Monday, November 24, 2014
I sometimes get inquiries from descendants of men who deserted from the British army. Usually the family story involves their ancestor being pressed or conscripted into service, and then deserting in America because he had no desire to fight the Yankees. While it is often possible to find the man on regimental muster rolls, determine the exact day that he deserted, and get some insight about when he enlisted, some facets of the family lore can usually be discounted. With the exception of a brief period in 1778, 1779 and 1780, it was not legal for the British army to conscript or press men; even during the period that it was legal, few such men were sent to America. Almost every British soldier who served in the American Revolution had joined the army voluntarily, something that gets lost for obvious reasons when these men settled in the new nation and told their stories to later generations.
Reasons for desertion are not so easy to categorize. It is true that the war was not universally popular in Great Britain. Soldiers who deserted, though, were far more likely to be motivated by an overall distaste for military service (or, more specifically, wartime service) than for any specific concerns about who they were fighting. Some deserters prove this to us by their exploits subsequent to deserting from British ranks.
A fine example is that of Thomas Pickworth (or Peckworth). He joined the 23rd Regiment of Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in April of 1777. The circumstances of his enlistment are not known; the Englishman probably arrived in America with a body of recruits for the regiment, having enlisted in Great Britain during the previous year, but there's a chance that he was already in America when he enlisted - the muster rolls do not make it clear.
He was not a typical recruit in that he was in his early thirties when he joined the regiment. This was rare but not unknown; most men enlisted in their early twenties, but regiments could take on any man who they deemed physically capable. It's possible that he had prior military service. He was by trade a shoemaker, a fairly common profession among soldiers.
The 23rd Regiment went with General Sir William Howe's army on the campaign to Philadelphia in the autumn of 1777. Perhaps it was the hard campaigning and fighting that turned Pickworth away from the army. Or perhaps he had a roving disposition and was inclined to disciplinary trouble. Muster rolls prepared in February 1778 show that he was "sick," a catchall term that covered every malady from battle wounds to injuries incurred from lashings as well as the usually diseases. Regardless of his malady in February, by the beginning of May he was well enough to abscond from the British army; he deserted on 1 May. Many men deserted at this time when the army was preparing to leave Philadelphia. We can only guess which ones had formed local attachments and which ones simply saw the opportunity afforded by the army marching away.
Opportunity seems to have been on Pickworth's mind. Just days after deserting, he enlisted again - this time in the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment in the Continental Army. Such an act could be interpreted as sympathetic to the American cause, but it clearly was not. Within days of enlisting - which itself was within days of having deserted from the British - Pickworth absconded yet again. In early June the commander of his company placed an advertisement for him:
Twenty Dollars Reward.
Deserted from Captain Jacob Mauser’s company, of the sixth Pennsylvania regiment, on Monday the 11th instant, (May) a recruit named Thomas Pickworth, says he was born in England, about five feet eight inches high, dark complexion, middling thick, about thirty-five years of age, says he is a shoemaker by trade and lived in Philadelphia: It is thought he made towards Virginia with some people moving that way, and perhaps may change his name: Had on when he went away, a brown coat, long blue breeches, and a little hat. Whoever takes up said deserter and secures him in any gaol so that he may be had again, shall have the above reward, paid by the subscriber in Maxatawny Township, Berks County.
Jacob Mauser, Capt. 6th P. R.
[Pennsylvania Packet, 3 June 1778]
He doesn't seem to have rejoined the 6th Pennsylvania. He doesn't even seem to have changed his name, or gone to Virginia. Instead, he enlisted yet again, this time into a company of Marines in Pennsylvania, some time in August or early September 1779. By the end of September, though, he had deserted yet again:
Deserted from Captain Robert Mullan's Company of Marines, in Philadelphia, the following men, viz. Thomas Peckworth, about 37 years of age, 5 feet 9 inches high, dark complexion; had on when he went off a light coloured cloth coat, his other clothing not remembered, a shoemaker by trade.
[Pennsylvania Gazette, 6 October 1779]
This ad, dated Philadelphia, Sept. 29 1779, also listed a number of other men who'd deserted from the Marines.
Why would a man repeatedly enlist and desert? Without explicit testimony from Pickworth himself, we can only guess. It was common for recruiters to offer a cash enlistment bounty, and Pickworth may have deemed it worth the risk to take the money and run even though desertion was a capital offense. If he did tell his descendants about his service in the American Revolution, he probably left out some details, changed some others, and hoped no one in his family took a liking to reading old newspapers.