Union and Confederate Army Desertion History

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Civil War Court Martial History
It wasn't just for Union desertions or Confederate deserters

The Shady Side of the Family Tree: Civil War Union Court-Martial Case Files, By Trevor K. Plante

Union soldiers awaiting court-martial
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Often, researching a family member's Civil War military service can be a double-edged sword. Many researchers have the expectation that their ancestors' military service was honorable-- highlighted by famous battles, displays of courage under fire, and medals earned. Unfortunately, what some genealogists find is that their ancestors' military service was not as courageous and honorable as stories passed from generation to generation would have them believe. Although many love to romanticize the American Civil War, much happened that soldiers would not brag about to their families. Army life was hard, and desertion, insubordination, cowardice under fire, theft, murder, and rape were not uncommon. Evidence of such behavior in the Union army can be found in entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, 1809-1894, Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army). This series includes proceedings of general courts-martial, courts of inquiry, and military commissions. A general court-martial is the highest military tribunal convened to try violations of military law. A court of inquiry is an investigative body that lacks the power to impose punishments. And military commissions are special courts established under martial law for the investigation and trial of private citizens.

When researching a soldier who served in the Union army, begin with his compiled military service record. These carded records often mention a crime such as desertion or absence without leave as well as reference to a corresponding general order, special order, or general court-martial order. Orders are arranged by type, year, and then number. Printed copies of general orders and special orders can be found in Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917. General court martial orders are located in Record Group 153, Records of the Judge Advocate General (Army). These orders provide basic information such as the date, location of the trial, charge(s) brought against the accused, finding of the court, and sentence. The order also specifies whether the sentence was approved or disapproved by a higher authority.

To identify proceedings of a specific court-martial, researchers need to consult registers reproduced on National Archives Microfilm Publication M1105, Registers of the Records of the Proceedings of the U.S. Army General Courts-Martial, 1809-1890. The index shows the name of the accused, his rank, regiment, company, the president of the court, the judge advocate, and when and where the court convened. There are six indexes that cover the period 1861 to 1865. The case files include records of general courts-martial, courts of inquiry, and military commissions. Included are documents describing the organization and personnel of the courts; charges and specifications; pleas and arraignments of the defendants; papers and exhibits submitted for the consideration of the courts; proceedings, findings, and sentences of the courts; reports of the reviewing authorities; statement of action by the secretary of war and the President; and related correspondence. Case files are arranged by an alphanumeric filing scheme. For 1861-1865, court-martial case file numbers begin with II and run through OO (NN751 for example).

A series of court-martial case files (1861-1865) that were lost during the Civil War were later recovered by the Judge Advocate General in the early 1890s. These files are arranged numerically and are not included in the registers reproduced on microfilm publication M1105. The only index to this series is in the Old Military and Civil Records section of the National Archives. The index is arranged alphabetically by surname. The name index is followed by brief descriptions of each case file including case number; the individual's name, rank, and unit; the trial date; charges; and a summary of findings.

Desertion is a very common charge found in Civil War court-martial case files. Many of these cases are brief and provide little testimony. There are examples, however, of cases where the finding of the court resulted in a flurry of activity, including new information being brought to light after the trial ended. A good example is the case of 2d Lt. Charles Conzet, Company B, 123d Illinois Infantry Regiment. Lieutenant Conzet deserted on January 9, 1863, was later captured in Illinois, and returned to his unit on February 21, 1863.(1) Conzet was tried and convicted of desertion and sentenced "to be stripped of his badges of office, and shot until he is dead, with musketry." Both the commanders of the division and the Department of the Cumberland approved the sentence and forwarded it to the President of the United States for his approval.

