Learn more about British soldiers in America
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
Some writers point out that the British army in Boston in 1775 was experienced, a factor which contributed to its performance during the retreat from Concord and the assault on Bunker Hill. Lacking in the assertion is any quantitative information: what portion of the soldiers in Boston had been in the army for a significant length of time? While we don't have a comprehensive answer at this time, we can certainly identify individuals who had decades of military service when hostilities broke out.
Take, for example, Serjeant John Hutton of the 10th Regiment of Foot, a weaver from County Tyrone in Ireland. He had joined the army back in 1745 when he was twenty years old, and was a thirty-year veteran when troops of his regiment marched out to Concord on 19 April 1775. Hutton was probably not on that expedition, not being a member of the regiment's grenadier or light infantry companies. Late in that same year, orders came to send a few experienced officers and soldiers back to Great Britain for recruiting, something that regiments serving overseas typically did anyway but which was now formalized as the army put itself on a war footing. A man like Hutton would have been a likely candidate to go home, but he remained in America instead, soldiering through the regiment's active campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776, 1777 and 1778.
It was in early 1778 that the regiment suffered one of its greatest losses of the war, not of men but of material. The regiment was part of the expedition that seized Philadelphia from American control. For the campaign, much of the "heavy baggage" had been left in New York, things such as spare clothing and equipment that was an impediment to rapid marching. Each regiment leased storage space in a garrison city for things that did not need to be close at hand. Soldiers carried only a few spare shirts and pairs of shoes and stockings in their knapsacks, leaving other clothing accumulated over many years of service behind in the regimental store. Quartermasters lodged spare regimental clothing and camp equipage there. Officers left their elaborate field furniture, useful for standing summer encampments but an unnecessary encumbrance on the march. The instruments of the band of music might be lodged in the store, to be brought out for the social events of winter. When the 10th and other regiments were firmly established in Philadelphia for the winter, they sent to New York for their heavy baggage which was put on board ships for the relatively quick voyage out of New York Harbor and up the Delaware River. But the ship carrying the 10th Regiment's baggage fell into enemy hands, and a huge quantity of goods were lost.
The 10th Regiment of Foot had come to America in 1767, spending seven years in Canada before moving to Boston in 1774. By late 1778, it was time to send the corps home. Following typical practice, the able-bodied private soldiers were transferred into other regiments serving in North America, worn out men were discharged, and the officers and non-commissioned officers were sent home to recruit and train a new cadre of soldiers. Serjeant Hutton, though, did none of these things. He retained his position in the regiment but also remained in North America, working as a jailer in the famous Sugar House prison in New York City. The regiment's muster rolls list him as "on command" for the next several years. A number of American soldiers who spent time under his supervision mentioned his name years later in pension depositions, sometimes favorably, sometimes less so.
When peace negotiations began in 1782, the British army in America began the massive administrative process of ending operations in what had once been thirteen North American colonies. Great numbers of soldiers, dependents and civilians had to be relocated, some to Canada, some to the West Indies, some to Great Britain. Serjeant Hutton decided it was time to retire, but before he did so he submitted a memorial, one of hundreds or thousands that crossed the desks at headquarters in New York, seeking compensation for what he had lost when the regiment's heavy baggage was captured in 1778. He was "bereft of all his Stock," which may have included a considerable amount of clothing and other possessions. The one thing that he explicitly named in the memorial was his life's savings, "three hundred Guineas and upwards," which he had saved "by his frugality & care while in the Service of his King."
