More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army

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Overview

"More Damning than Slaughter is the first broad study of desertion in the Confederate Army. Incorporating extensive archival research with a synthesis of other secondary material, Mark A. Weitz confronts a question never fully addressed until now: did desertion hurt the Confederacy?" "Coupled with problems such as speculation, food and clothing shortages, conscription, taxation, and a pervasive focus on the protection of local interests, desertion started as a military problem and spilled over into the civilian world. Fostered by a military culture that treated absenteeism leniently early in the war, desertion steadily increased and by 1863 reached epidemic proportions. A Union policy that permitted Confederate deserters to swear allegiance to the Union and then return home encouraged desertion. Equally important in persuading men to desert was the direct appeal from loved ones on the home front - letters from wives begging soldiers to come home for harvests, births, and other events." By 1864 deserter bands infested some portion of every Confederate state. Preying on the civilian population, many of these bands became irregular military units that frustrated virtually every effort to subdue them. Ultimately, desertion not only depleted the Confederate army but also threatened "home" and undermined civilian morale. By examining desertion, Weitz assesses how deteriorating southern civilian morale and growing unwillingness to contribute goods and services to the war led to defeat.
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Editorial Reviews

Chronicles of Oklahoma

“[This book] is the first attempt in decades to treat desertion in the entire South and the entire war, and it does so masterfully, despite the lost records that are the curse of any serious researcher. Mark Weitz has provided an important study of a neglected topic. His research is extensive and thorough, and his writing is clear. The combination is a well done work of history that should appeal not only to students of desertion but to anyone interested in learning more about topics beyond the battles of the Civil War and the Southern myth of the noble but lost cause.”—John H. Barnhill, Chronicles of Oklahoma

— John H. Barnhill

Military History of the West

“Like prisoners of war, who have received little scholarly attention until recently, deserters have not been the subject of a general study since Ella Lonn’s 1928 work. This comprehensive treatment supersedes that landmark for Rebels. Dense and crowded with details, Weitz proceeds in chronological fashion, employing a disease analogy to follow the spread of desertion through all parts of the South, devoting equal attention to the eastern and western theaters, and using data not available to Lonn.”—Michael B. Chesson, Military History of the West

— Michael B. Chesson

Georgia Historical Quarterly

“A fascinating read. . . . Mark Weitz has written an important book that adds to our understanding of soldier desertion, Confederate nationalism, and defeat.”—Lesley J. Gordon, Georgia Historical Quarterly

— Lesley J. Gordon

Civil War History

"A pioneering study. . . . Bound to be the standard on the subject."—Brian Holden Reid, Civil War History

— Brian Holden Reid

H-Net Book Reviews

“Weitz must be commended for his bold attempt to tell such an important story. Hopefully, his work here will drive other scholars to revisit desertion as a topic of study and, in time, a collection of literature befitting such an important aspect of the Confederate war effort will emerge.”—Peter S. Carmichael, H-Net Book Reviews

— 06272008

H-Net Book Reviews - 06272008
“Weitz must be commended for his bold attempt to tell such an important story. Hopefully, his work here will drive other scholars to revisit desertion as a topic of study and, in time, a collection of literature befitting such an important aspect of the Confederate war effort will emerge.”—Peter S. Carmichael, H-Net Book Reviews
Civil War History

"A pioneering study. . . . Bound to be the standard on the subject."

—Brian Holden Reid, Civil War History

Journal of American History

“Weitz presented his case convincingly and forcefully. . . . [He] has contributed significantly to our understanding of Confederate desertion and the way it became inextricably tied to the South’s ultimate defeat.”

H-Net Book Reviews

“Weitz must be commended for his bold attempt to tell such an important story. Hopefully, his work here will drive other scholars to revisit desertion as a topic of study and, in time, a collection of literature befitting such an important aspect of the Confederate war effort will emerge.”

—Peter S. Carmichael, H-Net Book Reviews

Civil War Book Review

“An impressive piece of scholarship. . . An excellent, thought-provoking study of an overlooked aspect of the Civil War.”

