Learn more about British soldiers in America
Thursday, August 27, 2015
For a young man with no trade, the small town of Macroom (formerly spelled Macromp) between Cork and Limerick in Ireland may not have had much to offer in terms of exciting careers. Not compared to the army, which held the promise of travel, steady food and pay, clothing, and even a pension to a man who served long and well. Perhaps it was these inducements that led Bryan Sweeny, or McSweeny, to enlist in the 50th Regiment of Foot in 1768. The 50th was rebuilding after a period of service abroad, so soldiering would probably be safe and secure for at least a few years.
At the end of 1772, the 50th left Ireland for Jamaica. This must have been quite a change for Sweeny, abroad for the first time. Five years in the army had served him well enough, however, that he did not succumb to the climate like many soldiers did in the West Indies. The 50th suffered enough that it was considerably under strength when it was ordered to join the army under General Howe in America in 1776. Preparing for a major campaign that would crush rebellion in the colonies, Howe's army consisted of a mix of regiments that had been in America since well before the war and strong, fresh regiments from Great Britain. When the 50th arrived in Staten Island from Jamaica in August, it was apparent that the corps was not in fighting trim. Rather than serve as an entity, they were ordered to transfer all of their able-bodied soldiers into other regiments; unfit men were discharged, and the officers and non-commissioned officers would return home to recruit and train a new body of men.
Among the men still fit for service was Bryan Sweeny. He was drafted into the 22nd Regiment of Foot, a corps that had arrived in Boston the previous year just after the battle of Bunker Hill. Following the usual drafting practice, the soldiers of the 50th continued to wear their old uniforms when they joined their new regiments, for regimental clothing was provided once a year and became the soldier's own personal property; new clothing would arrive in October or November and then be fitted to each man over the winter, to be ready for use in the spring. So it was that Sweeny stepped into the ranks of the 22nd Regiment wearing a coat with black lapels, cuffs and collar, buttons marked with the number 50, and white breeches and waistcoat, instead of the 22nd's uniform featuring buff lapels, cuffs, collar, breeches and waistcoats with appropriately numbered buttons. Sweeny and the fourteen other drafts from the 50th were not the only standouts, however. The 65th Regiment with it's white-trimmed coats was also drafted and contributed a dozen men to the 22nd. In October, a large reinforcement arrived including recruits wearing jackets in lieu of the regimentals they had yet to receive, and volunteers from the 1st Regiment of Foot in England, with their blue-trimmed coats, six of whom joined the 22nd Regiment. Also challenging the 22nd Regiment's clothing situation was the fact that their new clothing for the year had been captured the previous August, leaving the men to serve throughout 1776 in the same clothing they'd worn for the whole of 1775. Before embarking for American in 1775 the 22nd had received 5 drafts each from the 3rd, 11th, 20th, 27th and 62nd Regiments, with their coats trimmed in buff, green, yellow, buff and buff, respectively. It was a hodgepodge of colors, and much of the clothing was badly worn, but that was part of the soldier's life - the pay and pension did not come without risks and challenges.
Things were changing quickly for Sweeny. A new country, a new corps, new comrades, and soon the regiment was thrust into combat. The 22nd was part of the army that crossed from Staten Island to Long Island in the second half of August, barely a week after the 50th Regiment had been drafted; it was then with General Howe's column that made the long flanking march on 27 August that resulted in a rout of rebel forces. Within three weeks, New York City was in British hands. The 22nd Regiment formed part of the garrison of the city, doing routine duties while the rest of the army prepared to continue the campaign. Sweeny got to know his new comrades, many of them also new to the regiment and newer to military life than he. On the night of 30 September-1 October he was part of the provision guard with other soldiers of his brigade, including men from the 22nd, 43rd, 54th and 63rd regiments, spending part of his time posted as a sentry to ward off anyone bent on plundering army provision stores, and part of it in a guard room waiting for any possible alarm. At least, that's what he was supposed to be doing.
