Muster rolls, ideally prepared every six months for British regiments, provide a lot of information about each soldier's career. Looking at one roll after another, we can see when a man joined a regiment, which companies he served in, and when he left. For some changes, a specific reason is given; for example, when a man left a regiment the rolls usually included an annotation of "discharged," "died," "drafted," "deserted" or what have you. But these are reasons only in a high-level administrative sense; that is, they tell us that a man was discharged (for example), but not whether it was due to long service, infirmity, reduction of forces, or some other reason.
As we've seen in other cases, it is risky to make assumptions about reasons behind changes. A frequent occurrence was for private soldiers to be appointed as corporals, and later being "reduced" back to private soldiers. For some men this happened several times. When I mention this to people, they often wryly respond that the soldier must have run afoul of military discipline, but there are many other plausible explanations. The man might have been incapacitated by injury or illness, and reduced temporarily so that an able man could fill his place; or he himself may have been a temporary replacement. He may have proven unsuited to the job - there are even examples of soldiers requesting to resign from non-commissioned roles. An overall force reduction could change the number of corporalcies available. The man have had a trade that was valuable to the army, and given up his corporalcy to fill some other role.
But, were cases where disciplinary action was, in fact, the cause. Because very few regimental orderly books or regimental court martial records survive, we seldom know the reason behind a reduction in rank. But occasionally information surfaces in other places that provide answers. Such is the case with John Edwards of the 38th Regiment of Foot.
The 38th Regiment arrived in Boston from Ireland in the summer of 1774 with the 27-year-old Edwards in its ranks as a private soldier in the light infantry company. He may have been wounded either during the expedition to Concord on 19 April 1775, or at Bunker Hill on 17 June; muster rolls seldom indicate wounded men, but Edwards was transferred out of the light infantry on 15 September, usually an indication that he was no longer capable of the rigorous service of the light infantry.
The regiment left Boston with the rest of the army in March 1776, and after a sojourn in Halifax, Nova Scotia, landed on Staten Island in June. It was here that Edwards, after ten years in the army, was appointed corporal on 4 August. The 38th was active in the campaigns around New York and in New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, and on the campaign to Philadelphia in 1777. After Philadelphia was evacuated in 1778, the 38th Regiment was sent to reinforce the British garrison in Rhode Island, arriving just before the place was besieged for three weeks in August.
After the siege was lifted, life in the Rhode Island garrison calmed down a bit, but within months a cold winter set in and both provisions and firewood were in short supply. Rations were cut severely in the struggle to apportion limited supplies of food and fuel to the military and civilian inhabitants of the island.
The harsh conditions led to some desperate behavior. Depredations by soldiers against inhabitants were a persistent problem any time an army encamped - no matter what army it was - but times of deprivation generally made things worse. On 22 February 1779, a prominent Newport merchant and distiller made an entry in his memorandum book. Cooke had already suffered a great deal of losses to the war as soldiers helped themselves to produce, livestock, fowls and fence rails from his farm - soldiers from both sides, as the rural parts of the island changed hands during the 1778 siege. Now, though, for the first time, his own home in Newport was robbed. He wrote:
Feb. 22, 1779 at ye Neight of ye above day I had my house Robed, I suppose by ye 38 Ridgement, of vize - 1 Silver Tankard Marked ScR; 1 Silver Cann Marked only with ye Makers Name on ye Bottom, S. Casey; 1 Silver Porrager ScR; 1 Silver Pepper Box Marked R. W. or ScR; 1 Silver Tabel Spoon; 1 Silver Tea Spoon; 1 pr Silver Sugar Tongues; 1 pr Silver Shooe Buckels; 1 pr Silver Neay Buckels; 1 Blew Cloke; 1 Surtute; 2 Beaver Hatts; 1 Tea Chist with 10 or 12 Dollars in it; Several Hanchifers, aprons, Stockings &c.
N. B. their was a Coart Marshel held to Enquire Concerning this Theft - my Neay Buckels was found upon one Jack Edwards of ye 38. I have all the Reason in ye World to Suspect very foul play in ye affaire.
The "Jack Edwards" who had Cooke's knee buckles was none other than corporal John Edwards of the 38th Regiment. Cooke's statements are borne out by the fact that Edwards was reduced to private soldier on 11 March 1779, a typical result of a non-commissioned officer being found guilty of a crime. We have no record of the charges brought against Edwards or the trial itself. He may not have participated in the robbery, but the Articles of War forbade soldiers from taking or purchasing items from other soldiers; a non-commissioned officer in particular was expected to recognize the possibility that goods were stolen. Whether other soldiers in the regiment were implicated is not known.
This disciplinary action did not, however, derail Edwards' career. On 19 August 1780 he was appointed serjeant, clear acknowledgement that he was in general a good soldier and had not been a ringleader in the previous year's crime. Soon after he was appointed to the grenadier company, where he spent the remainder of the war in the New York area. Early in 1783, before the peace was finalized and an overall force reduction occurred, he was discharged and returned to Great Britain. On 8 March 1783 he appeared before the pension board in Chelsea outside of London, where he was granted a pension because he had been wounded during the war; the action in which he was wounded, however, is not stated in the pension records.
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