A Guinea was a gold coin worth twenty-one shillings, or one pound one shilling. Hutton had saved a considerable sum of money, on the order of seventeen years' worth of a serjeant's base pay of a shilling a day. Such a feat required more than just "frugality & care"; Hutton certainly earned income over and above his base pay. This was a common occurrence for soldiers. Much is made of the scant 8 pence per day that British private soldiers earned, and the many stoppages or withholdings from it that paid for his food, clothing, health care and other things - but the low base pay was intended to be only enough to cover essentials, to insure that the soldier had the very basic things required to live. The army offered myriad opportunities to earn more. Soldiers regularly worked at tasks such as building and maintaining fortifications, roads, barracks and other military facilities, cutting firewood, gathering the hay required for military draft animals, rowing boats to provide ferriage for the army, hauling goods at river portages, and innumerable other tasks. Pay for this work could be substantial, as much as a shilling a day, and that was over and above the base pay that already covered basic needs; in other words, it was all pocket money. Men with skills at a trade such as tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, blacksmithing or others could earn money working for the military; soldiers could also work at trades or labor privately during their free time. A serjeant like Hutton was invariably skilled at writing and had additional opportunities in the army administrative machinery, as well as in overseeing all of those activities at which the private soldiers were earning extra money.
Hutton's work in the New York prison certainly earned him money, so he wasn't destitute from the loss of his savings in 1778. It is clear that he was an enterprising soldier who'd done well in a career that spanned nearly four decades; he must have found work in the army all along the way to have amassed the fortune that was lost to the fortunes of war. In response to his memorial, he was recommended for the "twelve pence list," that is, he was recommended for a pension of twelve pence per day instead of the usual five pence awarded to most pensioners. He returned to Great Britain, and in April 1783 he went before the pension board. He never recovered his savings, but he did have an income for the rest of his life after giving thirty seven years of it to the army.
Learn more about British soldiers in America
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
With surprising frequency, modern writers who discuss military aspects of the American Revolution mention that British soldiers were not trained to aim their muskets when firing upon the enemy. Some writers go so far as to say they were actually trained not to aim. These claims have no basis whatsoever in fact, and yet they are repeated again and again.
The very flimsy foundation for these false assertions seems to be a change in terminology between the manual-of-arms used by the British army, and the one introduced to the American army at Valley Forge by General von Steuben. In the British manual, the command for aiming was called "Present"; the description for this command very explicitly described closing one eye while sighting down the barrel with the other eye. The new American manual used approximately the same description, but changed the name of the command from "Present" to "Take Aim." The change was nothing more than using a different word to describe the same concept; von Steuben may have introduced the new terminology to avoid confusion with an unrelated use of the term "Present" in the British manual. Some modern authors, apparently looking only at the words of command and not the descriptions of what they meant, seem to have interpreted von Steuben's use of the word "aim" as a great innovation rather than a simple one-word replacement, leading to a misconception that British soldiers were (illogically) not even trained to aim their weapons.
For more details on this subject, including discussion of target practice by British soldiers, see my article in the Journal of the American Revolution: http://allthingsliberty.com/2013/08/the-aim-of-british-soldiers/
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Thursday, October 1, 2015
From the first day of hostilities, prisoners of war began to accumulate on both sides. British soldiers on the 19 April 1775 expedition to Concord, Massachusetts, were many miles from their quarters in Boston when the countryside suddenly turned hostile. Not having anticipated this violent turn of events, no provision had been made to transport wounded soldiers back to Boston. Most of those who were not ambulatory were left behind. For the most part, they were well cared for by inhabitants of the communities around Boston. Although it was not at all clear how things would develop during the coming months, the convalescent soldiers were held as prisoners, prisoners of a war that was not yet fully instantiated in the minds of all participants.
Among the wounded British soldiers was a thirty-year-old Scotsman, William McDonald, a grenadier in the 38th Regiment of Foot. A laborer from the town of Abernethy in Morayshire, Scotland, he had joined the army ten years before. At some point during the fighting on 19 April he received a shot through his foot, leaving him immobile and in the care of his captors. Soon after being taken, he was brought together with four other prisoners to a home in the town of Lincoln near Concord. There, representative from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, sought depositions from participants in the fighting that had broken out in Lexington, attempting to prove that British soldiers had fired first. McDonald gave no deposition; being in a grenadier company, he probably didn't witness the initial shots in Lexington which had involved several British light infantry companies. A light infantry soldier of the 52nd Regiment, John Bateman, did write a deposition on 23 April stating that the British had been ordered to fire, and a visitor to the home said that McDonald and three other captives had watched Bateman write his deposition. They corroborated that Bateman had sworn on oath to the truth of it, but they did not themselves give testimonies or even indicate agreement with Bateman.