Georgia Historical Quarterly

“A fascinating read. . . . Mark Weitz has written an important book that adds to our understanding of soldier desertion, Confederate nationalism, and defeat.”

—Lesley J. Gordon, Georgia Historical Quarterly

Military History of the West

“Like prisoners of war, who have received little scholarly attention until recently, deserters have not been the subject of a general study since Ella Lonn’s 1928 work. This comprehensive treatment supersedes that landmark for Rebels. Dense and crowded with details, Weitz proceeds in chronological fashion, employing a disease analogy to follow the spread of desertion through all parts of the South, devoting equal attention to the eastern and western theaters, and using data not available to Lonn.”

—Michael B. Chesson, Military History of the West

Chronicles of Oklahoma

“[This book] is the first attempt in decades to treat desertion in the entire South and the entire war, and it does so masterfully, despite the lost records that are the curse of any serious researcher. Mark Weitz has provided an important study of a neglected topic. His research is extensive and thorough, and his writing is clear. The combination is a well done work of history that should appeal not only to students of desertion but to anyone interested in learning more about topics beyond the battles of the Civil War and the Southern myth of the noble but lost cause.”

—John H. Barnhill, Chronicles of Oklahoma

New York Military Affairs Symposium

"The author observes that desertion remains one of the least studied, and least understood, aspects of the war, a matter at least partially the result of the demands of the ‘Lost Cause’ school of Confederate historiography."—New York Military Affairs Symposium
Chronicles of Oklahoma - John H. Barnhill

“[This book] is the first attempt in decades to treat desertion in the entire South and the entire war, and it does so masterfully, despite the lost records that are the curse of any serious researcher. Mark Weitz has provided an important study of a neglected topic. His research is extensive and thorough, and his writing is clear. The combination is a well done work of history that should appeal not only to students of desertion but to anyone interested in learning more about topics beyond the battles of the Civil War and the Southern myth of the noble but lost cause.”—John H. Barnhill, Chronicles of Oklahoma
Military History of the West - Michael B. Chesson

“Like prisoners of war, who have received little scholarly attention until recently, deserters have not been the subject of a general study since Ella Lonn’s 1928 work. This comprehensive treatment supersedes that landmark for Rebels. Dense and crowded with details, Weitz proceeds in chronological fashion, employing a disease analogy to follow the spread of desertion through all parts of the South, devoting equal attention to the eastern and western theaters, and using data not available to Lonn.”—Michael B. Chesson, Military History of the West
Georgia Historical Quarterly - Lesley J. Gordon

“A fascinating read. . . . Mark Weitz has written an important book that adds to our understanding of soldier desertion, Confederate nationalism, and defeat.”—Lesley J. Gordon, Georgia Historical Quarterly
Civil War History - Brian Holden Reid

"A pioneering study. . . . Bound to be the standard on the subject."—Brian Holden Reid, Civil War History
Journal of American History

“Weitz presented his case convincingly and forcefully. . . . [He] has contributed significantly to our understanding of Confederate desertion and the way it became inextricably tied to the South’s ultimate defeat.”—Journal of American History
Civil War Book Review

“An impressive piece of scholarship. . . An excellent, thought-provoking study of an overlooked aspect of the Civil War.”—Civil War Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803247970
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 346
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


Mark A. Weitz is the former director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College. He is the author of A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the American Civil War (Nebraska 2005).
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Read an Excerpt

More Damning than Slaughter

Desertion in the Confederate Army
By Mark A. Weitz

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2005 University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.




Chapter One

THE AMERICAN PRACTICE

Desertion, it seems, has been with America from the time it formed armies. But while military leaders have struggled to control the problem, virtually no efforts were made to analyze desertion as an aspect of military science. Beginning in 1802, the U.S. government trained its professional officer corps at West Point, where cadets mastered mathematics, terrain, and, to a lesser degree, current military tactics and strategy. Such an education left little time for learning how to actually lead men in battle. Those lessons came in the field, and prior to the Civil War that meant commanding small bodies of troops in posts scattered across the growing western frontier.

