"A few years ago our Sol Feinstone Scholar, Will Tatum, traveled to England to investigate several collections of documents in the British archives containing various military court trials during the latter half of the Eighteen Century. Will took hundreds of photographs of each page of each record in the collection and then compiled the files into JPEG images. My job, in what he referred to as the “Courts Martial Project,” was to go through as much of the pictures as I could and organize the necessary information into a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet to be used as a guide for the Library."
"I find these trials interesting, but from time to time a particular trial stands out and decisively makes a great story. After having some difficulty attempting to select my most intriguing court case, I finally settled with the 1755 Trial of Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh in Oswego, New York."
For more, read below the fold.
The vast majority of the military cases of the British Army pertained to its enlisted men stationed throughout the colonies in North America, the British Isles, and other parts of Europe. The type of Courts used, the trial, the setting of the trial, and the proceedings of the trial, were all recorded and organized. The trial proceedings were divided into sections, with each section representing a particular court at a certain setting in place and time. The written proceedings began by explaining where and when the following set of trials were held as well as recording the orders of the commanding general or the King for holding the court. Next came a list of names of the officers, along with their ranks, who appeared as members of the Court. These men ranged in rank from Ensign up to Captain. At the top of the list was the Presiding Officer of the Court, who was usually a Major or Lieutenant Colonel. The Deputy Judge Advocate, who served as the chief legal officer, prosecuted on the Crown’s behalf, and recorded the trial proceedings, appeared at the bottom of the list. The details of the trial commenced with a statement of the defendant’s name and crime, followed by the testimony of witnesses supporting the prosecution and the defense. After a closing statement by the defendant, the Court would briefly state their verdict and the sentence proposed. If a certain Court tried multiple cases in one day, the next few trials would be recorded in the same section. Before a new section would begin, several copies of letters from the Judge Advocate General in London or his local deputy to the President of the Court or the Deputy Judge Advocate would discuss the results of the cases and either confirm or alter the sentences of the convicted defendants, or issue pardons to particular persons to have their name cleared.
Looking at the cases I have read through and taken data from, I can easily tell that most of the trials involved a British soldier who deserted from his unit while under the influence of alcohol and was then captured by a search party. These trials were short: the witnesses were limited to the prosecution’s side only, usually featuring a sergeant who explained that the defendant missed a roll call, and the defendant generally confessed to desertion. Depending on the court, the offending soldier was either sentenced to be lashed with a cat of nine tails or to death. I find these trials interesting, but from time to time a particular trial stands out and decisively makes a great story. After having some difficulty attempting to select my most intriguing court case, I finally settled with the 1755 Trial of Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh in Oswego, New York.
On occasion, courts would put multiple soldiers on trial at the same time if they were all believed to be involved in the same crime. In this case, Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh, both enlisted men of Major General Shirley’s Regiment accused of “uttering words tending to mutiny,” were tried together. A contingent of Major General Shirley’s Regiment was traveling onboard a Royal Navy sloop from Providence, Rhode Island up the Hudson River to Albany, New York, sometime before the August 21, 1755. It is clear from the various testimonies that Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh were acquainting themselves with an Italian sailor onboard by the name of John Julian. All three men were evidently under the influence of alcohol, singing songs in Italian. From several eyewitnesses, these actions were interpreted as calls for mutiny on the ship.
The witness testimony began with a fellow soldier of Major General Shirley’s Regiment, Marlow Kimber, explaining under oath that he witnessed Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh speaking in some unidentifiable language with the Italian sailor John Julian. Marlow Kimber claims he saw Francis McManus take beads from John Julian; the beads being the Rosary. Kimber insists that he watched McManus kiss the beads before crossing himself, suggesting he was a Catholic, which was an offense against the Mutiny Act’s ban of Catholics from serving in the British Army. Another witness for the prosecution was Sailor James Williams, who was present onboard the sloop at the time of this incident,. Williams confirmed that he witnessed the three men drinking and that John Julian gave Francis McManus the beads, who in turn kissed them and then crossed himself. He also heard the three men drink to the good health of the King of France.
The defendants Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh called upon two more witnesses in their defensive to confirm their now challenged loyalty to the British Crown and people. Another soldier of Major General Shirley’s Regiment, Dennis Delaney, gave his interpretation of witnessing the described events, which worked in favor of the defense. Delaney argues that although all three men were drinking, they did not “make use of no treasonable expressions.” Delaney even insists that John Julian had offered to give his beads to Francis McManus, but was denied instead. The last witness for the defense was not someone who was present onboard the Albany-bound sloop, but a relative of Francis McManus and an officer of Sir William Pepperel’s Regiment. Lieutenant James McManus deposed to the Court that he had known Francis McManus’s parents in Ireland and described that their family was Protestant, not Catholic, calling the prosecution’s evidence into question. Finally, Solomon Welsh gave his closing statements for his defense. He claimed that he was innocent of the charge brought against him and that “he only sung a love song, and knows nothing farther to add.”
The records are not clear on how swiftly the Court came to a decision in this case, if any other evidence was used, or why the Court came to the decision it did. Following the section regarding Solomon Welsh’s testimony, the trial records simply move onto the Court’s verdict in its regular format, as it does in all other cases provided. In the end, this General Court found the defendants Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh unanimously not guilty for the charge of “uttering words tending to mutiny”. The Court acquitted the soldiers and the verdict was later confirmed by Major General William Shirley himself.
I found this trial highly intriguing because of the rarity and the peculiar surroundings of the circumstances surrounding the case. Incidents between British soldiers and sailors of the Royal Navy are rare in the records. It is even more unusual to find a case where soldiers are accused of calling for mutiny onboard a ship, let alone a case where the defendants are actually acquitted. It is puzzling to figure out how the prosecution settled on accusing these men on calls of mutiny. The prosecution failed to organize their attacks as the defense easily countered each point with a different witness. Prosecuting witnesses never gave any clear evidence of the soldiers “uttering words tending to mutiny”, and were not able to prove anything to the Court aside from the fact that the men were intoxicated. The only other matter the prosecution emphasized was the faith and loyalty of Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh. The defense used Dennis Delaney to simply eliminate the accusation of McManus involving himself with any Catholic rituals, even though that was the one of the few points which was reinforced by both prosecuting witnesses. The defense then used Lt. McManus to assure this minor victory by revealing the McManus family’s attachment to the Protestant faith. The question of drinking to the health of the King of France was not followed through by either the rest of the prosecution or countered by the defense except when Delany broadly declares that McManus and Welsh did not say anything tending towards mutiny. It is clear from the testimonies that the Court was most likely correct in their judgment and findings.
If McManus and Welsh had actually said anything close to being a call for a mutiny, it might have been dismissed as being harmless speech by drunken servicemen. However, if the prosecution was stronger and able to prove the charge, I believe the Court would not have hesitated to issue a strong sentence. On the same day of the trial of Francis McManus and Solomon Welsh and across the following two days, the members of the general court martial at Oswego found at least ten soldiers guilty of desertion and sentenced half of them to death. I wonder what the punishment for mutiny would have been.
Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at firstname.lastname@example.org