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Book cover for Vicious and Immoral featuring the title in a script font at the top, a depiction of Robert Newburgh wearing a purple waistcoat, purple pants, and a tri-corner hat, then the author's name at the bottom.
Vicious and Immoral: Homosexuality, the American Revolution, and the Trials of Robert Newburgh by John Gilbert McCurdy

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In June 1774, Robert Newburgh, the chaplain to the 18th Regiment of Foot “stood accused of ‘Vicious and Immoral Behaviour,’ which broke down into six separate charges: perjury, prevarication, falsehood, ‘Scandalous and Indecent acts,’ conduct ‘Derogatory from the Sacred Character, with which he is Invested,’ and having treated his commanding officer ‘in a Disrespectful manner.’” Stemming from rumors that Newburgh engaged in a same-sex relationship in his native Ireland, the above charges marred his character and his military career. Newburgh, stationed in Philadelphia at the start of the Revolutionary War, spent his time defending himself in multiple court-martials and civil suits, instead of providing the spiritual guidance for which he was hired.

Dr. John Gilbert McCurdy’s newest book, Vicious and Immoral: Homosexuality, the American Revolution, and the Trials of Robert Newburgh, which builds on research from his book, Quarters: The Accommodation of the British Army and the Coming of the American Revolution, uses the trials of Newburgh as a lens to examine queerness during the late 18th century. McCurdy uses the juxtaposition of rebellion and the status quo to illuminate the drastic difference between Britain’s prosecution of men accused of having same-sex relationships and the growing “lack of interest in prosecuting homosexuality” in the burgeoning American republic. This stark contrast can also be seen in Newburgh’s detractors (who wanted to squash rebellion) and his supporters (who eventually fostered sympathy for the American cause).

Read an excerpt about Robert Newburgh’s enlistment of Enlightenment ideals to help defend himself following his arrest and formal charge of engaging in same-sex behavior in the summer of 1774. 

Excerpt

In the spring of 1774, events in America were moving quickly towards crisis. In early May, Lieutenant General Thomas Gage resumed command of His Majesty’s forces in North America. The second son of an aristocratic family, Gage had ascended the ranks of the British army, rising through the officers’ corps until he was named commander in chief of the North American Establishment. Along the way, he married an American woman and fathered eleven children. Gage was an exceptional bureaucrat, but he had no idea how to stop a revolution.

For the past nine months, Gage had been in London, sharing his thoughts on how to suppress American insubordination. He met with the king and prime minister, and he impressed them with his knowledge of colonial affairs. Events had grown steadily worse in America since 1763, and repeated conciliation had not worked; Gage advised taking a harder line.

Gage was in London during the Boston Tea Party and thus was on hand to offer a solution. He identified Boston as the locus of a rebellion and suggested that the empire isolate the city in order to bring the colonies to heel. The result was the Boston Port Act, which closed the main harbor in New England until the colonists paid for the lost tea. This was the first of the Coercive Acts passed by Parliament in the spring of 1774; accompanying legislation allowed British officials to be tried in more sympathetic courts and reorganized the government of Massachusetts. The Coercive Acts were the most strident action yet against the Americans, and the colonial response was expected to be hostile. It followed that Gage should be named governor of Massachusetts, making the commander in chief the chief executive of America’s most rebellious colony.

Gage was also in London when Robert Newburgh joined the Eighteenth Regiment. In Gage’s absence, Major General Frederick Haldimand had managed the British army in North America, handling affairs including military trials. When the general court-martial of Privates Green and Gaffney concluded, Haldimand received a transcript of the proceedings, and he personally approved Green’s reprieve as well as Gaffney’s flogging. Upon Gage’s return, it was expected that Haldimand would relinquish such matters. But the new Massachusetts governor had not time for a buggerer. Gage wanted to focus on quashing rebellion, so he ordered that Haldimand continue to handle the army’s day-to-day matters such as courts-martial.