With little real war and only Indian conflicts as an ongoing problem, desertion between 1812 and 1846 was a problem of the peacetime army. Causes of desertion varied: low pay, mediocre food, and poor clothing attracted few U.S. citizens to the army, leaving the ranks to be filled by immigrants who had been unable to find work. With service conditions harsh, desertion ran high in the 1820s and 1830s. The frontier nature of service also left field officers isolated from Washington DC, with a wide latitude to punish insubordination in the ranks. The routine use of harsh and "illegal" punishment for offensesother than desertion may have driven peacetime soldiers to desert. A notice published in the Army and Navy Chronicle in May 1839 indicated that the American public saw limits to proper punishment, even for deserters. An article that first appeared in the Detroit Morning Post told of two soldiers who were drummed out of the service after being whipped and branded and having their heads shaved. There was no objection to the drumming out of deserters, but the paper condemned whipping and branding as "utterly disgraceful to the service and the country." Death and imprisonment were acceptable, but whipping and branding were deemed cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment.

War came, most notably in 1812 and 1846, and with it came desertion. During the War of 1812, 205 men were executed for desertion-clear evidence that the problem existed. America's most famous deserters-to the extent that desertion can bring acclaim-the San Patricos, deserted during the Mexican War. However, the commonly told story of this battalion conceals much of the truth. The Mexican War remains the foreign conflict with the highest desertion rate for American soldiers. The emphasis on the Irish unit conceals the fact that 8.3 percent of all U.S. soldiers deserted during the war. Although desertion from the San Patricos did occur, not all were Irish-born, and the desertion itself was not the mass exodus of legend. The desertion ran from November 1845 to August 1847. Of the seventy-one men tried for deserting and joining the enemy, fewer than half were Irish, and contrary to the famous stone plaque left in their honor, these men were not martyrs who died for Mexico. Fifty were hung, several were shot, and nineteen escaped death when their sentences were commuted. Reasons for their desertion ranged from poor food, incidence of disease, harsh military punishment, the inability to receive Catholic sacraments, the offer of land from the Mexican government, and the pull from Mexican women with whom several soldiers had fallen in love.

The U.S. Army left Mexico knowing that men had deserted, but it never seriously tried to analyze why. The Irish not only served as a way to rationalize the problem but also fed a growing sense of nativism in American society. To the degree that the war could have provided lessons for subsequent conflicts, including the civil war that loomed on the horizon, those lessons were lost on a military community that returned to the business of peacetime service and policing the frontier. During the Civil War the two sides brought more than 3 million men into the ranks of volunteer armies. Desertion, an inconvenience for the U.S. regular army in the nineteenth century, became much more of a problem, particularly for the South. To the extent that Civil War civilian and military leaders learned anything about desertion from the Mexican War, the importance of those lessons was no doubt muted by the fact that America quickly won a convincing victory, with a small army showing skill and tactics lauded by the acknowledged military master of the day, Frenchman Henri Jomini.

After April 1865 there was no real effort to learn from the experiences of the Civil War. To the extent that anyone addressed the problem it came in trying to justify what had happened, like Zebulon Vance's postwar speeches trying to place the conduct of North Carolina's troops into some kind of understandable context. As the reality of the death and destruction began to sink in, the war found a comfortable place in the South's literature of the lost cause. Both sides struggled to explain what could only be characterized as a national tragedy. An in-depth examination of men who abandoned the fight simply did not fit into the agenda of either side.

