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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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