The Corbett One Name Study


The 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. 

Sir 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 Corbet's Dragoons.)

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 Corbett.)

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.

Pontypool Free 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 time.)

Three men 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.)

Several regiments 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 farmer's son.

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 West Indies.

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 down.
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 set sail.
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 effort.
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 Orleans.
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 œ11. 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.'