McDonald's whereabouts for the next ten months are not known. His wound healed. In fact, it healed well enough that he was able to take to his heels, finding a way to escape from his captors and make his way back into besieged Boston. We've found no details of how he accomplished the feat. Getting away from his captors may have been relatively easy, as prisoners were often allowed to take jobs in the region of their captivity and many used this relative freedom as an opportunity to abscond. Getting in to the besieged city, on the other hand, was no easy task, faced with perils by both land and sea. Whatever the means, McDonald was back in Boston by 20 February 1776, when a British officer of the 40th Regiment wrote,
"A grenadier of the 38th regiment, who was wounded and taken prisoner on the 19th of April (the affair at Lexington) has found means to make his escape. He says, there are many friends to Government who would be happy to get under the protection of our troops, but are apprehensive of failing in the attempt."
Although he'd managed to return to service, McDonald's wound caused him trouble. He was removed from the grenadier company in May when the army was preparing for a new campaign in which the grenadiers would take a particularly active role, expected to march for long distances at high speeds. The following February, a year after he's returned to the British army, McDonald was discharged. Because of his disability, and no doubt in consideration of his exertions, he was recommended for a pension. He returned to Great Britain, appeared before the pension board in Chelsea, and received his reward in October 1777.
At only 32 years of age, however, he still had some fight left in him. In the 1790s, a rapid expansion of the British military in response to conflicts in Europe led to the raising of many new corps for local defense. McDonald enlisted in the Strathspey Fencibles, a regiment raised in his native region of Scotland for service only within the confines of that country. He served until the corps was disbanded in 1799, when he returned once again to the pension rolls.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
For a young man with no trade, the small town of Macroom (formerly spelled Macromp) between Cork and Limerick in Ireland may not have had much to offer in terms of exciting careers. Not compared to the army, which held the promise of travel, steady food and pay, clothing, and even a pension to a man who served long and well. Perhaps it was these inducements that led Bryan Sweeny, or McSweeny, to enlist in the 50th Regiment of Foot in 1768. The 50th was rebuilding after a period of service abroad, so soldiering would probably be safe and secure for at least a few years.
At the end of 1772, the 50th left Ireland for Jamaica. This must have been quite a change for Sweeny, abroad for the first time. Five years in the army had served him well enough, however, that he did not succumb to the climate like many soldiers did in the West Indies. The 50th suffered enough that it was considerably under strength when it was ordered to join the army under General Howe in America in 1776. Preparing for a major campaign that would crush rebellion in the colonies, Howe's army consisted of a mix of regiments that had been in America since well before the war and strong, fresh regiments from Great Britain. When the 50th arrived in Staten Island from Jamaica in August, it was apparent that the corps was not in fighting trim. Rather than serve as an entity, they were ordered to transfer all of their able-bodied soldiers into other regiments; unfit men were discharged, and the officers and non-commissioned officers would return home to recruit and train a new body of men.
Among the men still fit for service was Bryan Sweeny. He was drafted into the 22nd Regiment of Foot, a corps that had arrived in Boston the previous year just after the battle of Bunker Hill. Following the usual drafting practice, the soldiers of the 50th continued to wear their old uniforms when they joined their new regiments, for regimental clothing was provided once a year and became the soldier's own personal property; new clothing would arrive in October or November and then be fitted to each man over the winter, to be ready for use in the spring. So it was that Sweeny stepped into the ranks of the 22nd Regiment wearing a coat with black lapels, cuffs and collar, buttons marked with the number 50, and white breeches and waistcoat, instead of the 22nd's uniform featuring buff lapels, cuffs, collar, breeches and waistcoats with appropriately numbered buttons. Sweeny and the fourteen other drafts from the 50th were not the only standouts, however. The 65th Regiment with it's white-trimmed coats was also drafted and contributed a dozen men to the 22nd. In October, a large reinforcement arrived including recruits wearing jackets in lieu of the regimentals they had yet to receive, and volunteers from the 1st Regiment of Foot in England, with their blue-trimmed coats, six of whom joined the 22nd Regiment. Also challenging the 22nd Regiment's clothing situation was the fact that their new clothing for the year had been captured the previous August, leaving the men to serve throughout 1776 in the same clothing they'd worn for the whole of 1775. Before embarking for American in 1775 the 22nd had received 5 drafts each from the 3rd, 11th, 20th, 27th and 62nd Regiments, with their coats trimmed in buff, green, yellow, buff and buff, respectively. It was a hodgepodge of colors, and much of the clothing was badly worn, but that was part of the soldier's life - the pay and pension did not come without risks and challenges.
