Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Michael McLaughin's Wife Christian, 18th Regiment, Loses her Business

From the written record of his testimony, we cannot discern whether Michael McLaughlin and his wife, Christian, were angry or nervous when they answered questions from officers sitting on a general court martial. They had good reasons for both emotions. They were not on trial, but were testifying for the prosecution of their company commander, Captain Benjamin Charnock Payne, who was charged with a litany of offenses from behaving "in a Scandalous, infamous, unwarrantable manner unbecoming the character of a Gentleman and an Officer" to "entailing disgrace of the Royal Regiment of Ireland." Addressing a board of officers, and speaking out against a superior, surely must have been an intimidating experience.

But the McLaughlins may have been angry enough to overcome intimidation. Among the charges against Captain Payne was "tyrannical, cruel and oppressive treatment both of Non-Commissioned Officers and private Soldiers." So bad was the alleged treatment that several soldiers had deserted because of it. Michael McLaughlin had not done so, but, if his and his wife's testimony are to be believed, he had ample cause.

Michael McLaughlin had enlisted in the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot in May of 1755. A dozen years later he came with his regiment to America, and by 1774 was serving in Captain Payne's company, quartered at the British army barracks in Philadelphia (a structure very much like the one that still stands in Trenton, New Jersey). Around June of that year, his wife Christian sought and obtained permission to live outside the barracks and "endeavor to get a livelihood by her industry in selling bread, beer, cheese, & etc. to the Soldiers and others," as she put it. Her husband was allowed to live with her, which was typical for married soldiers - as long as their officers knew their whereabouts, and they performed all of their duties, they were allowed to live out of the barracks. It was very common for soldiers' wives to obtain lodgings and conduct retail businesses like this, although in this case she happened to be the only wife of the regiment to reside outside the barracks. She leased a small house nearby at a rate of 14 Pounds per year where she was allowed to sell foodstuffs and beer, but nothing more intoxicating.

And sell she did, for a month or so. Sometimes, however, customers purchased spirits at a place next door to hers and brought them into her place to mix with their beer. She knew of this, but apparently thought it within the terms of her license as long as she herself wasn't selling the spirits. She also, on a couple of occasions, gave spirits to serjeants of the regiment to mix with their beer, but did not charge them for it.

Word got back to Captain Payne that soldiers had been drinking hard liquor at Christian McLaughlin's house. The captain suspected that two of his serjeants had become intoxicated there. A townsman had caused a disturbance after slipping a gill of spirits from next door into the beer he'd bought, then refusing to pay for it. Captain Payne took action by ordering that no soldier go to the house, effectively shutting down her business. He also confined Private McLaughlin to the barracks for seven weeks, and recommended to the landlord that he turn Mrs. McLaughlin out because "she kept a bad house and that he would never get his rent."

Payne paid a constable to take Christian McLaughlin before the mayor of Philadelphia on charges of illegally selling liquor. He went so far as to order the two serjeants to testify that they'd bought spirits from her. When both refused because, according to one, "his conscience would not permit him to take such an oath," the officer threatened to have them broken (reduced in rank) and flogged if they did not comply. Neither man gave in; instead, they complained to another officer of the regiment. Michael McLaughlin was also ordered to swear against his wife but refused. With no one to testify against her, Christian McLaughlin was released by the constable and the mayor. But in order to live with her husband, who was confined to the barracks, she left her house, forfeiting two weeks of rent that she'd paid in advance.

Each of these three soldiers subsequently received consistent ill-treatment from Captain Payne. One of the serjeants became so frustrated that he deserted; McLaughlin requested a transfer to another company, but none was given. And Christian McLaughlin suffered another loss from Captain Payne.

Soon after losing her house, the regiment left Philadelphia for New York. They weren't there long before being driven out by angry townspeople, inflamed by the resistance to parliamentary rule that was sweeping through the American colonies; the garrison of New York city was far too small to keep order, and the soldiers of the 18th Regiment boarded ships for Boston. It was somewhere during this embarkation process that Captain Payne gave orders for superfluous baggage to be jettisoned, since the transports were quite crowded. There was also fear that some of baggage had been exposed to smallpox. As he was inspecting one transport, he noticed a bundled up "old ugly petticoat" that had "a very indifferent kind of an appearance; the lining which was outward was broke." He asked a corporal to whom it belonged, and the corporal told him that it was McLaughlin's; Payne ordered it thrown overboard. What neither the captain nor the corporal noticed was the new petticoat bundled up within the old one, and both were soon in the sea.

After the regiment arrived in Boston, Michael McLaughlin made a complaint to the commanding officer, as did the serjeant who had been coerced to testify, and several other soldiers and officers for a variety of complaints. Even though war broke out in April and the fateful battle of Bunker Hill occurred in June, the army's administrative machinery continued to matters of military discipline. In July, Captain Benjamin Charnock Payne was brought before a general court martial, charged with a series of crimes associated with discord in the 18th Regiment of Foot.

There were five major charges, and many witness; the trial went on for three weeks, one of the longest conducted throughout the entire war. Mr. and Mrs. McLaughlin testified concerning only one of the charges, and told the story of soldiers being banned from her business, her being brought before the mayor, and of her clothing being thrown overboard. Several other soldiers and a few officers also spoke to those events. But Captain Payne had clear reasons for all of his actions. It was not him who ordered soldiers to stay away from Christian McLaughlin's house, but his commanding officer; Payne had only been enforcing those orders. As for the petticoat, it was not apparent that the bundle contained a new garment, and throwing it overboard was consistent with orders.

Many officers and soldiers testified in Captain Payne's defense. He was acquitted of all charges but one; in fact, the court found those charges, including that he had mistreated soldiers, "in General malicious, frivolous, wicked and ill grounded." The final charge, which did not concern the McLaughlin's, brought a type of reprimand.

This result may have been discouraging to Michael and Christian McLaughlin, but fate soon brought them a reprieve. The 18th Regiment, having been in America for eight years, was drafted at the end of 1775; it's able-bodied soldiers were transferred to other regiments, the unfit men were granted discharges, and the officers, non-commissioned officers and drummers returned to Great Britain to recruit. Michael McLaughlin, after over twenty years in the army, was still fit for service, so he was drafted into the 4th Regiment of Foot.

With the 4th Regiment, he, and presumably his wife as well, campaigned in New York and New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, before going on to Philadelphia in the latter part of 1777. While the regiment was quartered in Philadelphia for the winter, after a year of hard campaigning, Michael McLaughlin died of unknown causes on 15 January 1778. We have no information about what became of his wife Christian.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!