Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Donald McPherson, 71st Regiment, gets two stabs and a slice

The surgeon looked over Donald McPherson's right arm. It was a bayonet wound, no doubt. There, on McPherson's left arm, was another. As if the two stab wounds weren't enough, McPherson had a saber cut on his head. This man had done some hard, close-quarters fighting.

Donald McPherson hailed from Boleskine Parish, at the southern end of Loch Ness in Invernes Shire. Born in 1746, he took up the trade of tailoring. But in 1775, after war broke out in America, McPherson was one of over two thousand highlanders who answer the call for recruits in a new regiment, the 71st Regiment of Foot, called Fraser's Highlanders after their commanding officer, raised specifically for the North American conflict. McPherson was new to the army, as were many of his comrades, but the enlistees also included many veterans of the previous was that ended in 1763. The regiment was new, but in the ranks there was much military experience.

The 71st, organized into two battalions of ten companies each, with 100 private soldiers in each company, sailed from Scotland in April of 1776. They made for Boston, not knowing that city had been abandoned by the British army. Some of their transports ran afoul of American privateers; about a quarter of the regiment became prisoners of war before even making landfall. The rest of the regiment, including McPherson, put in to Halifax, Nova Scotia, only to find that the army had recently departed from that place. The highlanders finally caught up with the British army on Staten Island, where they landed at the beginning August 1776.

Just three weeks later the army was on the move. Over 20,000 British and German soldiers crossed from Staten Island to Long Island. Several days later, part of the army made a feint towards American lines in Brooklyn while the rest, including the 71st Regiment, made a long nighttime march east, then north, and finally back to the west, around the flank of the American defenses. The Battle of Long Island, or Battle of Brooklyn, began in the morning of 27 August and ended in a total rout of American forces. 

In some places the defenders put up a determined if futile fight. Individual companies of British grenadiers, light infantry and highlanders fell into close combat as they rapidly overtook surprised and retreating Americans. In some places the fighting was hand to hand. Donald McPherson, in the army for less than a year and in his first battle, suffered three wounds, two from bayonets (or perhaps from the same bayonet) and one from a saber.

Careful comparison of British casualty returns to regimental muster rolls reveals something counterintuitive: most wounded British soldiers survived their wounds. McPherson was among those survivors. In spite of receiving three wounds on the same day, he not only recovered, but rejoined his regiment and served for the remainder of the American War. The 71st Regiment suffered many casualties during their seven years in America, but McPherson was among those who returned to his native Scotland at the end of hostilities.

The 71st Regiment was disbanded at the end of the war, it's soldiers sent home and mustered out in Scotland. When war with France was declared in 1793, he returned to soldiering, spending six years in a regiment called the Strathspey Fencibles, a corps that served only within the boundaries of Scotland. He served for the entire six-year existence of that regiment, which was disbanded in 1799.

His military career was not yet finished. After leaving the Fencibles, he joined the Argyleshire Militia as a substitute - that is, serving instead of another man who was obliged to serve. He was finally discharged from that regiment on 1 May 1802 at the age of forty-six, having spend sixteen of those years as a soldier. An army surgeon noted on his discharge that the scars from his wounds were still evident. He was awarded an army pension.

Learn more about British soldiers in America!

[Information in this post is from the discharge of Donald McPherson from the Argyleshire Militia, WO 121/53/289, in the British National Archives, and from general information about the 71st Regiment of Foot]

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Joseph and Mary Whitaker, 17th Regiment of Foot, make their claims

A few miles southwest of Dublin is a village called Kill, in County Kildare. In 1736, Joseph Whitaker was born there. He grew up to pursue the trade of a whitesmith, crafting metal into products with shiny surface finishes. This was a good trade, but for some reason not enough for the young Irishman; at the age of twenty he enlisted in the army.

His skill and education served him well as a professional soldier. After nine years, he was a sergeant, the highest rank that most common soldiers could expect to achieve, and one in which afforded numerous opportunities for earning extra money over and above the base pay. By 1772 he was in the 17th Regiment of Foot, a regiment that had spent ten years in North America, first participating in the sieges of Louisbourg in 1758, Ticonderoga in 1759, Montreal in 1760, then in the West Indies, and on the American frontier during Pontiac's Rebellion. It is not known whether Whitaker was in the 17th during this time, or served in a different regiment before joining the 17th. Whether he had been to America before or not, in late 1775 he embarked with his regiment for Boston to reinforce the British garrison that was besieged there.

The 17th Regiment of Foot disembarked in Boston in December 1776. Joseph Whitaker served in the regiment's grenadier company. Detached from the regiment and joined with other grenadier companies to form a grenadier battalion, Whitaker's company was in the forefront of many of the war's most fierce and famous battles. He came through it all unscathed. And his time in America brought more good fortune to him.

The British grenadier battalions spent most of the second half of the war quartered in the area of New York City. Probably during that time, he met Mary Williams, a widow who had lived in the city "prior to and during the troubles." She ran a business "in the public line" - probably referring to a public house or tavern - and did well enough to purchase property "in her own right for ever." Her holdings amounted to between four and five hundred pounds, a testament to her enterprise. She married Sergeant Whitaker, who by this time may have accumulated a fair amount of cash from his work for the army. In terms of prosperity, their future looked bright.

No amount of marital optimism, however, could overcome the tide of events for the British military and Loyalist citizens in America. By 1783 the war was lost. The army and a large number of inhabitants were forced to abandon the city of New York. Joseph and Mary Whitaker left their property "to the mercy of the rebels," and sailed with the 17th Regiment to Halifax, Nova Scotia. They didn't stay there long. A reduction in forces afforded Sergeant Whitaker the opportunity to be discharged. 

The couple went to England, where Joseph Whitaker went before the army pension examining board at Chelsea, near London, in February 1784, and was awarded a pension. This would afford a modest but sufficient income for them. Mary Whitaker made a claim to have her losses compensated by the British government, but hers was one of thousands of such claims. Whether she ever received any payment is not known.

Information in this installment come from the muster rolls of the 17th Regiment of Foot (WO 12), the army out-pension admission books (WO 116), and Audit Office records (AO 13), all in The National Archives of Great Britain.

Learn more about British Soldiers in the American Revolution