Maybe Sweeny was showing a younger soldier some things he had learned about opportunism, or maybe he was simply following some of his other comrades on an illicit foraging expedition to supplement their own provisions. Somehow he and another soldier, James Gardner, who had enlisted in the 22nd Regiment in Ireland in March of 1775, found time and means to be away from their guard detachment. Early in the morning of 1 October a city resident who had an officer quartered in his house heard a commotion in his cellar. It seemed to have been caused by a crowd of men, but by the time he rounded up his servant and the officer to explore the cause, the noise had died down. They found that the outside door to the basement had been broken open. Descending into the basement, which had several chambers, they explored until their lantern cast light on an amusing but incriminating scene: there was Bryan Sweeny and James Gardner,
...one of them hid away behind a Cask of bottled wine, and the other leaning over it, and the Cellar floor very wet, and many empty bottles broke and laying about; Gardiner, he thinks, had a bottle in his hand or between his legs; they were both very drunk, and one was vomiting when they took them... the man with Gardiner was in the uniform of the 50th. Regt.
The officer, servant and homeowner had to drag Sweeny across the cellar floor, through puddles of spilled wine, to extricate him from the cellar. They took the two besotted soldiers to the main guard and informed the officer of the guard that he'd return in the morning to press charges. In the meantime, their absence had been noticed; the corporal of the guard had attempted to find Gardner to post him sentry but could not find him. The mystery of the missing soldier was soon solved; the main guard unaccountably sent the men back to the provision guard, where Gardner went back on duty and was posted sentry, while Sweeny lay on the guard bed and fell sound asleep.
In the morning, the homeowner was astounded to find the men gone from the main guard. He knew, however, where to look for them, as Gardner, either from youthful inexperience or the influence of alcohol, had given his name and his duty assignment the night before. Arriving at the provision guard, the homeowner demanded that the corporal of the guard let him see all of the men on duty. It took a couple of slaps to rouse Sweeny, but finally he stood before the homeowner who could easily identify him. Not only was he wearing a coat of the 50th regiment, but his trousers were still stained with wine. He acknowledged having been taken to the main guard the might before, but not being in the cellar. The homeowner knew Gardner's name, so there was no difficulty in find him. The men were taken back to the main guard for confinement; on the way,
Gardiner walked very peaceably to the Guard and said that he was much ashamed of himself, and that it was Swyney who had brought him into the Scrape, and addressing himself to Swyney, said that he had told him what would happen.
Charges were pressed, and the trial was held on 3 October. There were several witnesses who had seen Sweeny and Gardner in the cellar, and others who had known them to be absent during the night or had seen their condition the following morning. The officer quartered in the house related that
they found two soldiers in an inward Cellar, whom they immediately apprehended; that the two Soldiers were both accoutred and beastly drunk, one of them was sitting with a bottle with the neck broke, between his legs; and there were a great many broken bottles laying about, and a strong smell of wine
The two soldiers did not have much to offer in their own defense. Gardner testified that he had merely gone for a walk during the night because the guardroom was too crowded for him to sleep, and that he had not been in the homeowner's cellar - a thin alibi, given that he'd told his accuser his name when he was first arrested. Sweeny claimed that his trousers were wet from having spilled a canteen of water (he didn't attempt to account for the staining); his face still bore the marks of having been slapped awake. Not surprisingly, the prisoners were found guilty of breaking into the house. Even though it appeared that others may have been involved in the break in, they were the only two who were caught. Each was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes. We do not know to what extent the sentence was carried out.
Harsh as this punishment was, it did not end Bryan Sweeny's career. He continued with the 22nd Regiment for the remainder of the war, serving in Rhode Island and New York, including some significant fighting. When the war ended he was discharged in America, but rather than return home to seek a pension he immediately enlisted in a regiment bound for Canada, the 54th Regiment of Foot. It bears noting that the 54th had served alongside the 22nd for most of the war, and Sweeny may have developed friendships with men in that regiment; over two dozen discharged soldiers of the 22nd enlisted in the 54th along with Sweeny.
After five years in the 54th Regiment was due to return to Great Britain, but Sweeny was transferred yet again, this time to the 20th Regiment of Foot. It was not until October 1791 that he finally took his discharge from the army in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the age of 41, he had spent 23 years as a soldier, mostly in North America. He finally returned to Great Britain, where his imperfect service record did not prevent him from receiving a pension; his discharge from the 20th Regiment noted that he was "consumptive & worn out in His Majesty's service."
Learn more about British soldiers in America