Civil War 150: Desertion in the Union Army

Desertion was a problem for both the Confederate and the Union armies, even though it was a serious offense punishable by death. Politicians and generals complained that soldiers were being granted leave on the eve of major battles in which their presence was necessary to the cause. After the Battle of Fredericksburg, when morale was low, the Union had to deal with 100 or more deserters daily. Some believe as many as one in five Union soldiers and one in three Confederate soldiers deserted their post during the war. It is difficult to determine the exact figures, in part because of the number of casualties that were unidentifiable.

As many soldiers approached the end of their first three-year tour of duty in late 1863, the Union decided to use peer pressure to keep soldiers from leaving the army. They offered regiments perks if a certain percentage of the original band of men stayed on for another tour of duty. Men were pressured by their fellow soldiers to stay on and fight—a decision that they most likely would not have made on their own. After the second tour of duty began, some of these men would join the ranks of deserters.

As often happens during war, certain men found a way to make a career out of deserting; they were known as bounty jumpers. Bounty jumpers were paid to substitute for a man who had been drafted. The bounty jumper would collect the money he was due and be sent to his new post. From there, most bounty jumpers would stay only a few days, or mere hours, before deserting and repeating the process with another person who was willing to pay for their military substitution.

Most deserters were sent to work camps for the duration of the war, while others were branded or tattooed so their crime was visible for all to see. It also was not unusual for deserters to be executed for their crimes. On January 7, 1864, Lincoln spoke out against the treatment of deserters when he showed mercy toward a deserter named Henry Andrews. “I had ordered his punishment commuted to imprisonment during the war at hard labor, and had so telegraphed,” wrote Lincoln, ending the message stating, “I did this, not on any merit in the case, but because I am trying to evade the butchering business lately.”

According to one report, fewer than 150 Union soldiers were killed for desertion. Lincoln would write countless letters and endorsements reducing the sentences of a soldier’s action from death to labor during the war. Even though the issue of desertion was a serious one, Lincoln found it difficult to shoot his own men.

Posted on January 2, 2014, by Connie Golding.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor's degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University. She currently works as Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.

Photo of “Execution of Five Deserters in the Fifth Corps” courtesy of Library of Congress Image, LC-DIG-ppmsca-21035.