Tuesday, January 18, 2011

“The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation”: A British Officer Celebrates Gang Rape on Staten Island in 1776

by Michael Kaplan

A Perspective View of an Encampment for a British Regiment, ca. 1777.  Note the presence of women in the camp.

During the American Revolution, as in all wars past and present, women found themselves at risk of rape and gang rape by the occupying armies. Francis, Lord Rawdon (1754-1826) was a twenty-two-year-old captain in the 5th Foot (infantry) Regiment under the command of General Hugh, Earl Percy. A few weeks before the Battle of Long Island, he wrote a letter to his uncle, the Earl of Huntingdon, where he treated the gang rape of American women by British soldiers on Staten Island as a joke. Rawdon made it seem that his life in the British army’s Staten Island encampment had many of the same pleasures and amenities as his uncle’s life back home.

Francis, Lord Rawdon, who would later become Earl of Moira (in 1793) and Marquess of Hastings (in 1816), was the scion of an old Anglo-Irish family that traced its roots back to the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. He was born “with the proverbial sliver spoon in his mouth” at Moira in County Down, growing up there and in Dublin. Rawdon enjoyed a youth of wealth and privilege, immersed in the hedonistic culture of the eighteenth-century British aristocracy; a culture of drinking, gambling, ostentatious display, and sexual escapades that American revolutionaries would come to see as the epitome of corruption. Georgian England was notorious for its sexual underworld, and Rawdon was far from the most dissolute member of his class. That honor probably belonged to Sir Francis Dashwood, a notorious libertine who founded the infamous Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey. Medmenham was the Playboy Mansion of the eighteenth century, where Dashwood hosted parties devoted to binge drinking and sexual orgies; wine was served to the aristocratic worthies by a staff of nude girls. Even Benjamin Franklin paid the occasional visit to Medmenham. From 1762 to 1763, Dashwood served as Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer (imagine Hugh Hefner as secretary of the treasury), just as the conflict over colonial taxation was getting started. While Rawdon may not have gone to Medmenham, he did internalize this aristocratic ethic which looked upon non-aristocratic women, including colonial American women, as legitimate targets for sexual exploitation and conquest.

Francis, Lord Rawdon, as an officer during the American Revolution.

Rawdon, following a traditional path for young noblemen, decided to make a career in the military. After an education at Harrow and Oxford, where he became friends with Banastre Tarleton, the future scourge of the Carolina backcountry, and going on The Grand Tour of Europe with his uncle, Rawdon bought a commission for ₤200 as an ensign in the 15th Foot Regiment. In 1773 he was promoted to lieutenant in the 5th Foot Regiment and in 1774 he was posted to the British occupying force in Boston. Rawdon got his first taste of action at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, where his bravery in taking command of his company after his captain was killed, earned him the praise of his superiors and a promotion to captain. General John Burgoyne commented that “Lord Rawdon has this day stamped his fame for life.” Rawdon was then taken under the wing of General Sir Henry Clinton, who made the young officer an aide-de-camp. Rawdon appreciated Clinton’s mentoring, writing to his uncle that “Clinton gives me lessons on the art of war, and I am truly happy at receiving instructions from one whom I regard as a thorough master of his profession.”

Other officers also marked Rawdon as a young man to watch. Captain William Glanville Evelyn of the 4th Foot (“The King’s Own”) Regiment, a thirty-four-year-old veteran of the Seven Years’ War who had fought at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, thought that cultivating Rawdon could help his own career. Writing to his father in Ireland, Evelyn said that “Lord Rawdon . . . is very much distinguished here as a most promising young man in the military line, and I am flattered to think I hold some place in his good opinion.” Evelyn urged his father, a clergyman, to use his acquaintance with Rawdon’s parents, Lord and Lady Moira, to put in a good word for him with their son. This was how the system of patronage operated in aristocratic eighteenth-century Britain; the system that Americans were now fighting to cast off.

Captain William Glanville Evelyn, friend of Rawdon.

Captain Evelyn was a model British career soldier—an officer and a gentleman with a strong sense of honor and duty. Yet after the devastating losses the British army suffered at Bunker Hill, Evelyn concluded that the Americans “are the most dangerous enemies we have to encounter,” and could not be trifled with. If the British government and people “mean to continue as masters of this country, they will lay aside that false humanity toward these wretches which has hitherto been so destructive to us.” In words that his friend Rawdon would later echo, Evelyn asserted that public opinion in Britain “must lay aside the notion that hurting America is ruining Great Britain, and they must permit us to restore to them the dominion of the country by laying it waste, and almost extirpating the present rebellious race, and upon no other terms will they ever possess it in peace.” To win the war, Britain had to be utterly ruthless with her rebellious colonists, much as she had been with Irish rebels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A View of the Narrows between Long Island and Staten Island, with Our Fleet at Anchor and Lord Howe Coming In.  Drawing by Captain Lieutenant Archibald Robertson, Royal Engineers, 1776.

