Campaigns of John Corbett
A Peninsular War Veteran
who served in Spain and America
There are several members of the
Corbet/t Study Group researching this family.
The father of this John was
another John who married Elizabeth Taylor at High Ercall
(pronounced Arkle) in 1774 and died in 1786, a pauper of Roden, High
Ercall. (The grandfather of John the veteran, was another John Corbett of Roden, High Ercall.)
The Corbets had connections
with High Ercall in the seventeenth century. Apart from
Ludlow, High Ercall was the last Royalist garrison in
Shropshire to hold out against the Roundheads.
Vincent Corbett raised a force known as Ercall's Dragoons
Shropshire in 1642. They fought at Whitchurch and Nantwich, garrisoned High Ercall in 1645 and helped
defend Moreton Corbet castle (which was eventually burnt)
in 1645. (See Ottleiana and Sir Vincent
Most of High Ercall Hall, which
had a moat and drawbridge, has vanished and just a few
ruins remain. Locals say that the base of the tower of
the nearby St Michael's church was caused by people
sharpening their spears on it! (Recently 'Time Team' focussed one of
their programmes on the house and church at High Ercall.)
The churchyard contains a
sundial which for some reason also records the time in
Jerusalem, Rome and Plymouth, Massachusetts. There are
also some almshouses built in 1694 and the local pub is
the Cleveland Arms.
High Ercall sits in the centre
of a triangle between Shrewsbury to the south west,
Wellington south east and Moreton Corbet in the north.
All are about 6 miles from Childs Ercall. Nearby are the
familiar Corbet village names of Sundorne, Uffington,
Battlefield, Shawbury and High Hatton.
We are right in the heart of
Corbet country at High Ercall and this will possibly
hinder the search for more details about the ancestry of John who married
Elizabeth and had six children. All but the last appear
to have been baptised with the name spelt CORBITT.
Richard baptised 1775, John baptised 1780, Susannah
baptised 1783, Elizabeth baptised 1787, another John
baptised 1790 and Thomas Corbett baptised 1792.
The researcher, with a little
help, has discovered some gems about John, the Peninsular
War veteran, who's military record shows that he did fight at all the
places he mentioned.
For a start, when he enlisted in the 85th
Foot on 2 April 1813 a description was taken. 5' 5"
tall, 20 years, fresh complexion, hazel eyes, brown hair,
round face, born at High Ercall, Salop. Trade: nailor.
Attested at Plymouth on 2 April 1813. Period: unlimited
service. By whom enlisted: From the Shropshire Militia.
Discharged: 20 November 1818. Reason for discharge:
Reduction in Establishment. (Also mentioned in the
Shropshire Militia Musters are: private William Corbett
present on duty at Plymouth on 24 March 1813, having been
released from the custody of the Civil Power for a
criminal offence on 15 March 1813; and Private Edward
This brings us to the time
mentioned in the following article which appeared in the
Pontypool Free Press on 10 February 1872.
John (baptised in 1790) married in 1817 and his children
were all born in Wales. The value of the piece is, of
course, the fact that John Corbett was recalling facts
about his own life and not repeating hearsay, a lesson
and reminder to us all to write a brief history of our
own lives for our great grandchildren.
The occasional historical or
geographical reference is given for those (like me) who
have perhaps left their school days far behind.)
George the third
was the king of Great Britain and Napoleon, Emperor of
France, was proceeding towards his greatest defeat that
of his invasion of Russia in 1812. He had decreed in 1806
that Britain was in a state of blockade and forbade
France and her allies to trade with her. Portugal refused
and he invaded Portugal. (Portugal is our oldest ally.)
He then crowned his brother king of Spain against the
wishes of the Spaniards who appealed to the British for
assistance. 1808 to 1813 saw Wellington methodically wage
a successful Peninsular campaign. The early part of the
following covers this period.
Press on 10 February 1872.
