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The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies

Other Facts/Records
Rebel Deserters to the Loyalist Cause

Following is the text of a lecture given in the August, 2000 chat at The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies.

While trying to figure out what to discuss this evening, I saw a post on a mailing list about a Loyalist who enlisted somewhat late in the war.

In looking for info on this person, my first thought was to check an intelligence book from the NY Public Library that I had transcribed. This book was kept by the Adjutant General's Department, which was responsible for intelligence gathering.

They routinely interviewed deserters from the Continental Army to learn what was up in the Rebel Camp. They were interested in learning which regiments were where, who commanded, how much food they had, the last time they were paid, etc.

All these things painted a picture of Washington's Army for the British.

The deserters themselves were then free to enlist with the British or follow any line of work they wished. Most opted to enlist in the Loyalist regiments or serve on board a Loyalist privateer.

This may seem odd to us today, but at the time of the Revolution, desertion was a common occurrence in all armies. Not only that, but the deserters often went over to the other side and actively fought against their old comrades.

To put this into a modern context, think about how bizarre it would be to have so many American Soldiers deserting to the Iraqis that Saddam Hussein was able to form regiments of them for his army! But that was exactly the case during the American Revolution...

What got my attention about the post looking for the Loyalist who enlisted in the Queen's Rangers was the date he joined.

Most Loyalist regiments raised in the New York City area enlisted the zealous Loyalists when they were formed. In most cases, this was the winter of 1776/1777.

In 1777, 1778, and 1779 there were some British forays into the Hudson Highlands where more Loyalists could join, and of course many enlisted at Philadelphia.

However, within the British lines, just about everyone who was going to enlist, had enlisted by that point. From 1780 on, probably about 75% of the new recruits to the Provincials at New York City were actually deserters from Washington's Army!

This practice of enlisting deserters started at the earliest period of the war, at Boston. One of the very first Loyalist regiments, the Royal Fencible Americans, took in just about all the deserters that came into Boston at that time - 1775/1776.

An examination I recently made of the muster rolls of the New Jersey Continental Line for 1776 showed the names of many men who would later join their Loyalist counterparts, the New Jersey Volunteers.

We just recently put a court martial proceeding on our site about Peter BRADY, a Queen's Ranger. He was a Continental Soldier who left and joined the Queen's Rangers in 1776 and was then accused of trying to get British Soldiers to desert with him back to the Rebels!

It was a confusing time, to say the least...

The British made a concerted effort to recruit deserters in 1778.

A gentleman by the name of Rudolphus RITZEMA was at New York. RITZEMA had been the colonel of the 1st New York Regiment of the Continental Army. He had served for the Rebels during the unsuccessful Canadian Campaign.

There was some confusion over whether or not he had resigned his commission in their service, but whatever the case, he came over to the British. He came up with a plan to recruit an entire regiment of Continental Army deserters. His regiment was to be called the Royal American Reformees.

Raised in May of 1778, this corps consisted of only three or four weak companies, but with some interesting officers. RITZEMA had proposed that all the officers would have been deserters from the Continentals, but that does not appear to have been the case.

One who definitely was, was John B. SCOTT. SCOTT had been a Captain in the 2nd New Jersey Regiment and had also served in the Canadian Campaign with RITZEMA.

By 1777 he was within the British lines and soliciting a commission in the 5th Battalion, NJ Volunteers. Interestingly, the officers in that unit declined taking him because of his past service. He fit in fine with RITZEMA though!

Other officers included the very famous John Walden MEYERS, who went on to lead an active career as a spy and later as a Captain in the Loyal Rangers in Canada. Another officer, and Major of the corps, was the equally famous James ROGERS, older brother of Robert ROGERS.

Sadly for RITZEMA, the deserters coming in and others (they ended up enlisting anyone who would serve) just weren't enough to keep the regiment viable. Without ever fighting in battle, the regiment was drafted in September of 1778 into other units.

A company was formed under John B. SCOTT and given to the British Legion, a corps that would recruit scores if not hundreds of deserters. Others went into the Queen's Rangers, DeLancey's and a new unit, the Volunteers of Ireland.

The Volunteers of Ireland was raised by Francis Lord RAWDON in 1778 with the express goal of increasing desertion of the Irish in Washington's Army.

