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Proceed, Sergeant Lamb, Page 2

Robert Graves

  One sentry, a Select-man (or church-elder) of Cambridge, held me up for three days in succession. On the third day I said to him: ‘Surely, my friend, we need not run through that long rigmarole yet again?’

  ‘I thot I told you to halt!’ he drawled, presenting his piece at my breast. ‘I swear now, if you attempt to pass, I’ll blow you to pieces with my blazing-iron. I do not know you from Adam, you rascal.’

  Now supervened a laughable yet somewhat disgusting incident which has been recounted by Lieutenant Anburey in phrases which I could not better for delicacy. A soldier’s wife of the tough breed, who had followed the drum for thirty years, and could carry burdens like an ox, cook like a witch, forage like a Hessian, and outswear Mortal Harry himself at his prime, came bustling out from the camp, a short clay pipe in her mouth, and a dirty pass in her hand. Long Winifried was her name and some years before she had borne without flinching a sentence of one hundred lashes laid on her bare back: for the crime of stealing the Town Bull of Boston, slaughtering him and hacking him into beefsteaks. Long Winifried waved the paper in the old Select-man’s face and was for passing on. He flew into a passion and called on her to halt, or he would fire. She turned back and gave him Billingsgate oratory in a scorching flood, to the effect that she was hastening to buy a little milk for her sick grandchild and he would cut his pranks at his own peril—she would not be halted. As the Lieutenant writes: ‘When the old man was so irritated as to present his firelock, the woman immediately ran up, snatched it from him, knocked him down and, striding over the prostrate hero in the exultation of triumph, profusely besprinkled him not with Olympian dew but, ’faith, with something more natural. Nor did she quit her post till a file of sturdy ragamuffins marched valiantly to his relief, dispossessed the Amazon and enabled the knight of the grisly caxon to look fierce and reshoulder his musket.’ But, for myself, I did not wait for this concluding scene, hurriedly snatching up my fallen pass and running away down the path, lest I be cited as an accessory after the fact.

  On the morning of December 13th, I went out from the camp to Cambridge, which lay two miles off, in order to attend upon Lieut.-Colonel Hill. He was sick and had desired me to come and bleed him. The sentinel that day was a young sickly boy who gave me no difficulty at the gate, and I therefore looked forward to a pleasant excursion, it being a clear Sunday morning, with the church bells pealing and the sun shining brilliantly across the thin snow.

  I had crossed Willis Creek and nearly reached the Colonel’s house at the outskirts of Cambridge, when I was stopped by my enemy, ‘the knight of the grisly caxon’, but in his quality not of sentinel but of Select-man. He informed me that I was contravening three of the oldest and most venerated laws in the province at one and the same time: the first, by carrying a bundle upon the Sabbath Day—for I had in my hand a little canvas case containing cupping instruments; the second, by being seen in the streets during the hour of Divine Service; and the third, by proceeding along a road for more than the Sabbath Day’s journey allowed to the Jews by the prophet Moses.

  I pleaded that I was going upon an errand of mercy and obeying the orders of my superior officer; but he was very fierce and would not listen to me. He confined me instantly to a dungeon in the town jail, which was dark, empty and very cold, and kept me there upon bread and water until the next day; drily remarking, as the key was turned upon me, that I was but a young bear with all my troubles before me. Two small doors with double locks and bolts shut me from the exercise yard; two small windows, strong grated with iron, introduced a gloomy light to the apartment and were without a single pane of glass. I slept upon a little damp straw. In this place I was kept for two days and nights, without even being able to go outside for the necessities of nature; but must add my sum to the noisome litter deposited in the corner by previous malefactors. Nor was I permitted to send a message to my commanding officer, explaining why I had not waited upon him; no, they marched me back to the Camp, where they cast me into the prison-hut, next the guard-room, where our people were confined for slight or imagined faults by the American guards, without prior reference to our own officers. This prison-hut was a worse place than the Cambridge jail, being very damp and verminous, but at least I had company. The first to greet me there was Terry Reeves, who had been arrested in my absence. He asked me with surprise what brought me into confinement; and indeed it was the first time in my whole service that I had found myself in that disgrace. ‘The Book of Deuteronomy, I believe,’ I said. ‘And what brought you here?’

