The Featured Image above depicts the harsh conditions soldiers endured at a Winter Encampment. Photo Credit: John Grafton, The American Revolution A Picture Sourcebook (Dover Publications, Inc: New York,1975), 77.
Author: Dana J. Meyer
The concept of desertion, a historical and social problem as old as standing militaries and warfare itself, constituted a crisis not only for Revolutionary War generals, but also for the propagandistic apparatus of Connecticut’s revolutionary press and its anti-Imperialist agenda. Newspaper editors cooperated with local recruitment officers by featuring desertion advertisements throughout the war effort. Each ad varied in length and included the deserter’s name/ alias with detailed descriptions, such as their last known residence, ethnicity, and physical characteristics, as well as a bounty for their return.1
Over the span of the eight years of the war, The Connecticut Courant, The New-London Gazette, The Norwich Packet, The Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island Weekly Advertiser, and The Connecticut Journal ran approximately two hundred advertisements that sought help from the general public in the return of deserters to their post.2 These regional newspapers provided information in a uniform and rapid manner, allowing the literate class to act as important mediators of war mobilization, recruitment, and retention. Albeit the oral transmission of “local news” derived from newsprint was “learned quicker at church or tavern, from neighbors or the postrider,” the community actively participated in discourse through political editorials or the latest social trends through consumer advertisements.3 Deserter advertisements overtly announced any soldier who deserted and asked the community for their help in the apprehension of the shirker as a wartime criminal, punishable by court martial with the most severe sentence being execution.
An example of this prose is apparent in the desertion ad above, which appeared on February 17, 1779, in the Connecticut Journal and ran for three consecutive weeks. The ad depicted above is representative of the format and content of desertion ads featured throughout the state of Connecticut between June of 1775 through September 30, 1783, yet there is one distinguishing feature that should be noted. The ad depicts a soldier of African descent as a “Negro Fellow,” a term disentangled with color. Blackness being used as a physical description of people of African descent did not begin appearing in print until the nineteenth century.4 The alleged deserter, a man by the name of Tom Gage, left General Parson’s Brigade only one month after returning from a furlough. He deserted on December 3, 1778, rejoined in February of 1779 and deserted a second time on April 13, 1779. This was a common theme amongst men who enlisted- they deserted, and rejoined, only to desert again. Desertion happened frequently during the onset of service, when men left their homes and were quickly indoctrinated to the military. The new recruits were exposed to an unfamiliar environment with inadequate training, rations, and supplies. It was in these very first weeks that men abandoned their contractual agreements, the idea of home haunted their hearts and minds, and its proximity still within a few days’ walk made the temptation all the more desirable.5 But, where did soldiers of color run to? Private Tom Gage appears in the muster roll and served in the Second Company under Captain Samuel Mattocks of Hartford, Connecticut. Based on a chronological timeline formulated from the dates provided in the Record of Service, Gage deserted twice during the long winter at the Redding Encampment. It’s possible he did not make it to his destination before he was picked up and returned to duty.6
The narrative of this ad offers evidence of ethnicity, appearance, age, and education or social class. From this we are left with the image of private Tom Gage as a ‘Negro,’ a young and physically fit man with poor English, his nose bearing the physical markers of smallpox. The mention of broken English leads the reader to believe that the man was of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, and in all likelihood he was foreign born. In this description, the value of these colonial newsprint advertisements as a historical source becomes abundantly clear in that they not only establish agency for soldier of color such as Private Tom Gage, but they situate this issue in the broader context of men of color who served on behalf of Connecticut during the Revolutionary War, as evidenced in the ad below.
