The Invalids In Action:  The Battle of Portsmouth, 1783.

Transcription by Jim Yaworsky

      Lomax devotes the first chapter of his book to the "Invalid Regiment" phase of the history of the 41st Regiment of Foot.   It is evident that most of the time, it was stationed guarding the fortifications of important naval bases on the Channel Coast, and usually, this meant Portsmouth or Plymouth.

     By and large, Lomax gives us a chronicle where the highlights of regimental life consist of formal inspections (usually followed by the discharge of men of the Regiment judged too decrepit to even act in an Invalid capacity), and the periodic raiding of the Regiment for its fitter men to complete the numbers in other Regiments leaving the country for foreign service. 

     On the whole, the main perils faced appear to be those of garrison duty in all ages: primarily boredom, with some incidents of sickness. Some relief from boredom was no doubt obtained when men of the Regiment were used to attempt to control smuggling.  One imagines that agile smugglers didn't have too much trouble evading the soldiers of the Invalids.

     Only two recorded incidents lend a more exciting aspect to events. 

     The first involves an accident that again illustrates a peril of garrison duty rather than  warfare.  To quote Lomax:

      "About 8 a.m., on 23rd August, [1759] a terrible explosion occurred at

Southsea Castle. A great number of the Duke of Richmond's

regiment, 41st, women and children, were killed. "One invalid

"soldier was blown out of the castle about one hundred yards, and

"was found dead, blackened and bruised, upon the glacis: another

"was blown over the parapet into the dry ditch, one leg and one arm

"being torn off, which were afterwards found lying on the parapet


     And then, there is 'The Battle of Portsmouth'.  To again quote Lomax:

[1782]:         A regiment of Highlanders landed at Portsmouth about this time

from America, and on landing received orders to re‑embark for the

East Indies. This order the men positively refused to obey, and

disarmed their officers on the parade ground. The main guard,

consisting of a few men of the 41st Regiment, proceeded to quell

the disturbance, but a Highlander shot one of the old men dead,

and as they had no ammunition the men of the guard retired. The

officer in charge of them was unable to get away as he had a wooden

leg, and consequently he was captured by the mutineers. Eventually

the Highlanders were marched on board and were disbanded at Berwick,

the matter having been the subject of some discussion in Parliament.

This disorder was familiarly known as the Battle of Portsmouth, and a

well‑known inhabitant of that town wrote a short and humorous piece

of poetry descriptive of it, of which the following verses are extracts: -

When the long Yankee war had ceased,        

A gallant Highland corps                           

Was ordered hither to embark                    

For India's distant shore.                           

But of the valiant Scots, each man                 

Sighed for his native home,                                   

To join again his native clan,                     

And o'er the mountains roam.                     

In fair Stokes Bay the transport lay,             

And boats were on the strand,                                   

No soldier would the word obey                   

Which ordered  "Leave the land!"    

"We've served our King and country well

Full many a fiery day,

And is it lawful now to sell

And send us far away?

The old Fogeys then opposed the squall

Which every townsman feared,

Till whistling shot struck Tommy Prawl,

When quick they disappeared.

Their leader bold was captive caught,           

For quarter forced to beg,

In vain upon escape he'd thought

For he'd a wooden leg. etc. etc.


The only extensive secondary account of the Portsmouth Highland mutiny that I have come across is set out in John Prebble's book "Mutiny - Highland Regiments in Revolt 1743-1804" (London, Secker & Warburg, 1975; Pimlico edition 2001, ISBN 0-7126-6718-0).

A recurring pattern in the British army in the 18th Century was the raising of regiments to meet the specific needs of a major war, that were then disbanded at the end of that war.  At the commencement of the next major war, a fresh batch of regiments would be created.

As an example of this process in action, Colonel Fielding's Regiment of Invalids (later the 41st) were initially composed of veterans of disbanded regiments of Marlborough's Wars. 

At first, only 40 regiments were retained on the strength of the Army.  The Invalids became the 41st Regiment in seniority when regiments were issued numbers. 

The Highland Clans became recognized as a rich source of readily available manpower. 

