People ask why men chose to join the army, and my usual answer is that we don’t know, except for the few men who wrote down their reasons. For example, why did twenty-four-year-old Jacob Margas join the army instead of carrying on his family business?
Born in 1743 in the London suburb of St. Martin’s, Margas apprenticed as an optician under his father, John Margas, at their shop “at the sign of the Golden Spectacles,” operating at different locations near Long Acre in London. Jacob’s grandfather, also Jacob Margas, had been a goldsmith of some note in London. John Margas and son Jacob worked through a bankruptcy in 1758 and moved to Dublin the following year, where they went into business on Chapel Street. John Margas died in 1767 and Jacob, rather than continue as an optician, enlisted as a soldier in the 54th Regiment of Foot. Was he distraught at the loss of his father and mentor? Did he fear the prospect of another bankruptcy? Did he feel liberated from a line of work that he never liked in the first place? Without a record of his reasons, we can only guess.
Margas exhibited such skill as a soldier that he was appointed corporal after only two years, and sergeant four years after that, a quick rise in a profession where most men spent their entire careers as private soldiers. Standing five-foot-six-inches tall, with brown hair, grey eyes, a round visage and fresh complexion, his business background surely gave him the skills needed to easily master the paperwork that was part of a sergeant’s routine.
The 54th Regiment came to America in early 1776, part of the expedition that was intended to open a southern theater of war. The failure of that endeavor brought the 54th to join General Howe’s army on Staten Island in the summer. After that army secured New York City, the 54th was part of the expedition that seized Rhode Island in December. Once the island was secure, one British and one Hessian brigade was left there as a garrison.
The 54th remained in Rhode Island until the summer of 1779. After General Robert Pigot took command of the garrison in the summer of 1777, Sergeant Margas was appointed provost martial because of “his Attention and Alertness,” a post of significant responsibility that also earned additional pay. Margas remained in this post until the 54th left the island; he had the option to remain, but opted to go with his regiment.
Somewhere during his service in America, the optician lost sight in one eye. This may have been during the battle of Rhode Island in August 1778, or the storming of Fort Griswold in September 1781, and action in which the 54th Regiment was hotly engaged. But no record survives of the circumstances of his loss.
In spite of his impaired eyesight, Margas continued in his role until November of 1791, having served a total of twenty-three years. He received a pension, based on a memorial written by an officer of the 54th who called him “a vigilant, honest and meritorious Soldier and non-commissioned Officer.” His being “very much afflicted with rheumatic Complaints,” and blindness in one eye, made him an object of compassion for the pension board. Margas moved to Berkshire to live on the estate of a retired officer.
Soon after, he was contacted by political publisher William Cobbett. Cobbett, who had been a soldier and non-commissioned officer in the 54th Regiment with Margas, was pressing charges against some of the regiment’s officers for various forms of misconduct, and wanted Margas to come to London to testify on his behalf. Margas and a several dozen other witness duly appeared at the trial in London in March 1792, but Cobbett himself was nowhere to be found. The charges were read and all witnesses given the opportunity to voice their opinions, but none of the charges were substantiated and the case was thrown out.
Jacob Margas still had more to give to the army. He was brought off the pension rolls to serve with the 47th Regiment for a time, and discharged back onto the pension rolls in December of 1803. The man who had walked away from three generations of family business had done well for himself in his new profession as a soldier.