Tuesday, August 30, 2016
British policy during the third quarter of the eighteenth century was to maintain a small, well-trained professional army during times of peace, which could be augmented and increased rapidly if war demanded it. The war that broke out in America brought just such demands; in the middle of 1775, recognizing that the conflict might become a protracted one and would require significant military force, the British military began the process of military buildup. One of the measures was the authorization of a new regiment, the 71st Regiment of Foot, to consist of two battalions totaling some 2000 men, for service in America as soon as it was up to strength and fit for service.
It would be impossible to raise such a regiment and make it ready for foreign service by relying solely on raw young recruits. But in the highlands of Scotland where the 71st Regiment was raised, there was no shortage of veterans who had been discharged after the previous war that ended in 1763, who were willing and able to return enlist again. One such man was forty-four-year-old Donald McPhee, an illiterate farm laborer from Kilmallie, near Fort William in Inverness Shire.
Born in 1731, McPhee had enlisted in the 88th Regiment of Foot when it was raised in 1760 to fight in the Seven Years War. He went with his regiment to Germany, where a splinter from an exploding mortar bomb wounded him severely in the head. He recovered sufficiently to continue as a soldier until the end of the war, when the regiment was disbanded and he was discharged.
When the 71st Regiment was raised for the American war, the experience of men like McPhee insured that it was ready for service by the summer of 1776. A portion of the regiment was captured at sea near Boston, but the majority served in the campaigns in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1776, 1777 and 1778. No muster rolls have survived for the these years, making it impossible to know specifics of Donald McPhee's service. The next we know about him is that he was at the siege of Charleston, South Carolina in 1780. It was here that he was wounded again, this time in the thigh.
McPhee convalesced for a time, but did not recover sufficiently to return to service. Some time before the war ended, he was discharged and sent home. Although he had a total of only ten years in the army, not a very long career compared to other full-time soldiers, his two wounds made him a likely object for an army pension. He did not, however, avail himself of this prospect by going to London and standing before the pension examining board; instead, he returned to his native Inverness and life as a laborer.
The rigors of his hard life rapidly caught up to him. He was unable to support his wife and six children, and soon became too infirm to work at all. The family was supported by the parish until, in 1791, an army officer who’d served with him in America intervened on his behalf. The officer helped McPhee make a claim for a pension, writing to the pension board “that from the Testimony of several Gentlemen of first veracity & Honor on behalf of the Bearer Donald McPhee, and having a recollection myself of the poor man’s services in America, I am enabled not only to renew his Discharge (on account of his having lost the Original) but to Certify that he has been confined to his Bed and supported by his Parish for some years Past, which prevented his being able to come up in due time to solicit His Majesty’s Bounty of Chelsea Pension.” The deserving veteran, now sixty years old, was added to the pension rolls.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
When Great Britain committed to powerful offensive operations to suppress the American rebellion, among the regiments ordered to America were two composed primarily of Scottish highlanders, the 42nd and 71st Regiments of Foot. The 42nd was part of the regular army, while the 71st was raised specifically for the American war. While most British regiments were composed of men from all over the British isles, the 42nd was composed almost exclusively of highlanders. The 42nd was stationed in Glasgow in late 1775, having recently returned from duty in Ireland. For American service they were authorized a strength nearly twice that of most other British regiments, and set about recruiting at a feverous pace through the closing months of the year.
One of the new recruits was Andrew Elder. He enlisted on 19 September 1775 and was put directly into the regiment's elite light infantry company in spite of being only about twenty years old, somewhat young for a British soldier. The regiment landed on Staten Island in the summer of 1776, and their light infantry was in the thick of fighting in New York and across New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, and again on the campaign that seized Philadelphia later in 1777. Somewhere during the retreat from that city in June of 1778, however, Andrew Elder went missing.
The muster rolls of the 42nd Regiment denote Elder as a prisoner of war, an indication that the circumstances of his disappearance were known. Somewhere along the line, however, Elder managed to outfox his captors. As a fugitive, he convinced people that he was a deserter rather than an escaped prisoner of war, a tactic that would engender trust. By May of 1779 he was staying at the home of Neal McCarty in Sadsbury Township, Pennsylvania, about forty miles west of Philadelphia. From there he ran away, taking enough clothing with him to prompt McCarty to place an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet on 5 June:
Fifty Dollars Reward.
Ran away on the twenty-seventh of May, from the house of the subscriber in Sadsbury township, Chester county, a certain Andrew Elder, who said he deserted from the British army about twelve months ago: He is about twenty three years of age, and about five feet seven inches high, fair complexion, curly hair tied behind; had on an old snuff jacket. He also stole and took with him four good shirts, three pairs of trowsers, a pair of gold knee buckles, one of which he wore in a ribband round his hat. Whoever secures said Elder in any gaol, shall be entitled to the above reward, paid by Neal McCarty.
Elder stayed on the lam for another year before he turned up at the British post of Paulus Hook, on the front lines of British-held territory in Bergen County, New Jersey (today, Jersey City in Hudson County). He had traveled from Lancaster, Pennsylvania with a sutler (a merchant who sold provisions to the army) to the American post a New Bridge on the Hackensack River. Knowing this American post was a key river crossing, Elder carefully observed the condition of the troops there, making particular note of a large artillery park. He then made his way back to his British comrades whom he had left just over two years before. He was sent to British headquarters in New York where he gave an intelligence report, which included news of the battle of Camden in South Carolina:
Andrew Elder of the 42nd Regiment taken in Pensilvania came with a Sutler from Lancaster about four weeks ago, came into Paulers Hook. Washington's Army the other side of New Bridge very ill off for provisions they got five days Meat for Nine days. They have about Thirty Guns Brigaded. 5 eighteen, 2 Six pounders and two Howitzers in the park.
Soldiers not Satisfied they way they are Sold; Gates defeated his escape was with his Aid De Camp and Some Waggoners they rode two Hundred Miles for fear of Being taken up by the Tories. They dislike they French More than they English.
Andrew Elder was sent back to his regiment. During his time as a prisoner, he was administratively transferred out of the light infantry so that that company could be brought up to full strength. He joined his new company, and continued to serve through the end of the war. In late 1783, the 42nd Regiment of Foot, with the now-seasoned veteran Andrew Elder in its ranks, was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Learn more about British soldiers in America!