Murder in the 42nd
By Robert Burnham FINS
"Dickinson, Alexander; Lt. 42nd Foot: 'murdered', Aldea de Serra, Portugal; 22 March 1813"
During the Napoleonic Wars British military justice was harsh by modern standards. When a soldier was accused of a crime or an offense, a court-marital was speedily organized and if he was found guilty, the punishment was carried out almost immediately. A flogging was generally given for the lesser offenses, while executions were reserved for the serious ones. Sir Charles Oman reported that during the Peninsula War, 78 soldiers serving with the British Army were shot for desertion, while another 40 were hung after being found guilty by a general court-martial for some other offense. Oman goes on to point out that ". . . a few more were apparently carried out by the Provost Marshal on criminals caught flagrante delicto murdering or wounding peasants."
Many of the British soldiers and officers who witnessed the executions of the deserters or who saw the soldiers summarily hung by the provosts wrote vivid descriptions of the events. Yet it is rare to find an account describing the execution of the 40 soldiers who were found guilty and hung for offenses other than desertion. The case of the execution of the murderer of Lieutenant Dickinson of the 42nd Highlanders is unique because more than one account survives: one by the murderer's best friend and one by the judge who presided over his court-martial! But even more interesting is the different pictures the two writers provide of the case.
The British Army in the 1813 was rebuilding from the previous year. In 1812, the year had begun with so much promise after years of hardships. By mid-April, the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been re-captured after bloody sieges. In May, Wellington had successfully divided the French forces in Spain by destroying their bridge across the Tagus at Almaraz. July saw the French Army of Spain mauled at Salamanca and by August, Madrid was liberated. In late August, only the fortress at Burgos stood in the way of the British moving into northern Spain. But things began to go wrong. An ill-planned siege of the fortress began with high hopes, but soon bogged down. By early October, the French commanders had massed their forces from the far-flung corners of Spain. Wellington was forced to lift the siege of Burgos and ordered his over-extended forces back to Portugal. The retreat was soon under pressured from the combined French forces and what was supposed to be an orderly withdrawal, became a retreat of epic proportions. Unable to keep up, thousands of soldiers perished along the road side or were captured by the French. By the time it reached the safety of the Portuguese border, the British Army which had entered Spain so confidently 10 months before, was a spent force that would take months to rebuild its strength.
The 42nd Highlanders was not immune to the problems that plagued the army. On the surface, this famous regiment was a veteran unit that had served in the Peninsula since the beginning -- the 2nd Battalion had been there since 1809. However, by the Spring of 1812, this battalion was reduced to a skeleton. On 20 April 1812, the 1st Battalion of the 42nd Highlanders arrived in Lisbon with 900 men, many of them veterans of the Walcheren Expedition, to replace the 2nd Battalion. On 19 May, the 2nd Battalion was ordered home. But in reality only the staff, and most likely the senior officers of the battalion, were ordered home, while the junior officers and the rank and file were drafted into the 1st Battalion.
The regiment started the campaign with 1,200 men and saw action at Salamanca. Many of the new arrivals had fully recovered from their exposure to "Walcheren Fever", and by September, the long campaign was beginning to impact on the health of the regiment -- of the 1135 men on the rolls, only 672 were listed as "effective", the other 463 were carried as "sick". Compounding its problems, the regiment was part of the force that besieged Burgos, where it took heavy casualties. The retreat to Portugal also took its toll and by the time they reach Portugal, the men were spent. Casualties among the officers were particularly heavy during 1812. Of the 40 officers which started the campaign, six officers were killed or died of illness, five wounded, and one captured; 30 percent of the total! Additionally, discipline had broken down during the retreat and it would take months to re-establish it.
The regiment went into winter quarters at the town of Ceia, but their quarters had to be shared with other regiments.
"There were so many men sent to each house. We had no beds; the floor of the house was the bed of the poor soldier: each man had a blanket. We rolled down on the floor, and usually lay by fours, if there were four in a house. We had always straw to lay on, when we could get it, and the cavalry needed it not; here we could get none."