  ‘Tobacco-juice,’ he answered with equal brevity, and told me his story. He had been suffering greatly of a toothache and the only relief he could find was in rum, of which he drank above a pint upon an empty stomach. As he was walking from his hut to the guard-room, where he was about to put in a report on men fallen sick, he saw a person approach him dressed in a rough frieze overcoat with a woollen cap upon his head. This person, who was chewing tobacco, squirted the juice from the corner of his mouth across Terry’s path, wetting his boot. Terry cried in vexation: ‘Hold hard and keep your yellow spittle off my feet, damn you!’ The man replied: ‘I squirt where I please, you scoundrel. I am a major in the Massachusetts service.’

  To which Terry made answer: ‘If that be so, which I doubt, you are no credit to the Provincial service. To spit on a soldier’s boot is a beastly habit in an officer.’ Whereupon the officer arrested Terry.

  Corporal Buchanan was also confined. His charge was: ‘being found in possession of a spade, knowing it to be stolen from the guard.’

  The Commandant of the Camp, this Colonel David Henley, was a very drunken, passionate person, and the author of most of our troubles, by inflaming his subordinates to cruel treatment of us. On the day after I was confined in this prison-hut, a number of quartermaster-sergeants attended the Deputy-Adjutant-General’s office for the monthly renewal of their passes. He railed at them all for the disorderly noise which, so the guards informed him, had arisen on the previous night from the huts. Sergeant Fleming of The Forty-Seventh stating, as an excuse, that none of us had been able to sleep because of the cold—which was very true—Colonel Henley clenched his fist and shook it at the Sergeant crying: ‘You rascals, I’ll make damnation fly out of ye. For I will myself one of these nights go the rounds and if I hear the least word or noise in your barracks, I’ll pour shot amongst ye and make flames of Hell leap out of ye and turn your barracks inside out. Moreover, my merry men, the sentinels inform me that when they stop ye for your passes, you look sulky at ’em. Were I a sentinel, and you did so to me, I would blow your brains out, aye, were you Whaley, Goffe or the Devil himself.’2

  Three days later this Colonel Henley came on horseback with some other militia officers to release several of us who were prisoners, in order to make room for others, the prison-hut being overcrowded. He called us out in order of rank, myself first, then the two corporals. Having read out our crimes he made many very scurrilous remarks to the three of us, which I heard with indifference, Corporal Buchanan with feigned awe, but Terry Reeves with indignation. Finally he told us that the Ninth Regiment gave more trouble than any other corps. Terry Reeves, who could never hold his tongue, then remarked archly: ‘I believe, Sir, that General Schuyler and General Gates were both of your opinion during the last campaign.’

  Colonel Henley, feeling his dignity challenged, grew very angry, and began to thunder at Terry.

  Says he: ‘You hired cut-throat, how dare you insult a Provincial officer, as you insulted Major McKissock yesterday? Do you venture to tell your British majors that they are a discredit to their service?’

  ‘No, sir,’ replied Terry unabashed, ‘for I tell no lies.’

  This was as much of the conversation as I heard, for Colonel Henley catching a smile as it stole across my face, ordered me back to close confinement.

  I am informed that, after I had gone, Terry continued: ‘However, Sir, I am sorry if I insulted the Major; but I could not have known him to be of field rank becaus
e of his civilian dress and his unofficerlike habit of chewing and spitting. I own that I was in liquor, owing to a toothache, and therefore I am ready to beg his pardon if I seemed disrespectful in manner.’

  Colonel Henley in a rage: ‘By God, Sir, had it been me you served so, I would have run you through the body. You’re a great rascal, I guess.’

  Terry Reeves remained undaunted. He replied: ‘Sir, I am no rascal, but a good soldier, and my officers know it.’

  ‘Silence, you coward Englishman!’ cried Colonel Henley. Another officer, Major Sweasey, called Terry a rascal and raised a whip to strike him.

  But Terry Reeves would not be silenced. ‘I am no coward, Colonel Henley, and I will not be so abused by you. If I had arms and ammunition I should soon be with General Howe, fighting for my King and Country.’

