Some soldiers told their own stories well enough that there's little need to elaborate on them, and the details can be correlated with other sources. Richard Shea's short stint as a soldier in the 40th Regiment of Foot began when he enlisted in Waterford, Ireland, in late 1774. Tensions were rising in America at this time, but the 40th had not yet received orders for their own embarkation.
We know nothing of Shea's background other than that he was an educated man. His talents were recognized and he was tasked with keeping records for the company, a job that probably consisted mostly of making copies of receipts, returns, orders and other military documents. It may not have been glamorous work, but it was one of many ways that soldiers earned extra money to supplement a base pay that was designed only to provide food and clothing.
The 40th Regiment, along with the 22nd, 44th and 45th, received orders for America in early 1775. Preparations were complete and transports were ready by the beginning of May, and the regiments sailed from Cork, Ireland on the 8th of that month. They arrived in Boston shortly after the battle of Bunker Hill, and served in that city's garrison until the place was evacuated in March 1776.
During a two-month stay in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the British army regrouped and trained for a new offensive. The town was crowded, and many regiment remained quartered on board their transport ships, going ashore during the day for training, washing and other activities. By the end of June the army was at sea again, quickly making their way to Staten Island where they landed unopposed. On this verdant island of farms and villages, the troops encamped or took quarters in outbuildings while awaiting reinforcements from Great Britain, the German states, and the expedition that had recently failed to take Charleston, South Carolina.
Duty could be difficult. An officer of Shea's regiment wrote about his experience on the night of 30 July:
Last night was the gloomiest I ever spent on duty. I was posted with a picket in an open field near the shore. About eleven o’clock there came on a severe burst of thunder and lightning, attended with most violent torrents of rain. Two of my centries being posted near some trees, got for shelter under them, and unfortunately were struck by the lightning. They were both knocked down, and found senseless; one of them is yet in that state. The tree against which he stood had two great branches torn off.
It was during this time that things went sour for Richard Shea. He had a job that should have been comfortable and lucrative, but also may have been stressful if he was expected to perform his clerical duties in addition to the usual tasks of a private soldier. Perhaps he quarreled with his officers or was, in his own perception, ill-treated by one of them. For some reason he decided that he should collect his arrears in pay.
It was typical for company officers to maintain the finances of their men, keeping an account for each soldier of money earned and expenses incurred. Only if a soldier proved responsible and trustworthy was he given hard cash to spend at his leisure, for soldiers were known to squander their funds on drink, gaming and women. Although a soldier was legally entitled to be the rightful owner of his pay, the army was not required to put it into his hands as long as the basic obligations of food and clothing were met. Controlling the money was a way to control discipline.
When Richard Shea asked the regiment's paymaster for a substantial sum due to him, partly in base pay and partly for his clerical work, he was refused. This may have been for legitimate reasons: Shea may have shown a proclivity for drunkenness or gambling; there may have been a general policy in place to limit the amount of cash in soldiers' hands to dissuade them from straying from their encampments and their duties; or there may have been a simple shortage of hard currency available to the regiment at that time. Whether a reason was given or not, Shea did not accept it. His response, however, suggests that there was more to his discontent than his money being withheld, for he chose to forfeit it altogether. On August 4, 1776, he slipped into the waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, and swam across it to Perth Amboy. An officer of another regiment noted in his diary, “Shea, 40th, Deserted. He swam across the River”
The New Jersey side of this "river" was teeming with American troops. He was taken up and brought to the headquarters of General Hugh Mercer, where he was examined. His clerical work for the regiment had given him access to some interesting details that other soldiers might not have known, and Mercer duly sent the information to the commander in chief on August 7:
Examination of Richard Shea, a Deserter. Inlisted in Waterford twenty-two months ago; an Irishman; of the Fortieth Regiment, commanded by LieutenantColonel James Grant; in Captain John Adlum's company; was clerk to the regiment. He has been six weeks on StatenIsland. Was at Boston last year from July to the 17th March. Went from there to Halifax. Remained there on ship, except now and then on shore to exercise. There are in the Fortieth Regiment three hundred and thirty-six rank and file. Supposed to have fourteen thousand on the Island. Two new Highland regiments very sickly. The Forty-Second Regiment of Highlanders. Expect some Hessians, but none come. The Fortieth Regiment opposite the Blazing-Star, in barns. Stretch two miles and a quarter on the right and left of the Old Blazing-Star. Had no leave to go one-quarter of a mile from quarters. If any soldier left quarters, severely punished. His reason for deserting was, he had £4 due for pay, and £10 as clerk, which he asked for, and was refused by the Paymaster. The officers are much afraid of the Riflemen; the soldiers in spirits; two thousand men sick— small-pox, the Highlanders with fluxes—poxes; not more than four thousand of the fourteen thousand clever soldiers. The Lighthorse and Marines remained at Halifax; also old men and others unfit for service.
Five days ago, ordered the officers' heavy baggage, and women of the Army, on board the fleet. As far as he heard, he believes they will not attack New-York, unless reinforced by the foreigners. He has seen in orders for working party at Billop's Point, where they are numerous, and have thrown up intrenchments. No works near the Blazing-Star. One company at the Old Blazing-Star. Don't know who is at the New Blazing-Star.
Two days' fresh provisions in a week. No vegetables in the week. Each company of the Fortieth Regiment have a guard in front—three men in daytime, six at night; no main guard. The inhabitants are sworn by the commanding officer.
There is on the Island Major-General James Grant, who was formerly Lieutenant-Colonel of the Fortieth Regiment; and the Lieutenant-Colonel James Grant, who is also there, was Major in the regiment.
He heard there were forty transports arrived last Thursday, chiefly store-ships; some few Highlanders. Heard Clinton was defeated, and he was expected to join them.
Blazing Star was the name of a fortification on Staten Island. The sickness of the two highland regiments, the 42nd and the 71st, was due to their sea voyage; they had just spend at least two months on transports, and needed time on land to recover from the arduous journey. The limited amount of "fresh provisions," as opposed to salted and preserved beef and biscuit, certainly hindered their recovery.
Shea's comment about the army having only four thousand "clever soldiers" apparently refers to training and experience; his point is debatable, given the superb overall performance of the army in the campaign that began three weeks later. They would remain "in spirits" throughout 1776 while their success was frequent and ultimate victory seemed assured.
What became of Richard Shea is not known. Intelligence like the report that he gave was typically aggregated with information from other sources, and although it was probably helpful in gaging the strength and capabilities of the British army, it was not enough to prevent their rapid march through New York and New Jersey in the coming months.