The chieftains of the larger clans could raise regiments from their retainers quickly, which was an important consideration in a wartime emergency situation.  Clan chieftains, especially those looking to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the government after the events of the Jacobite rebellions, were more than willing to accommodate the government by raising regiments. 

The clansmen themselves were considered highly desirable military material.  They were athletic, hardy and warlike.  Service in a "clan" regiment was not looked down upon in the Highlands. Consequently, the men of the average Highland clan-based regiment were generally of a higher quality than normal in the Army, where "gutter sweepings" all too often composed a significant proportion of the manpower of the average English regiment. 

Getting clansmen out of the always potentially unruly Highlands in times of unrest was in and of itself a desirable goal to the Government - it was even better if these possible foes of the Protestant south could actually be used to further the war aims of the government elsewhere.

The government also considered Highlanders useful because they were considered politically na´ve: the men of a clan-based regiment generally unthinkingly followed the orders of their officers, who were prominent members of the Clan leadership.  Many spoke only Gaelic so could not easily be corrupted by English "troublemakers". Coming from a "primitive" society that was alienated in many ways from the rest of the population of Great Britain, the men were useful in quelling unrest based on "sophisticated" political or economic conditions. 

As the American Rebellion grew to a War of Independence and the French and Spanish entered the fray, the strain on British Army manpower resources grew intense.  In 1775, the 71st (Fraser's) Highlanders were raised. In the next few years, the 73rd (a 73rd was raised twice - in 1777 then again in 1783), 74th, 76th, 77th, 78th, 81st, and 84th Highland regiments, as well as 2 Fencible Regiments, were created.The 77th Regiment (Duke of Atholl's Highlanders) were thus a different regiment than the 77th (Montgomery's Highlanders) who had fought in the Seven Year's War, and as shall be seen, a different regiment than the 77th (East Middlesex) of the Napoleonic Wars.

Interestingly, of the 11 regiments of Highlanders raised during the American War of Independence (9 regular, 2 fencible), a total of 6 regiments (5 regular, 1 fencible) were involved in incidents of mutiny.  Only 1 of these mutinies was "successful" in that the men's grievances were redressed to their entire satisfaction, and none of the "mutineers" received any punishment whatsoever for their actions. 

This one successful mutiny involved the 77th, and the "Battle of Portsmouth".

The 77th (Duke of Atholl's Highlanders) and the "Battle of Portsmouth"

The 77th were raised in 1778 as a war-time unit.  As such, their term of enlistment was for 3 year's service or for the duration of the war. 

The 77th only saw use as a "homeland security" force, serving almost its entire time in existence in Ireland, where, to quote John Prebble: "They harried Irish rebels and suppressed Irish riots with bayonet and musket, and with an enthusiastic zeal that justified the Government's policy of using Celt against Celt..." (Prebble, pages 218-219).

The 77th left Ireland towards the end of 1782, and were quartered over a number of towns in Hampshire in the region of Portsmouth.  The war in America was winding down, and peace with the new United States was signed in November of 1782.  Negotiations with the French and Spanish were also reaching the point where a treaty ending the war was imminent.

However, in India, Hyder Ali, Sultan of Mysore, still carried on war with the East India Company, and the Government was looking for reinforcements to ship out.

The problem was that the men of the 77th had signed up to fight American rebels and the French and Spanish.  They would expect their discharge upon the signing of peace with France and Spain.

The government's solution was to attempt to get as many men as possible of the "war service only' regiments, like the 77th, on to transports and on their way to India, before the actual peace treaty was signed.

The commander of the 77th was informed the regiment was being sent to India on December 14, 1782.  Orders to actually embark were issued on January 21, 1783 (note that contrary to Lomax, the "Battle of Portsmouth" took place in 1783, not 1782).

On January 22, the men in the Regiment were told of the impending voyage.  By Saturday the 26th, the Regiment was concentrated in Portsmouth, and boarding of transports was to commence on Monday the 28th

However, on Sunday the 27th, word arrived via London papers that a peace treaty with France and Spain had been signed 6 days before.  This news was stewed upon by the men of the Regiment for the rest of the day - a Sunday, when their time was largely their own and opportunity to "stew" thus existed.  Basically, they felt they were being betrayed by the Government and by their own officers.

