J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 05, 2018

A Second Look at the Corporal Who Stole a Horse

Last week (and last month) I shared an item from Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer about the Massachusetts Provincial Congress preparing for war. Isaiah Thomas of the Massachusetts Spy declared that story “A d——d lie.”

In the same column Loyalist printer James Rivington shared another story about a British “corporal of the 38th regiment” pretending to desert and making off with a Patriot’s horse, saddle, and clothing. To me that sounded like the plot that the unreliable Samuel Dyer had described to a British admiral back in July 1774; wouldn’t it be awfully risky to put a deserter on horseback and ride him past his own barracks? Yet Isaiah Thomas didn’t have anything to say about that tale.

It turns out Don Hagist, author of
The Revolution’s Last Men and British Soldiers, American War, did have something to say. So here’s his note as a “guest blogger” posting:

I encountered the story of the corporal of the 38th Regiment who stole a horse in an issue of the Hibernian Chronicle dated 23 January 1775, which gave the name of the letter writer, of the corporal, and of a private soldier…
Copy of a letter from Captain Maginis of the 38th regiment in Boston to his brother in Drogheda, dated Dec. 14, 1774.

“…We often see here in the English papers accounts from America, not one of which contain a word of truth; they mention a great deal about the desertion from our troops, some are gone off, but not the tenth part of what they say, for our whole army, consisting of 105 companies, have not lost 120 men, although the people make use of every stratagem to make them desert, and supply them with horses and carriages to go off.

But I believe that will be a good deal stopped by the good behaviour of a young lad, a corporal in my company; he with another of the company went to a public-house, where they met some countrymen, who advised them to desert, and that they would supply them with disguises, that they might escape the easier, whereupon the corporal put on a disguise, stuffed his regimentals into one of the men’s saddle bags, and after settling their expedition, the countryman offered to take the corporal behind him, but he told him he could not ride without stirrups, so he got on the saddle, and took the countryman behind him, and set a galloping towards the nearest barrack, which, when the other observed, he leaped from behind him, and made his escape, swearing he would not wait to be shot, the corporal drove on to his own barrack with the whole prize, and no one dare to own the horse or cloaths; the corporal is thanked by the whole army, and the horse given up to him; there was no horse for the other, or he would have done the same.

The corporal is one Baker, a Yorkshire-man; and the soldier’s name is Drenning a Heart of Steel from the county of Antrim.”
In his blog post on this letter, Don asked, “Is this letter a piece of propaganda fabricated by the publisher or a legitimate record of an event in Boston?” Follow that link to his website to see what Don found in the 38th Regiment’s muster rolls.

Thanks again, Don!

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