Things were changing quickly for Sweeny. A new country, a new corps, new comrades, and soon the regiment was thrust into combat. The 22nd was part of the army that crossed from Staten Island to Long Island in the second half of August, barely a week after the 50th Regiment had been drafted; it was then with General Howe's column that made the long flanking march on 27 August that resulted in a rout of rebel forces. Within three weeks, New York City was in British hands. The 22nd Regiment formed part of the garrison of the city, doing routine duties while the rest of the army prepared to continue the campaign. Sweeny got to know his new comrades, many of them also new to the regiment and newer to military life than he. On the night of 30 September-1 October he was part of the provision guard with other soldiers of his brigade, including men from the 22nd, 43rd, 54th and 63rd regiments, spending part of his time posted as a sentry to ward off anyone bent on plundering army provision stores, and part of it in a guard room waiting for any possible alarm. At least, that's what he was supposed to be doing.
Maybe Sweeny was showing a younger soldier some things he had learned about opportunism, or maybe he was simply following some of his other comrades on an illicit foraging expedition to supplement their own provisions. Somehow he and another soldier, James Gardner, who had enlisted in the 22nd Regiment in Ireland in March of 1775, found time and means to be away from their guard detachment. Early in the morning of 1 October a city resident who had an officer quartered in his house heard a commotion in his cellar. It seemed to have been caused by a crowd of men, but by the time he rounded up his servant and the officer to explore the cause, the noise had died down. They found that the outside door to the basement had been broken open. Descending into the basement, which had several chambers, they explored until their lantern cast light on an amusing but incriminating scene: there was Bryan Sweeny and James Gardner,
...one of them hid away behind a Cask of bottled wine, and the other leaning over it, and the Cellar floor very wet, and many empty bottles broke and laying about; Gardiner, he thinks, had a bottle in his hand or between his legs; they were both very drunk, and one was vomiting when they took them... the man with Gardiner was in the uniform of the 50th. Regt.
The officer, servant and homeowner had to drag Sweeny across the cellar floor, through puddles of spilled wine, to extricate him from the cellar. They took the two besotted soldiers to the main guard and informed the officer of the guard that he'd return in the morning to press charges. In the meantime, their absence had been noticed; the corporal of the guard had attempted to find Gardner to post him sentry but could not find him. The mystery of the missing soldier was soon solved; the main guard unaccountably sent the men back to the provision guard, where Gardner went back on duty and was posted sentry, while Sweeny lay on the guard bed and fell sound asleep.
In the morning, the homeowner was astounded to find the men gone from the main guard. He knew, however, where to look for them, as Gardner, either from youthful inexperience or the influence of alcohol, had given his name and his duty assignment the night before. Arriving at the provision guard, the homeowner demanded that the corporal of the guard let him see all of the men on duty. It took a couple of slaps to rouse Sweeny, but finally he stood before the homeowner who could easily identify him. Not only was he wearing a coat of the 50th regiment, but his trousers were still stained with wine. He acknowledged having been taken to the main guard the might before, but not being in the cellar. The homeowner knew Gardner's name, so there was no difficulty in find him. The men were taken back to the main guard for confinement; on the way,
Gardiner walked very peaceably to the Guard and said that he was much ashamed of himself, and that it was Swyney who had brought him into the Scrape, and addressing himself to Swyney, said that he had told him what would happen.
