Civil War Desertion
During the Civil War, there were many reasons for desertion and the lowering of morale. Most of them were common sense reasons: losing a battle, lack of confidence, forced marches, not enough food or water, disease, heat and general war weariness. Some of them were surprising, though: homesickness, impatience at the monotony and futility of inactive service, delay in pay, and panic on the eve of battle.
These were the most common reasons for all of desertion in the North. There were many methods of deserting, some more ‘honorable’ than others. Some examples are: going to the rear of a battle, getting ‘captured’ by the enemy, abusing sick leave, straggling, pretending to fix a telegraph line or otherwise. The deserting soldiers went to various places, usually depending on the method of desertion, such as defection to the other side, lived ‘wild’ on the frontier, turned outlaw, went to Canada, some boldly appeared at home; and in some cases formed deserter gangs, or bandit groups. In response to desertion, the government used the death sentence, but only to select individuals, leaving thousands equally guilty and alive.
In the lesser extreme, the deserters were made public examples, and promised a pardon if they returned to their unit. They were also given a pension if they returned, although men charged with desertion were unable to receive pension. In the South, many deserters were backcountry people that had no interest in what they were fighting for, and some were abolitionists themselves. The South recruited northerners and Mexicans, usually because they were that desperate for troops. Poor food, lack of clothing, and insufficient pay caused many to leave. Often their pay was so far behind; soldiers on leave could not pay to get back to their commanders.
Unsanitary conditions, homesickness, and depression caused plenty of desertions in the South as well. Many soldiers had little choice; they could either stay with the army, potentially being abandoned by their unit, being unable to return to their wife and children, or desertion. Receiving word that their families were in danger of Indians or food shortages led a number of soldiers to choose desertion over abandonment. Desertion often occurred with whole companies, garrisons, and even regiments at a time. In some cases deserters banded together and formed organized groups. These renegade groups roamed the country, fortified themselves in the mountains, and made raids upon settlements, stealing cattle and robbing military stores.
Forces often had to be detached by the Confederate armies to run down such renegade groups, whose retreats were into inaccessible regions and whose courage in fighting off attack was formidable. If it weren’t for Mosby’s Rangers, a fighting force in the Virginian mountains, many Virginian civilians would have been caught between two armies, the North and the renegades raiding and pillaging towns and cities. Even though the North had more deserters than the South, I think that the South was effected more by desertion than the North. The South had fewer men to begin with, and when they started deserting, many units suffered. The North had tens of thousands of men and weren’t greatly effected by the 20,000 men that deserted. In most cases on both sides, soldiers would leave the army to try to go back to their families to protect them from the war.
Many left just because they were unfamiliar with the hardships of battle. Deserters that returned ‘home’ often found their family missing, dead or surviving, but their property destroyed sometimes turned outlaw to revenge for the loss of their families or property.