The proceedings of courts martial sometimes reveal eloquent and sophisticated defenses offered by common soldiers. These are not necessarily examples of well-educated men in the ranks; sometimes sympathetic officers assisted in the preparation of the defense. One such defense was offered by John Man of the 64th Regiment of Foot.
Man (or Mann) enlisted in the 64th on 9 February 1768, a year before the regiment sailed for Boston. Like all recruits, he was attested and the articles of war were read to him. He apparently fared well in his early years of service and soon became the trustworthy servant of Ensign William Snowe. While Snowe was in Great Britain on a leave of absence, however, Man deserted. He was absent from the regiment from 5 April until 10 August 1773 when he returned to the regiment on his own volition. For this indiscretion he was tried by a regimental court martial and sentenced to received 600 lashes, but the commanding officer of the regiment pardoned him.
In 1774 Snowe, now a Lieutenant, returned to the regiment in Boston. Whether he learned of Man’s transgression or whether Man simply feared that he would is not clear, but Man indicated that he felt he had dishonored both his master and his sovereign. Driven (as he said) by shame, he collected his pay on 26 July and obtained a pass to go into town. He never returned, and was reported as a deserter on 1 August. It is especially interesting that General Gage had issued a proclamation on 9 July, effective through 10 August, offering free pardon to any deserters who returned during that time; the proclamation, however, clearly stated that it would not apply to men who deserted after the pardon was proclaimed. Man, who was surely aware of the pardon, could not avail himself of it if he chose to return.
On 19 September 1774, about seven weeks after John Man’s desertion from Boston, a sober man calling himself John Simmel enlisted in the 47th Regiment of Foot in New York. The serjeant major of the 47th gave two New York shillings to the new recruit and sent him in the care of a serjeant to be attested before a magistrate. On the way to the magistrate’s offices, however, the recruit stopped the serjeant and said that he would not be attested because he was a deserter from the 64th Regiment. He was brought back to the serjeant major and confined. Soon after, the 47th was ordered to Boston. Transport ships were sent to New York to receive them and they embarked in mid-October, including among their baggage their prisoner, John Man.
When the 47th arrived in Boston, Man was confined, apparently for convenience, in the guard house of the 65th regiment. He wore clothing provided by the 47th. Man was put on trial in Boston on 1 November and charged with desertion, to which he pleaded not guilty. Testimony from two serjeants of the 64th acquainted the court with the circumstances of his enlistment, attestation, remuneration and previous desertion from the 64th, while the two serjeants of the 47th described his attempt to enlist and his subsequent confession. The court was particular to ask whether, at the time of Man’s confession, the 47th had received orders to embark for New York and whether transports had arrived for them. Both men testified that they had not received such orders nor had the transports arrived. This apparently told the court that Man did not give himself up because he knew that he would be discovered upon his arrival in Boston; he must have had a more honorable motive for turning himself in.
When Man was called to defend himself he presented an elegantly phrased defense:
I am exceedingly sorry to be the unhappy Cause of giving you any trouble, Particularly, as I must confess I was always used in the most lenient manner by every Officer, Non- Commissioned Officer and Soldier in the Regiment.
Each time of my Desertion I had such offers & Insinuations from these designing Bostonians and Country people that, deluded by their first making me drink to excess and then conveying me away in an obscure manner, lending & assisting all help and means to forward me from my Regt especially the last time of my Desertion, that I was tempted to do what I have since sincerely repented of as well in respect of my Ingratitude to Lt Snow as the wrong I have done my King. Mr Snow was always an indulgent master to me, & my having deserted the first time on his leave of Absence, from the Insinuations and treachery of wicked people (and to which cause alone, I hope the Honble Court will impune my first Desertion, as it appears from the Evidence on my tryal that I returned of my own accord) and Lt Snow not being with the Regt when I joined, a sense of Shame on hearing he was coming to the Regt for my ingratitude to so kind a Master, with the Allurements of those designing Men, tempted me again to leave my Colours, rather than encounter the displeasure of a Master I had used ill. I beg leave further to assure the Court that having on this last Desertion been carried so far from my Regt by the Treachery of those people, it was Poverty, Want & Hunger made me take for immediate support, the Money offered me to inlist in the 47th Regt and not a Design to cheat my King & Country & which I trust my Instantly giving myself up as a Deserter will in a great measure prove. These, Gentlemen, are the only excuses I have to offer for the great crime I have been guilty of and which I have the greatest detestation and endeavoured to show a thorough conviction of my Guilt when I first appeared before you by openly confessing it.
Shou'd these reasons and my sincere repentance of my crime intercede with the Honble Court to extend their mercy to their Humble Petitioner he will be ever bound to pray for them and will be always ready to sacrifice a Life, which he shall owe to them, against the Enemies of his King and Country.
After this dissertation, Man called two officers of the 64th as character witnesses. Lt. Michael Jacob deposed that, in the year between Man’s two desertions, they had been in the same company and that Man behaved well. Lt. Snowe offered that in the five years he had known Man he had never known him to misbehave (with the exception of the desertions). He added the significant fact that, at the time of his desertion, Man “had the Care” of all of Snowe’s possessions and did not abscond with any of them.
Man’s defense that he had been coerced to desert by Boston citizens was later used by other soldiers, but we don't know if it was truly a common occurrence or if it was instead a popular excuse. The officers on the court may have known of other soldiers who claimed to have been effectively kidnapped rather than deserted. Regardless, the court could not but find Man guilty since he had obviously deserted, no matter the circumstances. The fact that Man had willingly given himself up strongly influenced the court, however, as did the “Exceeding good Character given him by his Officers.” Man was sentenced to receive one thousand lashes in four equal proportions at separate times.
We have no information on to what extent the punishment was carried out. Man continued to serve in the regiment, well enough to be transferred into the light infantry in 1776. He soon became a prisoner of war, but was exchanged in August 1778. Unfortunately, there are no muster rolls for the 64th Regiment for the year 1779, and Man is no longer on the rolls in 1780. We do not know the fate of this interesting soldier.