One of the fundamental problems with the Continental Army was that the State Legislatures were reluctant to establish a European-style professional army with long-term enlistments for fear of a strong military leader seizing the government. Without a professional attitude, soldiers were much more likely to be casual about remaining in ranks for the full term of their enlistment period.
Service in the Continental Army tested the fortitude and perseverance of those who stayed. Hardships due to poor or non-existent food and clothing, infrequent paydays, rampant monetary 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. Even though bounties as high as 400 dollars and 300 acres of land were offered by both the states and Congress, men were reluctant to enlist for the duration of the war. In some cases, in order to fulfill their levies would find themselves bidding against each other for the services of a potential soldier. This motivated some men to enlist, receive a bounty, and then desert and re-enlist in another unit, in order to get another bounty. A soldier who was executed in 1778 had been convicted of deserting seven times.
In America, for most of the war a skilled workman could earn far more than a soldier, and even common laborers could earn more. This was particularly true during the prime agricultural season when farmhands were in short supply. In July 1777, when private soldiers were paid 6 2/3 dollars a month, David Grier lamented to Anthony Wayne that laborers were being paid a dollar or more per day, “which Intirely Prevents any success in Recruiting therefore.”
Some deserters went to the enemy, but more often they seem to have gone home. Though the army sent detachments out to get them, their friends and families sheltered them. In 1781 Washington wrote that in many instances, “Deserters which have been apprehended by Officers have been rescued by the People.” Others moved to Vermont or west of the Alleghenies to avoid capture. In 1783 Washington wrote that the “Grants,” a mountainous area between New Hampshire and Vermont, were “populated by hundreds of Deserters from this Army.”
Occasional mass pardons to deserters were not uncommon in armies of the period. Washington offered general pardons four times, the first on April 6, 1777. In 1782 a pardon was even made to deserters who joined the enemy. The Americans tried to entice the Hessian mercenaries to desert, playing up the frictions between the British and German troops. After the French army arrived in America, they also tried to bolster their ranks from the enemy. In 1780 a proclamation “To GERMAN DESERTERS” promised “proper encouragement” for those who enlisted in the French regiments.
Both sides enlisted prisoners of war and deserters despite repeated bad experiences and various cautions. While the Continental Congress forbad enlistment of prisoners of war in 1778, the continual push to fill the ranks ensured that it still occurred. If a soldier was a prisoner of war and escaped from the usual loose security where he was being held, was he a still a prisoner, or a deserter? Recruiters hungry for cannon fodder were unlikely to discriminate.”
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