Tuesday, December 20, 2016

James Dempsey, 46th Regiment, Grows Taller

You are allowed to inlist men of five feet six inches provided they are able bodied, Broad Shoulders well Limbed... Young Lads of five feet High will be allowed of provided they are Well Limbed and Likely to Grow.

British regiments sent officers far and wide in Great Britain seeking suitable men to fill the ranks. Each officer received a set of instructions from the regiment's commanding officer describing the types of men to look for and how they were to be managed once enlisted. Only a few original examples of recruiting instructions from the eighteenth century survive, and while they vary a great deal they do share some general characteristics. Usually they include an instruction concerning how tall recruits should be.

The passage above is from instructions for the 7th Regiment of Foot in 1775. The regiment was in America, but had a few officers back home enlisting men to keep the ranks full. Their height requirement of five feet six inches was typical of peacetime recruiting, as was the caveat about young men being allowed to be shorter if they were "likely to grow." This, and all of the other instructions, were guidelines; an officer could accept any man who he thought would make a good soldier, regardless of age, size or any other consideration, but the recruiting instructions outlined the preferred attributes. There was an element of risk, though, in going outside of the guidelines, because a recruit could be rejected by the regiment when he was sent to join it.

1775 and 1776 saw a dramatic increase in recruiting in order to increase the size of regiments committed to the American war. Instructions went out to over 200 officers from more than 40 regiments, all probably echoing similar guidance. We don't have the orders given to officers of the 46th Regiment, but a list of men they enlisted in January 1776 does survive. From it, we know that they did take the chance on a few young men being "likely to grow." One of them was John Dempsey, a sixteen-year-old from Geashill in Ireland.

During times of peace, there was no prescribed enlistment term; recruits went into the army as a career, and remained soldiers until they were no longer healthy enough to serve. On 16 December 1775, however, as an inducement to enlist more men for the American war, a Royal proclamation was made that men who enlisted after that date could be discharged when the war ended, if they had served for at least three years. This proclamation may have tipped the scales for men who were ambivalent about joining the army. Dempsey enlisted just eleven days later, on 27 December.

Dempsey was only five feet four-and-a-half inches tall, but he was also young enough to have some growth left in him. The officer who recruited the brown-haired, blue-eyed lad with a fair complexion was from the same town, and may have known Dempsey's family well enough to anticipate his full-grown height. The recruiter took the risk. Dempsey was sent with other recruits to America, where he disembarked in New York in late October 1776 and joined his new regiment.

The 46th Regiment served in several campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776, 1777 and 1778. Towards the end of the latter year, it was one of several regiments sent on an expedition to the West Indies in response to France joining the war. The plan was for those regiments to return to the army in New York, but the course of the war kept most of them in the West Indies for the remainder of the war.

A number of significant actions occurred in the West Indies. One of them was a sea battle off the coast of Grenada in July. Many men of the 46th and other regiments had been put on board British warships to act as marines; John Dempsey went on board HMS Medway, a 60-gun ship. During the battle he was wounded in the leg, a wound from which he recovered, but which would continue to dog him throughout his life.

By 1782, combat and climate had taken its toll on the regiments in the Caribbean islands. The men of the 46th Regiment who were still fit for service were drafted into other regiments, and the remainder sent back to Great Britain. Dempsey and a number of his comrades joined the 55th Regiment of Foot, a corps that had been on the western side of the Atlantic a few months longer than the 46th had been. But the war was almost over. On 10 August 1783, Dempsey was discharged "in consequence of his majesty's proclamation of the 16th December 1775;" he had served three years as a soldier, and the war was over, so his obligation was ended.

Having spend all of his adult life as a soldier, however, and with no trade to fall back on, Dempsey enlisted once again, this time into the 6th Regiment of Foot. In Dublin, after only six months, he was discharged again because of his "ulcerous leg, which renders him unfit for service." He received a pension which provided a subsistence income, and his whereabouts for the next ten years are not known. In 1794 he joined a regiment called the Irish Fencibles, a corps raised solely for operations within the kingdom of Ireland. In this regiment he was appointed corporal, and managed to limp along for seven and a half more years until the regiment was disbanded in July of 1782. Once again being discharged, "still having the sore leg occasioned by being wounded aboard the Medway Man of War then served as a Marine." He returned to the pension rolls for the remainder of his life.

The recruiter had taken a good chance back in 1775 when John Dempsey was only sixteen years old and a bit shorter than the standard. He grew to be five feet seven inches tall, and gave the army fifteen years of his life.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Donald McCraw, 42nd Regiment, wields his broadsword

In March and April of 1780, a string of home invasions and robberies occurred in the area around the villages of Jamaica and Flushing in Long Island, New York. The farming region had been garrisoned by the British army since 1776, and was teeming with soldiers, prisoners of war, refugees, and other itinerant and displaced people. Under these conditions, crimes were bound to occur, but this early 1780 spree was particularly disturbing. Residents heard a knock on the door in the middle of the night; if they didn't answer, their doors were broken open and men with blacked faces burst in, demanding money, guns, wearing apparel, watches and other valuables. Sometimes they forced the homeowners to light candles and lead them to goods, other times they forced their victims to cower under bedding while they ransacked the home, threatening to kill those who didn't comply. Residents were tied up, knocked down, blindfolded, belittled and overpowered. No one was sure exactly how many perpetrators there were - three, four, five - with blackened faces, wrapped in greatcoats, at least one carrying a gun - but they all had the appearance of soldiers, particularly one who was seen to be wearing a light infantry cap.