Not surprisingly, disease soon broke out. The hardships of the retreat, combined with the lingering effects of Walcheren Fever among those who arrived in Portugal 1812 and the close living quarters, soon took its toll. According to one soldier
". . . we were not one month in quarters when a malignant fever broke out in the 42nd, and the men were dropping away very fast. We had funerals every day for a long time. More than half of the regiment was in the hospital., and the fever was still increasing."
The regiment took months to recover. By mid-April 1813, the 1st Battalion still only carried 464 men as "effective"!
In an effort to prevent the disease from spreading, the regiment was dispersed to small villages in the area. Most companies were billeted separately, with two or three miles between each. Lieutenant Dickinson commanded the company that was ordered to the village of Aldea de Serra. The village was situated in the mountains and the troops, in the words of one soldier "had good quarters here, plenty of clean straw to lay on, and the inhabitants were very kind to us." The duty was light and the food was good. It must have been paradise after the hardships of the previous campaign!
Yet all was not well. The company was isolated from the regiment and had only a skeletal command structure. Lieutenant Dickinson, the only officer present in the village, was young -- less than twenty-years old. This would not have been a problem except that the regiment had just finished a hard year of campaigning which ended in a disastrous retreat. Discipline had eroded during the retreat and as soon as the regiment was across the border a "great many" soldiers were given drumhead court-martials. "The regiment was turned out as soon as the court martial was over, and the prisoners were all brought to the parade. There were one sergeant and two corporals of us broken, and all of the privates flogged." Furthermore, Lieutenant Dickinson could not rely on the help of his noncommissioned officers, because other than one corporal and the pay-sergeant, all of the company's noncommissioned officers were hospitalized. The situation was a powder keg waiting for a spark.
The spark that caused the explosion was the company's only healthy corporal, named M'Morran. He was Irish and well liked in the regiment. M'Morran could speak Portuguese fluently and soon after arriving in Aldea de Serra, he fell in love with a young woman who was the daughter of one of the village's more prosperous families. He was welcomed in the girl's home and when he went there he ". . . never wanted for anything. . . " The couple soon made plans for her to accompany him when the regiment began campaigning in the spring.
Although the duty was good for the men, the situation must not have been pleasant for the company's commanding officer, Lieutenant Dickinson. He was stuck in a small village, far from his fellow officers and the brotherhood of the officer's mess. He had no one he could talk to and life must have been lonely for him. It was not long before he noticed the relationship between Corporal M'Morran and the young woman. Soon he was watching them at every turn and the lieutenant made his own overtures to the young woman, but with little success. Spurned by the woman, he turned on the corporal, threatening him with vengeance.
One day, Corporal M'Morran and another soldier was sent to the regimental headquarters to check on the status of new clothing that the company had been promised and to bring back what was there. Showing poor judgment, the corporal and the soldier stopped for a drink of wine and was late in returning to the village. They arrived just when the company was parading.
"Dickinson then threatened M'Morran in presence of the company, to have him sent prisoner to headquarters and broke; for some the accusation and judgment are -- broke -- flogged; pleasant enough words to all but a soldier; but he added broke and flogged and ordered M'Morran in to dress and come out to parade."
To a British soldier this was a real threat. During the Napoleonic Wars, floggings occurred fairly often. A regimental court-martial, which was empowered to hear cases that did not involve a possible death penalty, was legally permitted to sentence a soldier to 300 lashes. According to Richard Glover
". . . floggings could, and sometimes did, end in the death of the victim, in spite of the fact that the punishment could not legally take place without the regimental surgeon being present to call a halt to it; and in spite of the fact that the victim received immediate medical care afterwards, and might take his punishment in instalments."
Furthermore, even though legally restricted to imposing a sentence of only 300 lashes, commanders were known to order more than that, or to have a soldier flogged without a trial. Private Wheeler, who served in the 51st Light Infantry, wrote in 1811:
"I could record many instances of petty tyranny, such as giving a man a dozen or two without trial. . . The latter end of 1810, we lay at Stenning Bks; on night a deserter escaped from the Guard room. The next morning the officer was put on arrest and the Serjeant, Corporal and Centinal was confined. On parade, a drumhead courtmartial was assembled, the Colonel was as mad as a march hare. He vowed that if the Court did not award severe punishment he would not approve of the sentence. He ordered the bearers to be brought from the hospital, that the men might be carried off the ground after punishment. . . At length the court martial was handed to the Colonel. . . The Court Martial was read, the Serjeant and Corporal was to be reduced and receive 300 lashes each, and the private 500."