The Campaigns of
John Corbett, A Peninsular War Veteran
Many of the
Pontypool people will remember old John Corbett, who was
for many years a nailor employed by Messrs. Davies and Sandbrook, and who died April 1st 1871, at the ripe age
of 82 years. Many of them will probably read with
interest the following yarns of the old man, who had in
his younger days seen many moving perils 'by flood and
field'. The account was taken down from the veteran's
lips by Mr Elias Vaughan, who has been good enough to
hand it to us for publication, and we think we may
suitably do that in the columns of The Free Press.
Old John's story
runs as follows:
'Born at Roden in Shropshire in 1792, at nine years of
age I was apprenticed to a nailer; I ran away from my
employment at the age of 14 and came to Wales in 1805. I
there joined the local militia in Cardiff, and got two
guineas bounty. I left Wales in 1808 and returned to Shropshire. While passing through Ludlow, I met a
recruiting sergeant, and enlisted in the Shropshire Milita, with ten guineas bounty, and marched to join the
regiment at Plymouth. I served six months in the militia,
and then volunteered for life, with sixteen guineas
bounty, ino the 85th Regiment (the Duke of York's Own
Infantry), under the command of William Saunton. There
were staying at Plymouth, six militia regiments and they
all volunteered for different regiments. I marched to the
town of Ile in Kent; when I arrived I was rigged out with
regiment clothes, and the next morning I was had out for
drill: the bugle sounded the "rouse" at four in
the morning, and we had to wash ourselves at the pump;
after this we had to use the dumb-bells for an hour and
learn to salute the officers. In the short time we formed
the regiment, and I was transferred to Captain
Cottingham's company. We went through field-days, and on
the last field-day we went through drill with ball-cartridge,
and we wounded three men who had to be taken to hospital.
Soon after we had
to march for Dover. When we got there, we were put on
board ship, and sailed for the Downs, where we dropped
anchor for thre days, to get in our luggage, and then we
set sail for Spain. We arrived at a place called Passage,
near to San Sebastian. (San Sebastian is near the French/Spanish
border on the Bay of Biscay.) When we got into harbour,
new clothes were served out to us, and we were then put
ashore. We there commenced to dig entrenchments and erect
batteries and put outlying pickets. The first caution I
received was from the example of a corporal who got drunk
on duty. He was tried by Court-Martial, and was sentenced
to three hundred lashes. In a short time after, two
others were tried by Court-Martial for losing ammunition.
One had a boil about the size of an egg. This came into
contact with the tree that he was tied to; it burst, and
he had to be taken to hospital. The other was sentenced
to three hundred lashes but had to be taken to the doctor
before the punishment was completed.
We laid siege to
San Sebastian, and seven companies of our regiment went
out in boats, near the castle, to draw the attention of
the French. The storming party took the town; part of the
38th Grenadiers were blwon up by an undermine, and the
French surrendered with the honours of war. They were
sent off to England, guarded by some Portuguese.
We marched from
San Sebastian to the banks of the river Irhone, (Irun?)
which runs between the Pyrenees mountains. We went close
to the river, and a council of war was held by the Duke
of Wellington, the result of which was that a fatigue
party was ordered to bring the guns up to the heights.
They were drawn up by twenty four mules. In a day or two
afterwards, we were ordered to ford the river, as the
bridge had been burned down by the French. We had to load
while crossing the river, but we drove the enemy from the
opposite side by the help of the artillery on the
heights, and we chased them for six miles onto a plain.
Here we made a halt. Part of out company was ordered to
the rear as a fatigue party to the river.
We made a bridge
of the boats to bring the artillery over, and went
through the river about a dozen times. After the guns
were over, we were ordered to join the regiment. We lay
in our wet clothes all that night. We remained on the
plain for three weeks. The colonel came up one evening
and told the company to fall in, as he expected they
would be engaged the following morning, and he hoped
every man would do his duty for his country. The
sergeants were called to the front and received orders
that if any man fell out of the ranks he was to be shot
on the spot. We were ordered to be in readiness three
hours before daylight.
