Guilty of Desertion? John Sullivan, 5th Regiment of Foot

Primary Sources

August 28, 2018
by Don N. Hagist Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

In this second trial, see if you agree with the court’s verdict and sentence.

In determining guilt, the officers of the general court martial considered whether the man enlisted properly as a soldier in the first place, whether he been paid and provided clothing in accordance with his enlistment contract, and whether he had a good reason for his absence.

In sentencing, the court considered different whether the man was absent due to intoxication or other misbehavior, or was trying to run away from the army. Were his actions premeditated or spontaneous? Did he return voluntarily, or did he resist capture? What other mitigating factors were there? The court decided between capital or corporal punishment, so the differences were quite important.

In the spring of 1777, the British army occupied posts in New Jersey including Brunswick, where John Sullivan of the 5th Regiment of Foot was put on trial.[1]

* * *

Proceedings of a General Court Martial held by Authority of a warrant 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 West Florida inclusive &ca. &ca. &ca. Brunswick April 18th 1777.

President Lieut. Col: Robt. Prescot 28th Regt.

35th Lt. Col. Wm. Meadows, Lt. Col. Robt. Abercrombie 37th
Marines Capt. Thos. Averne, Capt. Andrew Cathcart 15th
10th Capt. E. Fitz Gerald, Capt. James Stewart 64th
64th Capt. Thos. Armstrong, Capt. Geo: McKenzie   42nd
5th Capt. John G. Battier, Capt. Charles Smith 28th
55th Capt. Henry Downing, Capt. Cornelius Smelt 35th
J. Advocate Capt. Geo. Harris 5th Regt.

The Court being met and duly sworn, Proceeded to the Tryal of John Sulivan Private Soldier in the 5th Regt. of Foot confined for Desertion.

The Prisoner being asked if he has any objection to make to any Member or Members of the Court?

Answer — None.

Serjt. Adam Scott of the 5th Regt. Foot being duly Sworn – Deposeth that he knows the Prisoner John Sulivan to be a Soldier in the 5th Regt. Foot and that he has received Pay as such.

John Smith Private 5th Regt. Foot being duly sworn – Deposeth that he knows the Prisoner to have done duty as a Soldier in the fifth Regt. Foot. Deponent further says, that the Prisoner was brought drunk, to be confined in the barrack Guard of the fifth Regt. of which Guard Deponent was then Serjeant, about six o’Clock in the Evening of the 7th Inst. That Deponent saw him about ten minutes after four next morning at which time he appeared to Deponent perfectly sober, but on enquiring for him about six same morning, he had escaped and did not to Deponent’s knowledge join the Regt. since.

Zachariah Baker, Private Soldier in the 49th Light Infantry Compy. being duly sworn – Deposeth, that on the Eighth Instant being on a Foraging Party about four miles from the advanced Centries of the Light Infantry, he was one of four men ordered to search a Barn, in which after poking some time in the Straw they discovered the Prisoner who they seized and conducted to Major Maitland.

John Oats Private Soldier in the 49th Light Company being duly Sworn – Corroborates the Evidence of Baker and says it was about Eight or Nine o’Clock in the morning of the Eighth Instant They found the Prisoner. That on first seeing him he called to Deponent – Hush – on which Deponent instantly seized him and pulled him from the Straw.

The Prosecution being closed on the part of the Crown and the Prisoner being put on his Defence says that he had not any intention of deserting, but that being very much in Liquor he was wandering about without knowing where, and calls on Serjt. Scott to prove he was very drunk at the time he was confined, and that whenever he is so unfortunate as to get in liquor, it totally deprives him of his Senses.

Serjt. Adam Scott, having been already sworn Deposeth that the Prisoner was very drunk the Evening he was confined, and that when in Liquor he is differently affected by it from any man Deponent ever saw – Being quite Mad.

The Prisoner desiring the Serjt. may be asked his Character since he has been a Soldier. Deponent says he has always found him, When Sober a Brave and Obedient Soldier.

John Oats – Deposeth that the Prisoner appeared very stupid from having drunk too much.

Zachariah Baker being asked the above Question – answers – The Prisoner appeared to have been drinking.

The Prisoner desires to call on any officer of the Company he belongs to for a Character.

Lt. Croker being duly sworn – Deposeth that the Prisoner when sober has always behaved as a good Soldier, but that when drunk he is quite mad.

* * *

Take a moment to decide whether you think John Sullivan was trying to desert, or was just too drunk to know what he was doing.

“The Proceedings being closed, and the Court having considered on the Evidence that appeared – Find the Prisoner Guilty of the Crime he is tried for, which is a breach of the first Article of the sixth Section of the Articles of War – Do therefore Sentence him to be hanged by the neck till he is Dead.”

The trial records do not include the court’s deliberations, so we don’t know why they arrived at their decision. Being drunk was no excuse for desertion; it was the soldier’s responsibility to remain sober enough to do his duty. That he was hiding, and asked the man who found him to remain quiet, may have influenced the court’s decision to sentence the harshest punishment; they may also have thought it necessary to set a strong example to others who might be contemplating desertion after a long and difficult winter on the front lines.

There is more to this story. Sentences of capital punishment could be reviewed and pardoned by the King. In this case, a letter was sent from the War Office on January 2, 1778, informing the commander-in-chief in America that John Sullivan had been granted free pardon.[2] Which was nice, except that he had, in the mean time, deserted again, on September 2, 1777.[3]


[1]Trial of John Sullivan, WO 71/84, 147-149, National Archives of Great Britain.

[2]Charles Gould to William Howe, WO 71/84, 158, National Archives of Great Britain.

[3]Muster rolls, 5th Regiment of Foot, WO 12/2289, National Archives of Great Britain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *