Deserters of San Juan Island

Peacetime soldiers in the years leading up to the Pig War faced extremely harsh conditions both materially and in the form of tyrannical superiors. As a result, many of them deserted. However, deserting was no guarantee that their problems would be over.

Soldiers don’t have the most glamorous job. Even today, soldiers work long hours in dangerous places for their pay. Even members of the military in less dangerous places will tell you that the hours worked are far from ideal. However, there was a time when soldiers didn’t even enjoy the good reputation they currently receive. In the years leading up to the Pig war, peacetime enlisted men were regarded as too lazy to work and their military service was essentially viewed as a leach on government funds.

As a result of this desertion was common. Quoting Mike Vourri’s book on the Pig War, “Deserters could be shot or hung. But they were more often flogged raw, branded on the hip with a “D,” and sent packing while the regimental band played the “Rogue’s March.” American General and commander of the Department of Oregon William S. Harney also had a history of hating deserters. During the Mexican War, General Harney held men at the gallows and only released them to hang once the American flag was raised over Mexico City. To this day, there is a plaque in Mexico City Commemorating Irish soldiers in the Mexican army that Harney ordered to be executed. He carried out these executions on the basis that the Irish soldiers fighting for Mexico were traitors or deserters. Though he often had no proof of this.

Despite these harsh measures, desertion levels remained high. According to Vouri’s research, “In 1856, the year of Fort Bellingham’s founding, 3,223 out of 15,000 U.S. Army regulars deserted.” General Mansfeld attributed much of the desertion to the fact that enlisted soldiers were often immigrants of peasant backgrounds. However many of the deserters were more eager to cite a “cruel first sergeant, bad food or pitiful clothing” for their reason to leave.

In most cases, desertion was just a part of military life. However, at one point, it sparked an international incident when British bugler George Hughes abandoned his post and was found five years later in the American military. British Captain George Bazelgette asked the American Captain Grey to return Hughes. However, Captain Grey refused claiming that Bazelgette had no such jurisdiction. Thankfully, this ended peacefully as both sides saw it wise not to further provoke the situation. This also was an increasingly odd scenario when you consider that the British soldiers received far better pay on a monthly basis than American soldiers. In fact, many American soldiers would go up to six months without pay.

Soldiers back then had to really fight to exist. Between enduring terrible conditions and oftentimes being loathed by the public. It’s not surprising that some of them deserted. However, in the case of George Hughes, sometimes desertion was only the beginning of military service.



The Rogue's March
If they were lucky enough not to be executed, this is the song soldiers caught deserting would have played to them as they were escorted off the camp. ~ Source: Amaranth Publishing, "Rogues March" available at...
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