In March and April of 1780, there was a string of home invasions and robberies around the villages of Jamaica and Flushing on Long Island, New York. The farming region had been a British army garrison since the autumn of 1776, and was teeming with residents, soldiers, sailors, prisoners of war, refugees, and an assortment of itinerant and displaced people. Crimes were bound to occur in such crowded conditions, with many opportunistic and desperate people, but this early 1780 spree was particularly disturbing. Residents heard a knock on the door in the middle of the night; if they didn’t answer, doors were broken open and men with blackened faces burst in, demanding money, guns, wearing apparel, watches and other valuables. Sometimes they compelled the homeowners to light candles and lead them to goods, other times they forced their victims to cower under bedding while they ransacked the home, threatening to kill those who didn’t comply. Residents were tied up, knocked down, blindfolded, belittled, and overpowered. No one was sure exactly how many perpetrators there were—three, four, five—faces blackened, wrapped in greatcoats, at least one carrying a gun—but they all had the appearance of soldiers, particularly one who wore a light infantry cap.
On May 8 they struck again, for at least the fifth time, at a farmhouse occupied by William Creed and his adult son. In the middle of the night, there was noise as people attempted to enter the front door. Failing to break it open, they went to the kitchen door. Four men, one wielding a musket with fixed bayonet, burst through and rushed on the elder Creed, demanding his watch and purse. After threatening to kill him if he didn’t comply and demanding a candle, they forced him to hide in his bed under his blankets. But there was something the robbers hadn’t counted on. There was another person in the house, Sgt. Donald McCraw of the 42nd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Highlanders, a seasoned veteran soldier wielding a broadsword.
McCraw, from the village of Dunkeld about fifteen miles north of Perth in the middle of Scotland, had enlisted in the regiment in 1756 at the age of twenty-two. Over the next twenty-four years his regiment had been through some scrapes, in particular the disastrous assault on Fort Ticonderoga during the French and Indian War. By the time the 42nd returned to America in 1776, McCraw was a corporal in the regiment’s grenadier company, and within two years was appointed sergeant; detached from the regiment and placed in a grenadier battalion, his company was in the forefront of the difficult and dangerous campaign in New York and New Jersey in 1776 and 1777, battles like Brandywine and Monmouth, and countless actions that were smaller in scale but every bit as harrowing for the individual soldiers. McGraw had also faced the dangers imposed by long sea voyages, harsh wilderness campaigns, and even civil unrest in Ireland.
By 1779, McCraw had contracted an abdominal hernia which limited his ability to march and exercise with the regiment. Instead, he and his wife worked for his commanding officer, Capt. John Peebles, procuring provisions, cooking, handling laundry, and other chores. In December 1779 the grenadier battalion, quartered in Long Island, was ordered to prepare for the expedition to Charleston, South Carolina. Capt. Peebles sent McCraw to Brooklyn to sell a horse, which the sergeant dutifully did, returning with ten guineas (gold coins worth twenty-one shillings, or one pound 1 shilling). When it came time for the battalion to embark, McCraw, his wife and son remained behind in Long Island. He took quarters at the house of William Creed, whose family treated him well enough that he felt a responsibility to protect them. He wasn’t about to let a band of ruffians bring them harm.
The troops of the 42nd Regiment had been issued broadswords, traditional weapons of highland soldiers, but it’s not clear whether they were routinely carried in America. It is clear that McCraw had his, and had it handy. Hearing the commotion, he stormed out of his room sword in hand to confront the invaders. The gunman pushed at McCraw with his bayonet, but the Scotsman parried the thrust with his bare hand; with the other hand he swung his sword at his assailant, then seized the musket. McCraw then turned on another robber who was at the fireplace attempting to light a candle, and ran him through with his sword. The invaders attempted to regroup and seize the elder Creed, but McCraw and the younger Creed rescued him, cutting one on the head in the process, upon which three of the attackers dragged their stabbed comrade out of the house and fled. McCraw received two wounds in the scuffle.
The following morning, McCraw and the younger Creed found a wounded man outside sitting by the well. He had been stabbed, not by McCraw, but by the band of robbers; he had been with them, but when he refused to help break down the Creeds’ door, they ran him through.
They took the wounded man inside, and learned that although he was wearing “a Countrymans Coat,” he was a soldier in the King’s American Regiment, a Loyalist corps composed of men enlisted in America to fight with the British army. They sent word to his regiment and two officers came. To the officers, the soldier confessed having participated in three other robberies, giving the names of several fellow soldiers of his regiment who had been involved including a sergeant and a corporal. Then he died.
The fight with the marauding soldiers was Sergeant McCraw’s last battle. In June, the grenadier battalion returned from South Carolina and encamped on Long Island. In consideration of McCraw’s health issues, Captain Peebles deemed him eligible for discharge, noting in his diary on July 2, “presented Sergt. McCraw to the board of Physicians & got him Invalided he fought well last winter in suppressing a gang of Robbers at Jamaica, he killed one & wounded two, & recd two wounds.” Being invalided meant that McCraw could return to Great Britain and apply for a pension. On July 4 Peebles wrote, “saw Sergt. McCraw & his wife & child told them to get ready to go home in the fleet, & gave the Boy 2 guineas.” The money was quite a generous gesture, over a month’s worth of a sergeant’s shilling-a-day base pay, a tribute to the great esteem the officer had for the long-serving soldier and his family.
Before he sailed, though, McCraw had one more piece of military business to attend. He testified at the court martial of nine King’s American Regiment soldiers implicated in the string of robberies a few months before. Several Jamaica and Flushing residents also testified, the dead man’s confession was read, the court deliberated and announced its verdict: three of the perpetrators were sentenced to death, the others to lashes.
The trial ended on July 22, and the McCraw family sailed from New York soon after. The muster rolls of the 42nd Regiment of Foot indicate that he was discharged on October 1, but this is the date through which he was paid rather than the date that he left the regiment. In typical fashion, he was given several weeks’ pay to subsist him on his journey back to Great Britain. He went before the pension board in Chelsea outside of London on November 10. Forty-six years old, after twenty-four years of service in the 42nd Regiment, the brave veteran of two wars was granted a pension to subsist him for the rest of his days.