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Straggling became a major problem for both armies by 1862, as war-weary soldiers began opting out of fighting.

IN THE WINTER OF 1861–62, “Stonewall” Jackson refused to grant furloughs to let his men rest, opting instead to drill them relentlessly as he prepared for his ambitious Romney Campaign in western Virginia. The campaign in January proved to be a bitter endeavor both in terms of the weather and in its lack of significant strategic gains. As Private Charles W. Trueheart, an artillerist, recalled: “The roads were so slippery with sleet, that the poor [horses] could not keep their feet in pulling the cannon & wagons, but fell continually—sometimes 3 out of 4 of a team would be down at once. Splotches and puddles of blood frequently marked the places where they fell….Many of us got our feet and hands frostbitten. My feet were so badly bitten that I could scarcely walk.” The soldiers faced freezing temperatures on the march and when they reached Romney had nowhere to sleep. That winter, Colonel Turner Ashby’s cavalry became particularly notorious for employing the lengthier French Furlough, sometimes for up to four weeks. Such extended stays were risky, as they smacked of permanence, alerting commanders to the prospect of desertion. As Lieutenant Albert C. Lincoln, a subordinate of Ashby’s, fretted on February 18, 1862: “That portion of the [7th Virginia Cavalry] that are now at home have left three or four times in the same manner….Some of them had not been back more than three weeks since the retreat from Romney.”

Stragglers—soldiers who informally took time off to recover from fatigue or illness—became a mounting problem. Though different from desertion, it had the same effect of drawing down troop strength. Both Union and Confederate armies had to contend with straggling, but Jackson’s forces were especially affected. An unusual number of his men were stationed close by their families, and many were gone for weeks as they recovered at home.

By the time the Shenandoah Valley Campaign commenced in March, Jackson’s men had a reputation for straggling. Then, on April 16, 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the Conscript Act, which among other stipulations required all one-year enlistees from 1861 to remain in uniform for two more years. There is some debate among scholars as to whether the first national draft in history discouraged or  encouraged desertion. Conscription probably made little difference to strategic straggling, which was not about commitment to the Stars and Bars but rather one’s personal survival. There was, however, evident hostility toward the draft in the Valley, where cannoneer Private Edward A. Moore recalled his fellow Confederate 1st Marylanders resisting the reelection of their officers in protest.  

Moore’s account made clear that the men were not lazy or unpatriotic. They had faced hard times in “wretched” camps, marches in mud “up to their knees,” “severe weather” and snow up “through March and far into April,” treks back and forth over the mountains, which amounted to “two months of marching and countermarching, without any object that we could divine, under conditions of more acute discomfort than we had ever known before.” Moore remembered Stonewall as starkly callous, explaining that when one agonized Marylander cursed the general, Jackson overheard and barked, “It’s for your own good, sir!” While the story’s veracity is questionable, one effect of conscription was indeed that Jackson focused his scrutiny more acutely upon any man who strayed from the ranks, because manpower had become such a pressing concern.

Meanwhile the general continued to enforce an exhausting marching pace across mountain passes that pushed his men to their physical limits. In April Sergeant McHenry Howard noted: “We were eating on the porch of [a] house, which was close by the side of the Turnpike, sometime in the afternoon, when…wagons and ambulances soon came hurrying past to the rear. With them there were a number of stragglers.” The absentees latched onto the medical wagons, and superiors surmised that they might be malingering. Howard reported that his commander, Brig. Gen. Charles S. Winder, remarked, “That must be stopped,” with no discussion as to why the straggling might have arisen. By June, Jackson’s army appeared to some ob servers to be self-destructing from exhaustion and exposure. Confederate stragglers scattered on the Valley Turnpike, being plucked up by Federals as prisoners of war.

Four hundred miles of active campaigning later, Jackson’s “foot cavalry” disembarked from the Valley on June 17 for the Virginia Peninsula and scarcely paused again until July 8. By then “some of the men had not washed their hands and faces for five or six days.” Sanitation suffered gravely, and the men were sick as dogs. Desertion and straggling spiked once more. As Private John H. Worsham explained, much of the straggling was simply from exhaustion. The private “sat down in a little fence corner to get some rest” and, after tending to a sick comrade, “fell asleep, and did not wake till morning.”

That June, when Lee assumed command of the soon-to-be-christened Army of Northern Virginia, he could scarcely believe its disorder. The Seven Days’ Battles were imperiled by straggling for a number of reasons, only some of which had to do with self-care.

Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder could put only 7,100 of his 12,500 infantry and two of his 16 batteries into battle on July 1 at Malvern Hill. As historian Stephen Sears wrote, “Every road and every grove behind Magruder’s front was filled with his stragglers.” The problem was hardly isolated  to Magruder’s troops. Stationed near Richmond on July 1, the army disintegrated into “hordes of stragglers [turning] the city into a veritable resort town.” Local newspapers lambasted army discipline, calling for the death penalty. Approximately 50 stragglers per day were arrested in Staunton, Va., in the month of July as they poured in from the east. The addition of Jackson’s troops from the Valley worsened matters, as his exhausted men refused orders, and Jackson himself fell asleep for a major part of the action. Historian Joseph Harsh has provided detailed evidence that by August and September 1862, Lee became obsessed with identifying and punishing stragglers, rebuking them as the “cowards of the army.” Lee also wrote to President Jefferson Davis in September of the need for more legislation and punishment regarding the offense.

Though Jackson censured one of his own, General Charles Winder, for bucking and gagging his absentees, considering it not a useful deterrent, Jackson eventually took a far harder stance against the disciplinary infraction. In August he executed four deserters, some of whom argued that they had only been straggling. Command complaints to the Confederacy’s War Department had, in the meantime, prompted Adj. Gen. Samuel Cooper to take his own actions of increasing severity.

He first issued General Orders No. 16 on March 21, 1862,  abolishing furloughs for men except those on medical leave. By May, he added Special Orders No. 107, arresting all absentees for prompt court-martial. If stragglers refused arrest, they would be automatically punished as deserters: death by firing squad. Secretary of State George W.  Randolph pleaded with the governors of the various Confederate states on July 17, 1862, to do their part in rounding up stragglers and deserters: “Our armies are so much weakened by desertions, and by the absence of officers and  men without leave, that we are unable to reap the fruits of our victories….We have resorted to courts-martial and military executions, and we have ordered all officers employed in enrolling conscripts to arrest both deserters and absentees, and offered rewards for the former.” In August, General Orders No. 94 called for extreme policing of the rear on any march: “On all marches a Division Provost Marshal, with a guard of one commissioned and two noncommissioned officers and ten men from each regiment  will march in rear of each division, accompanied by one of the Division Medical officers, to prevent straggling.” Further: “When men fall back who are sick, the Surgeon will give them a ticket for transportation in the ambulances or train of wagons. If not sick they will be marched into camp under charge of the guard.”

By December, General Orders No. 137 institutionalized a slew of new convictions for Rebel stragglers and deserters, ranging from strapping a 12-pound iron to one’s legs, forfeiting an entire year of pay and receiving lashes. There is evidence to suggest these more strident measures did help to tighten discipline and reduce straggling after 1862.

Straggling in the Union armies in 1862 Virginia was also a considerable problem, though Federals did not often have the temptation of being close to their families, as did some units from Virginia. Union straggling in the Valley was pervasive because the armies were frightfully limited in rations, equipment and medical supplies. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper famously pictured Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont’s army as “ragged,” hunched and straggling as a result of poor conditions. Brig. Gen. Louis Blenker’s division was gaining a reputation for both straggling and plundering, because they had long been without “tents, shelter, or knapsacks” and without pay since December. Fremont drew considerable criticism for failing to rein in Blenker’s “Dutch vandals.” In Brig. Gen. James Shields’ division, one 110th Pennsylvanian committed suicide from exhaustion on March 21, while only one in five of his comrades reported present for duty. April discipline was likewise lax, as the men continued to trickle away in search of much needed supplies and shelter. The Seven Days’ Battles did not improve matters for the Army of the Potomac. Following the Union victory at Malvern Hill, the general ordered an eight-mile retreat to Harrison’s Landing that resulted in significant Union absenteeism. Rain  pummeled the exhausted Federals for 24 hours. Historian Sears writes, “Something about this downpour seemed the last straw, seemed to wash away the bonds that had held the army together.” Men tossed off their weapons, and most of the 818 men listed as missing from the preceding battle were collected as absentees rather than on the battlefeld.  U.S. cavalry regulars rounded up nearly 1,200 stragglers in the rear. July in Harrison’s Landing—a lengthy hiatus in the alternating heat and rain with little to do—did not help matters. Individual regimental records show that men deserted or strayed from the ranks in striking numbers because of the poor conditions.

By July 13, President Lincoln took notice of the mass absenteeism in General George McClellan’s ranks. Lincoln warned, “45,000 of your Army [are] still alive, and not with it. I believe half, or two thirds of them are ft for duty today….How can they be got to you? and how can they be prevented from getting away in such numbers for the future?” While McClellan haggled with Lincoln’s numbers, he admitted, “The number…really absent is thirty eight thousand two hundred fifty….I quite agree with you that  more than one half these men are probably fit for duty today. I have frequently called the attention lately of the War Dept to the evil of absenteeism.” But he had hope that he could curb the problem at Harrison’s Landing: “Leak ages by desertion occur in every Army and will occur here of course, but I do not at all…anticipate anything like a recurrence of what has taken place.” Contrary to McClellan’s prediction, straggling continued. McClellan passed on responsibility to officials in Washington, and it would be left  to his successor, Ambrose E. Burnside, to improve some of the logistical problems underlying straggling.

