Deserter a Day 1 (of 5)

"The Deserter," an engraving by William Dickinson after Henry William Bunbury and published in London in 1794 by Robert Laurie and James Whittle. (Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection)

Newspapers are among our favorite things at Journal of the American Revolution, providing endless information and insight about America’s Revolutionary era. In addition to news, notices, and opinion pieces, newspapers carried advertising that reveals important aspects of the people who placed ads and read them. Some of the ads were actually about people. When soldiers absconded from their duty, for example, army officers sometimes placed advertisements in newspapers, giving a description of the deserter and offering a reward for his return. American newspapers advertised thousands of deserters during the course of the war; this week, we’ll present one ad each day as a very brief survey of these important sources of information.

First off is the first deserter advertisement of the war. As a substantial American army coalesced on the heights around Boston in April, May and June of 1775, bringing order to this disorganized composite force was the greatest challenged faced by the army’s leaders.

Deserted from the subscribers company in Col. Wooster’s Regiment, one James Parker, a transient Irishman, about 36 years of age, middling stature, his face pitted with gun-powder, short black hair, had on a light colour’d coat, and is a taylor by trade. Whoever shall take up said deserter, and return him to the subscriber, shall be reasonably rewarded by Thomas Porter.

Waterbury, June 12, 1775.

[Connecticut Courant, June 12, 1775]

This ad is not remarkable in any way other than that it is the first known published advertisement for a deserter from the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Soldiers had certainly deserted before this; desertion was a constant problem for armies of this era, and particularly for the amalgam American army that fought in the Revolution. The British army had advertised for deserters in America before this, and there were of course many advertisements placed during the French and Indian War. But this was a new army in a new war, so this otherwise-unremarkable tailor with a powder-pitted face holds a special place in the history of American advertising.

Many newspapers published in America during the eighteenth century can be read and searched using internet databases; the premier source is America’s Historical Newspapers. Most require subscriptions, but many public libraries and university libraries have subscriptions that patrons can use. Check with your local library system, or your state university library system (many states allow residents to have access to state university library resources).

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  • Editors,
    I see the possibility of at least three scenarios here in identifying the “subscriber” placing such an ad: the commanding officer of the deserter’s unit; a citizen who hired the deserter as a replacement; or, town officials that had hired the deserter in fulfillment of their obligation to produce a particular number of soldiers in proportion to their population.

    Question: any idea if, in the event of a desertion, the citizen or town actually became legally obligated in some way because of the desertion? Or, are they absolved from any liability for the “breach of contract” that the deserter caused?

    • Gary,

      When I looked for Parker in the surviving rolls, I also looked for a Thomas Porter. Thought he might be an officer in his company, but found none.

      A quick internet search of Porter in a Waterbury history book revealed him to be a retired militia lieutenant. Might make him a town official?

      • Matt,
        You may be right. It may be that Parker had been hired by the town as part of its recruiting obligation and was on the hook for his absconding. I assume the town would have received the bounty for his enlistment, which the authorities would have wanted returned because of the desertion. The reward being offered would have been far less than the bounty paid out, so paying that smaller sum for Parker’s return would allow the town to keep the balance. Just surmising on my part, but it seems reasonable.

        • Gary,

          If this is the case, I’d guess based on the information available, he was part of the fifth company. This company appears to have a mix of Waterbury and New Haven men. Their original company commander, though definitely not present, was Benedict Arnold.

          There’s another Parker in the company, Elisha Parker, who according to the roll finished his term of service. Possibly a relative?

          Ironically, there is also a Sherman Shattuck in the company. Any relation?

          • Matt,
            I don’t know what the dates of your rolls are, but it could be that Parker’s appearance preceded them. I’m sure that family name was pretty evident in the population, so could have been a relative, or not. Same with Shattuck’s, who were thick as fleas in northern Massachusetts and there may also be some connection to Waterbury (the family arrived in Watertown about 1633).

            The 1775 date of the advertisement precedes Arnold’s problems and, as I recall, he was on Lake Champlain sometime around when it was published

  • When I first read this article, I thought it was odd that a soldier from Wooster’s Regiment (or the 1st Connecticut Regiment-1775) had deserted from the unit in Boston. The regiment served mainly in and around New York City and then went north during the invasion of Canada. After looking through the surviving rolls in “Record of Service of Connecticut Men in the War of the Revolution,” it reveals that at least two companies, the third and the fifth were detached from the regiment and served in the Siege of Boston. However, James Parker is not listed on any of the surviving rolls. This might be the only record of his service during the war.

