Desertion In The Civil War Armies
In view of the conditions which prevailed in the war department and in the Union army, it is not surprising that desertion was a common fault. Even so the actual extent of it, as shown in the official reports, comes as a distinct shock. Though the determination of the fully number is a bit complicated, the total would seem to have been well over 200,000. From New York there were 44,913 deserters according to the records; from Pennsylvania, 24,050; from Ohio, 18,354. The daily hardships of war, deficiency in arms, forced marches (which sometimes made straggling a necessity for less vigorous men), thirst, suffocating heat, disease, delay in pay,~ solicitude for family, impatience at the monotony and futility of inactive service, and (though this was not the leading cause) panic on the eve of battle - these were some of the conditioning factors that produced desertion. Many men absented themselves merely through unfamiliarity with military discipline or through the feeling that they should be "restrained by no other legal requirements than those of the civil law governing a free people"; and such was the general attitude that desertion was often regarded "more as a refusal . . - to ratify a contract than as the commission of a grave crime."
The sense of war weariness, the lack of confidence in commanders, and the discouragement of defeat tended to lower the morale of the Union army and to increase desertion. General Hooker estimated in 1863 that 85,000 officers and men had deserted from the Army of the Potomac, while it was stated in December of 1862 that no less than 180,000 of the soldiers listed on the Union muster rolls were absent, with or without leave. Abuse of sick leave or of the furlough privilege was one of the chief means of desertion. Other methods were: slipping to the rear during a battle, inviting capture by the enemy (a method by which honorable service could be claimed), straggling, taking French leave when on picket duty, pretending to be engaged in repairing a telegraph line, et cetera. Some of the deserters went over to the enemy not as captives but as soldiers; others lived in a wild state on the frontier; some turned outlaw or went to Canada; some boldly appeared at home; in some cases deserter gangs, as in western Pennsylvania, formed bandit groups.
To suppress desertion the extreme penalty of death was at times applied, especially after 1863; but this meant no more than the selection of a few men as public examples out of many thousands equally guilty. The commoner method was to make public appeals to deserters, promising pardon in case of voluntary return with dire threats to those who failed to return. That desertion did not prevent a man posing after the war as an honorable soldier is evident by a study of pension records. The laws required honorable discharge as a requisite for a pension; but in the case of those charged with desertion Congress passed numerous private and special acts "correcting" the military record.
Desertion at the South, though less extensive than in the North, was a factor of large significance; and a study of the causes that produced it goes far toward revealing the conditions which made the war intolerable to thousands among people and soldiers. As explained by Miss Loun, back-woodsmen and crackers were drawn into the army who had no sympathy with slavery and no interest in the issues of a struggle which they did not understand. The conscript net gathered in even Northerners and Mexicans, whose tendency to desert was natural enough. Many of the deserters were mere boys. Poor food and clothing, lack of shoes and overcoats, and insufficient pay inevitably produced disaffection. Sometimes the pay was fourteen months behind; often a soldier on leave could not pay the transportation to return to his command. Unsanitary camp conditions had their debilitating effect. Soldiers kept in unwholesome inaction were more than commonly subject to homesickness and depression. Often the alternative was abandonment and neglect of wife and children or departure from the army - in other words a choice between two kinds of desertion, a dilemma in facing conflicting loyalties. Men felt that their services were actually more needed at home than in the army. Not a few Southern soldiers found themselves in the situation of an Alabaman who deserted the army when his wife wrote him: "We haven't got nothing in the house to eat but a little bit of meal. . . . I don't want you to stop fighting them Yankees . .but try and get off and come home and fix us all up some and then you can go back." Some Arkansas soldiers deserted when informed that Indians were on a scalping tour near their homes. Indignant at extortioners and profiteers, soldiers would become disgruntled at the "rich mans war and the poor mans fight." There were occasions when "whole companies, garrisons, and even regiments decamped at a time." In some cases deserters banded together, roamed the country, fortified themselves in the mountains, and made raids upon settlements, stealing cattle and robbing military stores. Some lived in caves. Forces had to he detached from the Confederate armies to run down such groups, whose retreats were inaccessible and whose courage in fighting off attack was formidable. Had it not been for Mosbys Rangers, as Miss Lonn had pointed out, many defenseless residents in Virginias debatable land between the shifting armies "would have been at the mercy of the roving hands of deserters, turned bushwhackers, who had been left in the wake of both armies At critical times in the war the extent of desertion prevented the South from following up victories or half-victories in the field; it was both the cause and effect of lowered morale; the amount was "appalling, incredible." Many who withdrew from the army "had little conception of the gravity of their offense." For such men desertion bore no stigma; and, in sum, it appears that this factor (which, after all, was but a reflection of many other factors) "contributed definitely to the Confederate defeats after 1862 and . . . [to] the catastrophe of 1865."
Source: "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by Randall and Donald
This Page last updated 02/10/02
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