The British Army’s Desertion Problem.
By Dr. Steve M. Baule
Desertion was a major concern to all of the European armies of the middle and
late 18th century. Armies were not made up of the professional rank and file of later
centuries. Most armies did have the beginnings of a true professional non-commissioned
officer cadre, but this group was still a crude prototype outside of Prussia. With
the majority of recruits being forced into enlistment either by conscription (the
German states) or economic circumstances (Great Britain), it is not difficult to
postulate a high rate of desertion among those same recruits when better offers appear
on the horizon. This was especially true due to the long length of enlistments for
soldiers (Great Britain - life, Russia - 25 years). Unlike Americans, the British
were forced to return to the far side of the Atlantic for new recruits, a difficult
and time consuming process.
Desertion was particularly problematic for the British troops stationed in North America as tensions escalated from colonial unrest to armed rebellion. As many as one third of the troops who came to America in some British regiments deserted. In some of the German units sent to America, even larger numbers deserted their colors. American colonists who enlisted in the British regiments were notorious for deserting from the early 1770s into the beginning of hostilities. The only place desertions were not a significant problem was the Illinois country and other isolated posts where hostile Indians, Frenchmen, and Spaniards made desertion less desirable than garrison life.
As early as 1768, colonists were put on trial for trying to entice soldiers to leave their colors. A county man name Geary was tried by the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts superior court in November, 1768 charged with enticing soldiers to desert from the regiments stationed in Boston at that time. The Pennsylvania Gazette was happy to see Geary get off, as they editorialized that the soldiers would have taken advantage of the citizens if Geary had been found guilty.
However, many soldiers were taken from the ranks by inducements and occasionally even by force. Thomas Sewell of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment along with another soldier were pulled out of the ranks in June of 1775 when that regiment was leaving New York. When a corporal tried to stop their desertion, Capt. Payne stopped him, concerned that the corporal might also be carried away by the crowd.
The colonial newspapers continued throughout the period to print descriptions of deserters from His Majesty’s service, and the rewards offered were often great. In 1771, the 60th (Royal American) Regiment offered eight dollars as the reward for securing one Thomas McCulloch, a 5'7"shoemaker born in Sligo, Ireland. He had deserted after only four months in America. The 21st (Royal North British Fusiliers) Regiment offered a Guinea as reward for one John Grant, said to have owned a farm in Maryland. Not to be outdone, the Royal Artillery offered two Guineas for Thomas Seals in 1768 and 20 shillings for John Hoodloss, a bombardier, in 1773.
However, it was often difficult to collect on such rewards especially as the tension between colonies and the mother country grew. Ensign Nicholas Triste of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment stationed in New York in 1774 and early 1775 stated for the record that a single officer could not apprehend a deserter in New York. In fact, he recounted a story of a deserter from the 23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers) Regiment being brought in under the guard of five men. Within two hours a crowd of colonists forced the five companies then in garrison to release the man for fear of starting a riot.
When soldiers were captured for deserting, their punishment was often severe. General courts martials tended to return a sentence of 1,000 lashes on those soldiers who deserted in peacetime. Examples of such sentences exist for soldiers of the 34th Regiment at Fort Pitt in 1767, and from the 43rd Regiment in Boston in 1774. Once the war started, and in any aggravated cases, death was the usual punishment. Valentine Ducket of the 65th Regiment was executed in early 1775 for desertion. Edward Crosby and James Cairns both of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment were sentenced to death, but the sentence was remitted and both were to be drafted into the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment. This was the case even though Cairns had been captured as part of the 3rd Pennsylvania Line at Fort Washington.
Taking up arms with the enemy was the worst offense. John Mills of the 64th Regiment was sentenced to death by court martial for taking up arms with the rebels. Similarly, John Robert Shaw of the 33rd Regiment took up arms in the rebel army though he escaped capture. Edward Hand, who had recently resigned from British service ended up as an American general. John Brogden, a sergeant of the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment deserted and ended up serving as the adjutant in the First New York in 1775 & 1776.
The commencement of hostilities did little to curb desertion. Five hundred of the Third Waldeck Regiment chose Spanish service over imprisonment when captured in Florida late in the war. After the war, and for nearly 100 years, British deserters continued to assist the United States. Deserters from regiments in Canada regularly filtered into American posts. When the Regiment of US Dragoons was raised in 1833, those first regular US horsemen were trained by a British deserter nicknamed Long Ned.
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