Monday, December 1, 2014

John Clancey, 47th Regiment, dupes a tempter

By March 1775, tensions in Boston between soldiers and civilians were running high. The people of the Massachusetts Bay colony sorely resented having British soldiers in Boston, troops they saw as instruments of a Parliament they no longer trusted. The soldiers believed in their mission to maintain peace among people they perceived as unwilling to follow the laws of Great Britain. That's a simplification, but makes the point that the populace and the army were at odds and members of both groups went out of their way to aggravate the other. It was in this setting that a man named Thomas Ditson traveled from his farm in Billerica to the city of Boston to make some purchases.

Whether Ditson was naive or deliberately attempting to bait British soldiers is not clear. Inhabitants of outlying towns had been using various means to tempt British soldiers to desert, and Ditson's actions made him appear to be doing just that. He approached a private soldier of the 47th Regiment named John Clancey and asked, “Soldier, have you an old Soldier’s Coat to sell?”

Whether Clancey was naive or deliberately attempting to bait Ditson is also not clear. British soldiers owned their uniforms, paid for by stoppages from their pay; Clancey, having joined the regiment four years before, had received several annual issues of clothing by this time. But that doesn't mean he had leave to sell them. Regardless, he responded that he did, and took Ditson to a building that was being used as a barracks. There, Clancey asked his wife to fetch some old clothes while confirming with his serjeant that it was ok to sell them. After some haggling, they struck a deal for a regimental coat and waistcoat for which Ditson paid two Pistareens.

One of these two, Ditson or Clancey, had gained the confidence of his mark. Ditson asked if there was any liquor to be had, and when someone said there was spruce beer available, Ditson ordered a bowl to share with Clancey. As they imbibed, Ditson leaned into Clancey and asked if he had a firelock - a musket - to sell. Soldiers did not own their weapons, but Clancey brought forth an old, rusty piece. Finding that it did not spark well - that is, the flint didn't create satisfactory sparks when it struck the steel on the weapon's lock - Ditson asked for a better one. Clancey then produced a nicer firelock, for which they agreed on a price of four dollars. In the course of the bargaining Ditson decided to purchase both weapons, as well as a set of acoutrements - bayonet, scabbard and cartridge box - using a mix of dollars, shillings, and pistareens that was typical of the coinage circulating in colonial America.

The next challenge was to get these military weapons out of the city. As a resident of Billerica, northwest of the city, Ditson wanted to take the ferry from Boston to Charlestown, but knew that he couldn't simply walk past the sentry carrying a couple of five-foot-long muskets. Clancey said that he knew the sentries and agreed to go along, carrying one of the weapons himself. Somewhere along the way, Ditson drew out a knife with which to cut the slings off the muskets, to make them look a little less military; Clancey stopped him and carefully removed and pocketed the slings. Was this a sign that Clancey was setting Ditson up, or Clancey simply showing habitual respect for equipment?

Feeling very familiar with Clancey now, Ditson explained that he was part of a colonial battalion, and in fact was their flugel man - the man who demonstrated the manual of arms to other men - but if Clancey would come along with him into the country, his military training would be very valuable. He'd get whatever money he wanted, and become an officer and a gentleman. Ditson was attempting to entice Clancey to desert, as several British soldiers had done during the previous year. Clancey, however, may have suspected this all along: while they were drinking at the barracks, he'd managed to slip out and alert the officer of the guard of the proceedings.

On the way to the ferry, Ditson was arrested and put into confinement by officers of the 47th Regiment. The next morning, he was stripped down to his breeches, covered with tar and feathers, tied into a chair on a cart, and paraded around Boston as "A villain who attempted to entice one of the

Soldiers of His Majesty’s Forty Seventh Regiment to desert, and take up Arms with Rebels against his King and Country.” A crowd gathered and grew, and began to press in, but there were some fifty soldiers escorting Ditson with loaded muskets and fixed bayonets. Before things got out of hand, Ditson was released and sent on his way.

Thomas Ditson wrote a deposition telling his side of the story - that he'd gone into Boston explicitly to purchase a gun, and had been directed to Clancey after asking around as to where he could purchase one. That Clancey's wife had questioned whether it was allowed to sell the weapons, after which Ditson had tried to back out of the deal but Clancey would not allow it. The thrust of the complaint, though - sent to the British colonial governor who was also the commander in chief of the army, General Thomas Gage - was that the soldiers and officers had acted lawlessly and abusively by tarring and feathering Ditson and parading him around town. The general mood of the colonists towards the military is reflected in the fact that Ditson's deposition was published in several newspapers around the colonies, but John Clancey's deposition telling his side of the story appeared only in a Boston paper.

This incident in March 1775 was soon overshadowed by the outbreak of war the following month. Ditson served in several campaigns during the war. John Clancey's career as a soldier, however, soon came to an end. Somehow the twenty-five-year-old soldier broke his thigh while serving in Boston; this may have been a wound from the Battle of Bunker Hill, or an accident incurred during other duty. By the end of 1776 he was discharged, no longer fit for service due to his injury. He returned to Great Britain where he received an out pension, and there is no evidence that he served again in the army.

A new book, coming in March 2015!

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