Wednesday, October 28, 2015

John Hutton, 10th Regiment of Foot, loses his savings

Some writers point out that the British army in Boston in 1775 was experienced, a factor which contributed to its performance during the retreat from Concord and the assault on Bunker Hill. Lacking in the assertion is any quantitative information: what portion of the soldiers in Boston had been in the army for a significant length of time? While we don't have a comprehensive answer at this time, we can certainly identify individuals who had decades of military service when hostilities broke out.

Take, for example, Serjeant John Hutton of the 10th Regiment of Foot, a weaver from County Tyrone in Ireland. He had joined the army back in 1745 when he was twenty years old, and was a thirty-year veteran when troops of his regiment marched out to Concord on 19 April 1775. Hutton was probably not on that expedition, not being a member of the regiment's grenadier or light infantry companies. Late in that same year, orders came to send a few experienced officers and soldiers back to Great Britain for recruiting, something that regiments serving overseas typically did anyway but which was now formalized as the army put itself on a war footing. A man like Hutton would have been a likely candidate to go home, but he remained in America instead, soldiering through the regiment's active campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776, 1777 and 1778.

It was in early 1778 that the regiment suffered one of its greatest losses of the war, not of men but of material. The regiment was part of the expedition that seized Philadelphia from American control. For the campaign, much of the "heavy baggage" had been left in New York, things such as spare clothing and equipment that was an impediment to rapid marching. Each regiment leased storage space in a garrison city for things that did not need to be close at hand. Soldiers carried only a few spare shirts and pairs of shoes and stockings in their knapsacks, leaving other clothing accumulated over many years of service behind in the regimental store. Quartermasters lodged spare regimental clothing and camp equipage there. Officers left their elaborate field furniture, useful for standing summer encampments but an unnecessary encumbrance on the march. The instruments of the band of music might be lodged in the store, to be brought out for the social events of winter. When the 10th and other regiments were firmly established in Philadelphia for the winter, they sent to New York for their heavy baggage which was put on board ships for the relatively quick voyage out of New York Harbor and up the Delaware River. But the ship carrying the 10th Regiment's baggage fell into enemy hands, and a huge quantity of goods were lost.

The 10th Regiment of Foot had come to America in 1767, spending seven years in Canada before moving to Boston in 1774. By late 1778, it was time to send the corps home. Following typical practice, the able-bodied private soldiers were transferred into other regiments serving in North America, worn out men were discharged, and the officers and non-commissioned officers were sent home to recruit and train a new cadre of soldiers. Serjeant Hutton, though, did none of these things. He retained his position in the regiment but also remained in North America, working as a jailer in the famous Sugar House prison in New York City. The regiment's muster rolls list him as "on command" for the next several years. A number of American soldiers who spent time under his supervision mentioned his name years later in pension depositions, sometimes favorably, sometimes less so.

When peace negotiations began in 1782, the British army in America began the massive administrative process of ending operations in what had once been thirteen North American colonies. Great numbers of soldiers, dependents and civilians had to be relocated, some to Canada, some to the West Indies, some to Great Britain. Serjeant Hutton decided it was time to retire, but before he did so he submitted a memorial, one of hundreds or thousands that crossed the desks at headquarters in New York, seeking compensation for what he had lost when the regiment's heavy baggage was captured in 1778. He was "bereft of all his Stock," which may have included a considerable amount of clothing and other possessions. The one thing that he explicitly named in the memorial was his life's savings, "three hundred Guineas and upwards," which he had saved "by his frugality & care while in the Service of his King."

