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Deserters in the Civil War

execution of a deserter

I'm researching a Civil War veteran in my family. I've found his muster roll records and there is something that is confusing me. My Civil War ancestor was a private in the Union Army. It says on his records that he deserted on November 5, 1862, and returned on October 27, 1864. It says he was restored to duty (by competent authority) forfeiting all pay for time absent and $10 for transportation by order of General Stanly. How is this possible? I thought all deserters would have been executed.


This question gets at a central truth about service in the Civil War armies: desertion was common on both sides. It became more frequent later in the war (when more of the soldiers were draftees rather than volunteers, and when the brutal realities of Civil War combat had become more clear), and was more common among Confederate soldiers, especially as they received desperate letters from wives and families urging them to return home as Union armies penetrated further south.

While it is impossible to know with certainty how many soldiers deserted over the course of the conflict, Northern generals reckoned during the war that at least one soldier in five was absent from his regiment; at war’s end, the Union Provost Marshal General estimated that nearly a quarter of a million men had been absent from their units sometime during the war. Estimates for Confederate armies range even higher—perhaps as many as one soldier in three deserted during the course of the war. The Army of Northern Virginia alone lost eight percent of its total strength in a single month during the savage campaign of the summer of 1864.

Officially, desertion constituted a capital offense and was punishable by death. But because of the numbers of soldiers involved, it proved practically as well as politically impossible to execute every deserter who was captured. The armies could not afford the numerical loss of such large numbers of troops; more importantly, as Abraham Lincoln himself noted, people would not stand to see Americans shot by the dozens and twenties. Both armies employed other punishments (branding captured soldiers with a “D” on the hip, was common, for example) rather than execute every deserter they recovered. Both armies did execute some captured deserters—often in highly public ceremonies before the entire regiments, intended to deter other would-be fugitives—but such punishments were unusual.

Only 147 Union deserters were executed during the course of the war. Rather than rely entirely on punitive measures, Union authorities attempted to woo deserters back with offers of amnesty for soldiers who returned to their commands before a specific deadline, frequently pairing that reprieve with threats of increased punishment for those who failed to return before the designated date. Lincoln offered general amnesty to some 125,000 Union soldiers then absent from their regiments in March 1863, provided those soldiers returned to their units.

The prevalence of desertion from the ranks of both armies speaks to an interesting reality about those soldiers’ conception of military obligation. Long mistrustful of professional armies and fiercely protective of individual liberties, many Americans of the mid-nineteenth century (North and South) adhered to a conception of military service as a contractual—one that involved obligations from the state as well as from the citizen-soldier.

For some Civil War volunteers, their service in the army was predicated on specific treatment from their officers and the government. When they believed that the government had not held up its end of the bargain (by failing to provide essential supplies, for example, or by furnishing incompetent leaders) they assumed that the contract had been voided—and their absence, by extension, did not constitute desertion.


Part of an editorial, "The Deserter," New York Evangelist, September 26, 1861.

"Execution of a Deserter in the Federal Camp, Alexandria," Illustrated London News, January 11, 1862.

Christopher, I have been

Christopher, I have been doing some research on my family history and I believe that a family member enlisted into the 150th Infantry, Co. E in Poughkeepsie on August 11, 1864 which was late in the war. The regimental history states that he "never joined regiment." It does not say that he is a deserter, but he doesn't seemed to have served either. It does list those members of the regiment that deserted. How did those men that were drafted or enlisted join up with a regiment at this stage of the war? I know that the 150th Infantry was at this point involved in the Siege of Atlanta. How would this person find the unit they had enlisted with? Is it possible that he was killed enroute to his unit or changed his mind? I know that he enlisted to serve one year and received a bounty. Thank you, Ann T

How do you clear the name of

How do you clear the name of a soldier who is listed as a deserter? In my case he was wounded (documented) on 8/30 at the 2nd Bull Run but was reported as a deserter.

I have an ancestor who

I have an ancestor who deserted the 5th NJ on 1 July 1863 according to the regimental role. His pension record has him serving in the US Navy as a 2nd Class Fireman on the USS Connecticut and the USS Ohio. Was this a common occurance, to leave one branch of service for another?

