Military Desertions During the American Revolution

Book Review:

I just finished reading through the new two-volume set of “He loves a good deal of rum…” – Military Desertions during the American Revolution 1775-1783, by Joseph Lee Boyle. Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t read these books word-for-word. They are not that kind of books. However, I spent several hours between the indexes and the interesting text found in each of the two volumes. These books document desertions from the American Army during the Revolution. Since I’m always looking for a bit of scandal in the family, these volumes seemed as good a place to look as any. And guess what? I found some! Not all my ancestors were as patriotic as I’d come to imagine.

The data for the books came from 38 newspapers published from as far north as Massachusetts to as far south as North Carolina between the years 1775 to 1783. Since enlistments were short, soldiers were often rather casual about their service. The officers were often louts, and had no idea how to motive their men other than by exacting extreme punishments for the slightest of offenses. Naturally, this didn’t go over well, and the guys often up and left. Food and clothing were not always available, paydays were skipped, the men were afraid of combat, homesick, and disease was rampant. So they often decided that going home was better than Army life.

Although a soldier could be hung for desertion, and a few actually were, in most cases the soldiers were pardoned or reprieved in one way or another. Others were flogged for leaving. However, the system in place to get soldiers to enlist was such that many soldiers would join the service, get their state bounty (money for joining), then desert, and rejoin from another state that was also offering a bounty for enlistment. The state bounty system actually encouraged desertion.

Both the Americans and the British encouraged soldiers of the opposing side to desert and come over to their side. Although it wasn’t supposed to happen, even prisoners of war often became soldiers of opposing forces.

The following is from the GPC website:

One expert estimates that as many as 25 percent of the men who enlisted in the cause of American Independence ultimately deserted the he-loves-rum-booksranks… Soldiers deserted from all theaters of the Revolution, although roughly as many deserted during the first two years of the war as in the period after June 1777, as the Patriot army became more professionalized. When soldiers ran away, a designated officer placed an advertisement in the local newspaper describing the deserter in considerable detail and offering a reward for his capture. Those advertisements comprise the basis for Mr.Boyle’s new two-volume series, which is nothing less than a complete transcription of all the desertion notices found in 38 newspapers published from Massachusetts to North Carolina from 1775 to 1783.

Each notice in “He Loves a Good Deal of Rum” describes the individual by physical features, his place of birth or last residence, occupation, company served in, date missing, and other characteristics. The index at the back of each volume lists every full name given in the notices, or roughly 7,500 names in all. Following is a notice that may be considered representative for the work as a whole:

“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.

“He loves a good deal of run…” – Military Desertions during the American Revolution 1775-1783; Volume One, 1775-June 30, 1777; by Joseph Lee Boyle; 2009, Soft Cover; Perfect Bound; 5.5×8; 385 pp; ISBN: 9780806354033; Item #CF9946; $39.50 plus $5 p&h (media mail); Order from

“He loves a good deal of run…” – Military Desertions during the American Revolution 1775-1783; Volume Two, June 30, 1777-1783; by Joseph Lee Boyle; 2009, Soft Cover; Perfect Bound; 5.5×8; 347 pp; ISBN: 9780806354040; Item #CF9947; $39.50 plus $5 p&h (media mail); Order from

About Leland Meitzler

Leland K. Meitzler founded Heritage Quest in 1985, and has worked as Managing Editor of both Heritage Quest Magazine and The Genealogical Helper. He currently operates Family Roots Publishing Company (, writes daily at, writes the weekly Genealogy Newsline, conducts the annual Salt Lake Christmas Tour to the Family History Library, and speaks nationally, having given over 2000 lectures since 1983.

One Reply to “Military Desertions During the American Revolution”

  1. I believe my great-grandfather was a deserter from the British army during the revolutionary war, his name was George Winfield of Niagara by the Lake Ontario, Canada.

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