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.


  1. Nice. Can you tell us if the sentences were carried out?

    1. None of the convicted men were executed; they all appear on the first surviving rolls of the King's American Regiment after the trial, from February 1781. Unfortunately we have no details on whether any of the punishments were carried out, reduced, pardoned, or what have you.

  2. Great story! I appreciate how you weaved together multiple sources – Peebles' account and the court-martial, alongside pension and pay records – to shed light on McCraw. The WO 71s (where I imagine you found the soldiers' court martial) are an excellent but woefully underused source.

    1. Glad you enjoyed this one, Eamonn; you clearly know the source material. It's a real treat when pieces from so many source come together like this - the entries in Capt. Peebles' diary, the muster rolls of the 42nd Regiment, the demographic details in the pension admission book (WO 116/7, which can be downloaded for free from the National Archives) and of course the wonderful trial transcript in WO 71, one of my favorite collections, available on microfilm at the David Library of the American Revolution as well as in manuscript at the National Archives.