Saturday, April 16, 2022

John Fletcher, 54th Regiment, far the most witty

Various military records provide details on British soldiers' ages, places of birth, trades, and sometimes even physical attributes like their height, hair color, eye color, complexion, and "visage" (the shape of the face - round, square, long, etc.). This sort of information gives a sense of who each person was, but tells nothing about his personality; it is extremely rare to find anything about what type of person a soldier was, what they thought, whether they were articulate.

William Cobbett enlisted in the 54th Regiment of Foot in 1783 when he was twenty years old, and served for eight years. Like many soldiers, he used his time in the army to better himself, becoming an avid reader and writer. He became a journalist, pamphleteer and political activist, lobbying hard for reforms to benefit soldiers and the working class. His time as a soldier had left a strong impression on him that guided his life and career. Cobbett did not serve in the American Revolution, but his regiment had done so, and he met many soldiers who had served in that war. One of them left such an impression on Cobbett that twenty-six years after leaving the army, in 1817, he wrote of him to a colleague:

I have had, during my life, no little converse with men famed for their wit, for instance; but the most witty man I ever knew was a private soldier. He was not only the most witty, but far the most witty. He was a Staffordshire man, he came from Walsall, and his name was John Fletcher. I have heard from that man more bright thoughts of a witty character than I ever heard from all other men, and than I have ever read in all the books that I have read in my whole life. No coarse jokes, no puns, no conundrums, no made-up jests, nothing of the college kind, but real sterling, sprightly wit. When I have heard people repeat the profligate sayings of Sheridan, and have heard the House of Commons roaring at his green-room trash, I have always thought of poor Jack Fletcher, who, if he could have put his thoughts on paper, would have been more renowned than Butler or Swift.

This was high praise from Cobbett, who had by this time indeed met many famous men. Cobbett followed his praise of Fletcher with with a statement about the importance not just of acquiring knowledge but of "communicating that knowledge to others." He wrote, "Jack Fletcher's wit, for instance, went no farther than his red-coated circle. But, if he had had my capacity of putting his thoughts upon paper, he would soon have made the world participate in our pleasure."

Cobbett implied that Fletcher could not write, but it may be that Fletcher simply lacked a venue for his writing. When he was discharged from the army he signed his discharge form. This document confirms that Fletcher was born in Bloxwich Parish, Walsall, Staffordshire in 1748, and that he was five feet five and a half inches tall, with a dark complexion, brown hair and grey eyes. He pursued the trade of buckle making before joining the 54th Regiment in 1770 at the age of twenty-two. The regiment's muster rolls show that he was with the 54th Regiment when that corps sailed to America in early 1776, first to the Carolina coast and then to Staten Island. The regiment participated in the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, and the campaign that took the City of New York. From there they went to Rhode Island where Fletcher spent three years before departing in the summer of 1779. The 54th spent the rest of the war in the environs of New York, taking part in raids on the Connecticut coast in 1779. When a peace treaty was signed in 1783, the 54th was one of several British regiments that voyaged from New York to Nova Scotia, remaining in Canada for several years. It was there that Cobbett joined the regiment as a young recruit (having been enlisted by a recruiting party in England) and met Fletcher.

John "Jack" Fletcher was discharged from the 54th Regiment in June 1792, six months after Cobbett, becasue he was “consumptive and rheumatic, and worn out in the service." He obtained a pension but, like many British soldiers, soon enlisted again. He served in the 86th Regiment from 1794 until July 1799, this time attaining the rank of corporal. He was discharged again in July 1799. Thanks to the strong impression he made on William Cobbett, we know something of what kind of man he was.

Information from this article comes from the following sources:

William Cobbett: Selected Writings, ed. Leonora Nattrass (London: Routledge, 2016) 

Discharges of John Fletcher, WO 121/14/455 and WO 121/148/410, National Archives of Great Britain

Muster rolls, 54th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6398 and /6399, National Archives of Great Britain

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Duncan Robinson, 49th Regiment, a very proper soldier for promotion

When Serjeant Duncan Robinson signed his discharge from the 49th Regiment of Foot on 31 July 1786, at the age of sixty, his signature looked like that of someone who had barely learned how to write. He had spent thirty-two years and two months in the army, ten as a private soldier in the 42nd Regiment during the French and Indian War, and the rest (possibly after a gap in his service) in the 49th. But the Perthshire native had been appointed corporal only five years before, and serjeant only one year prior to being discharged. He was recommended for a pension because he was "worn out in the service, having served seven years of the above time in the West Indies, and America last war, which has rendered him incapable of further service." Having learned the trade of carpentry before becoming a soldier, he had spent part of career "in the Engineers Department when employ'd in making the Kings works under the command of Colonel J. Montresor," an army engineer who oversaw a number of major projects in America, but in this work he "received several bruises," contributing to his incapacity. An army surgeon added that Robinson was "subject to rheumatism and also received severe hurts in the service, which from old age and infirmities, has prevented him from doing his duty during the winter months."