The British army and navy under the command of General Sir William Howe and Admiral Richard, Viscount Howe, assembled on Staten Island in the summer of 1776 in preparation for its assault on New York City. Rawdon believed it was one of the finest military forces ever to take the field, made up of “healthy and spirited” men itching to give the upstart rebels a drubbing. The Scots Highland regiments had their own score to settle with the rebels, whose privateers had captured some Highland troop transports on the high seas: “the rest are all arrived, and are so enraged against the Yankees for some insults offered to their captive comrades that I think the first corps of psalm-singers who come in the way of their broad swords will be in a very awkward situation.” Rawdon had no doubt that when his disciplined professional soldiers engaged the American amateurs in battle, “the consequence will be fatal to the rebels. An army composed as theirs is cannot bear the frown of adversity.” In a macabre bit of humor, Rawdon gleefully anticipated sending the severed heads of defeated rebels to his grandmother to adorn her chapel.

A View of the Attack against Fort Washington, and Rebel Redoubts, near New York on the 16th of November, 1776.  Drawing by Captain Thomas Davies, Royal Artillery.

Rawdon’s contempt for the American forces his men were about to face turned out to be fully justified by the events of the late summer and autumn of 1776. The British campaign for New York became a string of unmitigated disasters for Washington’s Continental Army, culminating in the surrender of Fort Washington in upper Manhattan (today’s Washington Heights), and the confinement of 2,837 American prisoners of war in hellish prison hulks in New York Harbor. The limitations of an army of raw volunteers, committed to liberty but resistant to discipline, when confronting a professional army of order, were clearly revealed. George Washington would spend the rest of the Revolutionary War trying to turn his men into a disciplined force, capable of fighting the British army and its Hessian mercenaries on something like equal terms, while not sacrificing their commitment to liberty.

The fall of Fort Washington confirmed Rawdon’s low opinion of the Americans and their lack of martial prowess. Indeed he was convinced that the war was all but over. “You see my dear sir,” he explained to a friend back home, “that I have not been mistaken in my judgement of this people. The southern people will no more fight than the Yankees. The fact is that their army is broken all to pieces, and the spirits of their leaders and their abettors is also broken. However, I think one may venture to pronounce that it is well nigh over with them. All their strongholds are in the hands of his Majesty’s troops.” Rawdon would have had even more reason to gloat, had he known that George Washington himself, “wearied almost to death with the retrograde Motions of things,” feared that the glorious cause was lost. Captain William Glanville Evelyn, unlike his friend Rawdon, had come to respect the fighting prowess of the Americans, and their commitment to their cause of liberty. Evelyn also believed in the cause in which he was fighting, the cause of king and empire, and advocated doing whatever it took to win it. Yet regarding his own future, Evelyn admitted that “I cannot be without uneasiness . . . at being subject to the chance of war.” Sadly, the fortunes of war would turn against Evelyn in the New York campaign. He would die, after nineteen days of excruciating pain, from wounds he received at the Battle of Pell’s Point in the Bronx, in November 1776. Perhaps he died believing, as most of the British army believed, that victory was at hand and his sacrifice had not been in vain.

(Francis, Lord Rawdon to Robert Auchmuty, November 25, 1776, Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants [New York: Harper & Row, 1967], p. 497.)

Rawdon was an early advocate of a policy of terrorism by the British armyplunder, pillage and rapeas psychological warfare against the civilian population of New York and New Jersey. On September 23, 1776, he wrote to his uncle: “We should (whenever we get further into the country) give free liberty to the soldiers to ravage at will, that these infatuated wretches may feel what a calamity war is.” These methods of spreading terror would be used to great effect by Banastre Tarleton in the South. Hessian Lieutenant Johann von Krafft, observing the devastating results of Rawdon’s methods, wrote that “The English soldiers, especially those of Lord Rawdon’s Corps, perpetrate the grossest highway-robberies and even kill.” Krafft even witnessed Rawdon’s men turning on their own Hessian allies, a sign of tensions brewing between the British and Hessian soldiers that would undermine the British war effort. “One night” Krafft recorded in his journal, “some English soldiers attacked a Hessian Grenadier Sergeant with their bayonets, wounded him in many places, robbed him of everything and left him lying on the spot, where he soon after died. Innumerable like incidents occur, even in the day-time.” And Krafft’s fellow Hessians were no slouches when it came to terrorism. On “a bitterly cold Sunday in December, 1776,” John Mott, a New Jersey Quaker, was forced to defend his family with fire tongs when drunken Hessian marauders broke down his door. Another time, Mott fired his weapon “with intent to kill, upon a Hessian soldier, who was flaying a live cow for meat, after a manner known to exist among his countrymen.” These incidents led Mott to join the Continental Army, receiving a lieutenant’s commission “from Washington’s ‘own hand,’” and set about organizing a company of badly needed recruits.

