Deserting Washington’s Army Essay

With the Revolutionary War set to begin, the recruitment of soldiers was fully on. Reasons to enlist in the Continental Army were quite candid for numerous individuals. Motives ranged from looking for a fresh start to wanting to honor friendship/family, or even for the sole purpose of securing regular pay. Many looked to reap the benefits that were promised to them for enlisting in the army. As the Revolutionary War waged on for years to come, soldiers of the Continental Army continued to battle, not only the British, but the many hardships that came their way, as well.

By 1780 the number of soldiers abandoning their posts/camps had greatly increased due the number of hardships they encountered. Even commanding officers had to put out desertion notices in newspapers to let the public know that a cash reward would be given to individuals that could provide assistance in the recapturing of deserting soldiers. Numerous advertisements (desertion notices) were placed in newspapers throughout 1780 in an attempt to stop the increased desertion.

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With these “desertion notices” being short, clear and highly descriptive, patterns can be drawn about the type of men that abandoned their Continental Army posts in 1780 and the reasons behind their actions. In fact much evidence can be taken from these advertisements to support the idea that most men deserting their Continental Army posts were very poorly trained and in fact poor themselves. A number of deserters were even criminals or slaves throughout a few advertisements during this time.

Many were motivated to desert the Continental Army due to poor or non-existent food and clothing, infrequent paydays, rampant monetary inflation, and crowded unsanitary life in camp, which resulted in rampant disease. A lot can be said about the men who abandoned their Continental Army posts during the war, but there were abundant factors that led these men to make that decision. Many men were persuaded to enlist in the Continental Army through the use of propaganda and advertisements claiming that those who enlisted would receive lucrative incentives.

A recruiting hand-bill by George Washington himself even stated that those who enlisted in the Continental Army would receive “a bounty of Twelve dollars…and sixty dollars a year in GOLD, as well as handsome clothing and a large ration of provisions. ” With every advertisement similar to this one, in which enlistment is claimed to be accompanied with incentives (usually money or land), empty promises were soon to follow. This was a strong driving force that led men to desert their posts because most soldiers were not getting paid what they had been promised.

James Kirby Martin even alludes, in his book Ordinary Courage, to the fact that 100-acre was promised to veterans, but that land never materialized for most of them. He addresses this in context stating, “The truth was, none cared for them; the country was served, and faithfully served, and that was that was deemed necessary. It was, soldiers, look to yourselves; we want no more of you. I hope I shall one day find land enough to lay my bones in. If I chance to die in a civilized country, none will deny me that.

A dead body never begs a grave; thanks for that. ” Especially with monetary inflation being high during the time of the war, many soldiers deserted the army in order to provide for their families back home. The buying power of the new Continental dollar falls 90% and a number of food riots breakout due to the extreme prices. The lack of financial stability for soldiers, despite being promised that, was a big motivational factor in the abandonment of their Continental Army posts.

Many soldiers talked about the poor quality/non-existence of clothing and food. Some Continentals wore plundered British uniforms in order to stay warm, and even British officers went on to say that the American troops as were a “ragged dirty looking set of People. ” Martin also cites a number of examples in which Joseph Plumb Martin talks of the poor quality of food and clothing. In context he says, “Here was the army starved and naked, and their country sitting still and expecting the army to do notable things while fainting from sheer starvation. The quality of food and clothing was a strong reason to leave your post at that time, but so was the mistreatment at the hands of Commissioned officers. Soldiers discussed the fact that Commissioned o?cers demanded strict obedience from enlisted men, no matter the situation. One soldier talked of a time when he was made to wear a small sandwich board that said he was “A disobeyer of orders” after he verbally abused a superior, while another claimed to be used worse than beasts or hogs at home. Disease was also very common due to the close proximity soldiers resided amongst each other.

An estimated 18,000 Continentals died of disease, for example smallpox. Desertion from the Continental Army was highly influenced by the poor quality of life soldier were made to live through (no food, no clothing, rampant disease such as smallpox) and their mistreatment by commanding officers was all the more push they got to leave their posts. African-Americans had their part in the Revolutionary War. Many slaves and free blacks were enlisted in the Continental Army during this time, since recruitment drastically slowed down by this time.

In an article it talks about how desertion has never been so frequent at the present time, even going on to say, “The commander and chief, by the late returns, is much alarmed at the desertions that prevail in the army. ” From 1777-178, the 1st RI Regiment comprised of 700 black soldiers (142 slaves, the rest free blacks, mixed-race, or Narragansett Indians). Several cases occurred in which slaves that enlisted did receive any pension for their services after the war was over. One instance of this can be accounted for in the case of Jehu Grant, where he actually wrote a letter in order to apply for Revolutionary Pensions.

Another case transpired where another former slave did not receive pay for his services in the Continental Army. In the case of Jacob Francis, he stated that the pay of forty shillings a month for four and a half months of service is yet due to him from the United States. The British continued to make appealing proclamations to African-Americans so that they are persuaded to desert their posts. In fact, Henry Clinton Philipsburg made a proclamation in 1779, promising that “every NEGRO who shall desert the Rebel Standard” would be granted “full security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper. The idea of freedom was a strong motivator to black slaves enlisted in the Continental Army to abandon their posts to join the British cause, in part due to the mistreatment and false promises made upon them. It can be seen in many advertisements during the 1780s, that a lot of those individuals who deserted their post had prior felonies beforehand. In one advertisement, two men by the names of Thomas McKelvy and Christian Bremen had bounty out for them for desertion and felony. Another advertisement gives a tight description of the deserter, along with a reward for his apprehension.

This man goes by the name Henry Winn and a thirty dollar reward was publicized for his capture. Multiple men are described in yet another advertisement, with crime being they deserted their posts. In this one they could not give a description of the clothes they wore since they said it was possible that they had exchanged the ones they were wearing. All the men featured in these advertisements for desertion were all of particularly young age, early twenties. Other advertisements actually depicted the execution of some soldiers that were caught after they deserted their post.

One of them describes the wrong doing of a man named William H. and they start off by stating that “This unhappy youth began his evil practices by desertion. ” In a much shorter article, they advertise the execution of a man named James Coleman, in which they say he was charged for repeated desertion and forgery, thus was put to death. Another advertisement yet again advertises the execution of a man who deserted his post, but also states that ten other different regiments received the same sentence.

An extract of a letter from an Officer from Sunbury talks of how he witnessed the execution of a soldier for desertion. The purpose of advertising these executions of soldiers who deserted their posts, seem to serve the purpose of trying to decrease the number of individuals who desert the Continental Army by showing death as a consequence. It can be concluded that the type of men that deserted the Continental Army in 1780 ranged from young men in their early twenties, to men with a criminal history, to even slaves and free blacks.

Regardless of the type of man they were, they all deserted their post for a number of similar reasons. William Gray is an example of a man whose native trade was a wool comber, then enlisted in the Continental Army most likely to receive regular pay, who ends up deserting his post. Poor quality food and clothing, infrequent paydays, rampant monetary inflation, and crowded unsanitary life in camp were among the main reasons soldiers of the Continental Army decided to leave their posts in 1780.


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