Discussion Deserters

MikeyB

Sergeant
Joined
Sep 13, 2018
How hard did the Union army go after deserters? Was it strictly a provost marshal thing? Or did the Union have forces that would go back to towns and look for people that deserted? Or, if you could escape the sentries of your army, were you generally home free and didn't have to constantly look over your shoulder the government was coming after you? If there were efforts to go after deserters, did they continue after the war ended?
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
Here is the experience of one Benjamin Franklin Smith of New Haven KY, 28th Regiment, Kentucky Infantry (I think). A few months after his enlistment he was captured and paroled. He was supposed to stay at Camp Chase in Ohio until he could rejoin his unit but he decided to go home instead. When he did rejoin the regiment, some months later, he was able to obtain an order from General George Thomas basically forgiving him for being listed as a deserter. The follow year he got sick, but rather than stay in the hospital (in Louisville, KY?) to recover, he went home again and was gone for an even longer time. He was accepted back into the regiment a second time when he returned, but this time his absence was not expunged from his record. He stayed with the regiment until it disbanded in 1865.
I'm still trying to figure out if I'm related to this man, but I find his story interesting. Why he wasn't shot is a mystery to me. But this doesn't make me think the Union army was very hard on deserters. Smith did keep returning so maybe that counted as something. Bounty jumpers were more of an issue perhaps? Or maybe it depended on the officers and how well they knew the men, etc.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
For the 2nd trip home, as he had been listed as being in the hospital, he was not punished, since it was common for soldiers
to recuperate at home, on both sides.
That makes sense in that why have the government pay for your care when you could no doubt have better care among your own family. However, he seems to have gone awol from the hospital and from Camp Chase. After getting away with it when he was paroled, I get the feeling he felt he didn't have to ask permission.
 

John S. Carter

Sergeant Major
Joined
Mar 15, 2017
Here is the experience of one Benjamin Franklin Smith of New Haven KY, 28th Regiment, Kentucky Infantry (I think). A few months after his enlistment he was captured and paroled. He was supposed to stay at Camp Chase in Ohio until he could rejoin his unit but he decided to go home instead. When he did rejoin the regiment, some months later, he was able to obtain an order from General George Thomas basically forgiving him for being listed as a deserter. The follow year he got sick, but rather than stay in the hospital (in Louisville, KY?) to recover, he went home again and was gone for an even longer time. He was accepted back into the regiment a second time when he returned, but this time his absence was not expunged from his record. He stayed with the regiment until it disbanded in 1865.
I'm still trying to figure out if I'm related to this man, but I find his story interesting. Why he wasn't shot is a mystery to me. But this doesn't make me think the Union army was very hard on deserters. Smith did keep returning so maybe that counted as something. Bounty jumpers were more of an issue perhaps? Or maybe it depended on the officers and how well they knew the men, etc.
It would be interesting in knowing of the letters which he received from home. Knowing what these letters contained as to what was occurring back home and with his family may explain why he deserted and why he was accepted back into the regiment . It would be also interesting as to how many deserters went before the firing line and how many went to prison. Some soldiers joined thinking of the romantic aspects of battle ,just before or esp. after a battle may have altered this thought and may have departed the regiment but failed to inform anyone of his change of thought. But once home the humiliation brought to his family while other men were suffering and dying may have resulting in his return to the regiment and with a persuasive reason ,sickness would be a real good one esp. during this time in medical history. Wonder if they got a Dr.'s note With the Confederate army ,as the war progressed from one of glorious victories to one of the destruction of the armies and letters from home of the devastation that had occurred by the invasion of the Union forces , and with the absence of male population for support or assistance, these soldiers must have felt the true need to return home to bring aid to their families knowing that this was more vital than to continue this war. May I suggest a novel of this, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, NOT the MOVIE. Before you read the book may I suggest that you read Frazier's bio. His relative fought for the Confedercery from North Carolina ,there is more.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
It would be interesting in knowing of the letters which he received from home. Knowing what these letters contained as to what was occurring back home and with his family may explain why he deserted and why he was accepted back into the regiment . It would be also interesting as to how many deserters went before the firing line and how many went to prison. Some soldiers joined thinking of the romantic aspects of battle ,just before or esp. after a battle may have altered this thought and may have departed the regiment but failed to inform anyone of his change of thought. But once home the humiliation brought to his family while other men were suffering and dying may have resulting in his return to the regiment and with a persuasive reason ,sickness would be a real good one esp. during this time in medical history. Wonder if they got a Dr.'s note With the Confederate army ,as the war progressed from one of glorious victories to one of the destruction of the armies and letters from home of the devastation that had occurred by the invasion of the Union forces , and with the absence of male population for support or assistance, these soldiers must have felt the true need to return home to bring aid to their families knowing that this was more vital than to continue this war. May I suggest a novel of this, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, NOT the MOVIE. Before you read the book may I suggest that you read Frazier's bio. His relative fought for the Confedercery from North Carolina ,there is more.
Good points. I believe his area of KY had a lot of trouble with guerrillas and worries for his family certainly could have been an issue. I guess it just surprises me that the army would be understanding about that. It also didn't help that he was stationed so close to home. New Haven, Louisville, and Cincinnati are not that far away.
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
Good points. I believe his area of KY had a lot of trouble with guerrillas and worries for his family certainly could have been an issue. I guess it just surprises me that the army would be understanding about that. It also didn't help that he was stationed so close to home. New Haven, Louisville, and Cincinnati are not that far away.
Also will look into Cold Mountain. I'm generally not a fan of fiction, but have to admit I've read the Killer Angels more than once. Thanks!
 
