in other cases, regiments being sent home to Great Britain drafted their able-bodied men into other regiments remaining overseas.

Among the former was Richard Cotton. As war loomed in America, he was serving in the 3rd Regiment of Foot in Ireland. On 23 February 1775 a regimental court martial found him guilty of “stealing a silver table spoon from an inhabitant," for which he receive 250 lashes. Just two weeks later he was drafted to serve in the 59th Regiment of Foot, a regiment already in Boston. We could assume that the 3rd Regiment was trying to get rid of him, but it's more likely that he jumped at the opportunity to leave the officers who had just punished him. Drafting orders required that only men in good physical condition be sent to as drafts, with the receiving regiment allowed to reject any that did not measure up. How a man who'd just been subjected to 250 lashes could be considered fit for overseas service is a mystery.

Cotton, along with other drafts and recruits, arrived in Boston in May to learn that war had broken out. He joined his regiment and served until the end of the year. Then he was drafted again. The 59th Regiment had already been overseas for several years and was due to go home, but their able-bodied men were drafted; Richard Cotton joined the 38th Regiment of Foot. In March 1776 he was put into the regiment's light infantry company, meaning that he was a particularly active and capable soldier; his discipline must have been reasonably good. There's no evidence that these two changes of regiment in rapid succession were in any way objectionable to him, or to the hundreds of others who went through similar transfers.

The light infantry company of the 38th Regiment saw many years of hard service on the front lines of the war's famous campaigns. The battle of Long Island in August 1776, the rapid movements around New York and into New Jersey later that year and into 1777, the campaign that took Philadelphia in late 1777 and the abandonment of that city that culminated in the battle of Monmouth in 1778 - during all of these campaigns the 38th's light company was part of the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, always on the forefront of the action. Immediately after returning to New York from Philadelphia, the company rejoined the 38th Regiment and sailed to Rhode Island where they reinforced the garrison and spent three weeks under siege, then fought in the battle of Rhode Island on 29 August. They remained in Rhode Island through August 1779 when that place was evactuated by British forces.

The 38th's light company rejoined the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry. They spent the beginning of 1780 on the expedition that laid siege to Charleston, South Carolina. After that city capitulated, they returned to the New York garrison. The summer of 1780 found them on the front lines again, this time in coastal Westchester County, New York on the border of Connecticut. This was a region characterized by raids, skirmishes and incursions as scouting parties clashed between fluid front lines. For reasons that aren't clear, discipline suffered in the British battalions, and there was a spate of desertions from these normally-reliable ranks. 

Early on Monday morning, 17 July 1780, two Loyalist refugees - soldiers who may not have been uniformed - were following a road from the area of Horse Neck, Connecticut towards the British encampment at Rye, New York. They saw someone coming towards them and climbed over a wall to let the man pass. As he went by, the refugees discerned him to be an unarmed British soldier, so they decided to question him. They called out to the man, who stopped, and asked him where he'd come from. The man, Richard Cotton, responded that he'd just left a British command of some 4000 soldiers. The two refugees suspected that he was a deserter and offered to take him to an American post; Cotton went with them. By odd mischance, they soon encountered an American flag of truce - an officer or a small party of American soldiers with official permission to visit British lines on some sort of official business, usually to discuss matters relating to prisoners of war. Richard Cotton begged the refugees to let him go with the flag, but they refused. Cotton tried to make a run for it, but they grabbed him and conveyed him back to the British camp. There, his welcome was not a warm one.

Having been caught on a Monday morning, Richard Cotton was put on trial for desertion on Thursday (for some reason the trial transcript calls him Benjamin rather than Richard, but muster rolls leave no doubt that it's him). The men who captured him testified, as well as a man from the 38th Regiment who gave some simple facts of Cotton's term of service in the regiment. Put on his defense, Cotton claimed he'd gotten drunk and "perplex’d in his mind" on Sunday afternoon, having not enough shirts, shoes and stockings and also believing he was going to be sent from the Light Infantry, where he'd served for so long, back to the regiment. He wandered away from camp, and claimed not to have known where he was until he met the two refugees. He asserted that when the refugees had asked where he belonged, he told them the British company he was from; he also denied mentioning the strength of the British force or having attempted to go with the flag of truce. But when he asked one of the refugees, "Did not you ask me that if I had my Choice whether I would go to the Continental Army or back to the British Troops and what Answer did I make?", he said Cotton's reply was "the Prisoner answer’d him, it does not signify your giving me the choice now as I know very well what you are going to do with me."

