Online Work

Online Etymology Dictionary
The Sciolist
Slavery in the North
Civil War Writing

Civil War Causes

It's often said that the American Civil War was entirely and only about slavery. Is there another view?

Yankee Canards
Was the ante-bellum South a primitive, backwards, illiterate, violent culture?

Numbers and significance of the Southern mulatto population

Northern Racism
De Tocqueville observed that "race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known"

Slavery as History
How can you make an honest inquiry into American slavery without understanding the mindset of slave-owners? How can you do that without being yourself a racist?

Rebel View
Early 19th century American politics and political culture as it was seen by many Southerners

Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest writer in American political history. Writers are great, in part, because of their ability to disguise what they really intend.

Lincoln and Race
"You and we are different races. We have between us a broader difference than exists between almost any other two races."

Thaddeus Stevens
The life and times of Pennsylvania's fiery anti-Southern Congressman

Sidelights on Christiana
The Christiana Riot of 1851 is sometimes described at the first skirmish of the Civil War

1860 Election
Even if all the Democrats had united behind one candidate, the Northern regional ticket would have won

The wire-pulling over the Morrill tariff bill in 1860 showed the party of the abolitionists cynically using a legitimate government mechanism to gain power in a presidential election.

Legal Issues
Secession was legal under the Constitution, based on its ratification by the states in 1787 and 1788

Cornerstone Speech
Alexander Stephens "Cornerstone Speech" in context.

Upper South
"States rights" is dismissed as a red herring argument, yet the Upper South states seem to have left the Union for this reason.

What Cost Union?
Lincoln saved the union, but at a terrible cost to America's democracy and culture of freedom.


Up from History
The evolving historical view of the American Civil War.

Soldiers and War
Responding to the slander against Southern military effort.

Why the South Lost
Was Northern victory inevitable?

War Effort
The South put forth a tremendous effort for independence.

The Southern Press
Journalism and Southern civil liberties.

An examination of the myth of massive Southern desertion.

A Closer Look
Desertion by the numbers; case studies North and South.

Ella Lonn
The original study of desertion in the Civil War.

Southern conscription was the first attempt to create a modern military system.

Draft of 1862
An overlooked draft in the North that was underway almost simultaneously with the first rebel conscription.

Albert B. Moore
An important source for the "South against the South" thesis.

The Lincoln Administration's crackdown on Maryland.

Occupied Maryland
A sampling of federal documents dealing with martial law in Maryland.

Maryland Peace Party
A pamphlet from the anti-government forces in Maryland.

Habeas Corpus
The suspension of Habeas Corpus in the North by the Lincoln administration during the war.

A Northern newspaper editor fights the administration after it closes down his press in response to anti-government articles.

"Keystone Confederates"
Some Pennsylvanians fought for the South during the Civil War.


Southern Populists
"You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both."

Coatesville Lynching
Zach Walker was burned alive by a white mob in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

York Riots
A little-known but violent 1960s race riot in York, Pennsylvania.

New South
Slavery, racism, and segregation were national experiences.

New Lost Cause
A native-born Southern white woman worked with native-born Southerners, black and white, with a shared sense of decency, to accomplishing the work of desegregation in Mississippi.

Flag dispute
From 1879 to 1956, the Georgia state flag was essentially the "Stars and Bars." If you were going to link any state flag with slavery, that would be the one.

Jonathan Kozol
"So two-tenths of 1 percent marks the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the South 50 years ago, and socially and economically enforced apartheid in New York today"


sources consulted


Preface to "Desertion During the Civil War"

To the casual reader the knowledge of any desertion in the brave ranks of the armies engaged in the Civil War, whether conceived of as passionately devoted to the "Lost Cause" or religiously dedicated to the preservation of the Union, will come as a distinct shock; even by the historical scholar the full extent of the evil, the wide distribution through all ranks and all parts of the country, the early and continuous manifestation of disaffection, and the enormous numbers implicated on both sides may not be fully grasped. But buried in the Official War Records lies a perfect mine of evidence of an overwhelming amount of desertion in the Confederacy, revealing the important part this factor played in the ultimate failure of the South to achieve independence. Appalling in the Southern armies, it was even worse in the Northern regiments.