Once the sentence was pronounced, according to Charles Oman
"Floggings were inflicted by the drummers of the regiment, under the superintendence of the drum-major and the adjutant. The culprit was bound by his extended arms to two or three sergeant's halberds, planted in the ground in a triangle, and lashed together at the top. The strokes were inflicted at the tap of a drum beaten in slow time. Each of the wielders of the cat retired after having giving twenty-five lashes. The surgeon was always present, to certify that the man's life was not in danger by the further continuance of the punishment, and the prisoner was taken down the moment that the medical man declared that he could stand no more. Often this interference saved a culprit from the end of his punishment, as if the tale was fairly complete he might never be called upon to undergo the balance. But in grave cases the prisoner was merely sent into hospital till he was sufficiently convalescent to endure the payment of the remainder of his account."
Sergeant William Lawrence, of the 40th Regiment, was sentenced to be flogged and left one of the few accounts of what it was like to receive such a brutal punishment:
"In Serville, without leave to, I absented myself from guard for 24 hours and landed myself in a fine scrape. When I returned I was put into the guard-room, and a drum-head court-martial was ordered on me. It was my first offence but that did not screen me - my sentence was 400 lashes. On hearing this I felt ten times worse than I ever did entering a battle-field. My life seemed of very little consequence and I thought of my home and my days as an apprentice. Had I been sentenced to be shot, I would not have despaired more. The guards brought me to the square of the convent where my sentence was to be carried out and where the regiment was already assembled to witness my punishment. The judgement was read over me by the colonel and I was ordered to strip. Hardened by that time, I did so without the help that was offered and was lashed to the halberds. The colonel gave the order for the drummers to commence. Each drummer gave me 25 lashes in turn. I bore it well but, by the time I had received 175, I became so enraged with pain that I pushed the halberds. They were only planted on stones and did not stand firm so I moved them right across the square amid the laughter of the regiment. The colonel , judging that I had had sufficient, ordered 'the sulky rascal down.' Indeed I was sulky for, although the blood ran down my trousers, I had not given vent to a single sound. I was unbound and the corporal shove my shirt and jacket over my shoulders, then conveyed me - a miserable spectacle - to the hospital. . . I was in hospital for about three weeks. When I came out - still in a very marked state, of which I bear the remembrances on my back to this day."
Corporal M'Morran returned to his quarters, where he loaded his musket and replaced the flint. Then he got dressed. He returned to the parade ground, but the company had already been dismissed. The commander was still there, pacing back and forth waiting for M'Morran.
"Dickinson and M'Morran stood together for about ten minutes, but no one of us knew what passed between them. M'Morran stood about two yards from Dickinson, and he was heard to say (by the men who were at a little distance loitering on the ground), 'You shall never have it in your power to do that,' and in an instant he brought his musket to the present to fire, and the shot went through Dickinson's left breast: he fell on the spot, and never spoke! M'Morran then threw away his musket and called out, 'Take me prisoner, I am willing to die for what I have done.'. . . M'Morran was taken prisoner to the guard house."
M'Morran was placed under guard, and the sergeant (the only remaining non-commissioned officer in the company) and a four man guard escorted him to the regimental headquarters. There they were met
". . . by the surgeon and adjutant; the adjutant began to abuse M'Morran, who told the other not to use abusive language to him, for he was now a prisoner; and he was happy for what he had done, and willing he was to die for the same. The adjutant still abused him. M'Morran then told the other that there men in the regiment watching to do the same to him!"
General Pakenham, the commander of the 6th Division, forwarded the charges to Army Headquarters and a general court-martial was convened on 27 March at the Division Headquarters in Ceia. The Army's Judge Advocate, Francis S. Larpent presided. Judge Larpent wrote of the trial in his memoirs:
"We had one very melancholy piece of business here last week : a young corporal, M'Morran, a Scotchman in the 42nd, was found fault with mildly by his officer, Lieutenant Dickinson, for neglect of duty ; he answered rather impertinently : he was then told to consider himself a prisoner, and to follow. Having walked a few yards, Lieutenant Dickinson looked round, and the corporal, having (no one knows how) loaded his musket, levelled it at him, and shot him dead through the heart. The corporal has been tried, and is to be hung to-morrow. They were both under twenty I hear, and the most promising young men in their respective stations. The officer was a man of mild, humane character. The corporal made no defence : it seemed an excess of Scotch pride. It is altogether a very painful business."