A Guinea was a gold coin worth twenty-one shillings, or one pound one shilling. Hutton had saved a considerable sum of money, on the order of seventeen years' worth of a serjeant's base pay of a shilling a day. Such a feat required more than just "frugality & care"; Hutton certainly earned income over and above his base pay. This was a common occurrence for soldiers. Much is made of the scant 8 pence per day that British private soldiers earned, and the many stoppages or withholdings from it that paid for his food, clothing, health care and other things - but the low base pay was intended to be only enough to cover essentials, to insure that the soldier had the very basic things required to live. The army offered myriad opportunities to earn more. Soldiers regularly worked at tasks such as building and maintaining fortifications, roads, barracks and other military facilities, cutting firewood, gathering the hay required for military draft animals, rowing boats to provide ferriage for the army, hauling goods at river portages, and innumerable other tasks. Pay for this work could be substantial, as much as a shilling a day, and that was over and above the base pay that already covered basic needs; in other words, it was all pocket money. Men with skills at a trade such as tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, blacksmithing or others could earn money working for the military; soldiers could also work at trades or labor privately during their free time. A serjeant like Hutton was invariably skilled at writing and had additional opportunities in the army administrative machinery, as well as in overseeing all of those activities at which the private soldiers were earning extra money.

Hutton's work in the New York prison certainly earned him money, so he wasn't destitute from the loss of his savings in 1778. It is clear that he was an enterprising soldier who'd done well in a career that spanned nearly four decades; he must have found work in the army all along the way to have amassed the fortune that was lost to the fortunes of war. In response to his memorial, he was recommended for the "twelve pence list," that is, he was recommended for a pension of twelve pence per day instead of the usual five pence awarded to most pensioners. He returned to Great Britain, and in April 1783 he went before the pension board. He never recovered his savings, but he did have an income for the rest of his life after giving thirty seven years of it to the army.

Learn more about British soldiers in America

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Yes, British Soldiers were taught to Aim

With surprising frequency, modern writers who discuss military aspects of the American Revolution mention that British soldiers were not trained to aim their muskets when firing upon the enemy. Some writers go so far as to say they were actually trained not to aim. These claims have no basis whatsoever in fact, and yet they are repeated again and again.

The very flimsy foundation for these false assertions seems to be a change in terminology between the manual-of-arms used by the British army, and the one introduced to the American army at Valley Forge by General von Steuben. In the British manual, the command for aiming was called "Present"; the description for this command very explicitly described closing one eye while sighting down the barrel with the other eye. The new American manual used approximately the same description, but changed the name of the command from "Present" to "Take Aim." The change was nothing more than using a different word to describe the same concept; von Steuben may have introduced the new terminology to avoid confusion with an unrelated use of the term "Present" in the British manual. Some modern authors, apparently looking only at the words of command and not the descriptions of what they meant, seem to have interpreted von Steuben's use of the word "aim" as a great innovation rather than a simple one-word replacement, leading to a misconception that British soldiers were (illogically) not even trained to aim their weapons.

For more details on this subject, including discussion of target practice by British soldiers, see my article in the Journal of the American Revolution:

Learn more about British soldiers in America

Thursday, October 1, 2015

William McDonald, 38th Regiment: The War's First Escapee?

From the first day of hostilities, prisoners of war began to accumulate on both sides. British soldiers on the 19 April 1775 expedition to Concord, Massachusetts, were many miles from their quarters in Boston when the countryside suddenly turned hostile. Not having anticipated this violent turn of events, no provision had been made to transport wounded soldiers back to Boston. Most of those who were not ambulatory were left behind. For the most part, they were well cared for by inhabitants of the communities around Boston. Although it was not at all clear how things would develop during the coming months, the convalescent soldiers were held as prisoners, prisoners of a war that was not yet fully instantiated in the minds of all participants.