Private William Benson was an Indigenous man who enlisted with Captain Wills Clift of Plainfield on April 10, 1777, for a Three Year contracted duration. Private Benson deserted on or around March 10, 1779, according to the Record of Connecticut Service. This is confirmed by the deserter advertisement presented above, written by Captain Samuel Comstock in The Connecticut Gazette and Universal Intelligencer, April 8, 1779, issue. In this ad we see two soldiers that may have deserted together which was not an uncommon occurrence. William Benson is described as a 30-year-old “Indian Fellow,” almost six foot tall, strong and “thick set,” living with a gunshot injury to his hip that seldom causes a bit of limp. The person he may have deserted with, William Berry, deserted on the 8th of March. He was six years younger than Benson, with a complexion described as red, with dark eyes, short brown hair, and smallpox scars, and dressed in a coat lined with white, a brown vest and leather breeches.
Complexion plays an interesting role when investigating the description of Private Berry, as his red face might seem to indicate that he is also an “Indian Fellow.” Yet, the association of the color red used to describe complexion was only applied to Anglo-European men and women.7 In the descriptions of Gage and Benson, a single word such as “Negro” or “Indian” automatically signaled an ‘otherness’ that separated the people of color from those of European descent, while a complexion described as “red” or “black” indicated the type of whiteness a European had. Skin color and race were not synonymous during the Revolutionary era.
The captain of the company from which the soldier deserted most often authored the article submissions to the newspaper. In this case Captain Lieutenant Daniel Barns of the Tenth Company of the Eighth Regiment (the same regiment as Captain Samuel Mattocks) penned the Tom Gage ad that was sent to the local newspapers. From November 1778- May 1779 (the months of the Redding Encampment), 26 ads appeared throughout Connecticut that requested the help of the community in the capture and return of deserters to the nearest army recruitment station, upon which a handsome reward was paid. In the case of Tom Gage the army offered “8 Dollars,” and in the instance of William Berry and William Benson, “10 Dollars.” Only two of those 26 ads featured soldiers of color. Based on preliminary data 15 out of 170 soldiers of color deserted during the winter camp at Redding.8
While these advertisements targeted opportunistic individuals primarily motivated by the promise of a quick monetary reward and not by politics, the public focus of these advertisements and the patriotic prose employed by editors intentionally engaged communities sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause. By personalizing the deserter, these ads created unintentional empathy for the enslaved or manumitted, or the Native American, among tradesmen, farmers, and colonial housewives. According to one historian, the act of desertion was “very much taken for granted by local people, which undermined the entire recruitment effort” and retention numbers for the Continental Army.9
- The Revolutionary War was not the first war to use desertion advertisements in press. Thomas Agostini investigates this subject in his article written about the French and Indian War in America, “‘Deserted in His Majesty’s Service’: Military Runaways, The British- American Press, and the Problem of Desertion during the Seven Years’ War.”
- Joseph Lee. Boyle, He Loves a Good Deal of Rum. Military Desertions During the American Revolution, Two Volumes (Baltimore, Maryland: Clearfield, 2009).Boyle’s Two Volume eBook allowed a search function to select all articles pertaining to ‘Connecticut’. This allowed all Connecticut newspaper advertisements with the mention of Reading/ Redding, Connecticut to be included in this multidimensional study.
- Albert E. Van Dusen, Connecticut (New York, New York: Random House, 1961), 122.
- Sharon Block, Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 88; 64.
- Jonathan Chandler, “’To become again our brethren’: Desertion and Community during the American Revolutionary War, 1775-83,” Historical Research 90, no. 248 (May 2017): 367.
- Connecticut. Adjutant-General’s Office, and Henry Phelps Johnston. Record of Service of Connecticut Men. This information was gathered by creating timelines of Connecticut troops whereabouts based on detailed accounts by corresponding year and Regiment preceding each phase of the war. The Record of Service divides the Muster Roll into the following various stages: 1775, 1776, 1777-1780, 1781-1783. Before each it provides an overview of Connecticut’s participation in the war effort, as well as military formation, operation, location, and a time stamp for battles/ events.
- Block, Colonial Complexions, 68-69.
- This information was calculated using the database of the “Forgotten Voices of the American Revolution” which was created, managed, and tabulated for CRIS Radio by the CCSU Graduate History Department. Preliminary data computations were conducted by the author.
- Chandler, “‘To become again our brethren,’” 367.