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General Court Martial of John Butler

[Extract of the General Court Martial whereof Major James COUSSEAU was President, held on Staten Island, 28 June 1779 - 3 August 1779.]

Thursday the 29th July 1779.

John BUTLER one of the Militia of Staten Island Confined by order of Major General LESLIE, for willfully and with out provocation shooting a Negro Man belonging to Mr. James LAURENCE.

Mr. James LAWRENCE Inhabitant of Staten Island being duly sworn deposed that he was told Sunday Evening the 18 Inst. his Negro Man was Shot by John BUTLER a Militia Man. That the next morning at day light he was knocked up by Mr. BLAKE the Serjeant of the Guard, who brought the Prisoner BUTLER with him and informed him it was him who Shot the Negro. That he spoke to BUTLER & asked him how he could be so rash, and he replied "he would shoot his Father." That he (Mr. LAWRENCE) went out to Mr. HOLTON'S and there saw the Negro dead upon his Stoop.

        Q:(by the Court) -- Was the Negro sent on any message by you at that time of Night?

        A: No.

Mr. Vincent FOUNTAIN Inhabitant of Staten Island being duly sworn deposed that he and BUTLER were ordered by the Serjeant of the Guard Sunday was eight days, being that night on duty to go and keep a look about the Hay barrack of one MERRILL. That they accordingly went. That BUTLER who was some distance before him Challenged two Negro Men upon the Road; and that he heard one of them answer "friend" once he is certain. That BUTLER then told them to advance one at a time and give the Countersign. That one of the Negroes made some answer but he was too far off to hear what it was: that immediately then BUTLER fired his musquet; that he (the Evidence) ran up and found one of them shot, and he asked the other man what the dying man had said, and he answered he had said "fire." That the Negro was Shot thro' his right hand and thro' his right Side. That he then returned to his post, and asked BUTLER afterwards if the Negro was dead, and he said Yes, and that he had left him in Charge of the other one.

        Q:(by the Court) -- At the time you saw the Negro Shot at what Distance was BUTLER from him?

        A: About Six or Seven Yards.

        Q:(by do) -- Did you afterwards speak to BUTLER upon the Occasion?

        A: Yes I asked him how he could be so rash and he said he would have served his own father so, if he had told him to fire.

        Q:(by do) -- Had you any particular orders from the Serjeant of the Guard with respect to firing when you was Posted?

        A: Yes, the Serjeant told us to Challenge every Person, and if they did not answer to fire upon them.

        Q:(by do) -- Was the Prisoner drunk or Sober at the time?

        A: He was not drunk, he appeared to be a little merry.

        Q:(by do) -- Was you ever upon duty with the Prisoner before, and do you know if he was ready & alert in doing his Duty?

        A: Yes, he was always very ready and willing to do his duty, and to turn out upon every occasion.

Mr. William BLAKE Inhabitant of Staten Island being duly sworn deposed that he was Serjeant of the Guard on Sunday the 18th Instant, that he had occasion to take a Patrole to the new Blazing Star; and before he went, he left the Prisoner BUTLER & one FOUNTAIN to whom he gave the Countersign, with orders to go to the Hay Barrack of one MERRILL to keep a look out upon that Road untill he should return. That he gave the C. Sign in order that they might know his party when they returned. That when he returned, BUTLER informed him that he had Shot a Negro man. That he asked how it had happened, and he replied he had Challenged two upon the Road, and they answered friend; that he told one of them to advance and give the C. Sign, and when advancing the Negro had said "fire," he therefore did fire & killed him: that BUTLER said he would not have fired had not the Negro given him that improper Answer.

        Q:(by the Court) -- At the time of your Quitting the Prisoner and FOUNTAIN that night, did you give them any Orders respecting their Challenging & firing upon any Person that might approach their Post?

        A: No; but the reason why I gave them the C: Sign was because I thought they might fire upon us on our Return.

        Q:(by do) -- Was the Prisoner often on duty with you?

        A: Yes, he never before offered to molest any Person -- he has always been very alert & ready to turn out upon every occasion.

Mr. John GILES a Refugee living on Staten Island being duly Sworn deposed that last Sunday Week after Sunset he was standing in Mr. HOLTON'S House and he heard the Prisoner BUTLER Challenge two Negro Men. That they Answered Friends -- that he then heard BUTLER say he would fire and he ran to the door, and he then did fire. That he (the Evidence) then ran out of the Door and saw the Negro fall: and saw BUTLER loading his Musquet, saying he had Shot him, and he would have the same had it been his Father: that he saw Mr. Vincent FOU[N]TAIN run and take hold of the Negro.

        Q:(by the Court) -- What reason did the Prisoner assign for Shooting the Negro?

        A: He said because he had told him to "fire," which he thought improper.

        Q: (by the Court) -- What was your reason for running to the Door upon hearing the Prisoner threaten to fire?

        A: Because from his Actions a little before, I thought he was a little in Liquor.

The Prisoner John BUTLER being put upon his Defence declared to the Court that he was posted with Vincent FOUNTAIN at a Hay Barrack near MORRILL'S in order to look out upon a Road: That he received the Countersign from FOUNTAIN and afterwards he saw two men coming towards him -- that he Challenged them twice, and they made an answer; then on the third Challenge one answered friend: that he then told one of them to advance and give the Countersign, if he did not he would fire, that the Negro then said fire, which he thinking very improper & not knowing who or what he was, he did fire and Shot him. That he should have been very unhappy to have killed a man willfully & without Provocation, but he really thought he had Provocation sufficient in the execution of his Duty; particularly as he thought the deceased was an Enemy.

The Court having duly considered the Evidence for and against the Prisoner John BUTLER, together with what he had to offer in his Defence, are of Opinion that he is not Guilty of Willfully and without Provocation Shooting a Negro Man belonging to Mr. James LAURENCE, although he was the Cause of his Death from the Line of his Duty, and they do therefore Acquit him of the same.

                                       Jas. COUSSEAU
                                        Major 37th Regt.

Asst. Dep. Judge Advocate

                     H. CLINTON

Great Britain, Public Record Office, War Office, Class 71, Volume 89, pages 445-449.

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