Charges were pressed, and the trial was held on 3 October. There were several witnesses who had seen Sweeny and Gardner in the cellar, and others who had known them to be absent during the night or had seen their condition the following morning. The officer quartered in the house related that
they found two soldiers in an inward Cellar, whom they immediately apprehended; that the two Soldiers were both accoutred and beastly drunk, one of them was sitting with a bottle with the neck broke, between his legs; and there were a great many broken bottles laying about, and a strong smell of wine
The two soldiers did not have much to offer in their own defense. Gardner testified that he had merely gone for a walk during the night because the guardroom was too crowded for him to sleep, and that he had not been in the homeowner's cellar - a thin alibi, given that he'd told his accuser his name when he was first arrested. Sweeny claimed that his trousers were wet from having spilled a canteen of water (he didn't attempt to account for the staining); his face still bore the marks of having been slapped awake. Not surprisingly, the prisoners were found guilty of breaking into the house. Even though it appeared that others may have been involved in the break in, they were the only two who were caught. Each was sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes. We do not know to what extent the sentence was carried out.
Harsh as this punishment was, it did not end Bryan Sweeny's career. He continued with the 22nd Regiment for the remainder of the war, serving in Rhode Island and New York, including some significant fighting. When the war ended he was discharged in America, but rather than return home to seek a pension he immediately enlisted in a regiment bound for Canada, the 54th Regiment of Foot. It bears noting that the 54th had served alongside the 22nd for most of the war, and Sweeny may have developed friendships with men in that regiment; over two dozen discharged soldiers of the 22nd enlisted in the 54th along with Sweeny.
After five years in the 54th Regiment was due to return to Great Britain, but Sweeny was transferred yet again, this time to the 20th Regiment of Foot. It was not until October 1791 that he finally took his discharge from the army in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At the age of 41, he had spent 23 years as a soldier, mostly in North America. He finally returned to Great Britain, where his imperfect service record did not prevent him from receiving a pension; his discharge from the 20th Regiment noted that he was "consumptive & worn out in His Majesty's service."
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Wednesday, June 24, 2015
At a glance, the military career of Richard Brunton looks ordinary enough. Born in 1749, he learned the trade of an engraver in his native Birmingham, a city well known for metal crafting trades. Some time in the early 1770s he left his profession and enlisted the 38th Regiment of Foot. He may have been seeking adventure like so many young men who enlisted, but we can only guess at his motivations. The regiment was in Ireland at the time, but like most regiments it sent recruiting officers to cities like Birmingham where willing young men might be found.
At 6 feet 1 inch tall, Brunton was a good candidate for the regiment's grenadier company, and by the time the regiment embarked for America in 1774 he was in that company. This indicates that he had more than just good stature; grenadiers were chosen for their good discipline and capability as well as for their physique. The army, it seems, was a good career choice for him.
As a soldier in the 38th Regiment's grenadier company, Brunton probably marched out on 19 April 1775 and witnessed the outbreak of hostilities in the American Revolution. He was also likely present at the savage battle of Bunker Hill where many of his comrades fell dead and wounded. His company, formed into a composite battalion with other grenadier companies, were at the forefront of the campaigns of General Howe's army in 1776, 1777 and 1778, including the battles of Brooklyn, Brandywine, Monmouth and many others. There is no evidence that he was on any detached duty, so he must have become a hardened campaigner accustomed to long marches in heat and cold, nights in makeshift shelters or no shelter at all, steadiness in the rapid and irregular warfare that typified these campaigns, and making due for extended periods with minimal food, clothing and comforts.
The spring of 1779 found the British grenadier battalions on Long Island, preparing for another campaign season after wintering in relative comfort. On 30 May they sailed up the Hudson River, part of a large force under General Sir Henry Clinton; on 1 June, while other troops landed at Stony Point on the western bank, the grenadiers and others landed at Verplanks Point on the eastern shore. There they built a camp composed of wigwams made from brush since their tents and other baggage had not yet been sent up the river; they'd used this method of encampment many times in the previous years. They proceeded to secure their position.