Undoubtedly, the few remaining survivors of the struggle, Northern as well as Southern, will be repelled by the very subject of this book; probably the average reader will question the worth-whileness of an exhaustive study of that which seems to record a nation's shame. But no one can peruse these pages without gaining a different outlook on the subject. For centuries it has been the fashion to glorify war, to applaud the deeds of heroism and sacrifice; men prefer to shut their eyes to the ugly and sordid sides of war, such as profiteering, mass propaganda, and the deluding of the public by government misrepresentation. Much is to be said in extenuation of the ugly phase of desertion, apparently inseparable from war, but to look it squarely in the face, rather than to cover it up or to ignore it, is to see more of the truth about war and should be another step in the direction of peace. The effort to face the truth should not be condemned as muck-raking.

The reader will learn that there can be no cause so just or beloved that war in its behalf will not be attended by desertion among its defenders when a conflict waged on so high a plane as was the Civil War could not be free from it. The fires of patriotism burn more brightly at the outbreak of war than towards its close. Men at the beginning of the struggle are more oblivious of personal discomfort, less selfish than they become as the struggle progresses, and more willing to contribute in all ways to the expected victory.

The reader will perforce be impressed with the parallelism which runs through the account of defection from the armies of the antagonists. But as the Confederacy was unable to frame a constitution which was other than a slight adaptation of the old framework, so these two nations of one race and one heritage, developed the same problems during the war and evolved similar solutions.

The writer ventures to hope that by turning a search-light on a question which could scarcely have found a tolerant reading a few decades ago, a few person will, perchance, be led to a more tolerant view in discussing and pondering the problems of our recent World War on which passions are still inflamed. The truth is here, it is hoped, impartially presented. The writer, though by accident born in the North, has not felt the slightest impulse to minimize the desertion in the Union armies nor to exaggerate that in the Confederate forces. Her audience would be the first to condemn a partisan bias. The lovers of history should be the first to apply that tolerance to contemporary history.

There remains my acknowledgment of indebtedness to the Congressional Library, the law library of the University of Chicago, and to most of the libraries in Baltimore, where unfailing courtesy in making materials available has facilitated my labors.
Baltimore, 1928.



Comparison of Desertion in the Two Sections

It may be well to begin our conclusions with a statement of a fact which is all but completely obscured by the emphasis placed in this study on the worst, if happily the comparatively small, element in both armies. Both sides have just cause to be proud of the vast majority of the men engaged in the war between the States. Testimonies of their remarkable daring and coolness under fire, the dependence which could be placed upon them in emergencies, their obedience to orders in an engagement, the stoicism with which they endured the hardships incident to a difficult terrain and climate without murmur are legion and are taken for granted by the writer. Likewise the sustained enthusiasm and dogged determination of the majority of the civilian population to support the war, whether to win independence from an oppressive, centralized government or to sustain the integrity of the Union, need no comment or eulogy.

In the next place, the reader should be reminded that desertion neither made its appearance in the world with the Civil War nor vanished with it. It existed as a problem in the army of the United States before 1861 as the abolition of flogging as a cure in 1860 sufficiently attests; and it failed to have found a cure by 1865, for we find the provosts gravely discussing it in 1866 and President Johnson again interposing with an offer of pardon. It has tormented other nations in other periods. Its existence as a thorn in the flesh for Napoleon has already been commented on; it is a notorious fact that the numbers of deserters from Wellington's army in Spain and Portugal, who deliberately abandoned the British Jack and wandered about the alien country, was by no means inconsiderable; while the behavior of the German and French regular soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, in dashing back in panic through the village of Gambetta, but furnishes another instance of departure in practice from the theory of military tradition.