This is the context in which we should understand Rawdon’s attitude toward rape: assaulting and terrorizing women, using them for the soldiers’ pleasure, showing that their men could not protect them, would, Rawdon believed, break the civilian population’s will to resist. Mary Beth Norton has suggested that British soldiers, angry that the Continental Army’s escape from New York had prolonged the war, vented their frustration by raping American women. Rape of civilian women not only served the men’s sexual needs, it was also a useful weapon in Rawdon’s arsenal of war. Rawdon’s terrorist methods, however, sabotaged the stated objectives of General Howe and Admiral Howe, which were to pacify the colonies, maintain order, and grant amnesty to those Americans who took an oath of loyalty to the king. General Howe issued orders on several occasions prohibiting plundering by soldiers on pain of execution. But Howe’s orders had little effect. As Colonel Stephen Kemble, Howe’s deputy adjutant general, admitted, “his Lordship will not be able to restrain the Troops from Plundering the Country.” The Howe brothers preferred making peace and facilitating reconciliation to fighting a war. Instead, the wave of atrocities unleashed by Rawdon and like minded officers, pushed the people of New Jersey firmly into the Patriot camp.

British Grenadier and a Country Girl, c. 1760. 

Rape, and the fear of rape, made the Revolutionary War a uniquely harrowing ordeal for American women. While men who bore arms had at least a chance of fighting back, women and girls were at the mercy of the advancing and retreating armies. This was especially true for lower- and middle-class women, including the wives and daughters of farmers and small property owners, who lacked high social standing. Sexual assault on elite women (“ladies”) was usually prohibited. Like soldiers throughout history, Rawdon looked on women who lived under his army’s occupation as spoils of war. He crudely assumed that the fresh faced American girls, despite protests to the contrary, enjoyed the unwanted attentions of lusty British soldiers. “The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation,” Rawdon proclaimed, “as the fresh meat our men have got here has made them as riotous as satyrs.” Should a young woman innocently step into the bushes to pluck a rose, she ran “the most imminent risk of being ravished.” American women were “so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation.” In Rawdon’s view, American women were too provincial and unsophisticated to realize that they were spoils of war, and should be thankful for the erotic gifts that the British army was bestowing on them. One ungrateful American girl had the impudence to complain to Rawdon’s commander, Lord Percy, “of her being deflowered, as she said, by some grenadiers.” When Percy asked the young woman how she knew her attackers were grenadiers, since it was dark when the gang rape took place, she exclaimed, “Oh, good God, they could be nothing else, and if your Lordship will examine I am sure you will find it so.” At least one American girl earned Rawdon’s praise: she was sophisticated enough to enjoy being gang raped by seven soldiers, and to despise those girls who would complain about it. More likely this girl was terrified, but holding on to her dignity, she would not give Rawdon the satisfaction of seeing her vulnerable and humiliated. Almost as an aside, Rawdon noted that courts-martial were held every day in an attempt by the British army to rein in such activities and maintain discipline and the rule of law.

