John Sutherland had intended only to visit his brother, and now he sat in confinement, awaiting a death sentence. It was not a likely fate for the forty-one year old private soldier of the 64th Regiment of Foot who had always borne "a very good Character" in over eighteen years as a soldier, except for an occasional bout of intoxication, a vice that was common enough among British soldiers, especially those who had spent several years fighting a frustrating, inconclusive war with American colonists.
Sutherland enlisted in the 64th Regiment in 1760 when he was twenty-two years old, after having pursued the trade of a tailor. The regiment, a new one established in 1756 as a second battalion to an existing regiment, and made an independent regiment two years later. Service in the West Indies, in particular the 1759 taking of Guadeloupe, severely depleted their ranks. The corps returned to Great Britain in 1759, and was soon sent to Scotland to recruit. Sutherland, a native of county Caithness in Scotland, was among the new enlistees. He had plenty of time to learn the military trade before another overseas deployment; the 64th Regiment spent three years in Scotland and another five in Ireland before crossing the Atlantic once again.
In 1768, the 64th Regiment of Foot, fully fit for service after a decade of recruiting and training, sailed to North America. There was no explicit crisis to address, it was just part of normal rotations of regiments from domestic to overseas service. The regiment spent the next several years in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Boston, Massachusetts, although much of the time in the latter city was actually passed at the fortified barracks on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. They moved into town in 1774 when tensions with the colonists grew, then served throughout the siege and subsequent evacuation of the city in March 1776. The next time that Sutherland's individual activities become apparent, though, is in October 1778.
The regiment was encamped near Bedford on Long Island. There were many British troops in the area, and their proclivity for foraging caused much mischief on the region's verdant farms. Some farmers applied to the army for safe guards, and individual trustworthy soldiers encamped on their properties to fend off nighttime forays by soldiers bent on illicitly procuring produce. One of these safe guards was John Hamilton of the 44th Regiment. He was well acquainted with the 64th Regiment encamped a few miles away, having "struck several of the Men of that Regiment who had come there to gather Peaches" in recent weeks. At about 1 in the morning on 8 October, he heard noise among the farms poultry. Investigating, he saw two men; when one ran away, Hamilton fired a shot at him, then confronted the other soldier, the somewhat belligerent and very drunk John Sutherland. Sutherland had his firelock (musket) with him, and aimed it at Hamilton; Hamilton, resolute in his duty and perhaps detecting Sutherland's impaired condition, "told him that if he offered to make any resistance he would kill him." Sutherland put the butt of the firelock - which was primed and loaded but did not have a bayonet fixed - on the ground. Hamilton recalled that he
put his hand upon the Muzzle of [Sutherland's] firelock and bid him give it up, but this he refused to do; that [Sutherland] then attempted to bring his firelock up to the Charge; that he [Hamilton] then quitted his hold of the prisoner's firelock, and bringing the point of his Bayonet which was fixed to his own firelock to [Sutherland's] Breast and told him that he would kill him if he offered to make any more resistance; that [Sutherland] then went up to the House where there were two Musicians, belonging to the 33d Regiment who advised him to give up his firelock, but he would not, and they were obliged to break it before they could get it from him.
The following week, John Sutherland was tried by a general court martial in New York, charged with the crime of forcing a safe guard. After hearing the testimony of the safe guard, John Hamilton, the court asked Sutherland for his defense; all he could off was that "he was so much in Liquor at the time that he did not know what he did, and that he never was Guilty of the like before." Perhaps based on his long record of good service, he was acquitted. He returned to his duties.
Sutherland had a brother who was also a soldier in America, serving in a grenadier battalion. Each regiment had a grenadier company, but during the American War those companies were usually detached from their regiments and assembled into composite battalions of their own. John Sutherland's brother may have been Corporal James Sutherland of the 64th Regiment's grenadiers, part of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers. In July 1779, that battalion and the 64th Regiment itself were part of a force that had just moved into Westchester County.
One Wednesday afternoon, John Sutherland finished his tasks with a working party and decided to pay a visit to his brother. He and another man, John Archibald, made their way to the grenadier encampment and spent an evening socializing and drinking. The combination of intoxication and darkness caused them to lose their way attempting to return to their own encampment, and they spent the night lost in the woods. In the morning they lost track of each other. Archibald found his way to the camp, but Sutherland did not.
During the same night that the two men got lost, the grenadier battalions and other corps in the area marched off to different locations; the following days brought more movements, until on Saturday the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers encamped in Mamaroneck, New York. On the march that morning, a soldier of a light infantry battalion noticed a man peering out from the bushes and called to him to come out. The man, John Sutherland, revealed himself. Asked if he was a deserter, and how long he'd been off, Sutherland said three or four days, and that he'd been in liquor. He then compliantly went with the light infantryman and another soldier.
