American Civil War Desertions in the Union and Confederate Armies

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Desertion In The Civil War Armies

Union Army

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.

Confederate Army
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 o meal. . . . I dont 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

Recommended Reading: Desertion during the Civil War (251 pages) (University of Nebraska Press). Description: Desertion during the Civil War, originally published in 1928, remains the only book-length treatment of its subject. Ella Lonn examines the causes and consequences of desertion from both the Northern and Southern armies. Drawing on official war records, she notes that one in seven enlisted Union soldiers and one in nine Confederate soldiers deserted. Lonn discusses many reasons for desertion common to both armies, among them lack of such necessities as food, clothing, and equipment; weariness and discouragement; noncommitment and resentment of coercion; and worry about loved ones at home. Some Confederate deserters turned outlaw, joining ruffian bands in the South. Peculiar to the North was the evil of bounty-jumping. Continued below...
Captured deserters generally were not shot or hanged because manpower was so precious. Moving beyond means of dealing with absconders, Lonn considers the effects of their action. Absenteeism from the ranks cost the North victories and prolonged the war even as the South was increasingly hurt by defections. This book makes vivid a human phenomenon produced by a tragic time. About the Author: Ella Lonn (1879–1962) was a professor at Goucher College and the author of six histories of the South and the Civil War. 

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Recommended Reading: No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion: A Composite Diary of the Last 16 Months of the Confederacy from 1864 to 1865. Description: No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion is a groundbreaking study of life during the final sixteen months of the Confederacy. Civil War studies normally focus on military battles, campaigns, generals, and politicians, with the common Confederate soldier and Southern civilians receiving only token mention. Using personal accounts from more than two hundred seventy soldiers, farmers, clerks, surgeons, sailors, chaplains, farm girls, nurses, nuns, merchants, teachers and wives, author Jeff Toalson has created a compilation that is remarkable in its simplicity and stunning in its scope. Continued below...

These soldiers and civilians wrote remarkable letters and kept astonishing diaries and journals. They discussed disease, slavery, inflation, religion, desertion, blockade running, and their never-ending hope that the war would be over before their loved ones died. As in all wars, these are the people who suffer the most—and glory is hard to find amid lice, dysentery, starvation, and death. A significant contribution to Civil War literature, No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion will open vistas to a side of the war with which most are only mildly familiar. The words of these individuals are an honest, powerful, and poetic portrayal of the war’s effect on their lives.


Recommended Reading: More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army (Hardcover). Description: More Damning than Slaughter is the first broad study of desertion in the Confederate army. Incorporating extensive archival research with a synthesis of other secondary material, Mark A. Weitz confronts a question never fully addressed until now: did desertion hurt the Confederacy? Continued below...

Coupled with problems such as speculation, food and clothing shortages, conscription, taxation, and a pervasive focus on the protection of local interests, desertion started as a military problem and spilled over into the civilian world. Fostered by a military culture that treated ‘absenteeism leniently’ early in the war, desertion steadily increased and by 1863 reached epidemic proportions. A Union policy that permitted Confederate deserters to swear allegiance to the Union and then return home encouraged desertion. Equally important in persuading men to desert was the direct appeal from loved ones on the home front--letters from wives begging soldiers to come home for harvests, births, and hardships. By 1864, deserter bands infested some portion of every Confederate state. Preying on the civilian population, many of these bands--commonly referred to as irregular or guerrilla units--frustrated virtually every effort to subdue them. Ultimately, desertion not only depleted the Confederate army but also undermined civilian morale. By examining desertion, Weitz assesses how deteriorating southern civilian morale and growing unwillingness to contribute goods and services to the war led to defeat.


Also Recommended: Lee's Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox (488 pages; Hardcover) (The University of North Carolina Press). Editorial Review From Library Journal: Exhaustively researched, this revised doctoral dissertation is based on a wide variety of letters and diaries drawn from manuscript sources throughout the Confederate South. In chronological fashion, J. Tracy Power traces the men's cautious optimism after the Wilderness Campaign, where soldiers wrote of "high spirits," to the rampant despair during the spring of 1865. Power covers the standard topics: morale, rations, home front, and the like. His very well-written book gives readers a "you-are-there experience," and the final chapter is a superb historiographical overview of recent titles in the field.

American Civil War Desertions and Deserters for the Union and Confederate Armies and Soldiers List: Facts, History, Information, Details, Statistics, Numbers, Totals, Results, Union Army, Confederate Army.

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