Who shot Major Peirson?

This is the front page headline in tonight's Jersey Evening Post, on the 236th anniversary of the Battle of Jersey! Local historian Doug Ford, who has previously researched and published a short book and other articles on the battle and John Singleton Copley's famous painting "The Death of Major Peirson", describes a number of the lesser known facts and theories on the battle, including the one that Major Peirson was a victim of friendly fire.

Although the battle is relatively recent in comparison to some of the medieval battles fought in the Island, the descriptions of the battle written in the immediate aftermath are coloured by a number of factors, which I will come back to, which have left the majority of us less than clear about what really happened. The other major factor in how most people, both in the past and present, view the battle, and upon which they base a significant part of their knowledge, is Copley’s painting, the original of which hangs in the Tate Gallery. This is the painting which appears on our Battle of Jersey Tour page http://www.historyalive.je/tours/battle-of-jersey-military-history-guided-coach-bus-tours/

The “problem”, and as Doug Ford reminds us in tonight’s article, is that it has been long known by historians that Copley painted it as a commercial enterprise in order to sell hundreds of prints of it to the public. The Battle of Jersey, albeit a minor affair in comparison to other battles in the American War of Independence, which had spread to Europe by the entry of the French into the war, was nonetheless a British victory, sorely needed after a number of earlier defeats in the war. The patriotic British desperately wanted to recognise a hero, and now they had one in Major Peirson. With that in mind, Copley and his publisher saw an opportunity with an eager paying public, but the product would have to be tailored for maximum commercial gain.

With that, and bearing in mind that the paying public were mainly English rather than from other parts of Britain (because Copley and his publisher were based in London), out went the Scottish Highland 78th Regiment who had played a leading role in the Battle. In came the English Redcoats appearing to be taking the lead in the battle, and the kilted Highlanders are relegated to the background and on top of the hill behind the main battle scene. The most prominent Scotsman is a dead one immediately in front of Peirson’s group. Otherwise we see the tall brave English Grenadiers advancing into battle, bayonets fixed.

There is also the curious figure of the black servant of Major Peirson avenging his master’s death by shooting the leader of the French invaders, Baron de Rullecourt. Apart from the fact that Peirson didn’t have a black servant (a fellow officer who was on leave did have one, and it might have been that Peirson did employ him on a casual basis whilst usual master was away), one has to ask the question, what was an untrained and armed civilian doing in the frontline? The answer is profit – a black servant, prominently positioned and avenging his master, was probably deemed an aid to selling prints, and other paintings of the period had exhibited similar themes of the romantic “noble savage”. “Pompey” as the man in the painting has been named (presumably as coming from, or more likely having first arrived in Britain in Portsmouth), is, as Doug Forde has researched, probably an amalgam of a couple of black servants who had been in the employ of the other officer and who was conveniently named “Pompey” for the purpose of the painting.

The dramatic collapse of Peirson into the arms of his colleagues, and the positioning of the troops of both sides is somewhat fanciful even based on the written descriptions of the battle. The Battle was certainly much more chaotic. A print by Graham Colley which was produced in the weeks after the battle (unlike Copley’s painting unveiled 3 years later) is probably more representative. It is a view from the opposite side of the town market place where the battle was fought and is probably looking in the direction of where Peirson entered the market place, and which is the position of Copley’s view.

So who shot Major Peirson? None of the period accounts are clear. What is apparent is that there was real confusion in the battle and the British were advancing into the market place from 3 directions , two of which were actually facing each other. There were also Highland troops probably firing down from the Town Hill over the heads of their colleagues who had got the base of the hill before them. Local militia men, following the Regular Redcoats could not even see the French who were hemmed into the market place. Not wishing to miss out on the fight, the accounts say that the Militia fired wildly in the direction of battle unsighted.

One of the main written accounts of the day’s events came from Major Corbett, who was the Lieutenant Governor and military commander-in-chief of the Island. Unfortunately he had been captured by the French earlier in the day and spent the battle a prisoner of the French, resuming command of the British forces only after the point of victory. Corbett knew that he would have to answer for his weakness of capitulating and ordering the Island’s garrison and militia to surrender to the French (thankfully Peirson and the other troops did not follow Corbett’s order) and so his account focussed on and attempted to put himself in a better light for the likely court-martial. (He was later court-martialled and dismissed from office, the court martial records focussing on his role rather than the battle itself)

Other accounts of participants and witnesses reflected on the lead up to the battle and complained about the actions of Corbettt who had put the Island at great risk of being fully occupied. Other witnesses perhaps didn’t see as much as they would have liked – for example, the young militia officer, who had been with Peirson in what was a back street, with the main battle site mostly hidden from view by buildings, before he had been withdrawn from the “field” wounded. His account is written as he is recovering from his wounds in the days after the battle and is coloured by his desire to be seen to have played his part in the heroic battle. One later account written by the author Robert Beatson attempting to piece all the strands together, describes the confusion of the battle and that the 78th and 95th Regiments (the latter with Peirson at its head) were advancing into the market place at the same time from opposite directions, and there being much musket fire from all sides. However he then blandly says that Peirson was hit by “an unlucky ball from the enemy” at that point. It is very difficult to get a really accurate picture of what happened and there are contradictions of timing between most of the accounts.

So was Major Peirson killed by friendly fire as suggested? It is quite possible. It would have been mayhem in the old market place. Some 600 or so French men, bottled up by a much greater advancing force of nearly 2000 or so Regulars and Militia men, converging on an area less than the size of a football pitch along narrow roads and all eager to be able to claim that they played their part by dispatching the invading enemy. When two friendly forces are attacking an enemy directly positioned between them, it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that some of the musket fire will miss the enemy soldiers and strike whatever is behind them. Most of the those British troops following the vanguard, as we have already said, couldn’t even see the French as they blindly shot their muskets as they sought the action of the battlefield in the market place.

The invading enemy had been defeated and British territory saved! The public and the State had a hero, a dead one at that who had died at the moment of victory.  All was good again after the bad news from earlier in the war. It didn’t really matter at the time as to exactly who shot the hero of the hour! It must have been a lucky shot from a Frenchman!

But today we want to know. It’s the sort of thing that is important. Personally, and based on my own research, I am inclined to agree with Doug Ford’s conclusion. It doesn’t make Major Peirson any less a hero and someone who, one can honestly say, had a defining but brief role in Jersey’s history.

Marc Yates

Jersey Military Tours