Following the Civil War the size of the U.S. Army shrank, and once again it found its niche in policing the American frontier. Added to the traditional U.S. soldier was a new fighting man, the African American buffalo soldier. In military circles the topic of desertion saw an increase in interest, judging by the amount of periodical literature that emerged during the period. While desertion continued to be troublesome, statistical data compiled between the end of the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century provided no consistent picture of the problem. Some studies indicated that between 1865 and 1891 desertion was as low as 14 percent, while others placed it as high as 33 percent. The graduating essay of Lt. William D. McAnaney from the U.S. Infantry and Cavalry School, published in 1889, claimed that from 1884 to 1889, 42 percent of U.S. soldiers deserted. What is most revealing about the literature, including McAnaney's essay, is that it shows that the military genuinely tried to understand desertion in the early 1880s and that these efforts simply failed. In 1882 the adjutant general's office issued General Order no. 130, directing department commanders to file annual reports on desertion and try to address the question, why do men desert? The reports for 1883 and 1884 assigned cause in roughly 33 percent of the cases, but among the causes frequently listed was "dissatisfaction." McAnaney noted in his essay that to say a man deserts from dissatisfaction is like saying that "a man is blind because he cannot see." Thus in more than 80 percent of the cases, the reports filed over a two-year period pursuant to the adjutant general office's order failed to identify a cause. The 1889 report concluded that men deserted from monotony, from unnecessary restraints of the military, and from the low social position held by enlisted men. While McAnaney's essay does not offer a great deal of insight into desertion, the fact that it was published at all is significant. A notation at the bottom of the first page speaks volumes about the importance of desertion and how long it took for the U.S. military to realize that it was a reality for any army. After explaining that the essay was one of five recommended for publication, the board of reviewing instructors stated, "The topics of graduating essays are generally restricted to subjects relating to strategy, tactics, and military history, but any important theme relating to military administration or our National military policy is allowed, subject to the approval of the commanding officer of the school." As a topic, desertion had finally arrived, but it was too late to do the Confederacy any good.

Seventy-five years after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Army finally tried to understand desertion in the army. In 1920, Col. E. N. Woodbury published a study of desertion in the army from 1831 through World War I. Buried almost since its completion, the report to the Morale Division of the War Department was limited to desertion from the regular army. Unfortunately, that precludes any usefulness for the Civil War period, since the regular army made up such a small percentage of the Union army and none of the Confederate army. More importantly, Woodbury identified "war" as the condition most likely to cause desertion, confirming his study's primary focus on peacetime desertion. After claiming that forty-five out of every one hundred soldiers deserted during the Civil War, Woodbury never discussed Civil War desertion again. However, even had he been so inclined, his study would most likely have failed to resolve the question of Confederate Civil War desertion, at least insofar as causation was concerned.

Woodbury's study, like those in the 1880s, focused on preventing desertion and thus had a contemporary rather than purely historical focus. It also came at the point where for the first time in American history more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas, an evolution that began before the Civil War. Unlike the men in Woodbury's study, Southern soldiers were neither career soldiers nor urban dwellers. By occupation many were farmers, most were rural, and many were from newly or sparsely settled areas of the South. Woodbury attempted to unravel desertion's mysteries by looking at the small professional army that dominated America's military for more than eighty years from 1831. To find the answers to Confederate Civil War desertion he needed to go back much further, to the provincial and continental armies of eighteenth-century colonial America.

The American Civil War enjoys an aura of exceptionalism. There have been many civil wars throughout history-some as bloody and many that lasted as long or longer-but none are as revered in popular culture or as closely scrutinized by academics both at home and abroad. Part of the fascination seems to lie in a perception of "firsts" or "best." Military historians marvel at the killing power of the new rifled musket and the change in tactics it brought to the battlefield. Jackson and Lee revolutionized warfare. Sherman and Grant brought total war to North America. Heavy casualties revolutionized battlefield medicine. River warfare brought ironclads, rams, and submarines. In short, a host of innovations came from the war. Political historians point to the vast new powers exercised at the federal level that enabled the North to prevail. The freeing of 4.5 million slaves makes the war one of emancipation and elevates the conflict beyond a mere political or economic struggle between divergent interests. While some of this praise is well deserved, desertion during the American Civil War, particularly among Confederate troops, found many of its roots in an American military and civilian culture that began a hundred years earlier, when America first began to organize militarily beyond the local militia level. What would prove unique, however, would be the effect of desertion on the Southern war effort and the fissures in the Confederate government and Southern society that desertion brought into focus.