  • Lieutenant Thomas Porter (elder) was born 11 Apr 1702 in Waterbury, New Haven, CT. He died 28 Jan 1797. After the Connecticut militia system was organized in 1739, he became the “Town Lieutenant” of Waterbury, responsible for maintaining the muster rolls and organizing drill. He may have been replaced in this role by his eldest son, also named Thomas Porter (born 9 May 1736 in Waterbury). Their second son was Phineas Porter, born 1 Dec 1739.

    In 1772, Phineas was an ensign in the First company (militia) of Waterbury. After the Lexington and Concord “Alarm”, in May 1775 he was elected Captain of the towns company, raised entirely in Waterbury to perform seven months duty as the eighth company of Wooster’s regiment (the enlistment record of this company is missing from the “Record of service of Connecticut men in the War of the Revolution” Volunteers “were to have a premium of 52 shillings to be paid at the time of enlistment, and one month’s advance pay, amounting to forty shillings, besides ten shillings for the use of his arms” (a total of 102 Shillings signing money). Due to rumor of a pending coastal invasion, on 1 June 1775 the company marched for Fairfield, Ct. Later that summer it relocated to the Hudson Highlands, where it served for several months (it was in Greenbush in October), before marching to Albany. The enlistment period ran out in December and most men went home, but a few, including Porter, went on to Canada in a consolidated Connecticut unit commanded by Col William Douglas. There were other Waterbury companies but they were formed later than June 1775 and the timing is wrong for Parker’s desertion. In June 1776 a Waterbury company was raised yet again in response to the British invasion fleet’s arrival in New York Harbor and marched to New York as the Sixth company of the Fifth Connecticut Regiment under the command of Col William Douglass, Lt Col James Arnold, and Maj Phineas Porter. (History of Waterbury, Ct, pg 336-338, )

    No doubt the desertion ad was placed hoping to recoup the lavish 5 pound enlistment bonus cash paid to Parker – an unusually rich bounty. The company was still in Connecticut at the time (Fairfield) and the deserter might have still been in Connecticut or may even have gone home to Waterbury, about 35 miles from Fairfield. Thomas Porter (senior) was the one-time Waterbury Town Militia Lieutenant. His grand house on the hill is pictured in the “History of Waterbury” as it served as a meeting place and sometime hospital for the town’s militia. Thomas Porter, whether the brother or the father of the company commander Phineas Porter and the town’s militia “Lieutenant”, would have been well known and a person to whom the captured deserter should be delivered since he was well known and still in Waterbury.

  • Publishing deserter descriptions is a great idea. They often contain considerable information ranging from physical descriptions to occupations to clothing descriptions and so on. The comments about an individual by name help make history personal for us and gathering info from several of them can begin to give a researcher a bit of a glimpse into some chosen detail or other of the period.

    I have a couple thoughts on the responses to this particular one:

    1) Folks are missing an important detail about James Parker–he’s a “transient.” It is quite doubtful he had any permanent home within any given community but, rather, lived as an itinerant tailor traveling around the countryside making a living;

    b) Some of the questions about responsibility for Parker’s place in the company and the bounty could probably be answered by looking at Connecticut’s militia law. This is only a few short weeks after the firing started so the “army” really is not yet an army. Certainly, Congress had not yet taken over and turned the units into Continentals. Disarray still reigned … or rained, if you will;

    iii) I may well be wrong but, judging from my own research, a £5 bounty is not that rich. It is doubtful that it came in coin or even sterling but probably in Connecticut paper currency of some sort which would be a bit over £3 sterling (I don’t have an exchange rate right at hand).

  • Mike;
    good point. But, if they wanted him – or their money – back, they had to advertise somewhere. My point was more that the Porte’s were fairly well known and readers might like to research bit more about them. For example, their cousin, Thomas Porter from Farmington moved to your neighborhood Tinmouth, Vermont in 1779 and became a notable Vermont politician and member of the House of Representatives.

    Five pounds would have been a lavish bounty in Virginia even for a multi-year enlistment, let alone 7 months. But it wasn’t long before Virginia resorted to land bounties because she lacked cash. Connecticut’s land-bounty program wasn’t instituted until well after the end of the war, and only then because she was at risk of losing so many able-bodied men to go settle the Continental bounty land in Ohio. Given the patriotic New England fervor Its a little surprising Connecticut started the war with such a nice reward. Their neighbors to the north weren’t so kind.