RAWDON and others believed that many Irish soldiers under Washington had been deluded to fight against the British and only waited for an opportunity to desert and fight for them. He thought that if a regiment was raised by an Irishman (him) and officered solely by others from Ireland, that many would desert and join him. And he was right...

Taking drafts from another understrength regiment, the Roman Catholic Volunteers, and stripping some other Provincial regiments of Irish natives within their ranks, he was able to recruit 400 men within a couple of months.

Throughout the war the Volunteers of Ireland would recruit hundreds of deserters and almost surprisingly went on to have a fantastic history.

They served at New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Virginia, and South Carolina. It was in the latter province that they gained the most fame, at Camden in 1780 and Hobkirk's Hill in 1781. Both times they sustained more losses than any other regiment on the field.

In later 1782 RAWDON, home in Ireland, learned his regiment had been made a regular regiment of the British Army and was ordered to join him there.

Most of the rank & file, though, wished to stay in America and were subsequently drafted at Charlestown into the Provincial units stationed there.

Many deserters also joined the British at Philadelphia.

General PATTISON of the Royal Artillery stated in March of 1778 that they had taken in 1600 deserters from Valley Forge. These included 14 noncommissioned officers of the Continental Artillery, who enlisted into the 2nd NJ Volunteers, which was at that time attached to the Royal Artillery.

The Pennsylvania Loyalists were noted as being made up chiefly of Rebel deserters, and that included their commanding officer, William ALLEN!

The most famous of all Continental Army deserters was, of course, Benedict ARNOLD. ARNOLD himself is an entire article, so I will concentrate mostly on what plans he had in mind for enlisting a regiment for the British.

Upon joining the British, ARNOLD was made a Brigadier General of Provincial Forces. He proposed raising a regiment of cavalry and infantry by the name of the American Legion. He issued a lengthy manifesto of sorts which he attempted to have circulated within the Rebel lines.

His officers were a strange mixture of old British officers and some Rebel deserters. Most notable amongst them was Nathan FRINK, a captain of cavalry under ARNOLD, and an officer from the Continentals, or State Troops.

The American Legion, while still in its infancy, accompanied ARNOLD on the 1781 Virginia Campaign. He would recruit enough deserters (about 400) to form four troops of cavalry and five companies of infantry.

Serving as a soldier in one army, after being in the enemy army, has its share of problems, as you can easily imagine.

In 1780, a new company was raised for the 4th NJ Volunteers, commanded by Jacob VAN BUSKIRK. They made a concerted effort to keep all the Continental deserters in the regiment in that company, rather than break them up among the different companies of the battalion.

One can easily imagine some awkward conversations between soldiers who had previously been shooting at each other, but now were brothers in arms on the same side, possibly sleeping in the same tent!

There were, of course, obvious risks as well. Deserters taken in arms with the enemy were most often sentenced to death.

In 1780 George Washington pardoned a number of his deserters who had joined the NJ Volunteers and other Loyalist units.

These men had been taken prisoner by his army afterwards and sentenced to death. They rewarded Washington's generosity by promptly deserting back to the British!

One of the awkward problems with the surrender of CORNWALLIS was what to do with all the deserters that were serving under him and about to be surrendered to Washington.

The solution was to let them go back to New York on parole without having to go into confinement, where they would most likely have been discovered for what they were. These men crowded on board the Bonetta Sloop of war, to the tune of about 250 soldiers.

So... How can you tell if your ancestor is one of these people? There are different ways you can check.

There are three different registers of Continental deserters among the Sir Henry Clinton Papers at the Clements Library, University of Michigan. One lists 100 men exactly, for a three or four week period in January/February 1780. The other two cover January to August of 1781, and list over a hundred others.

Scattered among the Clinton Papers for 1780 and 1781 are scores of deserter interviews, conducted by the famous John ANDRÉ or his successor, Oliver DeLANCEY, Jr. There is likewise a book kept in 1778/79 by ANDRÉ that lists scores more.

There is a small intelligence book for the summer of 1778 in the Library of Congress.

There are two excellent intelligence books in the New York Public Library, dated between August of 1780 and July of 1781. These contain much of the raw data from the Clements Library, but in a more finished form, no doubt done by a clerk in the AG's Department.

This does not cover the hundreds or thousands who enlisted out of prison, which we will leave for another article.

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