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