  ‘Damn your King and Country! When you had arms, you were willing enough to lay them down,’ was Colonel Henley’s strange rejoinder.

  Terry Reeves cried: ‘Sir, I tell you, I will not hear my King abused.’

  Colonel Henley again called him to silence, and then Corporal Buchanan must put in his oar with: ‘Hold your tongue, Corporal Reeves, when the officer bids you.’

  Terry in disgust turned on Corporal Buchanan: ‘Damn you, you fawning fellow, why don’t you stick up for your King and Country?’

  ‘Be silent, Terry, or you’ll be getting us all into trouble,’ muttered Buchanan.

  Terry would not be silent. ‘God damn them all,’ he cried in a loud voice. ‘I’ll stand by my King till I die.’

  Colonel Henley in great scorn: ‘This is a free country, rascal. We acknowledge no Kings here.’

  ‘No, I believe not,’ said Terry, ‘or none but King Hancock.’

  This excited a laugh among the grandchildren on guard, which so infuriated the Colonel that he cried to them: ‘Silence, boys, and let one of you run him through for a scoundrel!’

  None of them stirred, for in America there is a tribute of respect always paid to a ready tongue, and they reckoned that Terry Reeves should not be murdered for his.

  Colonel Henley then leaping off his horse, seized a firelock with a fixed bayonet from one of the lads, and ran at Terry. Terry leapt back a pace, so that the steel did no more than prick him in the left breast.

  Colonel Henley white with passion: ‘Another word, and I’ll drive it through your body.’

  ‘I don’t care,’ cried brave Terry. ‘For I’ll stand by King and Country till I die.’

  The Colonel made another push at Terry’s heart with the bayonet; but Smutchy Steel, who was one of the new prisoners waiting for accommodation in the hut, leaped forward to the rescue, calling to Buchanan to do the same. The two of them knocked up the firelock, and the bayonet passed harmlessly over Terry’s shoulder.

  Thereupon an ancient corporal of the guard drawlingly interposed, saying to the Colonel: ‘No, I swear, Neighbour Henley, you shan’t kill this man, for he was committed to my charge by Major McKissock whom he insulted. You may do as you like with the other rogues, but this Corporal Reeves is my prisoner and I’m answerable for him to Major McKissock, who’s my own company officer.’

  Major Sweasey then dismounted and besought Colonel Henley to return Terry to the prison-hut; in which plea he was seconded by another officer present. Colonel Henley at last consented.

  Terry was brought back into the hut, bleeding profusely from an upward stab three inches long. He exclaimed still in unquenched indignation: ‘Damn them all, I’ll never allow my King to be abused while I live!’ I was fast by the legs, but he came to me and I could dress his wound with the bandages which I carried in my canvas case.


  The cruel excesses of an individual such as Colonel Henley, and their effect upon several of his subordinates, cannot be enlarged into an indictment of the whole American nation, and I may here note that in time of war the greatest magnanimity towards the enemy seems always to be shown by the troops most directly engaged in the fighting, whereas the meanest and most inhumane feelings prevail in the bases and camps far remote from the hostile scene. Nor would I disguise from my readers that at New York, where the prisoners taken from the Americans were confined in hulks in the harbour, the treatment that they received, it is said, greatly exceeded in malignity what we were now experiencing. It should be observed that the Commissary of Prisoners was an American Tory, as were most of the prison-guards, and these revenged themselves for past injuries upon their unfortunate fellow-countrymen. Nevertheless, the negligence of the high British officers responsible for the well-being of these prisoners cannot escape censure; and the Provost-Marshal, Major Cunningham, a beast in human form, was (I regret to record) an Irishman. When charity supplied a vessel of broth to his starving captives, he would divert himself by kicking it over, and watching the poor creatures lap the liquor from the foul floor with their tongues. The rulers of Massachusetts when they learned of the barbarities which had been done on the hulks, and at Major Cunningham’s jail in Walnut Street, New York, naturally retaliated upon us.

