Episode 010

Desertion in the Revolutionary War

Just how bad was the rate of desertion in the Revolutionary War? Strangely enough both horrible conditions and enlistment bonuses contributed to the desertion rate.

On Twitter a few days ago, I was asked a very interesting question by loyal listener Dusan Fischer… he asked:

“I was wondering, do you know how many people went AWOL during the Revolution? A ballpark figure.”

The question, while simple, has a multi-layered answer, so I am going to make a few assumptions here.

  1. I’m going to assume that we’re talking about the Continental Army only (not the British) because, well this is the American military history podcast…
  2. Secondly, I’m going to ignore militia. It’s too hard to track and I doubt it even was tracked, the coming and going of individual militia soldiers.

Let’s start with the Army prior to George Washington, it was assembled near Cambridge under the command of Artemas Ward during the Siege of Boston. Experts say that the number was around 14-16,000 men. But they go on to say that the number could have been as low as 11,000 due to desertions, so roughly 3-5,000 men left during the Siege.

That’s one number, the other’s numbers that are thrown around derive from the fact that Continental Army life was rough, there were rarely enough supplies, food, pay, etc… and the Army also offered short term enlistments of one year…which some soldiers took very loosely, ie: 9 months is the same as a year. Because of this one expert estimates that as many as 25% of the men who enlisted ending up deserting.

Probably one of the best and more accurate numbers stems from Joseph Lee Boyle’s work: “He Loves a Good Deal of Rum: Military Desertions During the American Revolution”. When soldiers d eserted the army, it was standard operating procedure for officers to place an advertisement in the local newspaper describing the deserter in detail and offering a reward for capture. Mr Boyle, has searched, compiled, and transcribed over 7,500 names from 1775 to 1783.

I feel that this number is probably one of the stronger numbers, but I think there may be a margin of error, how many that deserted didn’t get reported? How many that were thought dead/wounded ended up slipping away and deserting? I think we should factor in a margin of error on Mr. Boyle’s number, If we want to be more realistic. If you’re curious about what his book contains, here’s an example:

“Deserted from my company, in Col. Craft’s battalion of colony train of artillery, Michael Carrick, 31 years of age, about 5 foot 8 inches high, with a cut over his right eye brow, well set, black hair, and buck skin breeches. He had on a grey out side jacket and striped waist coat, a new cotton shirt, and carried away with him a French musket and bayonet.-Any person who shall stop said deserter and thief, shall have a reward of FOUR DOLLARS, and all charges paid by JOSEPH BALCH.”
The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, July 22, 1776; July 29, 1776.

One other thing to consider is that men would often desert and then re-enlist, Bounties, a cash bonus for enlisting, were offered by both the states and Congress. At one point Virginia offered 400 dollars and 300 acres of land to men who would enlist for the duration of the war. The “bounty war” resulted in states bidding against each other for the services of a potential soldier. This motivated some men to enlist, receive a bounty, and then desert and re-enlist in another unit, in order to get another bounty. A soldier who was executed in 1778 had been convicted of deserting seven times.

In short, we can consider desertion high. Horrible conditions or bounties for service, it didn’t matter. Men left. I think it’s fair to say that percentage wise you’re looking at 20-25% of the troops that served ended up deserting the Continental Army. If you want a hard number, I would say at minimum 7,500 and probably more than that…maybe as many as 10,000.

Great question. If you have questions that you want answered shoot them to me on Twitter (@AMHPodcast) or Facebook and I’ll answer them in a mini episode like this or compile them together for a Q&A episode.

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What are your thoughts? Discuss below...

  • Lorraine Stillwagon

    I am researching my ancestry and also attempting to join DAR. Found out the patriot my grandaunt used as her DAR patriot is now listed as a deserter during 1778? Why would desertion matter when it occurred after independence was declared?

    • Justin Johnson

      So it could be a couple of things depending on the records… the person in question may have deserted PRIOR to 1778 and not been officially reported until 1778 OR they could have been part of the local militia units, which still stayed in service, and even the army did to some degree, and could have been reported as deserting from there. Does that help?

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