Three pounds was a lot money for a working man in Scotland in the mid-1770s. More than two months’ pay for a laborer, it was. What better enticement for men from the highlands of Scotland to flock to recruiting officers raising a new corps, the 71st Regiment of Foot, in late 1775 and early 1776? The fact that it was established specifically for the war that had just broken out in America may have given some potential recruits pause, but there was another incentive besides the three-pound enlistment bounty: men who enlisted after December 16, 1775 could remain in the army only until the end of the war (as long as they had served for at least three years), and upon discharge could claim a land grant of 100 acres in America. For tenant farmers and laborers, this was an outstanding opportunity to have a farm of their own, albeit on another continent.
Some 2,000 men were drawn to this new regiment, a mix of new recruits and men with military experience from previous wars. Among them was Duncan Robertson (or Robinson), who, from the time he enlisted in early 1776, “always did his Duty and was an obedient soldier.”
The 71st Regiment arrived in America in August 1776, landing on Staten Island to join the army there under Gen. William Howe. They participated in the campaign that drove rebel forces out of New York and New Jersey in 1776, distinguishing themselves particularly at the storming of Fort Washington in November, before spending a miserable winter and spring quartered in New Jersey, frequently harassed by marauding rebel militia. When Howe’s army started a new campaign to capture Philadelphia, the 71st was among the troops that landed at Head of Elk, Maryland, on August 25, 1777, where they spent several “uncomfortable nights in Wigwams, drenched to the skin by those torrents of rain common in this Southern Climate.”
The army immediately rounded up cattle from the region, which would be of utmost importance in keeping soldiers fed during the ensuing campaign. The cattle collected by the 71st was guarded by a contingent that included Duncan Robertson, but some nonetheless got loose at ten o’clock on the dark, rainy night of August 26. The corporal of the guard sent Robinson and some others out to search for the lost beeves, and the men themselves found it difficult to search in the dark, unfamiliar country. Some returned after an hour or two, others did not find their way back until daylight. When roll was called, Robertson was missing.
The next day two British light infantry soldiers on patrol three miles beyond the army’s lines came upon a weary Scotsman “laying in a wood upon his Blanket” with his shoes off. They asked what he was doing there, and he responded that he had gotten lost while searching for missing bullocks; “his feet were sore, and he had sat down to rest himself.” The man “complained of being very much fatigued,” and, since his shoes were off, the soldiers “saw his foot and found it to be sore.” The man offered no resistance, and the soldiers took him to their encampment where he was confined on suspicion of attempting to desert.
On August 30 a general court martial tried several men for straying beyond the outposts, plundering, and other crimes. Duncan Robertson, the man found lying in the woods, was tried with desertion. Two fellow soldiers testified that he had been properly enlisted and paid as a soldier. The two men who found him explained the circumstances, both giving the same account and asserting that he had not attempted to escape. Robertson called on the corporal of the guard to confirm that he had sent Robertson out to search for cattle; the corporal added that Robertson was “a quiet good Soldier, always ready and willing to do his duty; but not so sharp as he should be.”
Robertson called on forty-eight-year-old Sergeant Colin Gillies, a thirty-year veteran who had known Robertson since his enlistment. Gillies told the court that Robertson “has always behaved soberly and honestly; but upon being vexed, he takes fits of dulness and stupidity.” In his own defense, Robertson told the court that “he had no intention of deserting, but that being fatigued and his feet sore and blistered with wandering about all night in search of the Cattle, and having lost his way he knew not by which road to return and therefore waited to follow any Soldier he should happen to fall in with.”
This was enough to convince the court that Robertson was innocent. He returned to his regiment and remained off the historical record throughout the British occupation of Philadelphia and the army’s retreat from that city to New York in 1778. In July the 71st Regiment was at Kingsbridge, the important post at the northern end of New York Island (Manhattan). On July 30 Robertson went on duty as part of the quarter guard, a contingent that supplied sentries at key locations. This meant spending twenty-four hours alternating between resting and standing two-hour sentry shifts. He was posted at 8 o’clock in the evening and relieved at 10. At 2 o’clock in the morning of July 31 it was his turn to be posted again. The sergeant of the guard found his blanket, his musket and his cartridge box, but Robertson was nowhere to be found.
After daylight that morning a patrol of the Queen’s Rangers came upon Robertson about five miles beyond the outposts, walking toward enemy lines. With a down-cast look, Robertson told the Rangers that he intended to go to a house nearby and no farther. They nonetheless took him up and carried him to another building where they posted a sentry to watch him. Robertson ran off but was soon overtaken again. This time, Robertson “acknowledged that he was a deserter and beg’d that they would rather kill him than carry him back to the Regiment as he knew that he would Suffer Death.”
Within a few days Robertson was once again on trial for desertion. Witnesses described his being absent when he was to be posted sentry, being taken up on the road, and his attempt to flee. In his defense, Robertson echoed statements made at his previous trial—he told the court that:
he was frequently attacked with fits of Stupidity, in which he did not know what he did, as many who knew him before and since he came into the Service could testify; and that when he was apprehended by the Rangers, and found where he had got to, he was alarmed at the consequences; that he did not run from the Sentry, nor acknowledge who he was, but said that he was going to a house to get some Greens.
The sergeant of the guard from which he absconded acknowledged that Robertson was “subject at times to Fits of Stupidity and Idiotism” to the point of being “sometimes so much so, as to be totally ignorant of what passes.” He informed the court that Robertson was in general “always a good man” who never expressed any dislike for the service, and in fact, “He usually on Guard was very merry Singing and telling Stories,” but on the day he absconded, “he was Sullen, and did not say a word.” Sergeant Gillies testified that Robertson “had at different times fits of Stupidity, so as not to be able to give a rational answer, but he always did his Duty and was an obedient Soldier.” When the court asked Gillies if he would have posted Robertson as sentry when he was suffering from one of these fits, Gillies replied that “He certainly would not.”
Robertson was right when he said he “feared that he would suffer death”—desertion was a capital offense. Concerns about Robertson’s fits of stupidity were not enough for the court to overlook the facts that he had disappeared while on duty, was headed towards enemy lines when found, and called himself a deserter when he tried to escape his guard. The court found him guilty. But a guilty verdict did not guarantee a death sentence; as was often the case, the court opted for corporal punishment, sentencing Robertson to “receive one thousand lashes on his bare back with cats of nine tails.”
Incomplete muster rolls make it impossible to know what became of Robertson. Harsh though 1,000 lashes was—usually administered 250 at a time, with a period of recover in between—most recipients survived, although some were subsequently discharged for being no longer fit for service. Often sentences were reduced, sometimes pardoned altogether. And the 71st Regiment saw much combat after this, resulting in many deaths, desertions, and prisoners of war who never returned. The fate of this obedient soldier who sometimes suffered fits of stupidity may never be known.
There were several men named Duncan Robertson in the 71st Regiment; only one served in the same company as Sergeant Gillies, who testified that Robertson had been in the same company with him from the time he enlisted through his second trial in 1778. Muster rolls, 71st Regiment of Foot, WO 12/7847, TNA.
For more on corporal punishment in the British army, and survivability of it, see Don N. Hagist, Noble Volunteers: the British Soldiers who fought the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2020), 54-56.