The Court Martialed Subaltern
It is perhaps not surprising that military history often focuses on great battles, inspiring leaders and victories that changed the course of history. Arguably as interesting, however, are the smaller human dramas which take place in the background to these “great” events. Though they are often not recorded or remembered by other than those who were there, it is these stories which make the official history richer. One such story that has survived to present day is that of the court martial of Lieutenant Nathaniel Fitzpatrick of the Queen’s Rangers.
It is unclear as to when Lieutenant Fitzpatrick joined the Queen’s Rangers, although some sources indicate that he was heavily involved in its recruiting and that by doing so he earned his commission. His record with the Regiment was decidedly mixed, Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe later testifying that: “[Fitzpatrick] has behaved remarkably gallant, but in other respects very negligent and inattentive.”
Fitzpatrick was an ensign at the battle of Brandywine, managing to survive the day unscathed. Twelve of the Regiment’s approximately thirty officers were wounded or killed during the battle, and Fitzpatrick benefited from this by being promoted into a vacant Lieutenant’s position on the 19th of September.
In late 1777, the Regiment was housed in Philadelphia and took part in raids using that city as a base. In early March of 1778, the Regiment was detailed to travel by boat to Salem County, New Jersey to conduct extended foraging operations. Lieutenant Fitzpatrick applied for and was granted a leave of absence in order to “take a cure” for a “violent venereal disorder,” likely gonorrhea.
While the Regiment was away, Lieutenant Fitzpatrick began an affair with a Ms. Mary Duché. This was itself not remarkable, excepting for the fact that she was the live-in mistress of his company commander, Captain James Murray, who was away on operations.
During the course of their affair, Fitzpatrick transmitted his disease to Ms Duché, who duly passed it on to Captain Murray upon his return at the end of the month. This caused Captain Murray to become “disordered” and to be declared unfit for duty.
Lieutenant Fitzpatrick apologized to his Company Commander, and likely out of a desire for the whole matter to remain private and be quickly forgotten, Captain Murray accepted his apology and let the matter drop. Unfortunately for Fitzpatrick, it did not end there.
At the urging of another officer, Captain John Ross, the subalterns took public exception to Fitzpatrick’s behavior, ejected him from their Mess and refused to do duty with him in future. At a time when the Mess was not only centre of social life for the Officers, but also their literal home, this would have presented a serious problem for Fitzpatrick.
When Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe became aware of Fitzpatrick’s ejection and the reasons for it, he was incensed. He wrote to the subaltern which stated that Fitzpatrick was “not sensible of the Injury he had done to his own Character and to the Corps in General,” and that Simcoe therefore demanded that Fitzpatrick resign his commission. Fitzpatrick wrote a letter in return, refusing to resign. As a result, the matter was sent to a General Court Martial.
The court martial was a drawn out affair lasting approximately five days, during which time nearly every subaltern and many captains in the Regiment were called as witnesses. Ms Duché also testified, admitting that she had “lain” with both Fitzpatrick and Murray, though denying that she was “poxed.”
After a short deliberation, the court found Fitzpatrick “not guilty of behaving in a scandalous, infamous manner unbecoming the character of an Officer and Gentleman.” It also stated, however, that “the Court is of the opinion that his behavior was highly improper and he is therefore adjudged to make a public apology.” The exact reason for the acquittal was not given, though it can be guessed that Murray’s acceptance of the apology and his refusal to make a formal complaint against Fitzpatrick played a role. Interestingly, the fact that Murray had a live-in mistress or even that Fitzpatrick had “lain” with her did not seem to raise any eyebrows given the matter-of-fact testimony that is recorded.
Fitzpatrick did make the public apology as directed and he was accepted back into the Mess, though his story from that point onwards suggests that his service was unhappy. From this point onwards, he is consistently noted for his bravery, perhaps due to efforts on his part to erase the earlier blemish on his service. As an example, during the Battle of Blandford (Petersburg) in April, 1781, his behavour bordered on foolhardy. Taking only a small party of men with him, he rowed out into a river occupied by a small American fleet to capture the damaged sixteen-gun frigate, the Tempest. From there he pushed onwards, largely on his own, to capture three more vessels.
In September of that year, Fitzpatrick was wounded and captured by the Americans. Although it was customary at the time for officers to be paroled and later exchanged in relatively short order, in his case this never occurred. Whether this is because the Regiment took no interest in his fate, or for some other reason, it is not known. There is no further record, however, of him having rejoined the Regiment, even as it was evacuated from New York in 1783.
Although many Rangers settled in New Brunswick after the war, neither is there any record of Nathaniel Fitzpatrick having joined them. He is believed to have died on the 25th of October, 1790, and to have been buried at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in St John’s, Newfoundland.