Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Travel Writings of Roger Lamb


Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill

While personal accounts of military service from ordinary soldiers are common place today in the 19th century it was unheard of. Given that most soldiers were illiterate, accounts were usually only written by officers. The most detailed account of Britain’s war in America however was written by Dubliner, Sergeant Roger Lamb. He has largely been forgotten and he first came to my attention on a visit to the Army Museum in London. His account reads like a travel log and even for those not interested in military history his vivid descriptions of the Native American culture, their war dances and custom of taking scalps as well as detailed description of wildlife of the North American continent provide fascinating reading.
He drew his first breath in Dublin as the youngest of eleven children in 1756, where exactly, he does not reveal, but it would appear to have been near the North Wall, making him a Northsider. The first chapter of the book provides an interesting account of contemporary Dublin life. He recalls for example in 1766 walking along the South Wall, seeing criminals hanging on giblets near the light house. This was the Mugglins, four men convicted of piracy and murder and who hung there as a warning to others. After a month people started to complain of the smell and the sight of the decaying corpses and they were duly removed. He appears to be have been fascinated by swimming and recommended it as useful for surviving shipwrecks. He swam regularly in the Liffey at a spot where the Customs House now stands. He describes Lower Abbey Street and Marlborough as places where ‘Club law’ prevailed and he appears critical of the duelling culture prevalent in Dublin at the time.
He joined the British Army in 1773 aged seventeen and over six days was marched down to join the 9th regiment of foot, based in Waterford. Discipline was harsh and Lamb recalls bursting into tears when he first saw a man being flogged. Being literate he had an advantage over his comrades and was given better jobs, which was essential as his sergeant very often stole the men’s’ pay to pay off his debts in the alehouse. He was one of 50,000 British soldiers to be sent to the Americas to quell The American War of Independence. During his eight years there he served on two major campaigns was captured twice and twice escaped from captivity to rejoin the British Army.
He first served under General Burgoyne in Canada who invaded the Colonies from the north, intending to divide New England from the southern colonies. But as he moved southwards the Americans managed to block his supply routes and his army came to a standstill, eventually compelling him to surrender at the battle of Saratoga in 1777. It was the end of Burgoyne’s career who returned to England and became a playwright.

His army, the "Convention army," so called after the treaty or convention that was to be signed promising that the soldiers would never again take up arms against the Americans went into captivity. Lamb does not record his time in captivity as being particularly harsh though he does mention they were not given any blankets
and his captors set the straw alight as soon as they saw a prisoner falling asleep. He and about a thousand others managed to flee and he made his way to New York where he was assigned to the Royal Welsh fusiliers. This was one of the oldest regiments of the British Army, which fought in nearly every campaign of the war and now they were poised to move south to subdue the southern colonies. Lord Cornwallis, who would later become Viceroy to Ireland, commanded the Crown forces in the south.
Lamb fought at Camden in South Carolina in 1780, a battle the British won. He carried the regimental colours and although he had little medical experience became the provisional regimental surgeon. He was so exhausted at this battle that another sergeant had to replace him. The sergeant who replaced him was killed by a nine pound cannon ball and Lamb considered that fate was on his side.
While he was in the southern colonies he had opportunity to observe the way of life there. He gives a vivid description of slavery pointing out the hypocrisy of the Americans who while loving their freedom practiced slavery, with the plantation owner regarding a slave like a farmer would regard livestock.
At the battle of Guilford Court-House in North Carolina in1781 Lamb is credited with saving the life of Cornwallis. While it was a battle the British won, Cornwallis suffered a crushing defeat that same year at Yorktown. The surrender at Yorktown marked the end of the war and Cornwallis was to become known as the man who ‘lost America’.
With the cessation of hostilities Lamb was sent back to Portsmouth in 1783, demobbed shortly afterwards and returned to Dublin where he was appointed schoolmaster of the Methodist Free School in Whitefriar Street, a position he held for thirty years. In his free time he took up writing, observing that people were more interested in tales of war than of peace. He wrote A Journal of Occurrences during the Late American War in1809 and later Memoir of My Own Life in 1811, both of which were widely read. His books were to influence others and Robert Graves would later write two thinly fictionalised accounts of Lamb’s experiences entitled Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth in 1940 and a sequel entitled Proceed, Sergeant Lamb in 1941, which dealt with the passions and frustrations of a distant war which mirrored many of Graves' own feelings for World War Two.
In 1809 Lamb was awarded a pension of one shilling a day from the Chelsea Hospital, based at The Royal Hospital Kilmainham in recognition of his military and literary services. He died in 1830.

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