Cotton probably did know full well what would be done with him. There had been several desertions from the light infantry battalion already, so a clear message needed to be sent. Cotton was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum penalty for desertion. Regardless of whether he intended to desert, his dissatisfaction was not related to having been drafted twice some years before, but with the prospect of being transferred out of his regiment's light infantry company. Had he not strayed from camp, whatever his motive, this veteran of three regiments would've had the opportunity to see out the war with the 38th Regiment and return to Great Britain. Because of his transgression, on Sunday 23 July 1780, "that man of the 38th Light Infantry who was tried at East Chester for desertion was executed today after the troops came to their ground, hung on a tree at the road side."

Learn more about British soldiers in America!


  1. This is an excellent post, and your question about Cotton's lashing and his speedy recovery actually raises other questions for me that maybe you can answer?

    1.) I know that drummers carried out the sentence, and that drummers could often be rather young. Were young drummers the one to carry out the sentence? So that there's the humiliation of being paraded in front of your fellow soldiers, but then also the humiliation of being whipped by a young boy?

    2.) If young boys didn't do it, did drummers relax the vigor of the lashings on large penalties?

    3.) What exactly were soldiers lashed with? Were cat 'o' nine tails standard equipment in every regiment, or did they use other materials (such as willow tree leaves or just a plain rope?)

    4.) Were there standard thicknesses used for the ropes in a cat 'o' nine tails? Or was the thickness of the rope up to the regimental commanders?

    5.) I've seen depictions of cat 'o' nine tails with knots in the ropes, or even pieces of metal or glass embedded. Was this done? I can't imagine metal or glass being used on a soldier, because even a sentence of 50 lashes would kill a man, no?

    6.) For that matter, on large sentences did they keep on going until the sentence was carried out or break up the punishment? So 500 lashes in the morning, 500 in the evening, 500 tomorrow for the 1500 (or whatever number was the punishment).

    7.) Did British soldiers feel shame when they were sentenced to be lashed? Gordon S. Wood points out that a primary purpose of the practice of tarring and feathering was to bring shame to the individual, not to cause harm--and so many times the act of tarring and feathering was done with the person fully clothed, or stripped down only as far as their waist coat.

    8.) Speaking of which--were British soldiers flogged on their bare backs or did they wear clothing, and if so how much?

    I really hope you can answer these questions, thank you so much for a wonderful blog (and a wonderful book).

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. You ask great questions, which are difficult to answer with accuracy. Here's what I know:
      1. Ages of drummers: It's true that drummers were "often" rather young, but not the majority. Muster rolls show us that most drummers in British regiments were long-serving in that role, many for entire careers of over thirty years. Some were as young as 12 when they went on the muster rolls, and probably had started before that (a regiment could have drummers that don't show up on the rolls - long story).
      With that in mind, we also have information from a book called "Duties of a Regimental Surgeon Considered" which indicates that each drummer was to inflict 25 strokes, then "a fresh Drummer takes the cats; and this rotation is continued till the punishment is finished." This implies that all available drummers participated, but we have no way of knowing whether that included the young, pre-muster-roll drummers.
      2. Did drummers relax the vigor of lashings on large penalties? Not as far as we know. But the regimental surgeon was required to attend lashings and halt the procedure if it appeared that the man could no longer bear the punishment. Often large punishments were administered in several sessions (and we have no data on how far apart those sessions were), and often less than the full sentence was actually carried out.
      3, 4 and 5. What exactly were soldiers lashed with? We have no way of knowing. Each regiment purchased it's own lash; we have line items in agent's ledgers for these purchases for a few regiments, but they give no details of construction. There are a few surviving examples, but without specific regimental provenance. So we don't have enough information to say whether they were all the same, how many each regiment had, etc. We must be cautious about assuming that a single example in a museum represents the typical or majority; we simply don't have enough information on the actual lashes.
      6. Did they keep going until the sentence was carried out or break it up? They broke it up. Sometimes the sentence was specific in saying to administer a punishment in four "sessions" (I don't know the right word to use), and the surgeon could always stop a punishment. The book "Duties of a Regiment Surgeon Considered" (London, 1787) goes into great detail about watching for where on the body the lashes are applied, making sure to spread them around and avoid vital organs, how to recognize whether the man's life was in danger, even recommending the type of weather and whatnot that was best to insure that the man wouldn't be crippled or killed by the punishment.
      7. Did the lashed men feel shame? That depends on the man. Just as with convicted criminals today, some were penitent and others were remorseless. We have more information on men who were executed, because onlookers sometimes mentioned how they perceived the victim.
      That said, read about the punishment of John Brayson, himself a drummer:

      8. Bare back, definitely. Wearing the clothing would only ruin it, would would put the soldier at the expense of replacing it.

      And speaking of books, I have an agreement with a publisher for a book that will go into great detail about all this - but it won't be ready for at least a couple of years.

  2. Thank you so much for your answers, they're really helpful. I look forward to your book whenever it's completed.

    Is it ok if I post these answers to my blog at and link back to your blog?