Learn more about British soldiers in America
Tuesday, February 16, 2016
The 65th Regiment of Foot had been in North America for seven years when fighting broke out Massachusetts in 1775. Having been overseas for so long, they were due to return to Great Britain. The outbreak of war delayed this, and soldiers of the 65th participated in the opening engagements of the American Revolution. In June of 1776, however, when the British army was reorganizing in Halifax, Nova Scotia for an upcoming campaign, the decision was made to send the regiment home. As was customary, those men who were fit for service were drafted into other regiments remaining in America; by this means, many of the regiment's soldiers went on to fight in most of the major campaigns during the next eight years of war.
Some of the drafts were already veterans of extensive service. John Hall had joined the army in 1755, at the beginning of the Seven Years' War and before the 65th Regiment was created. When the 65th was drafted, he was sent to the 35th Regiment of Foot, a corps that had arrived in Boston just in time to participate in the battle of Bunker Hill. A twenty-year veteran was a valuable asset, and in July Hall was appointed corporal.
A year later, the 35th was among the regiments garrisoning New York City while much of the British army campaigned to seize Philadelphia. Although the regiment was posted in the area of Morrisania, New York, on the fringes of the contested no-mans land in Westchester County, there were still routine and mundane duties to be done. Corporal Hall was assigned to be the orderly for the regiment's tailors, who at that time were busy making woolen leggings in anticipation of colder weather in the coming months.
Regimental tailors could be an unruly bunch, and had a reputation for requiring supervision. Corporal Hall may have resented the regiment's quartermaster for assigning him to the task of overseeing them. On September 9, 1777, Hall went on an errand to procure rum for the tailors, and didn't come back.
Three days later, a Loyalist dragoon was patrolling in the neutral ground, the swath of Westchester County that was not held by either side. He came upon Corporal John Hall, "who told him that he was glad to meet with a friend, as he wanted to go back to the Regiment." Hall then "began to damn the Rebels." The dragoon, who most likely was in either civilian clothing or the green cavalry jacket that was used by both armies, was suspicious. He apparently knew that men attempting to desert were likely to make excuses when caught, and seem abnormally anxious to befriend anyone who caught them in the act. He tried a trick to test the wandering British soldier, telling Hall that he was already among the rebels. Hall replied, "Is it true?" The dragoon responded, "Yes, you may depend it is."
Hall took the bait. When the dragoon said that he was a serjeant, Hall went on a rant: "Give me a musket, and by Jesus I will go with you, damn the Bougers I’ll fight them, the Quarter Master has used me very ill." He did indicate to the dragoon that his anger towards the quartermaster was the sole reason for his desertion, and that he wouldn't have done so otherwise. The dragoon continued the charade in an effort to get more information: If Hall enlisted with the rebels, would he not desert? No, if he did he'd be shot, and would deserve it. Hall said that many others in the 35th Regiment wanted to desert, but stopped short of offering names.
The dragoon brought Hall back to British lines, and he was then taken to the encampment of the 35th Regiment where he was confined. Put on trial for desertion a few weeks later, Corporal Hall offered a defense that was popular and all too plausible: "he went to get some Rum for the Taylors, about an hour before Sun-Sett, and being in liquor, and stupefied with having been drunk for three or four days before, he missed his road on his Return." He plead that he had no intention of deserting, and pointed out that he'd been a soldier for twenty-two years during which service he'd been twice wounded.
Two non-commissioned officers of the 35th Regiment testified to Hall's good character during the time they'd known him. The court may have been predisposed towards lenience, for they did not ask typical questions about whether the defendant had taken clothing with him, attempted to escape, or exhibited any other behavior that suggested he'd planned to abscond. Hall was found guilty, but rather than being shot (as he feared he deserved), he was sentenced to receive eight hundred lashes and to be reduced to the ranks. This was a fairly lenient punishment for the crime, suggesting that the court believed his absence was, in fact, unintended.
Hall served as a private soldier in the 35th Regiment for the next year. In the autumn of 1778 the regiment was sent to the West Indies. A two-year gap in the regiment's muster rolls makes it impossible to determine Hall's fate, as he is not on the rolls prepared in August 1780. With such a long career, he may well have been discharged, but it is also possible that the fortunes of war caught up with him and he succumbed to hostility or disease.
Learn more about British soldiers in America