After the trial, thirteen officers of the 123d Illinois, including the regimental and company commanders, signed a letter addressed to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, requesting that Lt. Conzet's sentence be commuted. The officers expressed concern that the lieutenant was "induced to abandon his post by letters from his wife begging him to come home and relieve her from her destitute condition, representing to him that the community in which she lived was opposed to the war, and would do nothing to relieve her necessities because her husband was in the Army." His wife was in financial need, and the lieutenant had not received any pay for his five months of service in the army. The officers requested that the secretary of war commute his sentence to "reduction to the ranks with forfeiture of all pay and allowance." The officers noted that Lieutenant Conzet requested to "be allowed to return to his company so that he may yet prove himself to be a man." On September 24, 1864, President Lincoln wrote, "Let the prisoner be ordered from confinement and dishonorably dismissed [from] the service of the United States."(2) Second Lt. Charles Conzet was dishonorably dismissed two days later under War Department Special Order No. 321.(3)

Insubordination is another charge commonly found in court-martial case files. Pvt. Patrick Delaney of Company D, Third Regiment, New York Artillery was charged with "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline." Two specifications clarified the charge. The first notes that the private violently assaulted 1st Lt. Paul Buchmeyer of Battery F, Third New York Artillery, by kicking and striking him. The second states that Private Delaney knew Buchmeyer to be an officer since the lieutenant identified himself as such. Delaney responded, "that he did not care a Goddamn if he was an officer." The court met on February 16, 1863, at New Berne, North Carolina. In response to the first question of the court regarding being struck, Lieutenant Buchmeyer answered, "First time he didn't strike me hard enough to knock me down, then I knocked him down. He had a partner with him. The partner knocked me down & I got up and knocked the other man down. The other man had a woman's dress. I knew him by his hair." As to the next question, "Did they appear to be under the influence of liquor?" the lieutenant responded, "Yes, I thought they had enough to make them ugly." There was no further mention of the second man in the dress in any of the testimony. Delaney was found guilty of both charges and sentenced to one year imprisonment at hard labor with a twenty-four-pound ball and chain.(4)

Although the vast majority of courts-martial relate to enlisted men, there are several cases that pertain to general officers. One such case involves James G. Spears, who helped organize the First Tennessee (Union) Infantry in 1861 and became its lieutenant colonel. Spears was later placed in command of a brigade in the Army of the Ohio and attained the rank of brigadier general. He was a slave-owning Unionist from Tennessee and believed the Emancipation Proclamation was illegal and unconstitutional and that only states could change slave laws. In February of 1864, General Spears was brought to trial in Knoxville, Tennessee, on charges including "using disloyal language."(5)

Several officers testified about conversations with General Spears concerning the administration in Washington and the topic of slavery. One Union officer testified that General Spears expressed the view that the President of the United States had the right to use slaves for military purposes but could not affect the institution of slavery itself for it was governed by state laws. Another officer testified that while discussing the war and slavery with the accused, General Spears felt "that there had not been a time since the rebellion began that the war could have been closed in sixty days; that he believed it was the policy of those in power to continue the war as a pretext or excuse to interfere with the institution of slavery, and when he found this to be the case, the Government might go to hell and he would be found fighting in the field against it."

Spears was found guilty of "using disloyal language" and "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline" and sentenced to be dismissed from the service of the United States. The findings and sentence were disapproved by Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, commanding the Department of the Ohio, because "using disloyal language is an offense not specified in the rules and articles of war and hence one over which a general court martial has no jurisdiction." Although Schofield acknowledged the lack of jurisdiction in the case, he recommended that the accused be dismissed anyway. This recommendation was forwarded for action to the President of the United States. President Lincoln concurred with Schofield's suggestion and on August 17, 1864, penned "summarily dismissed" on the case file, thus ending the military career of Brig. Gen. James G. Spears.(6)

The case of Pvt. William H. Cole, 109th New York Volunteer Infantry, resulted in several letters and petitions sent on his behalf. Cole was charged with raping Mrs. Olivia (Alvisa) Brown, a fifty-five-year-old woman, while stationed near Laurel, Maryland. In the spring of 1864 Cole was convicted and sentenced to ten years of hard labor at a penitentiary in New York. The sentence was approved by President Lincoln.(7) Four members of the 109th New York Infantry submitted an affidavit on Cole's behalf. Privates Bills, Brink, Tripp, and Quinn claimed that the inhabitants of the house where the alleged rape took place (Nicholas and Alvisa Brown and their daughter, Ellen Elizabeth England) were not moral citizens. "We each of us further depose that we are satisfied that the said Alvisa and the said Ellen are lewd women and that the said Nicholas Brown is cognizant of the fact that they keep a bawdy house."