  I will not therefore enlarge at inordinate length upon our sufferings at Colonel Henley’s hands, merely relating an incident that occurred early in the new year of 1778, while a number of our people, myself among them, were watching a parade of the American militia. Their unhandiness with arms was the subject of a silent merriment among such veteran spectators as ourselves, though we contrived to keep straight faces. Colonel Henley, who commanded the parade, became aware of our close interest and shouted: ‘Off, you rascals, and clear the parade; or it will be the worse for you.’

  We immediately turned about and began to pick our way carefully through the mud, those of us who were behind waiting for the rest of the crowd to get clear before following them. ‘Damn you,’ cried Colonel Henley, ‘I’ll make you mend your pace!’

  At that moment, Corporal Buchanan, looking over his shoulder, saw the militia soldier who was performing the manual exercise as fugleman to the rest, by a maladroit movement drop his musket to the ground. Buchanan could not restrain his mirth, but gave way to a roaring laugh. Colonel Henley, setting spurs to his horse, ran at him with his sword. Buchanan avoided the thrust and made good his escape, but the sword wounded in the left side a corporal of another regiment. Colonel Henley then rode back to his men. He was straightening, as he went, the sword which, being of inferior make, had bent nearly double against the corporal’s ribs. He then ordered his men to load and come back with him to hunt Buchanan down and blaze at him when found. Though unarmed ourselves, we all felt ourselves in honour bound to protect our comrade from death, and shouted to the Colonel that he would only catch his man by a general massacre of us all.

  Colonel Henley had already given the first order for a volley in our midst; but Major Sweasey, who then fortunately appeared, implored him to desist. The Major proposed instead that the British officer in command of our huts be asked to arrest Buchanan and confine him for trial. Colonel Henley unwillingly consented, and we dispersed.

  In the end Buchanan was given up as a prisoner and sentenced to a few days’ imprisonment for disrespect.

  When, however, two more of our soldiers were wounded by the instigation of Colonel Henley, separately, on a single day, General Burgoyne demanded a special court-martial of this infamous person. The plea was granted and he himself acted as prosecutor, speaking very eloquently and sharply and calling the Americans to a reminder of that due sense of the rights of mankind that they had expressed so ably in their Declaration of Independence. Yet it will readily be imagined that Colonel Henley was acquitted of the four crimes charged against him, the court being composed of his associates, and the evidence of the militiamen (who had been well rehearsed beforehand) being preferred to that of British eye-witnesses. It was alleged in his defence that we had daily and hourly offered insult and insolence to our guards, and to the Colonel himself by our resolution to protect Buchanan; and that the Colonel was a warm-blooded but benevolent officer animated only by a des
ire to protect his country from affront. The perjury was unashamed. Terry Reeves’ rejoinder on the subject of King Hancock was distorted into the absurd statement: ‘King Hancock is come to Town. Don’t you think him a saucy fellow for coming so near to General Burgoyne?’

  General Burgoyne’s prosecution of this American colonel was much spoken of, and that the verdict was an acquittal was used against him by Americans and by his enemies at home as putting him in the light of a mischief-maker. Yet we soldiers loved him for his warm championship of our cause, and his action was on the whole successful: for though Colonel Henley ‘for public honour’ was formally reinstated in his command after the trial, he was removed a week later, and a more humane colonel named Lee replaced him. Colonel Lee did away with one great evil: he granted our people passes for the purchase of provisions, so that the extravagant price of commodities at the two stores on the hill dropped down to the market rate.

  On January 10th, two days after this incident upon the parade ground, I walked over to Charlestown Neck to make a few small purchases from the farmers in the neighbourhood of the burned village of Charlestown. Terry Reeves, who had recovered of his stabbing wound, had been chosen to act quartermaster-sergeant of The Ninth and provided with a pass to accompany me.

  I said to him: ‘Let us now pass over Bunker’s Hill and Breed’s Hill and see how the battle went.’ This we did, and we were resting in the ruined redoubt which had been the scene of the fiercest fighting in this battle when we heard footsteps approach. Looking over the parapet, we found ourselves confronted with a person whose disagreeable aspect will by this time be so familiar to readers of my former volume that I will spare them a fresh account of it, as being unchanged. It was, let me ask them to believe, once more the Reverend John Martin, but this time dressed as an American Congregational minister.