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On March 31, 1757, an advertisement appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal announcing the disappearance of Robert Aensworth. At aged twenty-seven, Aensworth was an immigrant from Ireland who worked for some time as an indentured servant in Trenton, New Jersey. After an apparently unremarkable term of service, the young Irishman took a job as a free laborer several miles to the north in Hunderton County, New Jersey. Here, in 1756, he encountered a recruiting party of British regulars from the 44th Foot led by a Lieutenant Barly. Aensworth evidently volunteered and served for a time as a redcoat, but he soon found military life repellent. At the risk of several notoriously severe punishments, including scourging by the cat of nine tails as well as the death penalty, the former servant deserted from his unit. It is not known how long Aensworth evaded pursuers after his disappearance, but they caught up to him near Trenton, New Jersey. Once taking him into custody, they placed "a Pair of Handcuffs" on his wrists and confined him in Richard Maybury's house. That night, facing the fearsome prospect of his imminent punishment, Aensworth vanished yet again. Somehow he managed to slip out of his restraints and sneak through the front door of the house undetected. Once outside, the artful Irishman "mounted and rode off" on a horse that was left naively outside the Maybury home "saddled and bridled." The last time anyone saw Aensworth, he was "crossing the Ferry to the Pennsylvania Side." In despair, his officers placed a notice in a Philadelphia newspaper describing his escape and offered the sum of five pounds in Pennsylvania currency for his capture. (1) Aensworth was one of nearly two thousand soldiers named as deserters in surviving issues of newspapers printed in British colonies from Nova Scotia to Georgia between 1755 and 1762. Like items placed in the papers for runaway wives, servants, slaves, apprentices, and other fugitives, deserter advertisements reveal a transatlantic society where diverse individuals sometimes used mobility to escape intolerable personal or economic relationships. These advertisements provide, on occasion, wonderfully rich and detailed data on troops. This information is invaluable to scholars because many of the contemporaneous muster rolls, the traditional sources that scholars would use to ascertain the compositions of units, simply do not survive from the era of the Seven Years' War. As a result, previous studies of soldiers relied on other existing documents like personal correspondence, court martial testimony, diaries, and pension records. Evidence gleaned from these sources occasionally allowed these historians to uncover details like the motives that different troops had for absconding, the ways the army tried to deter desertion, and the types of discipline that regular and provincial officers employed, but these studies left three critical questions largely unresolved. Who were the individuals who deserted, and what were their ethnic and occupational backgrounds? What methods did army officers and civil officials use to apprehend runaways or prevent their departures? Last, what strategies and artifices did deserters use to get away from their units and how did they continue to elude their pursuers?

22 juin
Journal of Social History

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