The colonel and lieutenant colonel of the 109th New York Regiment also submitted a letter to Abraham Lincoln. In the letter the colonels state that "this crime when committed upon a strictly virtuous woman we have nothing to say. We admit it's enormity and concede that no punishment can be too severe." The officers go on to state in regard to Mrs. Brown, "that the character of the woman if not absolutely bad, was such at least as was well calculated to invite the advances of a soldier. She is not a woman of fair reputation in her neighborhood and beyond question she encouraged soldiers to visit her house where she supplied them with whiskey & where her conversation and conduct were well calculated to influence and excite to violence the passions of a drunken man." The colonels claimed that Cole had been sufficiently punished by time already served in jail and recommended that he be returned to duty.

Capt. William Warwick, commanding Company K, submitted a letter stating that Private Cole's "conduct as a soldier was good" and that he knows the family reputation of Nicholas Brown and "that the reputation of the said family is bad." He further endorsed the reliability of the statements made in the affidavit by Bills, Brink, Tripp, and Quinn.(8)

Thirty-five citizens from Nichols, New York, signed a petition to President Lincoln in July of 1864 requesting that Private Cole be pardoned and returned to his unit. In the petition members of his community wrote, "Your petitioners further represent that we have been acquainted with the said William H. Cole from his childhood and that he has been a peaceable and quiet citizen and that we have never heard any charge or complaint against him or anything against his character as a good citizen except that he was occasionally a little wild." In light of all the letters and petitions Lincoln finally wrote, "Pardon, according to above request."(9) Cole was spared the remaining ten years of hard labor, released from the penitentiary in Albany, New York, and returned to duty with the 109th New York.(10)

Proceedings of military commissions provide valuable information on the interaction between the military and civilians. On August 25, 1864, three people were tried by a special military commission in Washington, D.C. Rebecca Smith and Maria Kelley, both of Washington, were charged with "aiding and abetting soldiers in desertion." The two women had purchased suits for three Union deserters to help the soldiers escape detection from authorities. Both women were found guilty and sentenced to six months in a correctional facility in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.(11) In a separate case, Moses Waldauer was charged with "selling citizen's clothes to soldiers to enable them to desert." The accused sold suits to two soldiers from the Third Massachusetts Cavalry who were attempting to desert at the time. Waldauer was found guilty and sentenced to six months in Clinton Prison, New York, and fined fifty dollars.(12)

Another interesting military commission was one held for Samuel C. Betts, a citizen of Maryland, accused of treason. Betts was taken prisoner while in uniform in the ranks of the Confederate army near Rappahanock Ford on February 25, 1863. The commission met on March 3, 1863, at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac located at camp near Falmouth, Virginia. The commission was headed by Brig. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, who in three months' time, while commanding III Corps at Gettysburg would receive a wound that cost him his right leg. Betts was found guilty and sentenced "to be hung with a rope by the neck until dead." The Judge Advocate General noted that the sentence could not be enforced since the record shows the individual was a prisoner of war having been captured in uniform in the rebel ranks. The President agreed, writing, "Disapproved. The record showing clearly that the accused is a prisoner of war & should be treated as and exchanged."(13) There is no reference in the proceedings of this case to show that other Marylanders were captured at the same time as Samuel Betts. It is only upon reading the endorsement from the Judge Advocate General that we learn that two other men were captured with Betts and subsequently charged with the same offense. Proceedings of the cases of Marylanders James Rider and James R. Oliver can be traced in separate court-martial case files.(14)

Civil War court-martial case files are a rich source of information concerning an individual's military service. Once genealogists have seen the compiled military service record and pension file of their Civil War ancestor, a court-martial case file can provide facts regarding the soldier's service not previously uncovered.(15) More important, case files offer more than just details about a soldier's individual trial. Reading testimonies of soldiers and citizens brought before various courts gives researchers insight into American culture during the Civil War. In fact, one scholar has begun extensive use of Civil War court-martial case files in relating Civil War history. Dr. Thomas P. Lowry has used a large number of court-martial cases in two recently published works, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War (1994) and Tarnished Eagles: The Courts-Martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels (1998). For more information on Civil War Union court-martial case files, please write to Old Military and Civil Records (Room 13W), National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408-0001, providing the name, rank, and unit of the individual.