Monday January 28 saw several "incidents" in the morning.  The regiment was ordered on parade, in preparation for embarkation, for noon.

Colonel Gordon was known as a martinet by the troops.   As he walked on parade, the troops were muttering in the ranks.  His attempt to silence them ended with an explosion in which several officers - including Gordon - were attacked with deadly intent; although all managed to escape with the aid of junior officers and "loyal" rankers and with various degrees of injury.

Gordon himself was knocked unconscious but dragged to the "Main Guard" of the garrison, closely pursued by a crowd of mutineers determined to kill him.  The thick door of the guardhouse was closed just in time, and as Gordon regained consciousness, the mutineers were clubbing on the door with fists, their musket butts, bayonets - and even firing live ball in to it.  Luckily, it was apparently a stout door.

Gordon realized he was in trouble, so he thought of "an expedient".  Prebble takes up the tale:

     "Someone must go outside, someone who would tell the mutineers that

      he [Gordon] was dying and no longer worth their attention.  The

      Garrison Guard that day was supplied by the 41st Regiment of Invalids,

      and its commander was an old officer with one leg.  Upon his own

      suggestion, or upon Gordon's orders, he limped through the quickly

      opened door and had time enough to shout the message before he was

      thrown aside on a heap of builder's lime.  He would have smothered had

      not some of the Highlanders pulled him free, regretting this rough

      treatment of a disabled veteran with whom they had no quarrel.  What he

      had said was momentarily believed and the grenadiers turned away..."

                                                                                                   (Prebble, pg. 239)

Gordon now realized he had to "get out of town", so he "borrowed" an Invalid uniform of "blue and scarlet" (Prebble, pg. 240) and exited the fortifications.  Aided by a loyal Sergeant, he eventually found his way - now dressed as a common sailor - to a ship's boat, in which he was rowed across to Haslar Hospital in Gosport.  By this time, the mutineers were in full control of Portsmouth proper.

The General in command at Portsmouth, and the Admiral in command of the port and the Royal Naval ships within it, were both stymied.  Part of their dilemma was that they were not sure if the forces under their command would assist in suppressing the mutiny, or would instead immediately join in themselves.

The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth had other ideas and a stouter heart.  Prebble again takes up the tale:

     "...since the King's officers seemed unable to protect his citizens or cleanse

      his streets of riot and mobbing he decided to do so himself...  ...the commander

      of the 41st Invalids was asked to assemble his aging veterans and march them

      against the Highlanders.  They came to the parade-ground in good spirits,

      advancing upon the Main Guard with bayonets fixed until they were stopped

      by sudden shots, by the ragged flash of musketry in the failing dusk.  The firing

      was perhaps intended as a warning, but it wounded two men and killed a third,

      and the Invalids wisely withdrew.  The loss of a life that had survived more

      desperate actions against the King's enemies deeply distressed the Highlanders,

      and their response to it was impulsive and emotional.  Earlier that day they

      had struggled among themselves to crush the skull of [their colonel].  Now they

      wept for an old soldier, and that night they opened a fund for his widow to

      which every man of the regiment eventually subscribed what he could." 

                                                                                                    (Prebble, pg. 242).

Tuesday morning, junior officers of the 77th entered Portsmouth cautiously, hoping to bring the men back to order.  They discovered the Regiment had taken over the town and, except for the fact they would obey only 'normal' routine orders, already were in "good order".

Negotiations were commenced to end the standoff.  The 77th held Portsmouth like a garrison under siege, mounting guards and picquets, and engaging in a normal routine of parades and drills. 

Prebble:  "They came in honour to the burial of the Invalid they had killed, and many of them again wept as the coffin was lowered into its grave" (pg. 246).

News of the successful mutiny spread fast and the threat of a mutiny in nearby regiments and naval units seemed real.  The whole issue became a political football in Parliament; public opinion ended up solidly behind the now well-behaved mutineers of the 77th!