Much to Gage’s dismay, Newburgh had no intention of letting the matter drop. Even before the three trials in Perth Amboy ended, he demanded that the army intervene. By June 1, 1774, Newburgh had launched suits against three captains to prove that he was not a buggerer. But he remained an object of scorn in the regiment and unable to perform his duties as chaplain. He knew his rights, and he demanded a general court-marital to restore his good name.

Talk of rights was suspect in the summer of 1774. Gage had been sent to suppress declarations of liberty, and Newburgh’s demands struck many officers as insubordinate if not rebellious. Jokes about buggery seemed humorous in the tailors’ room, but when it was revealed that the chaplain helped a private criticize his superiors, no one was laughing. It was also disconcerting how the subalterns rallied to his defense. They were apparently not bothered by his reputation as a buggerer, and this raised questions about their loyalty. 

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As Gage began his task of bringing Boston to heel, he ignored Newburgh’s case. But it was not so easy to separate homosexuality and revolution; both revealed a society turned upside down. The captains in the Royal Irish Regiment were beginning to see this connection, and they could no longer distinguish between the breakdown of the regiment and to the collapse of the empire. Yet these were deeply British sentiments in a land that did not necessarily share them. A rupture was coming, and the subalterns were being drawn to a more liberal view of sexual character. As Robert Newburgh pursued his case, he exposed the ways in which buggery and political divisions overlapped and how they pointed a way forward in the nation to come.

On May 27, 1774, a dozen or so members of the Eighteenth Regiment were quartered in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. That day, the Reverend Robert Newburgh concluded his case against Captain John Mawby, and it was clear that the chaplain had not prevailed against the adjutant and acting quartermaster. Sometime after the court adjourned on that Friday, Private Robert Jeff delivered a letter to deputy judge advocate, Stephen Adye, stating:

“You will be pleased tow acquaint the President of the Courte Martiall that I Dow hear-by axcuse the Revd. Mr. Robert Newburgh Chaplain of the 18th Regiment of Buggery and that I think it improper in me as a private Solder to pay him aney Complimt or call upon him to discharge his Duty untill he is either Condemd or acquitted.”

For the first time, Robert Newburgh stood formally accused of having had sex with a man.

Private Jeff was one of the four tailors who had been court-martialed for gossiping about Captain Benjamin Charnock Payne, and he had traveled to Perth Amboy with other members of the regiment to testify in Green’s trial. Jeff had been born in Yorkshire, England, and as his accusation indicated, had only a rudimentary education. He may have become friends with Newburgh in the tailors’ room or during the trails. Jeff was also married with children, including a newborn, making him conspicuously heterosexual.

According to subsequent testimony, Newburgh “persuaded Jeff to give in a Charge against him.” The plan was clever but convoluted. The chaplain reasoned that once charges were filed, Jeff would be asked where he heard about Newburgh’s buggery, and Jeff would reply that he had learned it from Payne. The captain would then be questioned under oath, and Newburgh could prove once and for all that “Capt. Payne had Called him a Buggerrer.” After that, he could pursue damages against Payne in the Pennsylvania courts.

Newburgh promptly admitted to General Haldimand that he “did desire and consent to Robert Jeff A Soldier in our Regiment to give in the Charge against me.” He even coached Jeff on how to write his charge. As his wife had recently given birth, “Jeff was to say that as his wife might want Churching &ca, he, as a private Soldier, thought it improper to apply to him till his Character was Cleared up,” claimed Gaffney. Apparently, it took some work to convince Jeff to make the accusation, and he almost immediately regretted it. The captains no doubt observed that Newburgh had tempted yet another enlisted man to invite chaos and disorder to the regiment. Of course, with Jeff married, they did not believe that his refusal to spend time with the chaplain was the result of an unwanted advance.

A day after Jeff produced his accusation, Major Isaac Hamilton filed charges of his own. Hamilton had no interest in buggery; rather his concern was Newburgh’s disruptive behavior:

“I Do Accuse the Reverend Mr. Robert Newburgh Chaplain to his Majestys 18th Regimt. Of Foot, of Wilful perjury, Prevarication, & falshood, and of having, by his Vicious and ungentleman like behavior, derogated from the Sacred character with which he is invested.”