Notes are listed at bottom of page

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: 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. 


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: Galvanized Yankees on the Upper Missouri: The Face of Loyalty, by Michèle Butts (Hardcover: 320 pages) (University Press of Colorado). Description: Only a handful of historians have explored the unique nature of the Galvanized Yankees—Confederate prisoners of war permitted to enlist in the Union army—and the role they played in the West during the Civil War. Rarer still are detailed studies of individual regiments. Michèle Tucker Butts sheds welcome light on the triumphs and travails of one such unit, the First United States Volunteers and their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dimon. Continued below...
Their story provides a telescopic view of issues that would sweep the nation for the remainder of the nineteenth century: the promise and anxiety inherent in post–Civil War nation building, the complexities involved in westward expansion, and the changing nature of mid-nineteenth century manhood. Butts seamlessly maintains a human face on events of national import, punctuating her thoroughly researched narrative with excerpts from Dimon’s letters home. This compelling account of the First United States Volunteers will appeal to both scholars and general readers interested in the Civil War as well as Western and military history. 

Recommended Reading: They Went into the Fight Cheering: Confederate Conscription in North Carolina. Description: They Went Into The Fight Cheering focuses on the inner workings of conscription and its related enforcement in North Carolina. It is meticulously researched and presents the often overlooked aspect of troop procurement by the Confederacy in North Carolina as initial enlistment periods expired. The discussion of conscription (and desertion) in this book does not besmirch the honor of southern soldiers. Continued below…

Hilderman's book, They Went into the Fight Cheering, is a fascinating read on the North Carolinian and conscription during the War Between the States. Much has been written on the New York City draft riots and on the bounty jumpers of the north, but here is a factual and well documented history of how North Carolina, a late secession state, grappled with the effects of compulsory military service. Hilderman draws from a vast resource – the soldiers’ actual letters – to enable the reader to experience the war from the soldier's perspective. Be they volunteers or conscripts, after reading this book, there should be no question as to the bravery of the Tar Heel State’s soldiers. Hailed by many and criticized by others, it is, however a well written and balanced work. It is also a refreshing study that brings balance to the immense volumes that have previously presented history as either black or white. They Went into the Fight Cheering is a welcome addition to personal, school and community library Civil War and North Carolina history collections.


1. Additional information related to Lieutenant Conzet's capture can be found in his compiled military service record filed under the last name of "Conzit." Lt. Charles Conzit, Co. B, 123d Illinois Infantry, entry 519, Carded Records, Volunteer Organizations: Civil War, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, Record Group 94, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (hereinafter, records in the National Archives will be cited as RG ___, NARA).

2. File MM132, entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army), RG 153, NARA. 3. Special Orders, No. 321, War Department, Sept. 26, 1864, RG 94, NARA.

4. File NN133, entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, RG 153, NARA.

5. General Court Martial Orders, No. 267, War Department, August 30, 1864, RG 153, NARA.

6. File MM1367, entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, RG 153, NARA.

7. General Orders, No. 170, War Department, Apr. 21, 1864, RG 94, NARA.

8. Less than three months after penning this letter, Captain Warwick was killed in action near Petersburg, Virginia.

9. File NN751, entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, RG 153, NARA. Part of this case is related in Thomas P. Lowry, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn't Tell: Sex in the Civil War1 (1994), pp. 128-129.

10. Special Orders, No. 264, War Department, Aug. 9, 1864, RG 94, NARA.

11. General Court Martial Orders, No. 301, War Department, Sept. 15, 1864, RG 153, NARA.

12. Ibid.

13. File MM148, entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, RG 153, NARA.

14. James Rider, file MM149, and James R. Oliver, file MM147, entry 15, Court-Martial Case Files, RG 153, NARA.

15. If found not guilty, the individual was eligible for a pension. If found guilty, there might still be a pension application.

Try the Search Engine for Related Studies: Union and Confederate Army Desertion History, Deserters Totals Details, Civil War Soldiers, Why Soldier Deserted, Deserter Reasons Results, Desertions Definition Facts, Cause, Causes and What Caused Deserters, Photograph, Picture and Photo of a Deserter.

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