The United States took longer to implement a slightly less punitive approach to absenteeism than did the Confederacy, in part because of an advantage in manpower and also because Lincoln favored moderation to appease a scrutinizing public. The August U.S. General Orders No. 18 required that all commanders of regiments and companies march continually in the rear collecting absentees. There was only one excuse for a laggard: “written permit from the medical officer of the regiment that they are too sick  to perform the march, and therefore must ride in ambulances.” This put the walking sick in considerable peril. The order also made little progress on correcting the offense, and Lincoln continued to survey the problem from the capital, urging McClellan to action. He was aghast that those on furlough together with those absent from the ranks without permission outnumbered the new recruits. But Lincoln also remained reluctant to conflate straggling and  desertion, fearing public backlash to the army’s practice of capital punishment. Americans had historically criticized military discipline deemed too harsh, and Lincoln critically needed public support of the war effort, especially given the impending change of war aims to include emancipation.

Under considerable pressure from the respective war departments, commanders on both sides put pressure on their medical departments to eliminate straggling by scrutinizing the sick. Surgeons were instructed to be skeptical of illness that lacked overt symptoms as potential cases of malingering. In this vein, Confederate Surgeon General Moore warned his surgeons “that the pains of Chronic Rheumatism are easily feigned and that Medical officers  should be very careful in their examinations of such cases, and approve of the discharge of such as show in their person, evident marks of this disease.” No doubt some soldiers feigned illness to escape their duties; however, many soldiers complained of being increasingly turned away from morning sick call without care. Slow-developing diseases such as scurvy, which took months to manifest, were marked by a gradual onslaught of debilitating aches and pains, as well as depressed spirits. In short, diseases could easily be missed or misdiagnosed. In another misguided interpretation of the situation, the U.S. Army’s medical director, Charles Tripler, appeared to believe that healthy soldiers were straggling away from the ranks only to succumb to illness outside the care and comfort of army infrastructures: “Hundreds were collected in the woods and in houses and huts and in our old position at Camp Winfield  Scott who were borne not upon the surgeon’s reports.”

The stragglers were allegedly brought in “after days of privation had brought on actual disease.” It is far more likely that the men had straggled because of illness or fear of falling sick in the first place.

In short, high command and their medical directors began to devote an increasing amount of energy to punishing absenteeism over the course of 1862, eventually addressing only the logistical aspect of the problem and then only months after the two campaigns of the study. Leaders categorized the majority of straggling as malingering or cowardice and even began to conflate the problem with  desertion. Generals shouldered the weighty responsibility for winning battles and needed a critical number of men present in the ranks to accomplish their plans. This was McClellan’s persistent refrain during the Peninsula Campaign. Commanders had to contend with the impatience of the public and the civilian demand for tactical victories, especially in the Eastern Theater, which was vital to keeping the war effort going. While commanders had to absolve the confirmed sick of their duties, they clung desperately to  the seemingly able-bodied men who remained in the ranks, even if those men were breaking down.

The Confederacy had a more severe manpower crisis than the Union in 1862. Proof was in the culminating April 1862 draft. But the United States was hardly free from difficulty in filling the ranks. There was the occasional official  discussion regarding overuse of furloughs. In July 1862, Maj. Gen. John E. Wool on the Virginia coast wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “Measures ought to be adopted to apprehend and send back to their regiments the thousands of deserters scattered throughout the country. These with the men on furlough would make a respectable army.” Wool saw “desertion,” by which he probably also meant straggling, and furloughs as comparable manpower problems. A similar situation existed in the Valley District. Assistant Secretary of War P.H. Watson wrote to Stanton, “The One hundred and second New York, which arrived this morning, had its colonel Hayward but neither lieutenant-colonel, major, quartermaster, nor commissary, these officers being on furlough. It would add greatly to the efficiency of our forces if every officer was at once ordered  to join his regiment, unless unable to bear arms by reason of physical disability.” The persistent absence of officers  attracted even President Lincoln’s ire by November 1862. In a memo he lamented, “The Army is constantly depleted by company officers  who give their men leave of absence in the very face of the enemy…which is almost as bad as desertion.”

By the fall and winter of 1862, soldiers realized that straggling had become a riskier business than it once was. But junior officers would remain allies  of their men, protecting them from the uncompromising military goals of their commanders. Further, there was evidence that some of the reasons for straggling were being addressed; the logistical capacities and medical departments of the Confederacy and United States saw major advancements by year’s end.

But it is important to remember that just because both sides improved supplies, hospital access and evacuation procedures does not mean the men grew more inclined to seek professional care. Many of the reasons to straggle for self-care remained as valid as ever, such as seeking private nursing, potable water or a night away from the unremitting environmental hardships of soldiering.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.