On 8 May they struck again, for at least the fifth time. Their target was the farmhouse occupied by William Creed and his adult son. In the middle of the night, there was noise as people attempted to enter the front door. Failing to break it open, they went to the kitchen door. Four men, one wielding a musket with fixed bayonet, burst through and rushed on the elder Creed, demanding his watch and purse. After threatening to kill him if he didn't comply and demanding a candle, they forced him to hide in his bed under his blankets. But there was something the robbers hadn't counted on. There was another person in the house, Serjeant Donald McCraw of the 42nd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Highlanders, a seasoned veteran soldier wielding a broadsword.

McCraw, a native of the village of Dunkeld, about fifteen miles north of Perth in the Scottish highlands, had enlisted in the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment in 1756 at the age of twenty-two. In his twenty-four years as a soldier, much of it as a grenadier, he had been through some scrapes - the disastrous assault on Fort Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War that took a heavy toll on his regiment, the difficult and dangerous campaign in New York and New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, battles like Brandywine and Monmouth in which the grenadier battalion to which his company belonged was heavily engaged, as well as the dangers imposed by long sea voyages, harsh wilderness campaigns, and even civil unrest in Ireland.

By 1779, McCraw had contracted an abdominal hernia which limited his ability to march and exercise with the regiment, but he and his wife worked for his commanding officer, Captain John Peebles, procuring his provisions, cooking, handling laundry, and other chores. In December 1779, the grenadier battalion quartered in Long Island was ordered to prepare for the expedition to Charleston, South Carolina, Capt. Peebles sent McCraw to Brooklyn to sell a horse, which the serjeant dutifully did, returning with ten guineas (gold coins worth twenty-one shillings, or 1.05 Pounds Sterling). When it came time for the battalion to embark, McCraw, his wife and son remained behind in Long Island. He took quarters at the house of William Creed, whose family treated him well enough that he felt a responsibility to protect them. He wasn't about to let a band of ruffians bring them harm.

The troops of the 42nd Regiment had been issued broadswords, the traditional weapons of highland soldiers, but it's not clear whether they were routinely carried in America. McCraw had his, though, and stormed out of his room wielding it to confront the invaders. The gunman pushed at McCraw with bayonet, but the Scotsman parried the thrust with his hand, and with the other hand swung his sword at his assailant, then seized the musket from him. McCraw then turned on another of the robbers who was at the fireplace attempting to light a candle, and ran him through with his sword. The invaders attempted to regroup and seize the elder Creed, but McCraw and the younger creed rescued him, cutting one on the head in the process, upon which three of the attackers dragged their stabbed comrade out of the house and fled. McCraw himself received two wounds in the scuffle.

The following morning, McCraw and the younger Creed went outside and found a wounded man sitting by the well. He had been stabbed, not by McCraw, but by the band of robbers; he had been with them, but when he refused to help break down the Creeds' door, they ran him through.

They took the man inside, and learned that although he was wearing "a Countrymans Coat," he was a soldier in the King's American Regiment,  a Loyalist corps composed of men enlisted in America to fight with the British army. They sent word to his regiment and two officers came. To the officers, the man confessed having participated in three other robberies, and gave the names of several fellow soldiers of his regiment who had been involved including a serjeant and a corporal. Then he died.

The fight with the marauding soldiers was Serjeant McCraw's last battle. In June, the grenadier battalion returned from South Carolina and went into encampment on Long Island. In consideration of McCraw's health issues, Capt. Peebles deemed him eligible for discharge, noting in his diary on 2 July, “presented Sergt. McCraw to the board of Physicians & got him Invalided he fought well last winter in suppressing a gang of Robbers at Jamaica, he killed one & wounded two, & recd two wounds.” Being invalided meant that McCraw could return to Great Britain and stand before the pension board. On 4 July Peebles wrote, “saw Sergt. McCraw & his wife & child told them to get ready to go home in the fleet, & gave the Boy 2 guineas,” quite a generous gesture that represented over a month's worth of a serjeant's pay, a tribute to the great esteem the officer had for this long-serving soldier and his family.

Before he sailed, though, McCraw had one more piece of military business to attend to. He testified at the court martial of the several soldiers of the King's American Regiment implicated in the string of robberies a few months before. Several Jamaica and Flushing residents also testified, the dead man's confession was read, and the court deliberated: three of the perpetrators were sentenced to death, the others to lashes.

McCraw and his family sailed from New York in July 1780. The muster rolls of the 42nd Regiment of Foot indicate that he was discharged on 1 October, but this is the date through which he was paid rather than the date that he left the regiment. In typical fashion, he was given several weeks' pay to subsist him on his journey back to Great Britain. He went before the pension board in Chelsea outside of London on 10 November, forty-six years old, after twenty-four years of service in the 42nd Regiment.