“the worst figure . . . can kill . . . even a General Wolfe”

The Scotswoman Janet Schaw, visiting her brother in North Carolina, had occasion to see the drilling of the local militia in Wilmington. Past posts from her Journal can be seen here, here, and here, and here. Schaw is scathing in her description of the poorly clad men, inebriated, and sloppy in their performance, but cautions her reader not to underestimate them.

We came down this morning in time for the review which the heat made as terrible to the spectators as to the soldiers, or what you please to call them. They had certainly fainted under it, had not the constant draughts of grog supported then. Their exercise was that of bush-fighting, but it appeared so confused and so perfectly different from any thing I ever saw, I cannot say whether they performed it well or not; but this I know that they were heated with rum till capable of committing the most shocking outrages. We stood on the balcony of Doctor Cobham’s house and they were reviewed on a field mostly covered with what are called here scrubby oaks, which are only a little better than brushwood. They at last however assembled on the plain field, and I must really laugh while I recollect their figures: 2000 men in their shirts and trousers, preceded by a very ill-beat drum and a fiddler, who was also in his shirt with a long sword and a cue at his hair, who played with all his might. They made indeed a most unmartial appearance. But the worst figure there can shoot from behind a bush and kill even a General Wolfe.

In the following incident Schaw describes how a man who incurred the wrath of the militia barely escaped being tarred and feathered. This punishment is indeed horrifying. It is important to note, however, that the “tar” was not the hot substance we associate with the repair of roads. It was pine tar which is soft at normal temperatures. This is not to imply that being tarred with this substance was not unpleasant even though it was usually applied to someone who was clothed. Feathers clung to the tarred victim who was often carried around town on a rail, which was certainly painful. If the victim was tarred unclothed removing the substance undoubtedly tore away skin with it. A “dreadful operation” indeed.

Before the review was over, I heard a cry of tar and feather. I was ready to faint at the ideal of this dreadful operation. I would have gladly quitted the balcony, but was so much afraid the Victim was one of my friends, that I was not able to move; and he indeed proved to be one, tho’ in a humble station. For it was Mr. Neilson’s poor English groom. You can hardly conceive what I felt when I saw him dragged forward, poor devil, frighted out of his wits. However at the request of some of the officers, who had been Neilson’s friends, his punishment was changed into that of mounting on a table and begging pardon for having smiled at the regt. He was then drummed and fiddled out of the town, with a strict prohibition of ever been seen in it again.

Journal of a Lady of Quality; Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the years 1774 to 1776, edited by Evangeline Walker Andrews, in collaboration with Charles McLean Andrews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921) pages 190-191. The Journal can be found online HERE.

posted July 31st, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Patriots, The South


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