J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Who Defected from the Continental Army in 1775?

Continuing British Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble’s diary entries mentioning deserters from the Continental lines during the siege of Boston from yesterday

9 September: “One of the Virginia Rifle Men (an Irish Man) Deserted from the Enemy this morning by pretending to come out to take a Shot at our Sentries, but when at a proper Distance ran into our Post.”

10 September: “This Evening a French Lad Enlisted in the Rhode Island Troops Deserted to us; he set out from their Advanced Posts on a Run; had two Shot fired at him, but escaped. These frequent Desertions have occasioned the Rebel General to remove the Rifle Men to Cambridge.”

23 September: “A Rifle Man came in this Evening, from their Flech under the two Trees, on the Point, says the Minute Men of the Country is called in; supposed with some design, but does not know what; he’s an English Man born in the West of England, near Plymouth.”

24 September: “Nothing extraordinary, but a Deserter from the Rebels came in to General [William] Howe’s whose character appears to be doubtful.”

Out of twelve deserters Kemble described, seven were said to be born in the British Isles and one was “a French Lad.” The British officer described eight either as from Pennsylvania or Virginia or as riflemen, and all the rifle companies were from the Middle Colonies. Those companies, recruited on the frontiers, probably had a larger than average share of recent immigrants to North America. But they were just a small part of the army outside Boston.

The Americans who deserted to the British in those months were disproportionately soldiers far from home. Many had direct ties to the other side of the Atlantic. None was identified by Kemble as a native of New England. (Of course, homesick New Englanders probably deserted in the other direction, heading back to the farms they knew.)

Given those factors, it’s not surprising that the Continental riflemen would defect in larger numbers than troops from the region, but that came as a surprise to their commanders. When the rifle companies started to arrive on the siege lines in the summer of 1775, Gen. George Washington and others were delighted, thinking that they’d be the army’s decisive edge.

Instead, the riflemen turned out to be a disproportionate source of trouble. On top of these desertions, in early September a Pennsylvania company mutinied, and soldiers’ diaries mention lesser infractions. At first the newcomers were exempted from regular duties, which probably caused friction. In mid-September Washington reversed that rule, and at the end of the year stopped designating rifle companies differently from regular infantry.

Less easy to explain was why two of Kemble’s twelve deserters said they were named Johnson. Was that a common name, or a common alias?

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