Deserters In The Civil War

by Daniel Russ on June 1, 2011

Deserter Executed By Firing Squad

 

There were a million ways to desert. When an army of say 75,000 men is marching somewhere, you could slip into the woods as if to relieve yourself. Perhaps you could wait until a platoon or so passes by and you can work your way with the same trick to the end of the line and head home on foot. You could ask for a weekend pass and disappear, move your family and just slip under the radar. You could take advantage of a wound. You could feign illness otherwise. Here were lots of reasons to desert. Home obligations, fear, affairs of business to be managed. Sometimes the motivation was a loss of confidence in commanders. No need to die needlessly.

 

Robert E Lee suggests that he believes 20,000 Confederates disappeared on the way to Antietam. Many times, deserters turned into thieves, and now duly armed, they waylaid people on the road.

 

Many of the 200,000 to 300,000 Union deserters and 110,000 Confederate deserters made use of the fog of war. During hot battles you could skulk in ravines and hide until the battle was over.  For some there were safe camps in Mississippi and Pennsylvania that catered to deserters. Some deserters did the same thing many US deserters did: fled to Mexico or Canada. Often the  deserters became roving gangs and had to be met with force by peeling off battle assets from army formations to form search parties.

 

Of course, deserters could be shot. Or hung. And often they were so as to make a point to the rest of the troops. But the  north created safe havens for Confederates who switched sides. It seemed to work.

 

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