In today’s trial, see if you agree with the court’s verdict and sentence.
In determining guilt, the court considered several factors: was the man enlisted properly as a soldier in the first place? Had he been paid and provided clothing in accordance with his enlistment contract? Did he have a good reason for his absence?
In sentencing a punishment, the court considered different factors: was the man was absent due to simple misbehavior (such as intoxication), or was he trying to abscond from the army? Did his actions appear premeditated or spontaneous? Did he return voluntarily, or was he caught? If he was caught, did he resist? Were there other mitigating factors? The court had to decide between capital or corporal punishment, so the differences were quite important.
A court that sat in New York in July 1778 heard several cases including that of James White, a soldier who had gone missing from Philadelphia in May after mounting guard.
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James White private soldier in the 7th or Royal Fusileer Regiment of Foot was brought prisoner before the Court, and accused of having deserted from the said Regt & the following Witnesses were examined in support of the accusation vtzt.
Serjeant Andrew Newton of the said Regt being duly sworn, deposed that he knew the Prisoner to have received Pay and Cloathing and to have done duty as a Soldier in the same Company with him; that on the 2d of May last he Mounted, and has never joined the Regt since.
- Did he carry off his Arms and Accoutrements, or his Regimental Cloathing and Necessaries?
- He does not know whether he carried off his Arms but he (the Witness) never saw them again; his Regimental Coat was afterwards found.
William Rosby private soldier in the 7th Regt of Foot being duly sworn deposed that on Wednesday last, upon going into a Tinmans shop, in the City of New York, he was there informed of a Deserter being Harboured, in a house in Town; that he acquainted one of the Officers of the Regt of it, who directed him to take a file of Men to the House of the Man, who was said to Conceal him; that upon Apprehending this Man, and carrying him to the Provost Guard, he told the Witness that if he would release him, he would shew him where the Deserter was Concealed; but the Witness answered that he was not authorized to make such Conditions, that the Man then undertook to shew him where the Deserter, who proved to be the Prisoner, and whom the Witness knew to have served in the 7th Regt.
The Prisoner being put upon his Defence, acknowledged his having Deserted, but that he did not carry off either his Arms or his Regimental Cloathing; that hearing of some Family Affairs in England, which had given him great uneasiness, & which induced him to wish to be there, and being encouraged in his scheme of going off by a tinman at Philadelphia, with whom he worked by Permission of his Captain, he was led to disguise himself, and came round to New York in the Fleet in hopes of getting a passage to England, but finding no opportunity after he arrived there, he had several times an Inclination to have surrendered himself up to his Regt. but he met with such remarkable encouragement to Work, that he could not bring himself to it.
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If you were a member of the court, would you find White guilty of desertion? He did admit to it, but he had a compelling reason. Was concern about his family enough of an excuse? Was the allure of working at his trade sufficient cause for not returning to the army? How harsh a punishment should he receive?
“The Court having considered the Evidence against the Prisoner James White, together with what he had to Offer in his Defence, is of opinion that he is Guilty of the Crime laid to his Charge & doth therefore Adjudge him the said James White to receive One Thousand Lashes on his bare back with Cats of Nine Tails.”
Given the circumstances, the court was lenient. There was no question of James White’s guilt, so the only point to debate was whether corporal or capital punishment was warranted. White had broken his enlistment contract, taken a different job, disguised himself, and made no effort to return. On the other hand, he had at least remained within British lines. There is no record of whether White received the punishment that the court sentenced. He was discharged in November 1778, just months after the trial; his officers may have shown him mercy and allowed him to go home, or he may have been rendered infirm by a harsh punishment.
Trial of James White, WO 71/86, 206-208, National Archives of Great Britain.