Deserters and the Revolutionary War

Deserter.  Not a word we want to see beside the name of our ancestor.  But desertion meant something a little different then than it does now.  Most of the time, desertion was not to the enemy side.  Most men just went home for awhile to tend to the crops, plant them, or harvest them.  Many records show the men later rejoining their units.  No one seemed to think much of it.

The soldiers of the Continental Army were not professionals.  Many were men who were in their local militias which would be called into service for 30 or 60 days or until whatever problem was solved.  They treated the “War” the same way they treated their militia unit.

John Harrold, although not Native, provides us with a typical example.  Up to 25% of the men who served were at some point considered to have been deserters.  That did not seem to affect their later pensions or qualifications for bounty land.

Fold3 at has recently brought the Revolutionary War pay slips online.  These slips were typically completed monthly, or periodically, for each soldier.  Of course, actually getting paid was another matter entirely.  The government ran out of money and that is why eventually bounty land was given to veterans, in lieu of pay.

John Harrold’s RW pay records:

  • Served in the late Capt. Williams company of the 8th Va regiment commanded by Col. James Wood
  • July 1779 Camp Rampo – enlisted Mary 1 1777 for 3 years

Each one of the pay records shows this he enlisted at this date which is how you can be sure it’s the same man.  Pay slips were included as follows:

  • Aug 1779 – Camp Smith
  • Oct 1779 Camp Ramapough
  • April 1779 Camp Middlebrook
  • Deserted July 1778, joined April 17, 1779
  • April 1779 – 3 days pay – not drawn for since June 78
  • March 1779 – Capt Smith’s Clove
  • June 1779 – Capt Smiths’ Clove
  • Not dated – Capt. Wallace’s company – absent

John was absent from July of 1778 until in April of 1779, and no one seemed to care.  There seemed to be no punishment for having been gone.  They were very probably glad for the reinforcements when he returned.

One problem with the War was that states were desperate for recruits, and offered bounties and land, both, upon enlistment.  But the catch was that you had to enlist for 3 years.  Some men joined, deserted and then went to another state to join.  But most men, they simply went home for a visit to take care of what needed to be done.  When they were ready, they returned to their unit, and resumed their pay status as of the date they returned.

About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
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1 Response to Deserters and the Revolutionary War

  1. Eileen Graham says:

    I have an ancestor who is labeled as a deserter. He enlisted 25Dec 1776 for 3 years. Every roll call he was “on command” Dec 1779 he is on furlough. Jan 1780 roll call he is listed as a deserter. How can someone be listed as a deserter that served their full term? He didn’t properly muster out. Now I am unable to apply to the NSDAR because of his status as a deserter. Doesn’t seem fair to him.

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