Joined
Jun 7, 2021
Frankly, I was surprised by the number of desertions when researching my ancestor's (Union) company... (?
How hard did the Union army go after deserters? Was it strictly a provost marshal thing? Or did the Union have forces that would go back to towns and look for people that deserted? Or, if you could escape the sentries of your army, were you generally home free and didn't have to constantly look over your shoulder the government was coming after you? If there were efforts to go after deserters, did they continue after the war ended?
Here is an example of Union soldiers deserting en masse- from This Week Community News, Lewis Center, OH, February, 18, 2009 Columbus Civil War Camps Housed Soldiers, Prisoners.

"It was perhaps because of the location of the 18th Infantry that Gen. Lew Wallace built a camp nearby (Columbus) that came to be named for him. No one ever doubted the courage or integrity of Lew Wallace. But because he had not been where he was supposed to be at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, he soon found himself in command of Camp Chase. His orders were to receive several hundred recently freed Union prisoners of war -- pay them, outfit them and send them to fight American Indians in Minnesota.

As one might imagine, many of these recently freed men were not exactly thrilled with the idea of going to Minnesota to fight the Sioux. In fact, many of them promptly deserted when told of their next assignment. To keep them together and under control, Wallace established a camp north and west of Camp Thomas. It did not last long and was not terribly effective at keeping the recently freed prisoners from deserting."

It would be interesting to know what, if any, punishment these particular deserters received. From my limited reading, it seems as if the Union Army was more likely than not to let soldiers with "grievances " rejoin their units and let bygones be bygones even when they had to arrest them to get them back.
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
From what I've seen through research in Maine, it really varied. Some "deserters" were not actually such--they simply didn't show up at a roster call (they may have been in hospital, MIA, on informal leave, cut off from the regiment in battle & unable to rejoin, etc.--or they may have actually been AWOL.

Many "deserters" were actually bounty jumpers and showed up in new regiments.

I suppose treatment of true deserters was influenced by circumstances. If the regiment wasn't engaged in military action, leniency was more likely. A youngster from a neighboring town, however, deserted during an active campaign--and he was executed. Also, time mattered: when the army was crying our for more men, accommodations were made (some troops accredited to my town probably had never been to Maine in their lives--but they were given the choice of punishment for desertion or joining up for Maine*).

*Please don't comment that there wasn't much difference 😂
 

Fairfield

First Sergeant
Joined
Dec 5, 2019
if you could escape the sentries of your army, were you generally home free and didn't have to constantly look over your shoulder the government was coming after you?
Again for Maine only. Yes, it seems that the government did pursue. Abner Small's diary (ME 3rd & 16th) described being sent back to Maine on such duty. The whole business distressed him greatly but he had been ordered.
 

Morrow7x

Private
Joined
Jan 28, 2021
FWIW of the 8 desertions in my ancestors Company, it appears 2 were quite early after the Regiment formed in the late Summer of '62, 2 over the next month or so, and the remainder in the time between Perryville and Stones River.

To revise my earlier post, maybe over the course of 2 1/2 years that isn't such a high number after all. In the 'snapshot' of paging down the roster it seemed like more. And of course my focus tends to end on December 31st 1862...

My apologies to Company I.
 

Lubliner

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
I remember reading about the 2nd(?) Iowa, who after enlistment were to guard the Hannibal to Saint Joseph Railroad. After that, and possibly the battle at Mill Springs they were moved to Nashville or Memphis, I can't recall. But on the roster two men deserted at that time on the same day, making me wonder of their own planning involved, and whether others knew beforehand, of it.
Lubliner.
 
Joined
Aug 2, 2019
Frankly, I was surprised by the number of desertions when researching my ancestor's (Union) company... (?!)
You may very well discover that many of them were actually POWs, that there was a snafu and whoever was filling out the muster roles didn't know that they were sent someplace else, or that they were wounded in action and in a hospital somewhere. When I go looking at service records for Andersonville POWs, a LOT of them are listed as deserters, sometimes for months, before the Army figures out where they really are.
 
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