Learn more about British soldiers in America
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.
Learn more about British soldiers in America