Military Procedures & Events--Military leaves and furloughs



The terms “leave” and “furlough” during the Civil War meant permission for soldiers to be absent from duty. Soldiers on leave were allowed to depart camp and partake in recreational activities or, more often, travel home to visit family. Time off was a privilege for soldiers, and often more available for officers than enlisted men. Soldiers could request leave to handle matters at home in times of hardship or emergency, but permission depended upon the military situation and the commander’s discretion. Furloughs were for limited periods of time—usually no longer than thirty days—and soldiers would be reprimanded for being absent longer than their authorized leave, a violation known as “absent without leave,” or AWOL. Punishments for the crime included loss of pay, additional duties, or temporary imprisonment.

The lack of furloughs contributed to low morale, especially early in the war. Some soldiers deserted or accepted the punishment for being AWOL when denied leave, especially after receiving news of hardships at home. In response, Union and Confederate officials provided more furloughs to soldiers during the latter half of the Civil War. Military officers occasionally granted leave as an award for good behavior, or issued furloughs through a lottery to raise spirits. Commanders used these options sparingly, typically allowing no more than five percent of a unit to be on leave, to maintain the unit’s effectiveness and to reduce jealousy or homesickness among those who remained behind.

Some soldiers abused the furlough system to avoid military duties. In rare cases, men conspired with unprincipled officers to generate furloughs without authority from higher command. Other soldiers tried to buy furloughs from their comrades who had received them legitimately, offering as much as two months of pay. The more common practice was having family members write letters to an officer, appealing for the soldier to be granted leave. Once home, some soldiers sought ways to extend their leave. A favorite method involved having a doctor send a note to the soldier’s unit attesting to a medical ailment. Others blamed weather, problems with travel, or other acts of nature. The greatest violation of the furlough system involved soldiers failing to return. Officers had to determine, usually after waiting an extended period of time, whether a soldier was AWOL or had deserted. This issue plagued the Confederacy during the final year of the war, as many soldiers lost faith in victory and chose to go home with a furlough or without. (Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy, 132-143)

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