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 Posted: Tue Sep 13th, 2005 10:35 pm
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amhistoryguy
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In 1928, Ella Lonn did one of the most often cited studies of desertion during the Civil War, "Desertion During the Civil War.
Her figures for total desertions, adjusted for those absent for other reasons, were;

Union Army - 197,247
Confederate Army - 103,400 enlisted men, 1,028 officers.

North Carolina had 23,694 Confederate desertions, 20 % of all North Carolina men who had enlisted, later deserted.

South Carolina had only 3,597 Confederate desertions.

Virginia had 12,071 enlisted and 84 officers desert the Confederate ranks.

New York had 44,913 men desert the Union ranks while Pennsylvania had 24,050 men depart on their own.

Keep in mind that a number of men may have been in the "business" of enlisting for bounty repeatedly, accounting for more than one desertion. Some men were deserters from units in both armies.

Also important to note, is that often men who were reported as deserters, were in reality, lost in paperwork, in hospitals, dead, missing, or prisoners. Several sources suggest that about 25 % of the total number of men reported as deserters may have been absent for another legitimate reason.

There were 33,000 Union soldiers who deserted while in Union hospitals.

Of the first 42,000 Union men who were court martialed during the Civil War, 14,146 were for desertion.

At the end of the war, Provost Marshal General James Fry estimated that Union desertions were at 268,530. He stated that this figure also included those absent for other causes such as sickness or overstaying furloughs. He reported that the actual number of Union men who deserted to avoid service was 201,397.
From monthly must reports, commanders reported a total of 278,644 men as deserters. Reports indicate that between April 1863 and April 1865, there were 154,833 desertions reported from Union ranks. Lonn's study showed that about 25 % of these men were NOT deserters, but absent for another reason. This is in agreement with Frys's estimates as well. With this adjustment it appears that during the last two years of the war 116,125 men deserted the Union Army.

In the 16 month period of April 1863 to July 1864, 61,465 desertions took place. An average of 2,842 men per month during this time period. After the third Federal draft call in July of 1864, over the next nine months, 54,660 men deliberately left their units without intending to return. This is an average of 6,073 men per month for that period. During the last nine months of the war, Union desertion rates increased over 63 %.

Union records indicate 147 executions for desertion, but this number is quite probably incomplete. Robert Alotta's "Civil War Justice" provides as complete a record of executions as is possible.
Thomas Lowery's "Don't Shoot That Boy," provides a very thorough examination of desertion cases. A number of desertion cases were reviewed by Abraham Lincoln and the sentence of death was upheld. Others had their sentence reduced, and still others were pardoned. Lowry shows Lincoln to have been very hard on deserters early in the war, and more apt to pardon them later in the war. In cases where family members petitioned Lincoln, he almost always intervened.

Lowery's study shows a marked increase in desertion during times in garrison, especially during the winter, and a decrease during months of campaigning. Very few men actually deserted during battle, "in the face of the enemy." This seems to have held true in the Confederate ranks as well.

As you might expect, statistics for the Confederate soldier are very sketchy. The Confederate War Department reported that by June, 1863, there were 136,000 men absent without leave. Davis Stated in September of 1864, that two thirds of the Confederate army was absent without leave. Early in 1865, Gen. John S. Preston, the superintendent of the Confederate Bureau of Conscription, said, "so common is the crime, it has in popular estimation lost the stigma which justly pertains to it, and deserters everywhere are shielded by their families and by the sympathies of many communities."

Kenneth Radley's book, "Rebel Watchdog, The Confederate States Army Provost Guard," provides some interesting insights. "Well meaning but misguided leniency to deserters further exacerbated the problem and proved no more effective than the many appeals to deserters to rejoin the colors."
Radley relates that for April, 1863, 360,000 Confederates were present for duty out of an estimated 498,000. Radley writes, "...these figures are the apogee of Confederate military strength. After that, the numbers of men present fell rapidly and the rate of desertion rose steeply." Also mentioned, is the increasing problem of bands of these deserters resisting any effort to return them to the army. "By Christmas of 1863, the problem was no longer single deserters but squads, and even whole companies of men who broke away from the army."
By April, 1865, of an enrollment of 359,000 men, only 120,000 were actually present for duty with the Confederate army.

Men, both North and South, were just plain tired of killing each other. It had little to do with courage or loyalty, and often was a response to long neglected family needs. "One half of the desertions from the Southern Army is caused by the letters they recieve," reported one soldier's letter home.

Edward Cooper, Private, ANV, started for home shortly after getting this letter from home. He was picked up by the Confederate Provost.

"My Dear Edward, I have always been proud of you, and since your connection with the Confederate Army, I have been prouder of you than ever before. I would not have you do anything wrong for the world, but, before God, Edward, unless you come home, we must die. Last night I was aroused by little Eddie's crying, I called and said 'What is the matter Eddie?' And he said, 'Oh momma, I am so hungry.' And Lucy, Edward, your darling Lucy, she never complains, but she is growing thinner and thinner every day. And, before God, Edward, unless you come home, we must die. - Your Mary"

Edward Cooper was sentenced to death for his desertion, only the personal intervention of Robert E. Lee saved him.

IMO, it is certainly possible to sympathize with men in the situation of an Edward Cooper, and to agree with Lee's move to save him. But, I think it is also important to make note of what this says about the men, on both sides, who stayed with their units under these hardships.

Regards, Dave Gorski

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