On the approach of
daylight we got up and advanced within a few yards of the
outlying picket, and we saw the French Cavalry advanced
post in a village. The signal gun was fired, and we
rushed upon the enemy, and drove them out of the village.
We occupied the place, and found that the streets were
full of hogsheads of stones etc. The pioneers were
ordered to the front to clear these, in order to bring
forward the artillery. We found, on occupying the
village, some ovens red-hot to bake the French bread, and
bakers were ordered from the different regiments to bake
the bread which the French had left in their flight. I
got a 2 lb loaf, which I thought a good treat, having
eaten nothing but biscuit for some time previously. The
enemy was firing on the village the whole day, and in the
night they came down upon us, all drunk. When they came
on the verge of the hill, we gave them a volley, and they
retired without any further resistance.
We laid in a church during the night. One of our men had
plundered a bag of money, but was caught by the Provo-Marshal
and brought before the Colonel. By order, some of our men
took him into the Church and tied him to a pillar, and
flogged him the next morning.
We pursued the
enemy till they came to Juan de Lis. There we caught them
on the bridge crossing the river in time to prevent them
burning the whole of it. They left sufficient for us to
put planks upon, but most part of the army had to ford it.
We crossed the river and followed them till we came to
another village in France; from thence we pursued them to
Bayonne. We then retreated back to our cantonments and
left the Fifth Division to hold the ground.
Next morning the
enemy sallied out of Bayonne and drove the division back
on the village. The bugle sounded the alarm, and the 85th
were ordered to the front. We fought the foe for three
dayys - on January 9th, 10th and 11th - before they
retreated into Bayonne. During the whole of these three
days we were without food. On the fourth day the biscuit
arrived, but we were only served with half allowances.
The French had occupied a wood before the town. We drove
them out of the wood into the town, which we surrounded.
(Note: The land from the border to beyond Bordeaux, known
as Gascony, had up until the end of the 14th century
belonged to England. English kings swore fealty to the
French king for these lands. They were lost in Edw III's
belonging to our regiment, who were on picket, were found
drunk on their advanced post. They were tried by Court
Martial and sentenced to three hundred lashes each. They
were flogged on the Sunday morning, our regiment reading
church prayers. The French perceived our condition and
opened fire upon us, and we were forced to retire for one
and a half miles to finish flogging the culprits. We
stayed around Bayonne for a considerable time.
One morning the
enemy sallied out, about two o'clock, and drove us back.
When daylight appeared we surrounded them. Sir John Hope,
commander of the First Division, was wounded and taken
prisoner by the French; Lord Hay was killed the same
morning. We laid here till peace was made.
(Notes: Sir John Hope was the 4th Earl of Hopetoun (1765-1823).
He served at the Battle of Alexandria (1801) and under
Moore in Spain where he distinguished himself at the
retreat to Corunna (1808). (Where Sir John Moore was
mortally wounded. Many will remember the poem.) The siege
of San Sebastien, which appeared in the first part of
John Corbett's tale, occurred in 1813. The Peninsula War
ended the following year with Napoleon banished to Elba.
Bibliography: Chamber's Biographical Dictionary.)
passed us and went up the country and fought a battle at
De Lewis. We marched through Bayonne, after peace was
concluded, and made our way for Bordeaux. We were put in
prison outside Bordeaux to prevent plundering in the
night. Next morning we marched for Bordeaux camp. From
there we marched for Cognac from which place we went on
an expedition to America on board the Diadem troopship of
sixty guns. We sailed out of Cognac harbour, under the
command of General Ross. The force at his disposal
numbered only 8,500 men. The first port we put into was
St Michael's, occupied by the Spaniards. The Spanish
ladies and gentlemen came on board and danced with the
officers. We weighed anchor from thence in a calm,
consequently we were on short rations and water.