A further factor, which the reader should keep in mind in order not to despise the subject of this treatise, is the change in attitude on the part of the civilian mind. While the officers of the regular army and those trained in the West Point tradition execrated the evil as a crime, the layman seems to have condoned it as excusable when the hardships of war proved more than human flesh could be expected to bear. But to-day the term deserter is one of reproach and disgrace on the lips of every one and the average layman learns with surprise and some doubt that the penalty for desertion is not always death, without alternative. Still human nature continues in the flesh weak and faulty and desertion has not even yet vanished from the face of the globe; probably it will become obsolete only when wars have ceased to exist. The writer has been told by an American officer who served in France during the World War that it was a rare morning that he was not awakened at daybreak by a single salvo of guns from the British camp which announced that desertion was still execrated in the British army and that the execration was being emphasized to some unfortunates.

A close comparison of the losses in both armies due to desertion alone yields some interesting facts. If we accept Livermore's figures of the number of enlistments in the Union armies as 1,556,678 with Fry's estimate of 200,000 desertions as compared with 1,082,119 services in the Confederate armies and 104,000 desertions, the proportion of desertion is even greater in the Union than in the Confederate army. It stands one desertion to each seven enlistments in the Northern army as compared with one to nine in the Confederate army. In both, however, it was obviously a grave and serious evil, threatening to undermine the armies. The fundamental difference lay in the fact that whereas it was growing worse in the Confederate ranks so that by 1865 that army was visibly melting away, the condition seemed to be improving in the Northern armies where the authorities were beginning to get a grip on the evil, as that section grew in consciousness of its strength.

The loss of material equipment carried off by the absconding soldiers in the form of clothing and arms represented a loss to each side, but in the balance it was more telling against the Confederacy because it could less well afford the loss and because it was far more difficult for it to replace the guns and uniforms with the tightening blockade.

The greater wealth of the Union produced another evil from which the Confederacy was free, because of its poverty -- the vicious bounty system. As noted before, a Union soldier might cost the governments, national, state, and local, from first to last, up to $800. The bounty, intended as an inducement to enlistment, became in truth an inducement to desertion, as so lucrative a trade yielded its largest profits by being assiduously applied, and as it furnished the cash to facilitate departure. In general, those States which gave the most liberal local bounties were marked by the largest proportion of deserters.

The system developed one feature peculiar to the North -- the bounty-broker, for which, happily for the South, it had no equivalent, the men who monopolized the business of seeking out and presenting volunteers and substitutes and who thereby pocketed handsome profits on the transaction at the expense in the end of Uncle Sam, who received shoddy goods or none at all.

Both sides were too lenient in dealing with defection in the beginning; and this statement is made with full recognition of the fact that probably neither could have pursued a different policy under existing conditions, even if they had seen clearly from the very first the compelling necessity of a different course.

Both tried to coax instead of to drive the deserters back into the ranks and with similar results -- indifferent success. Lincoln put forth two offers of general pardon, those of 1863 and of 1865; the Confederates offered what amounted to three general amnesties, the executive offer of August, 1863, that of 1864 put out by the two chief commanders in the field, and, finally, Lee's amnesty upon assuming the post of general-in-chief of the armies. But the North was happier in the phraseology in which the pardon was couched, for it seemed less of a prayer to soldiers to return and more of a threat to return or pay the penalty. In other words, the North saved its face better.

Another difference lay in the number of appeals. The North seemed not to need to learn that soldiers were not to be lured back to hardships which they had foresaken by fair words, by flattery, and by appeals to their honor, whereas the South was prolific in perfervid oratory from Davis, from the military commanders, from the governors, and even from private citizens who flattered themselves that they wielded an influence.

The penalties were, naturally, with people of the same race and bred in the same West Point traditions, similar, except that the Confederates were much more ingenious with their barrel-jackets, gagging, and bucking, probably because they were more loath to lose the men by inflicting the full rigor of the law -- men were too scarce and precious. But in the end both had come to exacting the death penalty. The chief difference was that the Federal authorities grew steadily more severe, inflicted the death sentence almost daily and with greater consistency so that although the evil had by no means ceased, the signs were pointing toward extermination. If the war had lasted a few years longer, desertion might have been largely harried out of the Union army.