No doubt Rawdon enjoyed having a laugh at the expense of women unable to defend themselves from sexual assault by his men. But for the women who were the army’s victims, rape was no laughing matter. It was a source of shame and humiliation to be kept hidden from public view. In peacetime, and even more so in wartime, shame, and the sexual double standard which blamed the woman for her allowing herself to be raped, led many women to cover up their victimization. This was what Robert Lawrence of Princeton, New Jersey believed. Lawrence, an eighty-four-year-old retired lawyer who wrote a first hand account of the devastation produced by Rawdon’s terrorist tactics in Princeton and its environs, found rape to be by far the worst atrocity perpetrated by the enemy:
The Damages Done by these Plunderings and Desolations must amout very high and Occasion much Trouble to the Sufferers. Yet they are Vastly short of Another Horrid Outrage that I had not yet mentioned. I mean the Ravishing of Women (Which by a Great Defect in Human Nature that is against both Justice and Reason) We Despise these poor Innocent Sufferers in this Brutal Crime Even as long as they live. In time of Peace to avoid so miserable and lasting Reproach I am of the Opinien That many honest virtuous women have suffered in this Manner and kept it Secret for fear of making their lives misserable and so many of those Capital Crimes escape Punishment. In time of War When those Unnatural Miscreants are sure of Geting of with Impunity they commit them the more frequently.
Lawrence related an incident that he had direct knowledge of that took place in Penn’s Neck, two miles from Princeton:
Another Tretcherous Villany: There was two of Genl Hows light Horsemen Quartered at Pensneck, about two miles from Princetown, Who Pretended to a Young Woman That they was Searching for Rebels, and had been Informed that some of them were Secreeted in the Barn and desired her to go with them and Show them the most Secret Places there, and She (Knowing that no body was there) to convince them, Went to the Barn with them to show them that no body was there. And when they had got her there, one of them Laid hold on her Strangled her to Prevent her crying out while the other Villain Ravisht her, and when he had done, he Strangled her Again While the Other Brute Repeated the horrid crime Upon her again. She is a Farmers Daughter but her name, with her Fathers, must be kept Secreet to Avoid the Reproach above Mentioned.
Lawrence’s anger and outrage at this atrocity and others comes through clearly in his narrative. Such behavior was the norm for European armies in wartime but was unprecedented in the experience of Americans. Even Indians, Lawrence declared, were more civilized in these matters than British soldiers. “This is far Worse in this Respect then an Indian War for I Never heard nor read of their Ravishing of Women Notwithstanding their cruelty to their captives.” Indians might scalp and murder a white woman whom they took captive, like Jane McCrea, or, as in the case of Mary Jemison, they might adopt a female captive into their tribe and family. But, as Lawrence pointed out, Indians did not generally inflict gratuitous rapes on their prisoners. Lawrence sadly concluded that the cruel realities of war would prevent these victimized women from ever receiving justice. “In the above mentioned case These Death deserveing men as well as many others that are guilty of the like Crimes Escape with Impunity as I before Observed.”

John Vanderlyn, The Death of Jane McCrea.  "I Never heard nor read of their Ravishing of Women."

The incidents Lawrence described were not unique. They were part of a larger pattern of sexual assault and terrorism perpetrated by the British army on women throughout New York and New Jersey. Alexander McWhorter, a clergyman in Newark, documented a series of rapes committed not only by common soldiers, but by officers too:
Three women were most horridly ravished by them, one of them an old woman near seventy years of age, whom they abused in a manner beyond description, another of them was a woman considerably advanced in her pregnancy, and the third was a young girl. Various others were assaulted by them, who, by the favorable interpositions of Providence, were preserved, that they did not accomplish upon them their base designs. Yea, not only common soldiers, but officers, even British officers, four or five, sometimes more sometimes less in a gang, went about the town by night, entering into houses and openly inquiring for women.
It’s unlikely that soldiers would attack an elderly woman, or a woman who was pregnant, for their sexual gratification. This was a display of power intended to impress upon the civilian population its helplessness in the face of Britain’s men of war. The king’s soldiers and officers could attack and terrorize American women with impunity and neither their fathers, nor their husbands, nor General Washington and his ragtag army, could do anything to stop them.

If Rawdon thought that atrocities against the lives and property of civilians, and sexual terrorism, would break the will of Americans to fight for liberty, he was sadly mistaken. In fact the opposite happened. The end result of the British army’s encouragement of plunder, pillage, and rape was to strengthen the Patriot cause. When Washington wanted to rally his men to defend Philadelphia against General Howe’s invasion force, he reminded them of the enemy’s abuse of their countrywomen: “Now then is the time for our most strenuous exertions. One bold stroke will free the land from rapine, devastations and burnings, and female innocence from brutal lust and violence.”

Emanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware.  "One bold stroke will free the land from rapine, devastations and burnings, and female innocence from brutal lust and violence."

* * * * * * * * * *

Francis, Lord Rawdon to Francis Hastings, tenth Earl of Huntingdon
Staten Island, near New York, August 5, 1776

We are just arrived here, my dearest Lord, after a very pleasant passage. Your letter of April 4 met me as soon as I set foot on shore. The company my letter from Virginia found you in is certainly the pleasantest in the world. Though I have neither a yellow damask drawing-room nor Constantia cape, I cultivate the acquaintance in a tent with Madeira, and after all there is but little difference.

