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Were confederate deserters really losing the will to fight?

Historians examining Confederate defeat often describe desertion as both a symptom and a cause. As conditions behind the lines worsened, loved ones begged soldiers to return home. Thousands of men did so, a fact that many scholars use to portray eroding morale across the Confederacy. At least 105,000 out of a total of perhaps 850,000 soldiers eventually deserted, enough to hasten Confederate defeat. Historians have accorded far more attention to Confederate than to Union desertion, and they often treat it as an indicator of weak national sentiment in the incipient slaveholding republic.

By way of comparison, approximately 210,000 of 2.2 million U.S. soldiers deserted, and another 120,000 evaded conscription. Estimates of the number of Northerners who fled to Canada during the war to escape enrollment officers, dodge the draft, or desert from their units run as high as 85,000–90,000. Thousands more fled to areas such as mountainous central and western Pennsylvania, where they hoped to place themselves beyond the reach of the federal government.

It is important to remember that the presence of Union armies on Confederate soil generated a type of desertion in Rebel forces largely unknown among Federals—one not necessarily indicative of weak will or unhappiness with the Confederacy. A soldier in the Army of Tennessee informed his wife in mid-July 1864 that “a great many Tennesseeans and up[country] Georgians are leaving the army and say they are going back home….They know that their families are left behind at the mercy of the Yankees, and it is hard to bear.” If the Confederate army retreated beyond his home county, admitted this man, “I could not say that I would not desert and try to get to you.” Thousands of Confederates left the ranks when they marched close to the areas where their families lived but later returned to their units.

Soft Spot: Major General Jubal Early was a disciplinarian, but even he drew distinctions about the various reasons that caused Confederate desertion. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Should these men be reckoned deserters who cared nothing about which side prevailed in the war? Many Confederate officers acknowledged different types of deserters. Jubal A. Early, a tough disciplinarian, professed no toleration for desertion during the war “and never failed to sanction and order the execution of sentences for the extreme penalty for that offence…but some palliation was to be found for the conduct of many of those who did desert, in the fact that they did so to go to the aid of their families, who they knew were suffering for the necessaries of life.”

At the least, historians should avoid portraying Confederate desertion as a linear problem of constantly increasing gravity. One careful study of Virginia describes a swell of desertions in 1862 that probably represented, at least in part, anger at implementation of the conscription act, which extended the service of thousands of men who originally had signed on for one year. After this initial wave, rates dropped off until the final eight months of the war. This pattern should caution against the use of desertion to demonstrate a deep-seated and pervasive absence of identification with the Confederate cause.

Dealing with desertion illuminates the challenge of pinning down statistics and comprehending exactly what they indicate. Surviving Confederate records contain many vexing gaps, a problem compounded by uncertainty in fathoming how best to read surviving documents. For example, one scholar has observed: “Had it not been for the two-thirds of soldiers who were absent by September 1864, the Confederacy might well have been able to offset the North’s population advantage….” This passage doubtless would leave most readers with an impression of catastrophic desertion by the early autumn of 1864.

Were two-thirds of the men absent in the fall of 1864? Desertion unquestionably grew in severity as the war headed into its final eight months, but a closer look at the critical evidence—inspection returns—muddies the picture. The “consolidated abstract from returns of the Confederate Army on or about December 31, 1864” gives these numbers: Present for Duty, 154,910; Aggregate Present, 196,016; Aggregate Present & Absent, 400,787. These totals might seem to suggest that only 38.7 percent of the men were ready for duty and that the rest must have gone off somewhere. In fact, the first two categories (roughly one-half of the whole) include those literally present as well as all men detailed for duty elsewhere, under arrest in camp, sick in field hospitals, and in other categories. In the third category, the absent would include prisoners of war, men on furlough, and those in general hospitals due to illness or battlefield wounds—categories that do not necessarily support a portrait of armies experiencing crises of morale.

[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]Confederate officers acknowledged different types of deserters[/quote]

The inspection report dated August 19, 1864, for the 10th South Carolina Infantry, a unit in the Army of Tennessee, pinpoints the difficulty of extracting unequivocal numbers from manuscript sources. The report lists 208 men present for duty; 255 as the aggregate present, with 39 of them on special, extra, or daily duty and 8 sick; and 529 as aggregate present and absent, with 14 on detached service, 2 on leave, 156 absent sick, and 7 absent without authority. The sum of 255 + 14 + 2 + 156 + 7 equals only 434—95 short of 529. The report also has a column for prisoners of war listing another 96 men, producing a grand total of 530, one more than the aggregate present and absent (perhaps the clerk was tired or not very good at arithmetic). Some of those on detached service, on leave, or absent sick could have deserted and the regimental officers not yet known it; some of the 96 prisoners also could have taken the oath or joined the U.S. Army to fight Indians on the frontier. But without doubt most of the 274 or 275 soldiers not among the “present” or “aggregate present” should be considered loyal soldiers.

Confederate military and civilian leaders, newspaper editors, and citizens in their private diaries and letters left ample testimony about the problem of desertion. There is no question it weakened the war effort and, in many cases, reflected an indifference toward the Confederate nation. But a careful look at patterns, numbers, and circumstances reveals that, as is almost always the case with history, the phenomenon was far more complex, and its impact less certain, than often assumed. ✯