One of the
soldiers stole some water out of the tank, and was
reported by one of the marines on duty. Next morning he
was brought up before the Captain and received seventy-two
lashes by the boatswain's mate. Our colonel stood by,
looking on, and never spoke a word. We sailed on till we
came to Bermuda. There the vessel got on a rock. We were
put on board the Fleece transport and sailed for America.
We arrived in the
Chesapeake River. They landed us at a place called Benedicite. From there we marched for Nottingham, and
from Nottingham to Malbury. We found a field of potatoes
of about one and a half acres and we were only an hour
digging the whole up with our bayonets. My portion was a
haversack full. I entered a house close by and found a
ham of bacon and we made a good mess. We marched from the
last place to Bladenburgh and took post here, the
Americans being in force. The English were far less
numerous but were men who had fought under Wellington in
the Peninsula. On a bridge over the Potomac were planted
fourteen pieces of cannon. We marched down to the village
at the bottom, the Americans never attempting to fire a
shot. One of the Americans came over to our Colonel on
horseback. He was ordered to dismount and go to the rear.
Upon this the Americans opened fire.
(The Potomac is formed from the junction of two streams
14 miles below Cumberland in Maryland. The main river
follows a S.E. course of 365 miles and enters Chesapeake
Bay by an estuary from 2 to 7 miles broad and nearly 80
miles long. Washington is the capital of U.S.A. and
stands on the left bank of the Potomac. Bibliography:
World Pictorial Gazeteer, Ed. Hammerton.)
On our side of the
bridge was a storehouse with provisions. Our Colonel
ordered us to shelter in the building and there we filled
our canteens with whiskey. We had orders to take the
bridge. In doing so we suffered severely from the
American batteries; but we advanced and drove the enemy
into hopeless confusion. They fled towards Washington.
Colonel Saunton was severely wounded; also Colonel Brown
and Colonel Wood, and several distinguished officers.
Other regiments advanced on the same evening and entered
quietly into Washington. Our regiment was ordered to
remain behind to take refreshment. We were all around an
old Scotch farmer's house. There we put out sentries in
case we should have an attack. We received a few shots
from the wood. I and my comrade and a few others were
ordered to scour the woods. I refused to go. For that the
sergeant reported me to the superior officer. The officer
came and asked me the reason why I did not go. I told him
I was quite willing to go on condition that my comrade
should stay and mind the mess that was then on the fire.
He consented to this and blamed the sergeant for
reporting it. We had not gone far into the wood before up
jumps an American out of the ditch and prayed for mercy.
A corporal that was with us raised his gun and shot him
dead. The officer justly called the corporal a d....d
coward. The murdered man turned out to be the Scotch
Orders came that
the regiment must advance on the city as quickly as
possible. We put the old farmer on horseback as a guide,
but he refused to go, saying the Americans would hang him.
The aide-de-camp told him that if he would not consent to
go he would hang him himself. Twenty-four men were
ordered to fall out and run him through with their
bayonets. Upon this, the old farmer consented. His
services were not required, for when we got a little
further on we saw Washington in flames. We could see for
miles around. The farmer was dismissed and sent back. We
entered the city and saw the Parliament House, the
President's residence, and the bridge over the Potomac
were destroyed. General Ross had orders to destroy or
hold to ransom all public buildings. He offered to spare
the national property if a certain sum were paid to him,
but the Americans declined his proposal. Thence the ruin.
The navy yards and arsenal were destroyed by the
Americans themselves. The President's house was pillaged
by the soldiers before it was burned. These devastations
were effected in obedience to peremptory orders from the
British Government (August 24th 1814). We retired the
same evening to Bladenburg.
The next day the
greatest hurrican occurred that ever was known in these
parts. We marched from Bladenburg to Nottingham, and went
on board the Fleece, and sailed from thence to Baltimore.
There we marched through woods and swamps. We formed
three companies of the 4th, 24th and 21st Regiments. Our
company was left in the rear. The others advanced.
