One expert estimates that as many as 25 percent of the men who enlisted in the cause of American Independence ultimately deserted the ranks. As Joseph Lee Boyle explains in the trenchant Introduction to his two-volume work “He Loves a Good Deal of Rum” a number of factors coalesced to foster this problem. Short-term enlistments were the norm, causing some soldiers to take a casual attitude about remaining in the ranks for their full term. Others fled the service in response to harsh punishments meted out for relatively minor crimes. “Hardships due to poor or non-existent food and clothing, infrequent paydays and those in the face of rampant inflation, fear of combat, homesickness, family problems, crowded unsanitary life in camp, and rampant disease were all contributing factors to soldiers refusing to join or abruptly leaving military life.”
Soldiers deserted from all theaters of the Revolution, although roughly as many deserted during the first two years of the war as in the period after June 1777, as the Patriot army became more professionalized. When soldiers ran away, a designated officer placed an advertisement in the local newspaper describing the deserter in considerable detail and offering a reward for his capture. Those advertisements comprise the basis for Mr.Boyle’s new two-volume series, which is nothing less than a complete transcription of all the desertion notices found in 38 newspapers published from Massachusetts to North Carolina from 1775 to 1783.
Each notice in “He Loves a Good Deal of Rum” describes the individual by physical features, his place of birth or last residence, occupation, company served in, date missing, and other characteristics. The index at the back of each volume lists every full name given in the notices, or roughly 7,500 names in all. Following is a notice that may be considered representative for the work as a whole:
“Deserted from my company, in Col. Craft’s battalion of colony train of artillery, Michael Carrick, 31 years of age, about 5 foot 8 inches high, with a cut over his right eye brow, well set, black hair, and buck skin breeches. He had on a grey out side jacket and striped waist coat, a new cotton shirt, and carried away with him a French musket and bayonet.–Any person who shall stop said deserter and thief, shall have a reward of FOUR DOLLARS, and all charges paid by JOSEPH BALCH.” The Boston Gazette and Country Journal, July 22, 1776; July 29, 1776.