Sutherland was put on trial for desertion that very day. He explained himself to the court, concluding that after he lost contact with John Archibald, he was afraid to return to the regiment because he'd already been gone so long. The court did not ask the usual questions about whether Sutherland had taken clothing with him, or resisted apprehension. An officer of the 64th testified that "whilst he was with the Regiment, the prisoner bore a very good Character; and that he has great reason to believe, that it was from drunkenness the Prisoner deserted, as it agreed with what John Archibald (the Man that was with the Prisoner) told the Adjutant of the Regiment on his return." Compared to other desertion trials, this one seemed unambiguous; even though Sutherland had been absent, there was no reason to believe that he had intentionally absconded. Desertion was a capital crime, but a corporal sentence was appropriate in this case.
The court, however, ruled that Sutherland was guilty and sentenced him to death. This was probably a reaction to a recent spate of desertions in the grenadier battalion rather than to the evidence presented. The officers who composed the court were all from the grenadier battalion, and no testimony came from soldiers in Sutherland's own regiment. Grenadiers were deserting, and an example needed to be made.
The verdict did not sit right with two members of the court, Captain John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment's grenadier company and Captain Warren Simondson of the 64th's. Simondson had testified to Sutherland's character; Peebles recorded in his diary:
on a Genl. Court Martial for the tryal of John Sutherland of the 64th. Regt. for desertion, he was taken this morng. near Rye, - a poor silly creature who tells a simple & consistent story of his being in liquor & losing his way in the night, his greatest fault was in not returning, for it does not appear to me that he left his Regt. with an intention to desert. however he is condemned to suffer death by a mode of procedure in Court that I never saw or hear’d of before, & cannot reconcile to justice & humanity; a circumstance which I shall never forget, & now think in my own mind I should have protested against.
The execution was scheduled for 19 July. Captain Peebles and Captain Simondson went to the officer commanding their brigade and made a case on Sutherland's behalf; Peebles wrote,
Captain S--n & I waited on Genl. Vaughan to ask his opinion of a case like that which happen’d at the Court Martial which we found agreed with ours, we then told him that there was an irregularity in the proceedings, or rather in giving sentence, which we could not reconcile to our judgement & conscience, and begged he would order the Execution be put off untill we could acquaint the Comr. in chief with as much of the affair as the nature of our oath wod. allow us, which he was very ready to do
The general, however, soon learned that a surprise was in store, and let the two captains in on the secret: while forcing the troops to witness an execution was one method of deterring desertion, by striking fear into them, another method for gaining soldiers' loyalty was to show mercy. "The Comr. in Chief had left orders to pardon the prisoner at the foot of the Gallows, which satisfied us with respect to the safety of a man’s life who was not regularly condemn’d." Peebles then recorded the proceedings of the execution:
The Picquets of the left Column being ordered out with the Field officer of the day for the Execution of Jno. Sutherland of the 64th ... The Ceremony was gone thro’ & the poor man behaved very well and penitently at the approaching scenes of death, fainted with joy when his pardon was pronounced.
John Sutherland had escaped with his life. He may, however, have received corporal punishment for his absence from his regiment. For reasons that have not been determined, at the end of the year he was discharged from the 64th Regiment of Foot and took a new post as a soldier in the Royal Garrison Battalion. This was a corps composed of soldiers no longer fit for the demands of long marches and encampments, but who could render useful service at fixed posts. The Royal Garrison Battalion served in the New York area before being sent to garrison Bermuda.
At the end of the war the Royal Garrison Battalion in Bermuda was disbanded. Some of the soldiers took the opportunity to go to Nova Scotia and take their discharge there, Sutherland among them. He was discharged at Sheet Harbor in June 1784, having spent twenty-four years as a soldier. But his military days were not done. In 1793 he joined the Royal Nova Scotia Regiment, in which he served a further three years before being discharged and recommended for a pension, "being deemed by a medical board, from his advanced age, and long services, to be unfit for His Majesty's Service." He signed an X on his discharge, indicating that he had never learned to write. He was fifty-eight years old, five feet seven inches tall, with light hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion, and after twenty-six years in the army he was finally returning to Great Britain.
The pension examining board had other ideas for Sutherland than simply sending him home to Caithness. The directed him into another garrison corps, the Guernsey Invalids, which he joined on 13 February 1797. He stayed in that corps for five more years, finally taking his discharge on 24 December 1801, "being old & feeble." After thirty-one years in the army, this "poor, silly creature" had earned his pension.
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