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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Friday, October 12, 2018

“A general disposition to desert from the regiments here”

When the Boston Whigs wrote their “Journal of Occurrences” dispatches for newspapers in other American ports, their main theme was how badly the presence of the British troops was damaging the fabric of Boston society.

But an important secondary theme was how stationing those regiments in Boston was also harming the British army, constitution, and state.

In the report dated 12 Oct 1768, 250 years ago today, the Whigs highlighted the desertions by British sailors and soldiers:
The rumor of Castle William being delivered up by the G——r to the King’s troops, arose from his having permitted a number of mariners from the ships of war, to land at Castle Island, six of whom it is said went off in a boat the last night.

Reports of great desertions and a general disposition to desert from the regiments here, which it is said left Halifax under great dejection of spirits; about 21 of the soldiers absconded the last night, and parties from the troops with other clothing, instead of their regimentals, are sent after them.—

Some of the consequences of bringing the troops into this town, in direct violation of the act of Parliament, and disregard to the advice of his Majesty’s Council, instead of quartering them in the barracks on Castle Island, are like to be the scattering proper tutors through the country, to instruct the inhabitants in the modern way of handling the firelock and exercising the men, and also in the various manufactures which the ingenuity and industry of the people of Great Britain have hitherto furnished us with.—
According to Don Hagist of British Soldiers, American Revolution, army records consistently show a rise in desertions just before and just after regiments made a major move. Soldiers may have been reluctant to leave a post where they had forged ties, so they maneuvered to stay behind or to return. Alternatively, they may have noticed that it was easier to desert when commanders were preoccupied, didn’t know the local ground, or couldn’t send anyone back to the old station to hunt men down.

It’s therefore not surprising to see sailors and soldiers releasing themselves from the royal military on their own recognizance in these weeks. It’s startling to see American Whigs talking about how army deserters would make “proper tutors” for the local militia, with an unstated threat underneath. In 1774 and 1775 New England Patriots did indeed recruit soldiers for that purpose and boasted of their militia’s strength. But in 1768 political leaders were trying to tamp down calls for resistance by force.

As this additional item shows:
This night a surgeon of one of the ships of war being guilty of very disorderly behaviour was committed to gaol by Mr. Justice [Edmund] Quincy, as was also a person not belonging to this province, by Mr. Justice [Foster] Hutchinson, on complaint of a soldier, that he had been enticing him to desert; said stranger was first taken and confined by Captain [John] Willson, in the Town House for some time, without warrant or authority from any magistrate—If the oaths of soldiers who are promised 10 guineas for such discoveries, are to be taken as sufficient proof, we know not what proscriptions may take place.
The Boston Whigs thus made a point of blaming “a person not belonging to this province” for encouraging desertion, not a local.

Of course, those Whigs also complained that an army captain had confined that suspect outside of civil authority based on questionable evidence. Worse yet, that confinement happened inside the building that normally housed the provincial legislature, still occupied by troops!

We’ll have to keep a watch on Capt. Willson.


Anonymous said...

Can you expand at all on the point that the soldiers being sent out after the deserters were in not going to wear their regimentals but rather "other clothing?"

Would that mean wearing other uniforms so the deserters might not think it was men from their own regiment out looking for them?

Or would it be in civilian clothing to a) blend in with the general population in hopes of catching the deserters unaware, or b) not alarm the populous when a band of armed British soldiers in uniforms were nosing around looking like they're ready for a fight?

Were there any legal problems that might arise with soldiers dressing as civilians at this stage of the game?

(A connected tangent perhaps - didn't a couple of British officers dress as civilians and walk out to Lexington and Concord a few days before the battle to do some recon?)

Thanks for all your fine blogging - fascinating stuff!

R. Doctorow

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the soldiers sent out in civilian clothing were supposed to blend in more easily with the local population in order to catch the deserters. They might even have pretended to be deserters themselves in order to lure the men who preceded them into a trap. This was a common tactic, judging by the number of times Whig writers complained about it.

Yes, in the early months of 1775 Capt. William Brown, Ens. Henry DeBerniere, and their servant (almost certainly an enlisted man) hiked out into the Massachusetts countryside in civilian clothing. They were looking for cannon, other military supplies, and routes to those goods. I trace their searches in The Road to Concord, and I’ve quoted from their report at times on this blog.

When Maj. John André was captured in civilian clothing during the war, that had legal significance because it meant he was acting as a spy and didn't deserve the protections of a prisoner of war. I don’t think the same law applied in peacetime. Before the war began, when townspeople spotted soldiers or officers in disguise, or thought they did, they tended to form a crowd, tell the strangers they weren’t fooling anyone, and suggest they leave town since their mission was now fruitless.