Two comments, one general and

Two comments, one general and then one specific to the posting by Anonymous on 1/13/2012. First, I have found that most of the men said to be deserters is the Adjutant General's reports by State and their CMSRs actually served honorably and were mustered out from a "second" regiment. I believe these men received permission to transfer but the adjutant for their "first" regiment simply failed to note the order. For example, Solomon O. Shoup of Co. E, 17th Indiana, is listed as a deserter in the November 1861 report for the 17th, but he enlisted as a Private on October 6, 1861, in Co. K of the 29th Indiana Inf., the unit in which his older brother Peter enlisted five days earlier. I think this happened to many hundreds of men. Ella Lonn's contention in 1928 book that 1 in 7 Union soldiers deserted is not accurate. In my research I'm finding that it is maybe one-tenth that, or 1 in 70 (but I have only researched enlistments in 1861 and 1862. Second, the three-month regiments like that referenced by Anonymous will not have a muster out record because they were never mustered into federal service. These men actually enlisted in the militia of their respective state and when they reported to the rendezvous to be mustered were told that they had to agree to one year (or more) to be mustered. Those who said no went home without any official discharge (and under existing law they could not be held beyond 90 days as per the Milita Act of 1792). Incidentally, I ran into a similar problem with the 100 day emergency regiments raised in Pennsylvania in May and June of 1863. These were not mustered into the U.S. Volunteer Army so there is no record of their service in the National Archives. I would like to find someone willing to explore the State Archives in Harrisburg to find these militai rolls. Any volunteers? Can't do it myself, I'm in California. Write me at davidpauldavenport@yahoo.com

From Christopher

From Christopher Hamner:

There is still no modern single-volume study of desertion in the Civil War armies; most of the monographs are over 75 years old, and suffer from some important limitations in the research. However, a number of more recent works on the lives and experiences of Civil War soldiers generally include passages that deal with desertion in both Northern and Southern armies. These include Bell I. Wiley’s pathbreaking books on the everyday soldiers of the Confederacy and the Union, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank; James McPherson’s definitive work on the motivations of Civil War soldiers, For Cause and Comrades, which also touches on the reasons that some soldiers’ willingness to fight waned; James I. Robertson, Jr.’s Soldiers Blue and Gray; and Reid Mitchell’s Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Their Experiences. James Geary’s study of Union manpower and conscription, We Need Men, outlines some of the effects of widespread desertion on Union policy.

As your ancestor’s experiences suggest, the records pertaining to desertion during the Civil War remain frustratingly incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate. Tracing the experience of any single soldier often proves a challenging and inexact task. Deserting soldiers did not formally “muster out,” and were not officially discharged from service; desertion, by definition, is the unauthorized absence from military duty. Often the first indication that a soldier had deserted was his failure to report to his unit. Even then, it was not immediately obvious that the soldier had deserted; soldiers often went missing temporarily, only to join up with their regiments later. And in the wake of battle, of course, a soldier might fail to report for a variety of reasons unrelated to desertion: because he had been captured, or languished in a hospital, or had been buried in an unmarked grave. There was no easy way for Civil War-era commanders to determine which category an absent soldier ought to be assigned.

The limitations of record-keeping and communication in an era before photocopiers, fax machines, and electronic communication help explain the often significant gaps and errors in the historical record. (The clumsiness of communication also helps explain why practices like bounty-jumping—in which soldiers enlisted to claim the bounty, only to desert and re-enlist in another regiment, collecting additional bounties in the process—were possible in the mid-19th century.) Despite their best efforts, both the Union and Confederate armies could rarely report with certainty exactly where each of their soldiers was on any given day. The impossibility of that kind of precision explains many of the inconsistencies in the record, and makes precise studies of Civil War-era desertion frustrating even for modern historians.

The timing of your ancestor’s experience suggests some plausible explanations for the documentation you have uncovered. At the outset of the war, most volunteers signed 90-day enlistment papers; when it became clear late that spring that the war would not be a brief affair, the armies hurried to reenlist those troops for three additional years. The overwhelming majority of regiments agreed to reenlist, but—for a number of reasons—some men did not. (The only sons of farm families, for example, might receive word that parents required help to put in or harvest a crop, and conclude that they could not remain away from home indefinitely.) Since there were no large battles in the first weeks of the war, it seems less likely that your relative deserted out of fear, as became so common later in the war. Perhaps he chafed under the unfamiliar military discipline, as did many new recruits, and elected to return home out of frustration; perhaps he decided not to reenlist for three additional years, and assumed he could leave his military obligation without penalty before the 90-day term was officially up. He may have left camp in May and returned sometime afterward. If he deserted in May of 1861, it is possible that his commanders chose not to follow up on the unauthorized absence of a soldier whose enlistment was set to expire in a matter of weeks, and simply listed him as “mustered out” in July once his original term expired rather than report him as a deserter to the Adjutant General. In those early days, the Union had more troops than it could outfit, and very few expected the war to be as lengthy or as bloody as it turned out to be; the desperate scramble for bodies to fill the ranks was still more than a year away.

Thank you for sharing your

Thank you for sharing your insights. Do you by any chance have a bibliography for the works you consulted in your research? Thank you!

Christopher, I have a similar

I have a similar question. The national archive records on a soldier that I have been researching for our family genealogy has his mustered in record and mustered out records. He was in a 3mth volunteer PA infantry from April 1861 to July 1861. On the mustered out record in the "remarks" at the bottom it stated that he deserted camp May 4, 1861. No other information was available from archives but a search of the adjutant general report listing all PA deserters did not include his name. What conclusion can be drawn? Would a soldier who deserted have a mustered out record ? Thank you, Les

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