Wednesday, October 15, 2014

John Kerr, 82nd Regiment, speaks out

The 82nd Regiment of Foot was one of several authorized soon after France declared war on Great Britain in 1778. The British army needed to expand rapidly; it accomplished this by raising new regiments, but those regiments were not composed entirely of new men. Their officers included experienced men brought onto active service from half-pay (a sort of retirement that allowed officers to return to service if needed), officers in existing regiments aspiring to higher ranks, and newly-commissioned young officers. Similarly, the soldiery consisted of a mix of men with prior experience who reenlisted, and new recruits.

We don't know which of these categories included John Kerr. We do know that when the regiment was ready for service it sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia early in 1779 with Kerr in its ranks. From Halifax, part of the regiment went to the British post at Penobscott, Maine, and the remainder sailed for New York in April. Kerr did not make it to either place. The transport he was on board, the Mermaid, ran aground and sank off of Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Many perished. Those who made it to shore were taken prisoner, John Kerr among them. They were sent to Philadelphia jail.

Whether he was a new soldier or not, Kerr had spirit. He escaped, as many British soldiers did, and made his way to his regiment in New York. By September 1780 he was in the ranks again with his comrades.

But there came a day when he had too much to drink, and then his company was ordered to form for a march from one garrison location to another. Kerr formed up with the rest of his fellows, and listened as a young officer gave them orders. They were told not to break ranks during the march without permission - nothing unusual about that. But a soldier protested that he must go out of ranks for water on the march. The officer told the soldier that he would be punished for speaking out, but the soldier insisted that he could not live without water. The exasperated officer used a switch to strike the soldier a few times.

The company was then ordered to "pile" their arms, that is, to interlock the ramrods of their muskets so that the weapons stood in teepee-like fashion. Having done so, the soldier approached the officer again and informed him that being beaten with a switch was not the way that a soldier should be punished - which was correct, according to the articles of war. Nonetheless, the young officer struck the soldier several times more, this time breaking the switch.

After this, John Kerr and three other soldiers approached the officer; Kerr asserted that soldiers should not be beaten in such a manner, and that the officer might as well confine them all. The officer went to a superior, who ordered that the soldiers immediately be tried by a court martial.

We have no details on that regimental trial, but after it was over John Kerr was led away under guard. As he passed by the young officer, he said that if he was punished on the officer's account, he would shoot him before long. He also mentioned that the officer ought to be run through with a bayonet as a bougre. The young officer reported this remark to his superior, who ordered Kerr pinioned.

John Kerr was charged with mutiny and tried by a general court martial. The officer stated his case for the prosecution, relating the events and the remarks Kerr had made. Two serjeants corroborated the information, down to the expressions Kerr had used.

But they also pointed out that Kerr was "worse for liquor" when he was acting out, and that he had always behaved as a good and obedient soldier before this. The officer also mentioned that Kerr had escaped from imprisonment, apparently so that the court would be sympathetic.

The court was not sympathetic. They found John Kerr guilty and sentenced him to receive 800 lashes. Considering the gravity of the charges, this was not a particularly harsh punishment; mutiny could result in a death sentence.

We don't know the extent to which the punishment was carried out. It was not unusual for part or all of a sentence like this to be commuted, and given the generally favorable impression of Kerr he may well have been pardoned.

As a soldier who'd enlisted after the war began, John Kerr would be allowed to take his discharge after hostilities ended. He'd have the choice of remaining in America, taking a land grant in Nova Scotia, or returning to Great Britain. But it didn't matter. Shortly before he could make that choice, he died, on 18 November 1783, just days before the last British troops left the newly-established United States.

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