Military Procedures & Events--Military desertion



Desertion is the act of a military service member permanently leaving a unit without permission. It is considered a worse offense than being temporarily absent without leave (AWOL). Deserters were often accused of cowardice, especially during the early part of the Civil War, when enthusiasm for battle ran high. While soldiers arrested for desertion very early in the war faced loss of pay, Union and Confederate officers treated it more harshly as the war progressed. Some deserters faced corporal punishment and humiliation, while most others were imprisoned. In some instances, military authorities recommended the death penalty for desertion. However, most saw their death sentence commuted and instead faced imprisonment with hard labor. For example, the Union’s Army of Potomac captured roughly 2,000 deserters between July and November 1863. Of those, 80 received death sentences but only 21 were actually executed—around one percent of the total number of deserters. Those that were executed most often had their sentence carried out in front of their fellow soldiers, as a warning to other, would-be deserters.

Reasons for desertion differed. Some soldiers fled from fear of battle, while many others ran away due to issues at home. Some Confederate soldiers deserted when their units were sent on campaigns outside their native state. This was not a problem among Union soldiers, who largely expected to march away from home to battle secessionists in the South. But, in the midst of the South’s highly charged climate of state sovereignty and home defense, not all Southern volunteers approved of being transferred for Confederate military service. One Mississippi soldier reported that as many as 125 members of his regiment deserted after they were sent to support Confederate forces in northern Georgia. Similar incidents happened with units across the Confederacy.

The two most common reasons for desertion were unfavorable conditions within the military (such as poor quality food, shoddy equipment, or discontent with military leadership) and loss of faith in the war effort. The latter reason plagued the Confederacy in particular toward the end of the war. Concerned for their families as Union armies occupied much of the South, or believing that victory was impossible, tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers slipped away from their units in late 1864 and early 1865 never to return. These desertions severely weakened Confederate armies and contributed to lower morale, which in turn led to more desertions. In all, an estimated 103,000 Confederate soldiers and 200,000 Union soldiers deserted during the Civil War. (Wikipedia; Encyclopedia of Virginia; Mark A. Weitz, “Desertion, Cowardice and Punishment,” Essential Civil War Curriculum; Bell Irvin Wiley, The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy,135-139; Wiley, The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union, 205-207)

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