Perhaps it was restlessness after a long winter, or the irresistible temptation to explore and exploit the surrounding countryside, or even the need to forage for supplemental provisions, that caused the spate of desertions over the next two weeks. Sixteen men absconded from the 1st Battalion of Grenadiers between 3 and 16 June, and presumably others deserted from other corps on Verplanks Point. It was not until the last two men, comrades of Richard Brunton belonging to the 38th Regiment's grenadier company, were caught, tried and sentenced death that the desertions ended. One of the men was pardoned but the other was hanged as an example for the rest. Another deserter who was taken up by American sentries deposed that men were leaving because of harsh treatment by the battalion's commander, but that treatment could've been in response to the first desertions and other irregularities rather than the cause of them. Regardless, Brunton was not there to see the spectacle of his fellow soldier being executed; he had deserted with seven other men on 6 June.
It may be that Brunton simply wandered off during an opportunistic foraging and plundering adventure, but he may have been acting on long-held intentions to leave the service. Whether or not he had a plan when he deserted, he certainly formulated one quickly. He made his way to Boston and set up shop as an engraver, working with others who he may have met when he was part of the city's garrison in 1774, 1775 and 1776. He married in October 1779, to a woman he may have met during the winter of 1777-1778 in Philadelphia.
Richard Brunton's career in the army seemed unremarkable until he deserted, and his reasons for doing so are not known. His subsequent life was characterized by business failures, displacement, criminal activity and other troubles that may have marred his military life as well. In spite of his difficulties, he made a number of singular contributions to American folk art, significant enough that his life and work has been chronicled in a new book. Soldier, Engraver, Forger-Richard Brunton’s Life on the Fringe in America’s New Republic by Deborah M. Child tells the story of this engraver-turned-soldier who established a place for himself in art history even though he never enjoyed success in his life. It includes illustrations of many of Brunton's engravings, paintings and other works which testify to the man's skill as a craftsman. Had he not deserted from the British army, he probably never would have had cause to pursue his trade and create the works that form his legacy.
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Sunday, May 17, 2015
Studies of the British military in the 1770s and 1780s usually make mention of harsh discipline but fail to point out that harsh measures were reserved for men who required them, not the generality of soldiers. Like most societies, each British regiment was composed largely of dutiful men but included a few difficult ones. An example of the latter was William Coleman, who came to be described by an officer of the 22nd Regiment of Foot as "very incorrigible & such a poor looking soldier at the same time."
Coleman joined the 22nd Regiment in January 1766. We have no information on his early career besides his name on the muster rolls. The first remarkable event that we know of is his desertion on 27 July 1778. The 22nd Regiment was in Rhode Island at the time, and under immediate threat from an approaching French fleet and an American army poised to attack the British garrison. Perhaps Coleman knew of the impending danger, but it is just as likely that he wander off for some other reason. Two weeks after he absconded, French ships surrounded the island and American soldiers descended upon it, forcing the British garrison into defensive lines. A three week siege followed, after which the assailants withdrew.
In the aftermath of the siege, a prisoner exchange was negotiated. A cartel ship from Providence arrived in Newport on 8 September carrying British prisoners including William Coleman. But Coleman had been missing since before the siege, so the British did not consider him an exchanged prisoner. He was brought back to his regiment, placed in confinement, and charged with desertion.
Coleman used an interesting defense, one that had been used frequently by deserters from Boston in 1774, 1775 and 1776. He claimed that, while sleeping in a barn some distance from his regiment's encampment, he had been kidnapped "by some Rebel Privateer's Men." Those men, he claimed, carried him across the bay to East Greenwich and then to Providence. There the American commander ordered him sent back to Rhode Island for exchange as a prisoner of war.
The court was not convinced by this somewhat far-fetched story. Even if it was plausible, the chain of events was started by Coleman being absent when he shouldn't have been, an punishable offense in itself. Because desertion had been a problem in Rhode Island, Coleman's sentence was harsh - the court sentenced him to death.
