American Civil War Desertions: Union and Confederate

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American Civil War Desertions: North and South


"Exaggerated desertions were common according to Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies."



The tendency to exaggerate enemy desertions and casualties, while minimizing their own, was characteristic of Union and Confederate armies in their respective reports of the many skirmishes and battles of the American Civil War. Each side was also eager to enhance its own morale by writing favorable reports. It was propaganda, plain and simple, and presently referred to as Psychological Warfare. In the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, there are innumerable reports from both Union and Confederate headquarters admonishing the gross exaggerations of friendly and enemy desertions. While mistakes were also made while stating total desertions, it was obvious that the numbers were usually and intentionally inflated.


Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Jordan warned about such "exaggerations and rumors" in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, Vol. 14, p. 754, while President Jefferson Davis stated that the enemy strength (numbers) as stated by scouts was also "generally exaggerated." (O.R., Series 1, Vol. 22, pt. 2, p. 1072). And General Butterfield stated there would be court-martials for "false, exaggerated, or stampede reports." (O.R., 1, XXX, IV, p. 113). 


Deserters were also defined as a class in resistance to conscription and were generally known as outliers. (O.R., Series 4, Vol. 2, p. 783).


To avoid confusion, a total soldier count should be applied In lieu of percentages


In 1861 a typical regiment mustered approximately 1,100 soldiers, but by late 1863, many regiments were reduced by as much as 70% due to combat fatalities (killed-in-action), diseases, wounds, desertions, missing-in-action, enlistment expiration, and soldiers captured by the enemy.


When one says that 23% deserted to the enemy is it referenced to the 23% of the 1,100 soldiers in 1861, or 23% of the 330 soldiers recorded on the regimental rosters in late 1863? 23% from 1,100 soldiers = 253 desertions. Due to 70% attrition by late 1863, subtract 70% from 1,100 soldiers = 330 soldiers in the regiment; 23% from 330 soldiers = 76 desertions. Some authors and writers continue to avoid statistical analysis, thus misleading the reader. To avoid said confusion, a total soldier count should be applied In lieu of percentages.


When a soldier was wounded and later returned to service, for instance, he may have transferred to another regiment or returned to service in the nearest regiment causing him to be initially marked as a deserter. When a soldier was separated from his company during battle, after the engagement, he may have been assigned to the first regiment he encountered until orders could be written explaining the soldier's whereabouts. While some of these soldiers were in fact declared as deserters, they were actually engaged in other fights while temporarily serving in other units.


Early in the Civil War a captured soldier was paroled by signing a document which stated that he would “return to his home and not bear arms.” When the paroled soldier was ordered to return to his unit, if he refused to recant his oath forbidding to bear arms, he was marked as a deserter.


In the latter stages of the war, some Confederate commanders destroyed their regimental records. There was also impeded communication with other units and chaos in the chain of command, which allowed some commanders to write erroneous preliminary reports of desertion. For more information about Union and Confederate desertions see: No Soap, No Pay, Diarrhea, Dysentery & Desertion: A Composite Diary of the Last 16 Months of the Confederacy from 1864 to 1865.

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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Advance to American Civil War Conscription and Desertion:

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.


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.

Sources: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Walter Clark, Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-1865; National Park Service: American Civil War; Weymouth T. Jordan and Louis H. Manarin, North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865; D. H. Hill, Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865; Library of Congress; North Carolina Office of Archives and History; North Carolina Museum of History; State Library of North Carolina; National Archives and Records Administration; Tennessee State Library and Archives; Vernon H. Crow, Storm in the Mountains: Thomas' Confederate Legion of Cherokee Indians and Mountaineers; Christopher M. Watford, The Civil War in North Carolina: Soldiers' and Civilians' Letters and Diaries, 1861-1865. Volume 2: The Mountains; William F. Fox, Regimental Losses in the American Civil War.
(Additional information for American Civil War desertions for the Union and Confederate Armies: North and South by conscription totals; Rebel and Yankee desertion and deserter statistics and facts for infantry, regiment, battalion, and "unit level deserters" details and history; can be located in the books on this page. You may also try the search engine by entering: Civil War desertion history, Civil War deserter photograph, picture, photo, Confederate army deserters, Union desertion, Civil War desertions, desertion in the Civil War armies.)

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