January 23, 2013

The men are sick of the place

During the War of 1812, both the British and American armies suffered numerous desertions. Desertion was commonplace since many recruits were either forced into service due to poverty and others were simply tricked into the service.
Men from both armies often became dissatisfied with the army due to appalling conditions, presence of disease, homesickness and lack of pay, among other reasons. With Canada and the U.S. sharing a similar language and customs, many decided that desertion was a viable option. Overall, the U.S. army lost about 10% of its strength through desertion and at various times during the war the government was forced to issue blanket pardons for deserters. For the British it is estimated that the desertion rate was about 15%. Some regiments, such as the Glengarry Light Infantry, had a desertion rate as high as 25%. In fact, in Upper Canada the government passed a law in 1812 offering 4.5 pounds for anyone who brought in a deserter.
Major-General Riall

Desertion was particularly bad for the King’s 8th Regiment during their occupation of Fort Niagara in 1814. Major-General Phineas Riall reported that the men were afforded extra food and spirits to counteract the hard labour involved in improving Fort Niagara’s defences. Despite the extra amenities, Riall reported that, “The men are sick of the place, tired and disgusted with the labor to which they see no end.”

Punishment for desertion was severe during the war. Desertion was considered a capital offence in both the British and American armies, but many escaped a death sentence. British deserters were likely to be flogged and American deserters could be branded, have their ears cropped, or face some other unpleasant form of corporal punishment.
If you want to learn more about interesting topics involving the War of 1812, make sure you signup for the 2013 War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium in Hamilton. Several well-known speakers will make presentations on numerous War of 1812 topics. Don’t miss this great event.

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