But he was pardoned, and continued on as a soldier. One would think such a brush with death would change a man's ways, but it was not so with Coleman. On 19 December 1779, shortly after the regiment left Rhode Island and took up quarters in barracks on Long Island, New York, he deserted again. He was posted sentry at seven in the evening, but appeared to be a bit tipsy at the time. When the corporal of the guard made the rounds an hour later, Coleman was gone, having left his firelock and cartridge pouch at his post. Notices were circulated to regiments in the area to be on the lookout for him.
Three days later he wandered into the guard room of the 76th Regiment of Foot, a Scottish regiment quartered in Brooklyn. He was drunk. The Scottish soldiers recognized him, and asked if he was William Coleman of the 22nd Regiment. He said he was. They asked if he intended to return to his regiment. He said he didn't know. They decided to insure that he did, detaining him and returning to the 22nd Regiment the next morning.
Coleman was tried once again for desertion. He said in his defense that he was very much in liquor when posted sentry, but that he had no intention of deserting. The fact that he was still in uniform, including wearing his bayonet, when he showed up at the guard room of the 76th Regiment, supported his claim. He was found guilty once again, and this time sentenced to 800 lashes, a typical punishment for men who left their posts but didn't appear to intend to leave the army altogether.
The extent to which this punishment was inflicted is not known. It was common enough for some portion of a corporal punishment to be remitted, but since this was Coleman's second offense it's likely that he received at least part of it. Regardless, it didn't keep him out of trouble. By September 1780 he was in prison yet again for desertion.
This time a special circumstance worked in his favor. There was a backlog of court cases to be heard, and the army was looking for a way to reduce the case load. The adjutant general asked regimental commanders if some of the men, including Coleman, could be tried by regimental courts instead of general courts, even though their crimes warranted the latter. In response to this, the major commanding the 22nd Regiment at the time requested permission to turn Coleman over to a Loyalist regiment because he was "so very incorrigible & such a poor looking soldier at the same time." The request was granted, and Coleman was discharged from the 22nd Regiment on 13 September 1780.
He was supposed to join the Loyal American Rangers, a Loyalist regiment that was about to be sent to Jamaica, a place where the climate was often fatal to British soldiers. Whether or not he actually joined the regiment has not been determined.
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Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Conventional wisdom holds that British soldiers earn only a meager income, and deductions from their pay for food and clothing left them destitute of any disposable income. While this perspective is based on some truth, it is a highly distorted and incomplete view of the soldier's finances. The 8 pence per day guaranteed to a soldier, from which his food and clothing were purchased through deductions, was indeed a low wage even for the era, but if well-managed it was sufficient. The notion of using this money to pay for food and clothing was no different than the lot of any other profession where workers had to purchase food and clothing; the fact that this budget was managed by the army rather than by the soldier himself was a simple way to insure that the money was, in fact, spent on necessities rather than squandered.
More important, 8 pence a day was a base pay, a minimum, and soldiers enjoyed many opportunities to earn additional money. The army employed soldiers to build roads, fortifications and other infrastructure, work for which soldiers were paid additional wages. Men with skills such as tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry, gunsmithing, baking, and a host of others could work at their trades for the army, in addition to their normal duties as soldiers, and earn extra money for their efforts. Men with free time could even hold part-time jobs outside of the army, as long as those jobs didn't interfere with their military duties in any way.
Another military job available to soldiers was being a servant to an officer. A commissioned regimental officer was entitled to take one servant from among the soldiers in his regiment (the highest ranking officers could have two), provided that the soldier remained fully capable of doing duty in the ranks when necessary. The soldier-servant had a great deal of responsibility, performing not only menial chores like caring for his master's clothing and baggage, but also tasks that required great trust such as shopping and delivering messages. In return for his efforts the soldier enjoyed a measure of relative freedom, heightened responsibility, and sometimes better food and clothing provided by his master. Most important, he received additional pay, more per diem than his base wage as a soldier that already covered his basic necessities, making a lucrative position. A soldier who forged a good relationship with an officer might follow his master through his entire military career and remain in his service after being discharged, insuring a secure living for the rest of his life.