None of this was unusual for a discharged soldier, but the officer commanding the 49th Regiment wrote a letter to accompany the discharge describing some distinctive attributes of Robinson's character. He had, the officer wrote, "served honestly and faithfully," and "never was Confined during the whole course of his Service in the 49th Regiment." Clarifying the reason why he had remained a private soldier for so long, the officer wrote that Robinson "was always looked upon as a very proper soldier for promotion, but on account of his not learning to write, prevented him from being made a Non Commission’d Officer for which promotion he was justly entitled to." Moreover, Robinson had "frequently refused being appointed a Non Commissioned Officer himself, saying and giving for reason he would be Oblidged to no other soldier for writing his reports for him." Besides affirming the importance of writing for non-commissioned officers, this shows how prideful Robinson was in turning down positions that offered higher base pay and significant opportunities to earn extra money; he would have no man do his work for him, a testament to his integrity as well as his honesty (no one could falsify information in his name).

His commanding officer told more about Robinson: "He brought into the service, and into the 49th Regiment three sons, and three Nephews," showing how influential an individual could be in obtaining recruits for a regiment. In 1768 the author of a popular military text had recommended,

Men being most desirous of enlisting into a corps, where they are certain of meeting many countrymen, and perhaps relations; besides, it is a spur towards raising their ambition, to see some of their friends, who probably enlisted only a few years before, return among them in the character of Non-commission-officers, or sometimes in a higher station.

Muster rolls for the 49th Regiment confirm that several Robinsons were in the 49th Regiment between June 1775 when the corps arrived in Boston, and August 1778, the last available muster roll - Arthur, Daniel, John, Thomas and William. Military documents don't indicate who was related to who, but presumably all of these men were either sons or nephews of Duncan Robinson. Moreover, according to the 49th's commander, two "were killed in America, Non Commissioned Officers and the other lost his Arm at White Plains." Daniel Robinson was indeed killed while serving in the 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry near Philadelphia on 21 September 1777. Serjeant William Robinson was apparently wounded because he was reduced to private in late 1776, then discharged in April 1778; it may well have been he who lost his arm at the Battle of White Plains in October 1776. Rolls are incomplete during the time the 49th served in the West Indies beginning in late 1778; other Robinsons may have died while fighting the French in that harsh climate.

Duncan Robinson's thirty-two years of exemplary service and great contributions to his regiment earned him a pension. This was a portion of his pay as a serjeant, significantly more than that of a private soldier - which may have been the reason he was promoted just a year before he was discharged, so that his exceptional service would be well rewarded.

[Information for this post comes from the discharge of Duncan Robinson, WO 97/581/47, British National Archives; muster rolls of the 49th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/6032, British National Archives; and Bennett Cuthbertson, A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Economy of a Battalion of Infantry (Dublin, 1768)]

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Dennis Green, 5th Regiment, takes home a souvenir

Dennis Green was just thirteen years old when he joined the 5th Regiment of Foot in 1765. Born in the town of Mallow in County Cork, Ireland, he was probably the son of a soldier in the regiment and probably started his service as a drummer. By 1774, though, when the regiment arrived in Boston, he was 5 feet 11 1/4 tall, just right for the regiment's grenadier company.

Late in the evening of April 18, 1775, the grenadiers and light infantry from regiments in Boston were quietly assembled, ferried across the Charles River, and in the first hours of April 19 set off for Concord, a town twenty miles inland. By the end of that day the British army in America was at war with rebelling American colonists, and Dennis Green was among the war's first casualties and first prisoners. He was hit by a musket ball somewhere along the arduous retreat from Concord back to Boston, and left behind with a number of other wounded soldiers. Doctors were unable to remove the ball, and it remained in his body.

Some time between April and June 1777 he found his way back to his regiment. Whether he escaped or was exchanged has not been determined, but he was fit enough to go back into the grenadier company. He went with them to Philadelphia in 1777, and back to New York in 1778, then - as far as can be determined from the incomplete surviving muster rolls - continued with the regiment to the West Indies. By 1783, with hostilities ended, Green one among the many soldiers discharged as the size of the army decreased.

Dennis Green's discharge from the 5th Regiment, a printed form with personal details filled in that confirmed his obligation to the army was over, reveals the details about him related above - his age, place of birth, how long he had been in the army, and his height. It also includes a statement from an army surgeon:

I certify that the above nam’d Dennis Green has been for these five years labouring under a Complaint, occasioned by a Musquet shot (which still remains in his Body) he received at Lexinton N. America, & is so reduced in Body that it does not seem probable he will recover) And will not by Labour be able to Provide a Maintenance for himself.

He was out of the army, but carried with him a token of his first day at war. He was granted a pension.

Either the musket ball in his body was eventually removed, or somehow it did not cause him undue pain, for seven years later, in 1790, he enlisted in the army once again. He joined the 11th Regiment of Foot, was appointed corporal, and served for twenty months before being discharged and put on the pension rolls once again. This time no mention was made of a ball in his body; his discharge indicates that he suffered from "a Colliquative Diarrhea." He signed his name on his discharge, and there is no record of him serving again in the army.

Learn more about grenadiers and light infantry in America!