Monday, December 11, 2017

Arthur Petty, 53rd Regiment, Incorrigible Thief,

When war broke out in America, Arthur Petty was a soldier in the 13th Regiment of Foot. The regiment was in Minorca, having been there since 1769; in September of 1775 they were sent back to Great Britain. The regiment would not be sent to America, instead remaining in England where their exposure to rebellious colonists came from guarding captured American mariners held in British prisons. Some soldiers of the 13th, however, were drafted into regiments sent to America. Arthur Petty was among them.

Petty joined the 20th Regiment of Foot as that regiment prepared for embarkation in early 1776. The 20th was among the regiments that sailed up the St. Lawrence River and landed in Quebec, relieving a siege that Americans had maintained for several months. The 20th was part of the force that drove American forces out of Canada and up Lake Champlain before the onset of winter stalled their advance. After enduring the winter in posts along the Richelieu river, the 20th Regiment set off on the 1777 expedition under General Burgoyne that ultimately resulted in their capture at Saratoga. Petty, however, was not among the soldiers who endured years in captivity; instead, he was part of the small detachment of each regiment left behind in Canada.

How men were selected to remain behind is not known. Those who were not fit enough to endure the campaign certainly stayed behind, and perhaps that was the case with Petty. By July of 1778 he was fit enough to do duty again, as he and others from the 20th Regiment, seventy men altogether, were drafted into the 53rd Regiment of Foot. Although the 53rd had been on Burgoyne's expedition, they had not been at Saratoga, instead having been posted at Fort Ticonderoga and other posts along the supply lines. A portion of the regiment was captured in September of 1777 in an action called Brown's raid. The drafts from the 20th Regiment helped bring the 53rd back up to fighting strength.

No regimental records survive to tell us about Arthur Petty's character in the 13th and 20th Regiments, but in the 53rd he ran into trouble. After four years in the regiment, Major John Nairne sent a letter from the 53rd's current post at Isle aux Noix on the Richelieu River to the adjutant general for British forces in Canada, at headquarters in Quebec. Nairne's letter, dated 3 September 1782, read in part:

Give me leave also to represent to you that a Soldier of the Regt. named A: P: being such an incorrigible Thief, after repeated punishments in the severest manner to no purpose, is now under the Sentence of a Regimental Court Martial to be Drummed out of the Regiment, and his Captain (Scott) joins me in requesting leave to discharge him accordingly; he has been a Draft from the 20th Regt: is about forty five years of age, not a very Stout man, however he might perhaps be of some use to His Majesty’s Service as a marine, or, in Africa.

Given that most British soldiers enlisted in their early twenties, Petty's age in 1782 suggests that he had been in the army for quite some time, and it's difficult to image that his behavior had been consistently bad throughout. He may, however, have been an exception, either in terms of when he enlisted or how well he endured punishment. Drumming out was the period equivalent of a dishonorable discharge, reserved for cases where the army decided that a man simply wasn't worth the effort of further attempts at discipline. Sometimes men like this, who were able-bodied but incorrigible, were handed over to the navy, presumably because that service offered fewer ways for a man to get into trouble. Men whose lives were not valued might be sent to British posts on the disease-ridden west coast of Africa.

A month later, on 1 October, Major Nairne sent an update to the adjutant general. This time he reported that the regimental court martial's sentence of 500 lashes had been carried out in part. Petty had endured 250 lashes, after which he was given a break. It was common practice to administer large numbers of lashes in several groups, with a few weeks in between for the man to recover somewhat; the goal of lashes, after all, was to punish but not to disable or kill the man. Major Nairne reported that Petty's behavior had improved, so the remaining 250 lashes were forgiven, and that he would be spared the humiliation of a drumming out ceremony.

In spite of this improvement, Major Nairne must not have believed that Arthur Petty would become a good and trustworthy soldier. He was discharged from the regiment that same month.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!