The 4th of July is Independence Day in the United States, marking the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on 4th July 1776. Unsurprisingly given the nature of the conflict between 1775 and 1783, there were many Irish to be found on both sides. Although a departure from the American Civil War focus of the site, given the day that’s in it I wanted to share a brief but remarkable story of the Irish in the American Revolutionary War, the conflict which ultimately won the United States that independence.
The incident was recorded by Sergeant Roger Lamb, who served in America for eight years. Born in Dublin City on 17th January 1756, Lamb grew up with a strong interest in military service– his brother had died as a result of wounds received on a Royal Naval vessel in 1761. In 1773, when he was 17-years-old, Roger lost all his money gambling. He decided to enlist in the army rather than return home to tell his father of his failing. His military career started as a private in the 9th Regiment of Foot and would take him to America– and service during the Revolutionary War. (1)
The Autumn of 1777 found Lamb and his regiment forming part of General John Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, New York, where they hoped to help end the Rebellion. Instead, they suffered two defeats to American forces under General Horatio Gates. Unable to escape, Burgoyne was forced to surrender his army to Gates on 17th October 1777; it was a victory which would see the French enter the war on the side of the Americans, and is often described as the ‘turning point of the American Revolution.’ During the surrender negotiations that October, British and American soldiers were often in plain sight of each other. It was during this period that Roger witnessed the following, surely one of the great chance encounters of military history:
It is a remark which has been made frequently by foreigners of most countries, that there is a feeling, a sensibility observable in the Irish character, which, if not absolutely peculiar to us, forms a prominent feature in our disposition. The following circumstance, of which many then in British as well as American armies were witnesses, may not be altogether unappropriate, particularly to the native reader.
During the time of the cessation of arms [at Saratoga], while the articles of capitulation were preparing, the soldiers of the two armies often saluted, and discoursed with each other from the opposite banks of the river, (which at Saratoga is about thirty yards wide, and not very deep,) a soldier in the 9th regiment, named Maguire, came down to the bank of the river, with a number of his companions, who engaged in conversation with a party of Americans on the opposite shore. In a short time something was observed very forcibly to strike the mind of Maguire. He suddenly darted like lightning from his companions, and resolutely plunged into the stream. At the very same moment, one of the American soldiers, seized with a similar impulse, resolutely dashed into the water, from the opposite shore. The wondering soldiers on both sides, beheld them eagerly swim towards the middle of the river, where they met; they hung on each others necks and wept; and the loud cries of “my brother! My dear brother” which accompanied the transaction, soon cleared up the mystery, to the astonished spectators. They were both brothers, the first had emigrated from this country, and the other had entered the army; one was in the British and the other in the American service, totally ignorant until that hour that they were engaged in hostile combat against each other’s life. (2)
The British Maguire brother has been identified by Don N. Hagist as Patrick Maguire of the 9th Foot. I have not as yet found a candidate for the American Maguire brother. Roger Lamb’s account of the incident attracted attention soon after he wrote it; the story was reported in a number of 19th century publications as well as his own memoirs. Today, this memorable encounter of America’s Revolutionary war is remembered with this historic marker in Saratoga County. (3)
(1) Hagist (ed.) 2004: 2, 7; (2) Saratoga National Historic Park History & Culture, Hagist (ed.) 2004: 54; (3) Hagist (ed.) 2004: 135;
References & Further Reading
Hagist, Don N. 2004. A British Soldier’s Story: Roger Lamb’s Narrative of the American Revolution