Sunday, January 1, 2017

Robert Mason, 23rd Regiment of Foot, born a Fusilier

Most British soldiers enlisted in their early twenties, after they were fully grown and had tried their hands at other professions. There were exceptions both younger and older; among the former were those "born in the regiment" who could be put on the muster rolls as soon as they were old enough to perform useful service for the army. An extreme - and rare - example is Robert Mason who was put onto the muster rolls of the 23rd Regiment of Foot as a drummer on 5 September 1767. Two unrelated documents prepared in 1786 list his age as twenty-six; if that's correct, then he began playing the drum (or the fife - muster rolls often list both drummers and fifers as "drummers") at the age of just seven years.

There was a serjeant John Mason in the regiment at the time Robert Mason joined, making it safe to conclude that the young drummer was the serjeant's son. The boy must have been accomplished in his endeavors, for not only did he begin at this extraordinarily young age, but he remained a drummer for the next nineteen years at least. This was not an unusual career path; while not all British drummers began their careers at a young age, most served as drummers for their entire careers.

The 23rd Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, came to America in 1773, disembarking in New York and moving to Boston the following year. The regiment, or portions of it, served in many of the war's most famous battles and campaigns, from Lexington and Concord in April 1775 to Yorktown in October 1781. In America during the war, he grew up, reaching a slender five feet eight inches. In May 1776, when the British army under General Howe was reorganizing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, he was put into the regiment's light infantry company, where he almost certainly used a hunting horn rather than a drum to signal advances, retreats and other movements. The light infantry company joined similar companies from other regiments to form the 1st Battalion of Light Infantry, a corps that was at the forefront of the campaigns in New York and New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, and the marches to and from Philadelphia in 1777 and 1778. In August 1778 the 23rd's light infantry company was put on board the warship HMS Isis as part of the intended relief of Rhode Island; after the fleet was scattered by a storm, Isis fell in with a larger French warship, and the soldiers of the 23rd, Mason among them, participated the battle in which the British ship bested its larger French foe. Somewhere in the course of these years of fighting Mason was wounded by a musket ball in his left upper arm. And he acquired an interest in women, which began to affect his performance as a soldier.

On 28 July 1779, Mason and two fellow soldiers were absent from the light infantry battalion's encampment near New York City. The next morning, following standard procedure, a serjeant examined their knapsacks to see what they had taken with them: men who planned to desert often took spare clothing with them. The knapsacks were empty, so the men were reported as deserters and light infantrymen on horseback were sent to search for them.

In the mean time, around one o’clock in the morning, before their knapsacks were examined, the three missing men knocked at the door of a house in Throg's Neck, New York, which the British referred to as Frog's Neck. The woman of the house answered the door, and the men asked how to find the road to East Chester, farther away from British lines than they already were. The woman directed them, and the three travelers went on their way. The man of the house, however, was suspicious; he got out of bed, took up his gun, and followed the strangers into the night. The three soldiers stopped at another house, this time asking "if there were not any Rebels near at hand." Once again they were sent on their way. Then the first homeowner, gun in hand, arrived at the second home and told the owner, whom he knew, that he suspected the other men were deserters. The two local residents, both with guns, went off together in pursuit.

The two parties soon encountered each other, and the soldiers submitted to being taken to a nearby military post. The officer there determined to take them to the British lines at Kingsbridge, and off they went, the officer, the two local inhabitants, and the three soldiers of the 23rd Regiment. About two miles short of Kingsbridge, however, the soldiers turned on their escorts, wielding bayonets that they'd had concealed in spare clothing slung over their shoulders. In the ensuing scuffle, the soldiers managed with some difficulty to seize both of the guns. But when the officer severely wounded one of the soldiers, the other two backed down.

The party continued their trek towards Kingsbridge, leaving the wounded man behind. The next person they met was the captain of the 23rd Regiment's light infantry company, the soldiers' own commanding officer. He asked the two remaining soldiers what induced them to desert, to which Mason gave no reply, but his colleague attributed it to liquor. The third soldier, who had been left on the road, died of his wounds.

The two men were brought before a general court martial on 16 August. When the 19-year-old Mason asked the captain to provide a character reference (bearing in mind that the officer had known Mason for most of the young man's life), the officer replied, "you have lately been rather inattentive, owing to an attachment to two Women of the Regiment." In their defense, the two accused soldiers tried to explain their absence and why they’d taken clothing with them, claiming that "they had no intention to Desert, but that they had left the Camp, the preceeding Evening to wash their Necessaries, and in the night they went to gather some Vegetables, and lost their way. The reason that they took the Arms from the Refugees, is, that they on their March to Kingsbridge had used them ill." The court found them guilty, and sentenced them "to suffer death, by being hanged by the Neck, until they are Dead."

This sentence was never carried out. Robert Mason was instead discharged from the regiment in February 1780. This may have been some sort of plea bargain, for Mason enlisted again the very next day and became a private soldier in the 23rd Regiment. He apparently was not with the portion of the regiment that was captured at Yorktown in 1781, and his behavior must have improved, for he was appointed corporal in 1782. At the close of the war, he returned to Great Britain with the regiment, where he continued to advance. His skill with martial music was again recognized when he was appointed drum major in January 1785.

But Mason's mind was still not fully focused on military discipline. For reasons not known, he disappeared from the regiment's quarters at Tynemouth Barracks in Northumberland on 23 July 1786. A month later, he was advertised in the Newcastle Courant:

Deserted, on Sunday the 23rd July last, from his Majesty's 23d Regiment of Foot, or Royal Welsh Fusileers, now quartered in Tynemouth Barracks, Northumberland, ROBERT MASON, Drum Major, aged 26 years, five feet eight inches high, fair complexion, long visage, light brown hair, grey eyes, born in the parish of Oundle, in the country of Northampton, and by trade a labourer. The said Robert Mason had on when he went away a scarlet jacket, with silver lace down the breast, no lappels, blue cuffs and collar, with wings and silver fringe upon each shoulder, white linen waistcoat and breeches, regimental hat with three white feathers, regimental sword and belt, black stock and half gaiters; he slender made and walks very upright, has been wounded in the left arm a little above the elbow, by a musquet ball.

Another drummer, also a veteran of the American war, absconded at the same time. It is not currently know whether either of them returned, or what became of them.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!


  1. Thank you for such an interesting story. you always do great work.

  2. Thank you for your good work, so interesting.

  3. I'm enjoying your blog,I'm a former briBrit soldier,most informative