Writings of officers frequently mention servants, occasionally by name, and provide us with anecdotal glimpses into their lives. My book British Soldiers, American War includes a chapter on these men with a detailed study of one of them. Another was George Peacock of the 52nd Regiment of Foot.
Peacock joined the army at an early age, enlisting in 1763 when he was just 16 years old. The soldier from Sutton, Yorkshire spent most of his career with the 52nd Regiment of Foot, but also served for a time in the 78th Regiment. The 78th was disbanded in December 1763, raised and disbanded again during the American Revolution, and raised once more in the 1790s; we do not know whether Peacock served in it briefly at the beginning or at the end of his career.
What we do know is that Peacock was with the 52nd Regiment of Foot while that corps was in Canada in the early 1770s. The 52nd was due to return to Great Britain in 1774, but instead was sent to Boston in response to the mounting tensions there. The regiment served in Boston through March 1776, then in the campaigns around New York city in the second half of that year. By late summer of 1777 they were part of the campaign that captured the city of Philadelphia.
By this time George Peacock was a corporal, and spent some of his time attending to one of the 52nd Regiment's more colorful officers, Lt. Richard St. George Mansergh St. George. Wealthier than most officers, Lt. St. George retained personal servants in addition to a soldier. It is not clear whether Peacock was retained by St. George as a servant per se, or attended him instead as an orderly or in some other capacity. What we know about the relationship was written by a fellow officer, Lt. Martin Hunter, who concluded a long description of one of St. George's private servants with:
On a shot being fired at any of the advanced posts, master and man set off immediately, the master attended by a man of the Company named Peacock, who had been a great deal with the Indians in Canada, and a famous good soldier. I have often been surprised that they were not killed.
The impetuous St. George and "famous good soldier" Peacock almost did meet their demise in the Battle of Germantown outside of Philadelphia in early October 1777. Having secured the city, the British army encamped some distance away in a defensive line covering the most likely approach. The 2nd Battalion of Light Infantry camped in Germantown, along with other elements of the army. A complex surprise attack by an overwhelming force of Washington's army appeared out of the fog on the morning of 4 October and descended upon the British camp. The light infantry battalion formed and fought bravely, but was unable to stand against vastly superior numbers.
The story of the battle is told elsewhere. What matters for this tale is that, as Lt. Hunter wrote, "It was in the first volley that poor St. George was so badly wounded in the head... he was carried off the field by Peacock, who behaved like himself, otherwise St. George must certainly have been taken prisoner.”
Lt. St. George survived the wound and had a metal plate put in his head. Later in the war, when he was promoted to Captain in the 44th Regiment, Corporal Peacock did not follow him but remained with the 52nd Regiment. The grateful St. George asked Lt. Hunter “to take good care of Peacock, and gave him fifty guineas.”
Fifty guineas was about seven years' pay for a private soldier, at the base pay rate of 8 pence per day. As a corporal, Peacock was earning more than that, and probably had additional income from various duties over the years. He probably could have sought his discharge when the regiment returned to Great Britain in late 1778; being only 36 years old, with a nest egg, he was in a good position to go into some other enterprise. But he remained in the army for 21 more years, finally taking his discharge in 1799 at the age of 52, after having served 36 years as a soldier. He received a pension, which probably allowed him to live more comfortably than most when combined with his other earnings if he'd managed his money prudently.
Lt. St. George immortalized Peacock in another way. An avid caricaturist, St. George sketched many scenes during his American service. A few survive, but none are know to depict Peacock. But an artist made an illustration of the Battle of Germantown that is almost certainly based on St. George's work. In the center foreground is a soldier carrying a wounded officer off the field. This is surely a representation of Corporal George Peacock dutifully carrying Lt. Richard St. George, one of the only depictions of a British common soldier to which we can attach a specific individual.