In a short time
the doctor was called for with all speed. Our company
advanced as quickly as possible and came to a large tree,
and there found General Ross lying wounded; he expired
before morning. He said before he died that if the 85th
Regiment had been on the advance guard he would have been
saved. We advanced till we came to a plain between two
woods. On the top of the wood lay the American arm
waiting for us. After we had made a halt for a half-an-hour
we were ordered to surround them. Two companies went
through the wood; the rocket brigade sent in a few
rockets; the bugle sounded to advance, and we fired as we
went on. We cleared a small brook that was near, and when
we got to the other side, we, with a yell, rushed at them
and drove them close to Baltimore.
The Americans were
ready with a force of 2,500 men, encamped on Shooter's
Hill. They lay there for three days without firing a shot.
The orders came late in the evening to take the hill at
the point of the bayonet. The orders were annulled and we
had to make bonfires at the foot of the hill and retreat.
We marched all night, and near the spot where we fought
the carcases began to smell. Before dawn of day, the
American horsemen were close to our heels, but we fired a
volley and they dispersed. We went on board the Fleece,
and sailed down the Chesapeake, and made out way to the
When sailing by
the island of San Domingo, an American privateer
encountered us. Both captains tried to correspond by
signals. Our men were ordered below and not to show their
red jackets, because if the privateer had known what we
were he would have stood at a distance and sunk us. Our
vessel was only slightly armed and not adapted for sea
fighting; while the enemy's vessel was a man-of-war, well
armed. We made our way on for Jamaica, the privateer
keeping to windward of us all morning. At last she bore
down upon us. As soon as she came within reach, we leaped
on deck, and fired till the Americans were all cleared
from the deck. Every man that went to the wheel was shot
In company with us was a bomb vessel, and the privateer
got entangled in her, but owing to our not having any
grappling irons to hold her the American ship got away.
That privateer was the greatest tyrant on the coast. She
went by the name of Saucy Jack. We made our way for
Jamaica and put in at Port Royal.
We staid at the last named place for a consideable time
and got on board some of all the vegetables the country
produced, also spruce beer. At last we weighed anchor and
We put in at North Bay. There our men (were) brought on
deck to see one of the 21st Fusiliers hung on board a
troop-ship. His crime arose from a trifling thing, merely
purchasing a bottle of rum and (for?) his mess of a boat
that was passing. On his coming on board the sergeant on
duty asked what he had got. The soldier showed it and the
sergeant took it and threw it overboard. The man walked
away without uttering a sentence, and went below and took
a firelock, loaded it and came on deck, and blew the
sergeant's head clean off his body. He then threw the
firelock down, and delivered himself up to the
authorities, and was hanged. We made our way from thence
to New Orleans, and arrived in due course, and sailed up
the lakes as far as we could go and then cast anchor.
Shortly afterwards a boat was manned by some sailors, who
went to attack some American gun-boats. These made a
short resistance, but were boarded immediately. We took
all the boats available and rowed up the river, under
command of Captain Gordon, of the Seahorse Frigate. There
was on board with us an Indian Chief. We went as far as
possible with our boats up the small river and landed
amidst some bulrushes and bogs. After passing through
these for a distance of a mile, I saw some huts with
blacks. We made our way till we arrived on a large plain
and here we pitched our tents, near the Mississippi River.
That night two companies went out on picket. As soon as
darkness set in, a sloop-of-war was sent speeding its way
down river till it came opposite our camp. It then opened
a brisk fire upon us, to the astonishment of the soldier
on duty. In a short space of time a body of men appeared
before us. The usual call was uttered, but no answer was
given. The captain ordered us to fall back. We retired in
extended order, and were ordered not to fire, but went
down between the files and challenged the Americans. Capt
Shaw called out and asked if our assailant was Major
Mitchell of the 95th Rifles, which had not come up. The
American Commander said he would let us know who he was.
With that Capt Shaw retired to our lines and never
uttered a sentence. When we perceived whom we had to deal
with, we let fly at them and reloaded as fast as possible.