A like-minded people devised similar agencies to cope with the problem; the South a Conscript Bureau, the north a Provost Marshal General's Bureau, each with a division or branch for deserters, but the latter was much more widely and efficiently organized and, hence, more effective. Both detailed men from the army to gather in absentees to aid the bureau agents, but the drain on the Union army was far less than on the Confederate, where such prominent generals as Pillow, Sam Jones, Forrest, and Polk took over for periods of time the task of "driving" the country for renegades. The pursuit also was less unrelenting, less bitter in the North. Though deserters were besieged in a log fortress in Indiana and pursued to their hiding-places in the mountains of Pennsylvania, there was no cordon drawn as if hunting game nor tracking of soldiers with bloodhounds as was done in the swamps of Florida. There was, in consequence, very little in the North of that intensely bitter feeling which persistent harrying of the deserter with troops and dogs inflamed in the heart of the Florida cracker or the North Carolina mountaineer, which held over into peace-time and led to more than one murder of an ex-home guardsman or Confederate officer, which the murderer regarded as praiseworthy vengeance.

The gain to be secured by encouraging desertion from the ranks of its foe occurred to the leaders of both sides. The North issued its General Orders No. 65, promising Confederate deserters pay for their equipment and immunity from enforced military service against their former compatriots; the South promptly retaliated with its General Orders No. 64, offering to assist prospective deserters in their journey back to their own homes in the North.

The offer of each government to purchase arms from the deserters was prompted by a double motive: to benefit itself and to injure the foe, and worked both ways. If the North spent much money on Confederate arms, it was well-invested. On the whole the North probably profited the more from this traffic, as the heavier proportional surrender to that side enabled it to rake in more of the precious guns and it could better afford the expenditure. Both lost in the subtraction of the arms and equipment carried off by their respective deserters.

On the whole, the treatment accorded the enemy deserter differed. Whereas the Union soon decided to parole deserters on the oath of allegiance, enlisting them only for Indian service in the Northwest, the Confederacy held Federal deserters practically as prisoners of war until it conceived the brilliant plan of facilitating passage through the Confederacy to the Federal lines and of shipping foreign deserters to their home lands, thus solving the problem of getting deserters but of not having to feed them.

The demoralization of society marks a real difference between the two sections, due, of course, in large part to the fact that the Confederacy was the theatre of war, but due also partly to the presence of such a vast horde of deserters in a relatively small population. Nowhere in the North was there such a deserter-country as existed in Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina, for Cambria and Schuylkill Counties of Pennsylvania are interesting only as affording a distant parallel; and 200,000 absentees, to take the largest possible estimate, scattered over an area of over two million square miles, was almost lost in a population of 23,000,000. Where the defiant renegades had ruffled the surface of society in Indiana and Iowa during the war, and where the returning deserters, slipping back over the Canadian border into Maine, Minnesota, and New Hampshire during the summer of 1865, troubled an orderly society by some turbulence, the ruffianly bands in the South, about one hundred thousand in a population of nine millions, which had been indulging for nearly two years in robbery, arson, and murder, threatened the very foundations of society. Whereas the disturbances quieted down almost at once in the Northern section, it is doubtful whether, even without Reconstruction, society in the old Confederacy would have become orderly at once and whether a Ku Klux Klan would not have manifested itself in some form.

To sum up the question, it may perhaps be said that though Confederate desertion was bad, appallingly so, it was offset by the desertion in the Union ranks. Taking for granted in the present state of our historical information the outcome, the fact that the South must have inevitably had to yield to superior resources and wealth, the Northern desertion is the factor the more to be deplored, as it lengthened the war, by distracting energies and men to struggle with this problem in the persons of the provost marshals and soldiers who might otherwise have been in the field; it added to the already enormous burden of taxation; while the tales of the Union deserters, added to the mere fact of their abandoning the cause, however unrepresentative these bounty-jumpers were of the men who were winning the war, kept up a fictitious courage and hope in the breasts of devoted Confederate leaders for the new republic, which only a few of the more clear-visioned among them divined was to prove a "Lost Cause."

2002Douglas Harper "When misunderstanding serves others as an advantage, one is helpless to make oneself understood." -Lionel Trilling