This week JAR Editor Don N. Hagist presents the testimony from five British desertion trials held during the American Revolution. For each trial, see if you agree with the court’s verdict and sentence.
British soldiers charged with desertion were tried by a general court martial, a board of thirteen officers tasked with determining whether the defendant was guilty, and if so, his punishment.
In determining guilt, the court considered several factors: was the man enlisted properly as a soldier in the first place? Had he been paid and provided clothing in accordance with his enlistment contract? Did he have a good reason for his absence?
In sentencing a punishment, the court considered different factors: was the man was absent due to simple misbehavior (such as intoxication), or was he trying to abscond from the army? Did his actions appear premeditated or spontaneous? Did he return voluntarily, or was he caught? If he was caught, did he resist? Were there other mitigating factors? The court had to decide between capital or corporal punishment, so the differences were quite important.
Below are the proceedings of a court held in British-occupied Philadelphia. Tattoo was the drum signal played at the end of each day; “inst.” is an abbreviation for “instant,” which means “this month.
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At a General Court Martial held at Philadelphia in the Province of Pensylvania on Tuesday Janry 29th 1778, by Virtue of a Warrant bearing the date the 19th Inst from His Excellency Sir William Howe, Knight of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath, General and Commander in Chief of all His Majesty’s Forces within the Colonies, laying on the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to the West Indies inclusive &c. &c. &c.
Lieut Colonel Samuel Birch 17th Regt of Dragoons President
Major Samuel Bradstreet 40th Foot, Major Robt McLeroth 64th Foot
Capt. Alexr Ross 45th Foot, Capt. John McKennon 63d Foot
Capt. Robert Moyston 40th Foot, Capt. Hugh Massey 35th Foot
Capt. John Peebles 42d Foot, Lieut. John Dalton 37th Foot
Lt. John Swyney 27th Foot, Lt. William Hazard, 44th Foot
Lt. John Wilkinson 23d foot, Lt. Henry B. Stirke, 63d Foot
Stephen Payne Adye Esqr. D. Judge Advocate
The President, Members & Judge Advocate being duly sworn.
Charles Hanley private soldier in the 4th or King’s own Regiment of Foot, was brought prisoner before the Court and accused of having deserted from said Regiment.
Robert Fleming serjeant in the said 4th Regt of Foot, being duly sworn, deposed, that the Prisoner has received pay as a soldier in the same Company of the said Regiment as the Witness himself, that at Tattoo beating in the Evening of the 1st Instant, upon calling the Roll, he discovered that the prisoner was absent, & he was not heard of till the 8th Inst when he found him confined in the Provost Guard.
- (by desire of the Prisoner) What Character does the Prisoner bear?
- He always did his Duty like a good soldier.
John Woodacre private soldier in the 15th Regiment of Foot, being duly sworn, deposed, that about 8 o’Clock in the Morning of the 5th Inst. as he was going to the Lines, he was informed by a Man who was Cutting Wood, that a soldier had changed his Cloaths and was gone towards the Skulkyll, with an Intention to desert, that he immediately pursued him & Coming up with him before he could reach the Bridge, he found it to be the Prisoner, who was then dressed in a light coloured Coat, that upon asking him where he was going to, he said that he was going over the Bridge to Cut Wood for the King, but the Witness insisted that he should go with him to the Guard which the Prisoner then consented to, that when he had brought him to where the Man was cutting Wood, who had given him the Information, he there heard the Prisoner himself confess that he had changed his Cloaths with an Intention to desert, & informed him where his Regimental Cloaths were, that after putting him in the Guard he went to the house, where the Prisoner had informed him his Regimental Cloaths were, & there found them.
- What was the prisoner about when he overtook him?
- He was running as fast as he could, but he (the Witness) calling to him he immediately stopt.
- Had he an Axe or any other instrument for Cutting Wood?
- No he had not.
The Prisoner being put upon his defence, said, that his absence from his Regiment was occasioned by his getting in Liquor, that upon his getting sober he was afraid to return & therefore changed his Cloaths & intended to have hid himself among the Wood cutters on the other side of the Sculkyll, till he could get a Petition sent to his Colonel, in hopes of making the matter easy to him, but that he had not the least intention of deserting, as he had no other method of gaining his Livelyhood except by being a soldier, that he came into the service at fifteen years of age & has been Eight years a soldier & has had much better opportunities of deserting, had he wished it, and that he never told the Wood Cutter or the Witness Woodacre that he intended to desert.
The Prisoner then called on Lieut Peter J. Francquefort of the 15th Regiment of foot, who being duly sworn deposed, that on the Prisoner being brought to the Guard which he that day Commanded by John Woodacre, (who said that he apprehended him as a Deserter) he asked him what had enduced him to leave his Regiment, and he answered that it was from the bad treatment he had received from a serjeant of the Company he belonged to.
- Did he say that he had no intention to Desert?
- He did not say any thing of desertion, but upon the Witness taxing him with an intention to desert, he did not deny it, but appeared sorry for his Offence & wept very much.
Take a minute to decide whether you think Charles Hanley was guilty or innocent. From the testimony, does it appear that Hanley had an explicit plan to leave the army? Did he resist coming back?
The Court having considered the evidence for and against the Prisoner Charles Hanley together with what he had to offer in his defence, is of Opinion that he is guilty of the crime laid to his charge, breach of the 1st Article of War of the 6th Section, and doth therefore adjudge him, the said Charles Hanley to receive one thousand Lashes on his bare back, with Cat of nine tails.
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The trial records do not include the court’s deliberations; we don’t know why they arrived at their decision. Hanley’s actions met the criteria for desertion, regardless of his actual intentions. Corporal punishment may have been sentenced because it was his first offence.
Trial of Charles Hanley, WO 71/85, 224-227, National Archive of Great Britain.
This is a great peek into the daily functioning of the British Army in America.
Do you know of any company in the British American Forces that had no desertions or attempted desertions during the war? It seems to me it was not a rare occurrence on either side but I have never seen any statistics about it.