On February 4, the following statement from George Yonge, the Secretary at War, was published in the London Gazette:

        "WHEREAS doubts have arisen with respect to the extent, and meaning of

        His Majesty's orders, dated War Office, Dec. 16, 1775, relative to the terms

        of inlistment[sic] of soldiers since that time in the marching regiments of

        infantry; His Majesty doth hereby declare, That all men now serving in any

        marching regiment, or corps of infantry, who have been inlisted[sic] since

        the date of the said order, shall on the ratification of the definitive treaty of

        peace be discharged, provided they shall have served three years from the

        dates of their attestation;...      and that in the mean time, no person inlisted[sic]

        under the conditions above mentioned, shall be sent on any foreign service..."  

                                                                                        (Prebble, pgs. 254-256).

In other words, the mutineers had won; and not just for themselves, but for all "war-time" regiments.

By April 1783, all the men of the 77th had received their discharges and were happily back in civilian life in Scotland; the "Duke of Atholl's Highlanders" had been disbanded.

Prebble does not record whether any of the men - and especially those who had actually physically attacked officers - received a hard time from their clan leaders once they were back in their glens.

The Outcome.

Mutiny is a serious military offence, and a mutiny that involved life-threatening assaults against senior officers, and the wounding and killing of men in a 'loyal' unit (in this case, the 41st), would normally lead to consequences of the most severe order.  It seems that the men of the 77th were lucky indeed.

Prebble's account of the incident is certainly both more comprehensive and more accurate than that in Lomax and it is disappointing for the historian of the 41st that he did not chose to record the name of the officer involved in assisting the escape of the 77th's commanding officer; nor of the men wounded, nor of the fatality.  The song quoted in Lomax says the fatality was named "Tommy Prawl" but given that virtually every other detail in his account is a little off, it seems just as likely that a name was invented that rhymed with "squall" by the composer of the song.   

Prebble's account does give rise to some interesting observations on the role and effectiveness of the Invalids (41st) and provides fertile ground to speculate on the fallout from this incident, as it relates to the Invalids.

First, it should be noted that the men of the 77th treat the men of the Invalids more as "old veterans who deserve respect", rather than as members of a military formation that they feel poses any real threat to their mutiny.

This attitude to the Invalids comes across clearly in Prebble's account.  For example, their hated colonel is able to walk right through the men of the 77th when disguised as an Invalid. 

The attitude is perhaps most clearly displayed by their subsequent remorseful actions regarding the Invalid they had accidentally killed.

Since Prebble's focus in his account was not on the 41st but rather on the 77th,  this evidence, given as an aside to the main story, resonates most convincingly.

It is also interesting to note that the men of the 77th have a form of respect for the aged veterans of the Invalids, which is at least better than if they had exhibited contempt for them.

Secondly, it should be noted that other than making a rather feeble demonstration at the Lord Mayor's behest, the Invalids neither do much, nor are called upon to do much, to attempt to quash the mutiny or to discharge their guard duties over the important installations of Portsmouth.  The General in command of the Portsmouth garrison evidently didn't feel the Invalids were up to any "serious" intervention. Yet these are men who had been "guarding" Portsmouth for years and presumably had an intimate acquaintance with the port that one would think could have been used with great advantage. 

Instead, the men of the 77th were able to gain complete control over the entire town without any significant resistance.

Which leads to some speculation. 

The Invalids were seen as being an economic use of veterans to guard important installations, thereby freeing up men of "marching" regiments for use in the field.  Yet the one time in their history when the Invalids face a "hostile" force, they prove to be useless. Friendly and respectful Scottish Highlanders simply didn't treat the Invalids as if they constituted a serious military force.

Is it a coincidence that but a few short years later, the decision is taken to turn the 41st in to a normal "marching" regiment?  It would be interesting to investigate any surviving correspondence dealing with this decision. 

The "Battle of Portsmouth" was an event of national importance, debated in Parliament, and the subject of several popular songs as recorded by Lomax and Prebble.  If the Invalids were useless in this scenario, then surely it would be foolish to expect them to put up much resistance to a serious enemy attack.  If they were incapable of defending the Portsmouth defences, then a good part of their raison d'etre was gone.

In their one "trial by battle", and with the suffering of one fatality, the Invalids had been tested and proved wanting.

Luckily for the Regiment, it was reconstituted rather than disbanded. The Regiment's failure at the "Battle of Portsmouth" would be more than redeemed with blood and honour on many a subsequent desperate field.

Jim Yaworsky