Desertion is a barometer of an army's morale. The desertion rate of any military force reflects the level of its fighting spirit. Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman historian Vegitius stated that the desertion of enemy's soldiers had a greater effect on its army than battlefield casualties. Desertion both depletes an army's numbers and severely undermines its resolve. Men falling gloriously in battle serve as an example for those who survive. Deserters not only take themselves out of the contest, they cause those who remain to question the wisdom of their continued service.
The armies of the American Civil War proved uniquely susceptible to desertion, and the problem plagued both sides throughout the war. In 1862, Robert E. Lee complained that desertion so depleted his army that the governments policy of leniency that prevented him from executing deserters would only compound the problem. Available estimates place Union desertion at 200,000 and Confederate desertion 104,000. Desertion records, however, reflect only estimates based on those present for duty or otherwise unaccounted for as dead, wounded, captured, or hospitalized. The numbers therefore are only an estimate at best. Union desertion figures may reflect the repeated desertion of a particular soldier, a practice common among men who joined for bounties. Bounty jumpers lied only to reenlist under another name, collect a new bounty, and desert again. By strict definition, desertion was leaving the military with no intent to return. However, as the war progressed, a broad variety of conduct was interpreted as evasion of duty. Straggling, skulking, fighting in the wrong unit, or temporary absence fell under an ever-widening definition of desertion.
Many motives traditionally associated with desertion existed during the Civil War. Poor food, boredom, unhealthy camp conditions, fear of death, and homesickness caused desertion on both sides. Soldiers close to their homes were especially sensitive to conditions there, and bad news consequently contributed to desertion, particularly among Confederate soldiers. When the promise of food, clothing, and shelter for the families of southern soldiers went unfulfilled, it weakened those soldiers commitment to the army.
After conscription in the South began in 1862 and in the North in 1863, men unwilling to fight but now compelled to do so took advantage of any opportunity to desert. Loopholes that enabled wealthy slaveholders in the South to avoid the draft and the affluent in both regions to purchase substitutes also undermined morale and contributed to desertion. The South's increasing economic instability meant that many families could not cope in the absence of sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers. The gradual elimination of furloughs and the Confederacy's policy that all enlistments bound men for the duration of the war made desertion more appealing as the war dragged into its third year.
One unique aspect of the Civil War was that each side used desertion to deplete the others army. To induce Union soldiers to desert, the Confederacy offered sanctuary in the South, civilian jobs, and in some cases land. The North excelled in the inducement of Confederate desertion. By August 1863, the Union had developed a policy that allowed Confederate deserters coming into Union lines to swear an oath of allegiance and return home. As the war progressed, this program also provided transportation into Union-occupied areas and payment at fair market value for any equipment Confederate deserters brought with them. These Confederate deserters became the earliest Galvanized Yankees (reconstructed rebels). If their homes lay within Confederate-controlled areas or if they were unwilling to return home, deserters could remain in the North or enter the U.S. Army for service on the western frontier.
Not only did desertion drain the strength of both armies, it also affected civilians. Certain regions became "deserter country" for both northern and southern runaways who sought refuge in isolated areas. The mountains of Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky, as well as areas of southeast Georgia provided safe havens for deserter bands. These irregular groups preyed on the civilian population and caused Union and Confederate military commanders severe security problems for most of the war.
Source: "Encyclopedia of the American Civil War" Article by Mark A. Weitz
This page last updated 09/01/08
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