Monday, August 14, 2017

Duncan McGregor, 42nd Regiment, gets carried away

Stories from the first half of the nineteenth century are notorious for containing exaggerations, convolutions, and outright falsehoods about the American Revolution. The passage of fifty or more years left memories muddled and faded, and tales passed by word of mouth were conflated, elaborated, and sometimes even invented. This means that such stories must be evaluated carefully for plausibility, comparing details carefully with more reliable information. One such story concerns a British serjeant in New Jersey in 1777.

After the battles of Trenton and Princeton, British forces settled in to a string of posts in New Jersey, quartered in abandoned buildings, barns and other shelter in the area around Amboy and New Brunswick. American forces were centered in Morristown, separated from their opponents by a ridge line called the Short Hills. A number of battles and skirmishes occurred during the ensuing months, none of which had an impact on the overall disposition. It was a long, difficult winter for soldiers on both sides.

In May, the 42nd (Royal Highland) Regiment of Foot was quartered in Piscataway, just north of the Raritan River.  While most of the soldiers went about the routine duties required to maintain sufficient food, fuel, cleanliness and general readiness, a portion did duty as piquets (or pickets), individuals placed around the perimeter to detect any approaching threats. On the afternoon of 10 May, a threat came, and it was a big one.

A force of some 2000 American troops had carefully made their way towards Piscataway, making use of the terrain to remain concealed for as long as possible. When they could get no closer undetected, the rushed upon the picquets. The highlanders, vastly outnumbered, nonetheless fought back, and were quickly joined by additional men on guard  duty who were not already posted. They put up the best resistance that they could, but were forced to retire all the way back to their own quarters, leaving the garrison dangerously exposed. They had bought enough time, however, for the remainder of their regiment to put aside their other task and form for battle. Other regiments quartered in the area joined the fight as well. The tide was soon turned and the Americans were chased back from whence they had come. A dozen men of the 42nd Regiment had been killed, and just over three times that number wounded.

In 1822, General David Stuart published a substantial work in Edinburgh entitled Sketches of the character, manners, and present state of the Highlanders of Scotland: with details of the military service of the Highland regiments. He gave a brief account of the battle in Piscataway, and included this anecdote:

On this occasion, Sergeant Macgregor, whose company was immediately in the rear of the picquet, rushed forward to their support, with a few men who happened to have their arms in their hands, when the enemy commenced the attack. Being severely wounded, he was left insensible on the ground. When the picquet was overpowered, and the few survivors forced to retire, Macgregor, who had that day put on a new jacket with silver lace, having besides, large silver buckles in his shoes, and a watch, attracted the notice of an American soldier, who deemed him a good prize. The retreat of his friends not allowing him time to strip the sergeant on the spot, he thought the shortest way was to take him on his back to a more convenient distance. By this time Macgregor began to recover; and, perceiving whither the man was carrying him, drew his dirk, and, grasping him by the throat, swore that he would run him through the breast, if he did not turn back and carry him to the camp. The American, finding this argument irresistible, complied with the request, and, meeting Lord Cornwallis (who had come up to the support of the regiment when he heard the firing) and Colonel Stirling, was thanked for his care of the sergeant; but he honestly told him, that he only conveyed him thither to save his own life. Lord Cornwallis gave him liberty to go whithersoever he chose.

This story sounds fanciful, but it does contain details that can be compared to a reliable sources. British reports of this action show that the 42nd Regiment had three serjeants killed and three wounded in the action. The regiment's muster rolls show that there was a serjeant named Duncan McGrigor in the 42nd at this time. More telling is that this Serjeant McGrigor was discharged in November 1778, and returned to Great Britain to go before the pension board. The pension examiners recorded that he was forty-six years old, had served in the army for twenty-three years, and was a native of Perth. Most important, he was discharged because wounds rendered him no longer fit to serve.

The actions of the 42nd Regiment on 10 May 1777 received the praise of General Sir William Howe, commander in chief of the British army in America, as recorded in general orders four days later:

His Excellency the commander-in-chief has requested Earl Cornwallis to communicate his thanks to the Forty-Second Regiment, for its spirited behaviour on the 10th instant, when it defeated a body of the enemy much superior to itself in numbers; and he is much pleased with the alertness with which the second brigade got under arms to support the Forty-Second Regiment.

Did a badly-wounded Serjeant Duncan McGrigor really get carried around the battlefield by a plunder-seeking American soldier? We don't know for sure, but the facts we have show that the story is plausible.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

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