American Civil War Desertion : The Deserters of the Union Army and Confederate Military Homepage

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American Civil War Desertion
Civil War Desertions and Deserters Homepage

"Execution of a Civil War Deserter"
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(The Soldier in Our Civil War , 1893)

Civil War Deserter, Desertion and AWOL

Desertion and Absent without Leave (AWOL)*


One error that many Civil War buffs, researchers, and historians commit is that they equate AWOL (which wasn't even coined until World War I) with desertion.


One of the basic rules in studying history is to define the terms of the era. Although in today's military the majority interchange "AWOL" (absent without leave or absence without leave) with "desertion," thus making them one and the same, there has always technically been a difference. Whereas the term Absent without Leave was first used in 1793 and its acronym AWOL can be traced to 1918, the Civil War was fought from 1861 to '65. Well into the 20th century Union and Confederate records were being transcribed by what was known as a copyist, who often times indicated AWOL, which may explain the error.


As for historians and authors portraying the Civil War soldier, who allegedly was caught while absent without leave, with an intrusive, large sign splashed with titanic sized letters of "AWOL" hanging about the disgraced soldier's neck by a lanyard as he stumbled red-faced through the camp for days -- it makes for graphic and colorful artwork, as well as an embellishment for marketing sake, but any so-called account factually never happened.

Civil War desertion and deserters
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Rare Civil War mass execution on grounds of desertion.

(Above) The mass execution at Kinston, North Carolina, was the exception and not the rule. While the hangings were based on confessions and eyewitness accounts, the controversy arose by some stating that the accused were prisoners-of-war, while others affirmed that each of the 22 men were Confederate deserters. The 22 men had been captured while wearing the Union uniform, but many, according to records, also confessed to desertion and acknowledged the Confederate unit to which he had served. Few mass hangings of these numbers actually occurred as a result of desertion. The execution was performed by either hanging or firing squad, but when the 22 were found guilty of desertion in 1864, bullets were rather scarce, but there was always an abundance of rope in camp.

Civil War Desertion
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Civil War Deserter Hanged

(Right) Narrative: Union soldier William Johnson was accused of "deserting the Union Army and attempting to rape a white woman." Johnson, on the single "charge of attempted rape," was sentenced by the Union Army to death by hanging, and, on June 20, 1864, Johnson was hanged in the vicinity of Petersburg, Virginia. Southern and Northern reporters alike, hoping to capitalize on the hanging, posted various accounts of the hanging: "Execution of Negro William Johnson for the attempted rape of a Southern lady. The Negro Johnson, ex-Union soldier, was hanged, June 20, 1864, in vicinity of Petersburg, Va." "A colored soldier, face covered with cloth, hanging from scaffold. The executioner stands behind body, while white Union soldiers, some in uniform, stand or sit nearby." "Execution of colored soldier on charge of attempted rape!" exclaimed yet another account.


Usage and Context

In the Civil War the term absent simply meant that the soldier was not present at the unit’s specific muster location and it was a broadly used term that was often applied until otherwise indicated, such as present, in hospital, or deserted. In other words, the soldier may have been dead, temporarily absent or absent for a reason other than leaving or deserting. Although Absent without Leave was defined as being absent without permission, it didn't necessarily equate to desertion, a term usually applied with facts. Leave should not be confused with the period's oft used word furlough, which traces its origin to ca. 1625.

In the fog of war, for example, while many soldiers were carrying furlough papers, the regimental records, on the other hand, were hastily written indicating that the soldiers were merely "absent." But there were also soldiers who were declared absent or even absent without leave, only to be discovered dead on the battlefield or in an enemy prison. Reasons for the soldier being absent ranged from recruiting duty, foraging orders, detached duty (assignment), sickness or illness, prisoner-of-war, wounded or dead on the battlefield, rounding up deserters, in the hospital, to visiting headquarters.

When the soldier deserted or abandoned his unit, the records were specific and indicated “deserted” and not absent or absent without leave, and if the soldier was absent or unaccounted for beyond an allotted time, then he was likely pronounced a deserter, too. There were, however, many soldiers who were initially declared as absent without leave, only later to be found guilty of desertion. So it is important to understand the difference between absent, absent without leave, and desertion.


Furlough, Leave, AWOL, and Desertion


Similar to today's military phrase "on leave," the Civil War soldier who was authorized to return home for an allotted period was considered on furlough. During the period, furlough was, however, an absence from duty, granted by a superior officer. The furloughed soldier carried papers which described his appearance, his unit, when he left and when he was due to return. Furlough papers also contained a warning that failure to return on the specific date would cause the soldier to be considered a deserter. Beyond the furloughed timeframe, deserter or desertion were the terms officially applied, and not the term absent without leave.

Union and Confederate Desertion and Deserters
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While Civil War deserters rarely faced execution, the sentence was always by hanging or firing squad

Deserter, Missing Movement, and Failure to Appear


Although the jargon Absent without Leave has evolved over the decades, in today's military it is technically different than desertion. While the Air Force and Army generally refer to an unauthorized absence as being Absence without Leave, the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard refer to this as Unauthorized Absence, or "UA." Desertion is considered a punitive offense under Article 58, Uniform Code of Military Justice, and any person found guilty of desertion or attempting to desert in time of war is subject to the death sentence. Additional military idioms now include Missing Movement and Failure to Appear. Missing Movement is applicable when a member of the armed forces fails to arrive at the appointed time to deploy (or "move out") with their assigned unit, ship, or aircraft. (Article 87, UCMJ) The offense is similar to absence without leave and is also a punitive offense. Failure to Appear consists of missing a formation or failing to appear at an assigned place and time when so ordered. The offense is punishable under section 1, Article 86, UCMJ.


*Union and Confederate records usually specified absent and the reason (foraging, for example), or absent without leave. Through the decades the phrases "away without leave" and "absent without official leave" have also been applied. Although officially now known as "Absence without Leave" according to Article 86, Uniform Code of Military Justice, the earliest use of the acronym AWOL actually dates to WWI.

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