The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation, as the fresh meat our men have got here has made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with the proper resignation, and of consequence we have most entertaining courts-martial every day.

To the southward they behaved much better in these cases, if I may judge from a woman who having been forced by seven of our men, [came] to make a complaint to me “not of their usage,” she said; “No, thank God, she despised that,” but of their having taken an old prayer book for which she had a particular affection.

A girl on this island made a complaint the other day to Lord Percy of her being deflowered, as she said, by some grenadiers. Lord Percy asked her how she knew them to be grenadiers, as it happened in the dark. “Oh, good God,” cried she, “they could be nothing else, and if your Lordship will examine I am sure you will find it so.”

All the English troops are encamped, or in cantonment, upon this island, as healthy and spirited a body of men as ever took the field. Several transports with Highlanders have been taken by the rebel privateers; the rest are all arrived, and are so enraged against the Yankees for some insults offered to their captive comrades that I think the first corps of psalm-singers who come in the way of their broad swords will be in a very awkward situation. Should my grandmother want any cherubins to adorn a new chapel, I dare say the Highlander would supply them with the heads of the elect for that purpose at a cheap rate; but my grandmother will probably change sides when she hears that the Hessians sing hymns as loud as the Yankees, though it must be owned they have not the godly twang through the nose which distinguishes the faithful.

Some of the Hessians are arrived and long much to have a brush with the rebels, of whom they have a most despicable opinion. They are good troops but in point of men nothing equal to ours.

Some of the Guards are arrived, but not yet landed. Everybody seems to have formed a most favourable opinion of them. The desire they have shown to come upon service has pleased the line exceedingly and it will be their own faults if they do not keep this tide of applause in their favour.

I imagine that we shall very soon come to action, and I do not doubt but the consequence will be fatal to the rebels. An army composed as theirs is cannot bear the frown of adversity. General Carlton’s successes in Canada have dispirited them exceedingly: their situation is critical, with his victorious army in their rear whilst they have such a force as ours in front. They have mustered all their troops to meet us and have entrenched themselves every where, but they will not be trifling obstacles that will stop a body of men so keen for service as ours are. I speak always with due submission to the goddess Nemesis, but I think she owes the Americans a croc-en-jambe, and when she pays it, I flatter myself she will do it effectually. Every measure, indeed, which can ensure success seems to have been taken on our side, and though I do not by any means deny the powerful influence of your deity, Fortune,  upon all human affairs, I think there are certain precautions which have wonderful efficacy in deciding the event of every undertaking.

I am still with General Clinton. . . .

Source: Great Britain Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on the Manuscripts of the Late Reginald Rawdon Hastings, Francis Bickley, ed., Vol. 3 (London: H. M. Stationery Office, 1934), pp. 179-180; Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, eds., The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), pp. 423-425.

Image sources (numbered from top): 1 & 6, Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library Center for Digital Initiatives; 2, 4, & 5, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; 3, Memoir and Letters of Captain W. Glanville Evelyn, of the 4th Regiment (“King’s Own,”) from North America, 1774-1776, G. D. Scull, ed., frontpiece, Internet Archive; 7 & 8, Wikimedia Commons.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

Revisions: February 19, 2011


  1. Michael,
    As I am a history buff to say the least, I can't begin to tell you how much i appreciate your articles. not only well written and researched, but easily some of the most interesting things I've ever read. And as one can see in many of your writings, history can be learned form so as not to repeat the mistakes made by our earlier forefathers.


  2. Joe,

    I'm really glad you've enjoyed my history posts. One of things I hope to accomplish with this blog is to show how the past has shaped the present. History doesn't offer us a perfect guide since in today's world there are situations for which there are no historical precedents. But as you say, we can at least try to learn from our forefathers' experiences.


  3. Michael,

    You are correct that history is no the perfect guide due to changing situations. However it can lead us in the right direction if we heed it. history, if nothing else can provide one with a moral compass to guide them to what is hopefully a correct decision. Great stuff.


  4. Well-chosen images. Information on the sources of the original images would be nice

  5. By those fields that were ravaged, those towns that were fired,
    By those wrongs which your females endured;
    By those blood-sprinkled plains where your warriors expired,
    O, preserve what your prowess procured;
    [Rushton, Edward.] "Song for America." The Eye 2(13). September 29, 1808. 155-156.

  6. Remember these soldiers were committed by Americans who supported the British. Very hard to get soldiers from England or the Isles to fight battles in America. The officers were from England and the Isles.