Among the wounded British soldiers was a thirty-year-old Scotsman, William McDonald, a grenadier in the 38th Regiment of Foot. A laborer from the town of Abernethy in Morayshire, Scotland, he had joined the army ten years before. At some point during the fighting on 19 April he received a shot through his foot, leaving him immobile and in the care of his captors. Soon after being taken, he was brought, together with four other prisoners, to a home in the town of Lincoln near Concord. There, representatives from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress sought depositions from participants in the fighting that had broken out in Lexington, attempting to prove that British soldiers had fired first. McDonald gave no deposition; being in a grenadier company, he probably didn't witness the initial shots in Lexington which had involved several British light infantry companies. A light infantry soldier of the 52nd Regiment, John Bateman, did write a deposition on 23 April stating that the British had been ordered to fire, and a visitor to the home said that McDonald and three other captives had watched Bateman write his deposition. They corroborated that Bateman had sworn on oath to the truth of it, but they did not themselves give testimonies or even indicate agreement with Bateman.

McDonald and other prisoners were then confined for some time in the jail in Concord. While there, another British soldier was brought in, Robert Gaul, who had deserted from the 43rd Regiment of Foot in July 1774; Gaul had refused to serve in the Massachusetts militia and attempted to return to Boston but was caught as a deserter and was taken to the jail with hands tied. Gaul stayed only one night before being taken to Cambridge for trial. Some days later, Gaul showed up again, having escaped. A British serjeant, also captive in Concord, gave Gaul a pass with an American general's signature and sent him on his way to try to return to British service.

McDonald was still in Concord's jail on 6 December, when a list of the prisoners was made that indicated that his wife was still in Boston. This gave him strong incentive to get away. Sometime in the next two months, his wound healed, he took to his heels, finding a way to escape from his captors and make his way back into besieged Boston. We've found no details of how he accomplished the feat. Getting away from his captors may have been relatively easy, as prisoners were often allowed to take jobs in the region of their captivity and many used this relative freedom as an opportunity to abscond. Getting in to the besieged city, on the other hand, was no easy task, faced with perils by both land and sea. Whatever the means, McDonald was back in Boston by 20 February 1776, when a British officer of the 40th Regiment wrote,

A grenadier of the 38th regiment, who was wounded and taken prisoner on the 19th of April (the affair at Lexington) has found means to make his escape. He says, there are many friends to Government who would be happy to get under the protection of our troops, but are apprehensive of failing in the attempt.

Although he'd managed to return to service, McDonald's wound caused him trouble. He was removed from the grenadier company in May when the army was preparing for a new campaign in which the grenadiers would take a particularly active role, expected to march for long distances at high speeds. In February 1777, a year after he's returned to the British army, McDonald was discharged. Because of his disability, and no doubt in consideration of his exertions, he was recommended for a pension.

He had to wait for a ship to take him to home to Great Britain, and before he did he was able to come to the aid of a fellow soldier. Robert Gaul, the man he'd met in Concord jail who had escaped from Ameircan militia service, had been captured in May 1777 with a party of rebels in a house in New Jersey. He was brought to New York and put on trial for deserting and bearing arms in the rebel service. Gaul pleaded that he had been seduced to desert by inhabitants of Boston in 1774, but had refused to serve in their army and spent much time in prison because of it. Only recently had he agreed to enlist, to escape the deprivation of captivity, but when his corps was engaged by the British, he hid in a swamp until he could surrender.

Gaul called upon two British soldiers he'd met while in captivity to testify that he'd repeatedly expressed a desire to return to service. McDonald was one of the witnesses, who related the information about meeting Gaul in Concord jail and concluded his testimony by telling the court that Gaul "always shewed great contrition for having deserted His Majesty’s Service, and seemed very desirous of returning to the Regiment." Gaul was found guilty of desertion, but was spared capital punishment on the basis of McDonald's and another soldier's testimonies.

William McDonald returned to Great Britain, appeared before the pension board in Chelsea, and received his reward in October 1777. At only 32 years of age, however, he still had some fight left in him. In the 1790s, a rapid expansion of the British military in response to conflicts in Europe led to the raising of many new corps for local defense. McDonald enlisted in the Strathspey Fencibles, a regiment raised in his native region of Scotland for service only within the confines of that country. He served until the corps was disbanded in 1799, when he returned once again to the pension rolls.

Learn more about British soldiers in America