Desertion: Scourge of the Army

Only disease could pose a greater danger to the cause of American Independence than that of desertion. No army in the 18th century, not even well trained professional ones, could escape the inevitability that many of the soldiers would leave without being authorized to do so. Consider one of the most celebrated armies of that century– the Prussian Army during the Reign of Frederick the Great. In the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) Frederick successfully stalemated the war despite being attacked by 3 other great powers, each bigger and richer than Prussia. His tactical brilliance would have meant little if he did not possess an extremely well-disciplined and modern fighting force. However even a force such as this was not immune to desertion: In 1758 16,052 soldiers deserted from the Prussian contingent made up of about 150,000.1

So how did the Americans perform during the the struggle for independence? At the opening of the conflict there existed no professional American force like that Fredrick’s army, only a collection of decentralized state militias. On June 14, 1775 the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the Continental Army, which would attempt to coordinate the war effort and would adopt a coherent strategy. The Continental Army proved absolutely vital in resisting the British as the state militias proved to be militarily unreliable, quick to break rank when faced with concentrated missile attacks. Not but a few weeks after the Battle of Long Island, William Smallwood, colonel of the First Maryland Regiment, witnessed the ineffectual performance of the Connecticut militia during the Landing at Kip’s Bay. In a letter Smallwood wrote the following condemnation:

English: British troops landing at Kip's Bay i...

English: British troops landing at Kip’s Bay in 1776 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I have often read and heard of instances of cowardice, but hitherto have had a but a faint idea of it, ’till now I never could have thought human nature subject to such baseness–I could wish the transactions of this day blotted out of the Annals of America, –nothing appeared but flight disgrace and confusion, let it suffice to say that 60 light infantry upon first fire put to flight two brigades of Connecticut troops–wretches, who…could not be brought to stand one shot.”2

Smallwood’s observation reflects the truth in following passage from Carl von Clausewitz‘s famous work on warfare, aptly titled On War: “When we speak of destroying the enemy’s forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: the moral element must also be considered.” Lacking in this vital capacity, the militia suffered from extraordinary rates of desertion; some estimates place it as high as 50%.3 Regiments belonging to the Continental Army, like the one this blog is dedicated to–the First Maryland, generally performed better. But the fact remains that “American Independence was won in spite of the fact that none of the newly created states could mobilize and keep in the field a sizeable portion of its manpower.”4

The First Maryland was no exception and had its fair share of deserters. We do not have adequate information for me to feel comfortable estimating how many exactly, but I would like to spend some time talking about specific desertions, 2 in particular that we have come across thus far. The first is Private John Nottingham, who enlisted on April 14, 1776 in the 7th Company commanded by Captain John Day Scott. In June 1776 Scott wrote a memorandum on John Nottingham stating that he had deserted from his company. Scott described Nottingham as being a “young English lad about 18 or 19 years of age with short black hear(sic) and dark complexion.” John Nottingham’s fate is unknown. I have attached the memorandum at the bottom of this post.

Our second deserter came from James Hindman‘s 4th Independent Company. Private George McNamara enlisted in January of 1776. McNamara apparently deserted when Hindman’s company reached Philadelphia (recall from my earlier post “237 Years Ago” Hindman did not leave Maryland until late June ’76). In a letter, which can only be dated as being after August 3rd, Hindman related that he accidentally found McNamara in an unspecified location and that he (McNamara) had enlisted in another company under the command of a Captain Gregory. Falling sick, McNamara was left in a hospital by his new company until being discovered by Hindman. Hindman wrote that he planned to have the First Virginia Regiment escort McNamara back to Annapolis. In a letter from Hindman to Governor Thomas S. Lee dated September 6, 1780 it appears that McNamara had been jailed during the interim period. However, Hindman requested that McNamara receive a discharge because he was no longer able to perform soldierly duties due to swollen legs. I’ve attached Hindman’s first letter at the bottom.

This type of research reveals a different approach in methodology that we are using in order to establish the identities of the men comprising the Maryland 400; that is to narrow down the list by discovering who was not present.


1. Rodney Atwood, “The Hessians: Mercenaries from Hesse-Kassel in the American Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980): 204-205.
2. Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety. Archives of Maryland Online vol. 12 p. 338.
3. Arthur J. Alexander, “Desertion and Punishment in Revolutionary Virginia, ” The William and Mary Quarterly 3 (July 1946): 383.
4. ibid.


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