Shortly after his conviction, Corporal M'Morran was executed. Prior to his execution, he had several visitors. His girlfriend came once and a friend in his company visited twice. "He was very penitent and willing to die; but always said he was not sorry for what he had done."
On 28 March, six days after he killed Lieutenant Dickinson, Corporal M'Morran was executed. The 6th Division was paraded near a woods, a few miles from the town of Ceia.
"The gallows was erected on a high tree, at the end of the wood. He was brought in a cart to the place of execution; and the sentence of the court martial was read aloud by General Pakenham. He received his sentence with great courage; but I think there was a part of the sentence omitted, and not read to M'Morran. The chaplain of the troops attended, and went through religious duties with him: he prayed for some time after the chaplain left him. Before he went up he addressed the troops, and bade them all take warning by his fate. The provost sergeant then went to his duty, and in an instant M'Morran was launched into eternity."
But the British Army was not through with M'Morran. After he hung there for about ten minutes, the provost sergeant, shot him to ensure he was dead. To serve as an example to the others, M'Morran's body was tied to the tree and left there to rot. Several nights later, unknown individuals attempted to remove the body, but were scared off by a passing patrol. The body was still hanging in the tree when the regiment marched into Spain a month later!
Who was right in their assessment of the situation -- Judge Larpent or the unknown diarist who served with Corporal M'Morran? Although their facts appear to be similar on the surface, there are several discrepancies between the two accounts. The judge writes that the corporal was a Scot, yet the diarist, who served with him, specifically states that he was Irish. The judge states that Corporal M'Morran was mildly reprimanded by Lieutenant Dickinson and never mentions the threat the Lieutenant made to have the corporal flogged. The judge also wrote that the court had no idea how the corporal could have loaded his musket without anyone seeing it, yet again the diarist knew that it was loaded. These discrepancies makes one wonder whether the corporal was allowed to call any witnesses in his defense. Not that there would have been any doubt on the outcome of the court-martial!
The company that Dickinson commanded had a reputation after that for being mutinous and the regimental commander had trouble finding an officer willing to command it. One officer had been killed and another had been threatened with the same. One finally agreed to assume command, but only on the condition that it would be moved to another village and co-located with another company. This officer was older than most and was apparently easier going than Lieutenant Dickinson. The men quickly nicknamed him "the farmer" and followed him on into Spain. Thus ending a sordid episode of the Peninsula War.
Glover, Richard. Peninsular Preparation: The Reform of the British Army, 1795-1809 Cambridge : Ken Trotman; 1988.
Hall, John A. A History of the Peninsular War: the Biographical Dictionary of British Officers Killed and Wounded, 1808-1814 Vol VIII; London : Greenhill; 1998. Page 619
Hart, B. H. Liddell (ed.) The Letters of Private Wheeler Boston : Houghton Mifflin; 1951. Pages 71 - 72
Hathaway, Eileen (ed.) A Dorset Soldier: The Autobiography of Sergeant William Lawrence 1790 - 1869 Spellmount : Tunbridge Wells; 1993. Pages 35 -36
Larpent, Francis S. The Private Journal of F.S. Larpent, ESQ., Judge Advocate General of the British Forces in the Peninsula Vol. I; London : Richard Bentley; 1853. Pages 123 - 124.
Oman, Charles. Wellington's Army, 1809-1814 London : Greenhill Books; 1993.
Personal Narrative of a Private Soldier Who Served in the Forty-Second Highlanders for Twelve Years, during the late War London : Ken Trotman; 1996.
There is some disagreement on the spelling of proper names of Dickinson, M'Morran, and Pakenham. In order, to avoid possible confusion, I standardized the different spellings to the above ones.
I would like to thank the following people for their assistance in researching this paper: John Cook (United Kingdom), Ron McGuigan (Canada), Rory Muir (Australia), and Howie Muir (recently transplanted from Burkina Faso to the wilds of Berkeley, California!)
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2000
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