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)]

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