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.

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  1. There was a prisoner exchange in May 1775, and it's notable that McDonald wasn't involved. Perhaps at the time he was thinking about staying behind the American lines, as other prisoners who had not given the Yankees depositions did.

  2. Some more tidbits. The Rev. William Gordon mentioned William McDonald by name in a description of visiting British POWs in the Concord jail in May 1775. (Relevant passage quoted here.

    A September 25 petition from the POWs in the Concord jail present their leader as Sgt. Matthew Hayes, with no other sergeant mentioned. He's therefore most likely to have been the sergeant who gave Gaul the pass with an American general's name signed on it. And as you know, Sgt. Hayes also escaped that winter and returned to the king's army.