My nearest comrade was shot through the head as we were
climbing the railing. We kept up the fire until night set
in, and then we returned to the camp, and waited for the
Rifles to come up. The Americans came down and demanded
that we should surrender or they would put us all to
death. The Colonel ordered us in a whisper to form a
single file, that the rifles should unsheath their
swords, and that we should fix bayonets and charge them.
That we did in gallant style, taking 300 prisoners. The
Americans called us the Indians. We were under arms the
whole night and a few rockets were kept in readiness for
the morning. We were obliged to keep ourselves under
shelter owing to the sloop and a brig which were blazing
at us. We put up a few batteries, and left about half a
yard of mould before th muzzles of the guns. Then we got
some bricks from the sugar manufactory that was near, and
also some iron bars and railings, and made red hot shot.
At dawn of day we cut the mould from before the guns and
opened fire on the sloop. The magazine exploded and blew
the vessel to atoms. The men cut the cable of the brig
and towed her up the river. We sent a few shots after
them, but the distance was too far for us to make any
We advanced to New Orleans, the defence of which was
entrusted to General Jackson. There a canal had been cut
and we were enabled to enter in the dead of the night.
Consequently we retreated to our camps and awaited the
advance of General Pakenham. The reinforcements arrived,
and we made another advance. The 44th Regiment was
prepared to cross the canal with ladders to scale the
batteries; and our Colonel volunteered to cross the
Mississippi river and take their flank battery. The
sailors drew up the boat and the signal gun was fired,
but it was fired too soon. Notwithstanding this, we took
all the batteries, and threw the guns into the river.
General Pakenham failed in his attempt on the batteries
that side, owing to Colonel Williams of the 44th not
being with the men to command. Williams was tried by
court-martial and was cashiered for cowardice at New
We retreated from New Orleans after several weeks of toil
at the batteries and trenches. Then we went down a small
river and came to Cat Island. There we landed, and were
put on board the American gun-boats and sailed down the
river till we came to Dolphin Island. While we were on
sentry we heard the cries of the alligators. Proceeding
to where we heard the cries we found one of these beasts
23 feet long, also one 18 feet long, which we dispatched.
We sailed from thence in the Thames frigate, and put in
at Havannah, and went from that place to Bermuda. We
changed our ship there, and went on board a man-of-war
and made our way to England.
When we arrived in
the English Channel a boat came alongside with newspapers
and we learned that Bonaparte was liberated from Elba and
was on his way to France. The officers were consequently
full of glee, in the expectation of another campaign. On
our arrival at Spithead, we were put into an old vessel
and sailed around the coast of Dover. Casting anchor, we
lay for two nights expecting reinforcements to our depot
to send us to France. We then only numbered 100 men. We
were put ashore at Dover, and we marched from the Isle in
Kent, and from thence to Canterbury; from thence to
Chatham; and from thence to Manchester.
At Manchester we
received our Peninsular prize money. The private's lot
amounted to £2.14s; a sergeant's to 11. We marched
from Manchester to Wolverhampton; from Wolverhampton to
Liverpool; from Liverpool to Chester, from Chester to
South Wales. Half of our company was sent to Pontypool,
and the other half to Tredegar. During my stay at
Pontypool the Chartist riots occurred, and here I
received my first American prize money, amounted to £1 4s.
We marched from Pontypool to Plymouth, where the
reduction in the army took place. They broke up all 2nd
battalions, and discharged out of my regiment 300 men,
reducing it to 500 strong. I was one of the discharged.
Colonel Brown signed my discharge and told me to make the
best of my way homewards. My discharge was that my
general conduct was good; that I had never been tried by
court-martial, and was fit to serve in his Majesty's
Service. (George III) I made my way to Pontypool. My
discharge took place in the month of November in the year
1818. I never applied for the second American prize
money, but was told by another old veteran that the
amount was forfeited in the hospital fund. Since 1818 I
have remained in Pontypool.
Peace to thy
memory, old John Corbett.'