Hamilton did not offer any specifics, but the charges were linked to Newburgh’s actions in the tailors’ court-martial and the civil suits against Batt and Payne. Meddling in Gaffney’s case was soon added to the mix. Hamilton handed his charges to Lieutenant Colonel William Nesbitt, who was presiding at the time over the general court-martial in Perth Amboy. Hamilton hoped that the court would take up the case against Newburgh as soon as it was through with Gaffney.

Newburgh agreed. He wrote to General Haldimand on May 29, explaining that he had wanted to court-martial Payne but was told “to prosecute him at Civil Law.” Now that he had been charged with “Crimes notoriously cognisable by the Civil Law,” however, Newburgh worried that a colonial court might try him for sodomy. “I have Reason to fear,” he wrote to Haldiman, “I shall not without your Excellency’s Interposition obtain proper means of Vindicating my Character.” He would agree to drop his civil suit against Payne in exchange for a court-martial.

Colonel Nesbitt, however, had no interest in buggery. Writing to Haldimand on the second day of Gaffney’s trial, Nesbitt washed his hands of Newburgh’s case, which to him seemed “a vexatious, & tedious affair.” Although “some of their Evidence have already been examined (by our mistake) upon the Subject,” he hoped that the general would refuse to order a court-martial, and refer the chaplain “to either a Bishops, or Civil Court.”

Nesbitt’s decision was confirmed by Haldimand. Sending word through the major of the brigade, he ordered that “when the Tryal of Gaffney is Clos’d, You will please to Dismiss all the Parties Concern’d at the Genl. Court Martial to their Respective Quarters.” Although Haldimand thought, he deferred any action until “he has General Gage’s Opinion.” Now that Gage had resumed command, it was his problem. For good measure, Haldimand transmitted “an account of the whole affair” to Gage. Haldimand had no opinion on buggery or the disruptive chaplain other than that “He earnestly wishes this Disagreeable Business had never occurred.”

With the general court-martial unwilling to hear Newburgh’s case, Major Hamilton took alternate measures. On June 1, he arrested the chaplain and ordered him to “be confined to the Barracks.” Hamilton acknowledged that Newburgh stood “accused of having committed a most unnatural Crime” and also cited his “Vicious & ungentlemanlike Behavior,” effectively combining Private Jeff’s charges with his own. Until a general court-martial could be convened, Hamilton ordered that no one “shall apply to the said Mr. Newburgh, as Chaplain, to Discharge the Dutys of his Function” including the holy rites of baptism, marriage, and burial. In his place, the regiment would appoint a substitute to be compensated out of his salary. Not surprisingly, Newburgh was outraged, and he informed Hamilton, “I apprehend you were ill advised to give such an order.” but he had no choice but to comply. Newburgh soon departed Perth Amboy under an armed guard much like the one that had escorted Green and Gaffney to New Jersey two weeks earlier.

By June 4, Robert Newburgh was back in Philadelphia, imprisoned in the barracks. As adjutant, Captain Mawby had the responsibility for incarcerating prisoners, and he no doubt took some pleasure in locking up the man who had court-martialed him only a week before. Because Newburgh was an officer, Mawby could only confine him to his chamber, although this effectively trapped the chaplain in a room he deemed, “the most Inconvenient in the whole Barrack.” At this point, a third accusation was leveled against Newburgh. Because of his hostile response to Hamilton during his arrest, he was also charged with “insolence to his Commanding Officer.” 

As the officers and enlisted men of the Royal Irish returned to the Northern Liberties, they prepared for their second summer in the largest city in British North America. By June, the temperatures in Philadelphia pushed into the 80s, and this quieted complaints about who deserved more firewood. Robert Newburgh would have been accustomed to considerably milder Junes in Dublin. He probably threw open the window to catch a breeze, but confined to his room, he had to watch events in the city from afar.

John Gilbert McCurdy, Vicious and Immoral: Homosexuality, the American Revolution, and the Trials of Robert Newburgh (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024), 139-145.

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