    Continental currency wasn’t in circulation in May-June 1775. Congress passed the act directing creation of paper currency on 10 May 1775 – continental currency wasn’t being printed just yet (took time to engrave plates and get presses operating). Also, the colonies had not yet been hit by British counterfeiting or wartime inflation, so currency was still trading at pre-war values.

    While not fully up to speed on Connecticut finances, I know that starting around 1710 there was “Old Tenor”, “New Tenor”, and “Lawful Money” that replaced each other in sequence. The “Lawful Money” was issued in 1755 with the idea that it would be eventually reclaimed and retired through tax payments over 25 years. By 1775 there should not have been much left in circulation – putting greater emphasis on Spanish and Portuguese dollars, barter certificates, and what little sterling was circulating.

    Connecticut denominations were in Sterling equivalents of pounds-shillings-pence. Old Tenor money traded at around 9 pence sterling to the Sterling shilling, or about 66% of Sterling; and traded at six Connecticut shillings to the Spanish dollar. The value fell in practice due to over-issue of paper. New Tenor currency was issued to correct that devaluation and return to face value of 9 pence to the shilling. Based on a very rudimentary research, it appears a “Lawful Money” shilling was supposed to be worth 7.33 Old Tenor shillings and 2.1 New Tenor shillings. That would have meant a face value of a shilling in the most current Connecticut currency was face-valued at 19 Sterling pence, (160% the value of Sterling), which meant a translation to 4 Connecticut shillings per Spanish dollar. Given that face value, and the typical devaluation of Connecticut script due to overissue, the Connecticut money probably traded just above par with Sterling.

    British privates were still being paid eight pence per day wages (which was completely consumed by their holdbacks for uniforms and equipment (“off-reckonings”) and their subsistence rate of sixpence per day was also partially “stopped” or “arreared” for food and sundry expenses, leaving him with about 36 pence per week – three shillings.

    So the Connecticut bounty of 102 shillings, if the money did trade just above par with sterling, was equivalent to 34 weeks of a British soldier’s pay: effectively eight months of British pay for a seven month enlistment. Seems lavish on paper, but we need a Connecticut colonial monetary expert to weigh in with a reality check on par values; but seems like plenty of incentive to place an ad in some attempt t get it back.

    Black flies hitting yet? I don’t miss “mud season”!

    • Writing in too much of a rush, I did not make myself clear. I had in mind that five pounds did not prove that lavish when compared with the bounty in other New England states that matched it with only minor differences. Bounties for enlisted men often consisted of one month’s pay (typically forty shillings) and some added perks like a bit for bringing one’s own firelock, blanket money, travel or billeting allotment, and so on. New Hampshire gave between five and six pounds depending on travel distance. Massachusetts offered seven pounds for Canada service but only three for going to New York. Looks like Rhode Island might have been the cheapies giving the usual forty shillings bounty if the soldier could provide his own firelock and bayonet—twenty-four shillings if he could not. However, they did provide six shillings per week billeting money while in RI and a blanket and knapsack given by the colony. I’m not sure where Virginia fits into the discussion centered on New England.

      As the war ploughed on, bounties kept increasing, some up to two hundred dollars or more (one pound generally equaled three-and-a-third dollars). Congress complained because they could not afford to pay the rates of the “Eastern states,” meaning New England.

      As for how the Connecticut soldiers received their bounty, according to “The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut,” the state issued 12,000 bills of credit in 1773 and another 15,000 in 1775. With a redemption date of June, 1775, for the latter, those still would have had a value for the early enlistments. The latter batch had a redemption date of Jan., 1777. I don’t have the time nor real desire to dig for definitive proof but I still wonder how many recruits received hard cash for their bounty.

      While I feel the details of colonial finance, exchange, etc., are too dry and beyond the interest of most readers of this site, I would strongly suggest two books for those driven to know more: “Taxation in Colonial America” by Alvin Rabushka and “Money and Exchange in Europe & America, 1600-1775: A Handbook” by John McCusker.

      It’s a bit too early for “no-see-ums.” Mud season proved to be more of a mud-day-or-two—very little snow and warm weather does that. Globular warming is turning Vermont into New Jersey … in more ways than one. It’s still a great place to live.

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