With but a few notable and brief examples, the story of the American soldier until the twentieth century is one of men fighting at home. In many cases, battlefield and home front were the same place. In most cases, even if the battlefield was not in one's own backyard, it was never far from home. The close physical proximity to home brought equally close emotional attachments among soldiers, their families, and their communities. This attachment, when combined with the hardships of war and soldiering, strongly undermined the cohesiveness of American armies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This is not to suggest that the civilian quality of American soldiers prevented them from performing as professionals on the battlefield. It is an American trait to be able to draw from its civilian population, rapidly build a large and effective fighting force, train it, and have it perform brilliantly in battle. When the war ends, the army dissolves back into the civilian community. This was certainly the case in the American Civil War.5 What this suggests, however, is that as the rigors of war begin to take their toll, soldiers predisposed to desert will experience a pull from home that may not only draw them in a direction to which they are already inclined but may also make it easier for them to desert and survive.

In January 1777, George Washington's army settled in at Morristown, New Jersey, for what promised to be a miserable winter. All the ingredients of despair existed, including poor housing, lack of food, and the all too recent memories of war, memories that, despite victories at Trenton and Princeton, remained haunted by defeat and retreat. The results, if not predictable, were certainly not unexpected. In growing numbers the soldiers opted for what had become the "American practice," followed the example of many who had preceded them, and deserted.

Despite his best efforts, Washington could use only his personal leadership qualities and the limited tools his civilian government left at his disposal. Then he could only watch and wait. He had seen it all before, not just in this war, but in another. Twenty years before, as a colonel commanding Virginia colonial troops in the Seven Years' War, Washington first encountered the problem of maintaining an army composed of farmers fighting on their home soil within close proximity to their homes and communities. What he knew in 1777 was that the "American practice" had existed since the earliest days of organized colonial armies. What not even Washington could have known or suspected was that almost a century after he first encountered desertion as an American problem his Southern military descendants would face the same problem, with many of the same causes, as the Confederacy struggled to keep its own "revolutionary" army in the field.

The Seven Years' War provided the first opportunity to examine the conduct of American soldiers in a formal military setting over a sustained period. Almost from its inception the "American practice" made itself known. By the fall and winter of 1755, Washington and his contemporaries in the army and government discovered that raising an army and keeping it in the field presented two different problems. Desertion had already become a problem, and military men advocated that it be "quashed as much as lies in our power." As it increased toward the end of 1755,Washington placed a portion of the blame at the feet of officers, specifically their mismanagement and inactivity at dealing with the problem. However, he was not naive, and he had known for some time that the military was only partly at fault. In August 1755, shortly after Braddock's defeat, Washington received a letter from Virginia attorney John Martin. Martin pleaded with Washington to pardon three members of the prestigious Virginia Blues who had deserted, claiming, "Smith has a sweetheart & 2 children here & Barker a wife which I presume were the loadstones [sic] that attracted them." Martin's entreaties offered an early recognition that home held a heavy draw. While Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie offered to pardon all deserters who returned by September 20, 1755, few accepted and Washington wasted no time in making his feelings known. Punish those civilians who aid and abet desertion with heavy fines and corporal punishment. Yes, civilians seduce soldiers, but they also harbor them and assist them with every necessary means of escape. Although they could not punish the solicitation, they had to crush the facilitation. Washington's military subordinates agreed: punish those who harbor the deserters.

Deserters themselves also had to be severely punished. By 1756 standing orders declared any man taken beyond one mile from town without leave was to be deemed a deserter. Yet punishment seemed unclear and at times nonexistent. Some questioned the wisdom of hanging a man who deserted and returned of his own accord, while Washington insisted that "things are not being rightly settled for punishing deserters" and suggested going "on with the old way and whipping stoutly." The militia posed even greater problems, not only deserting in large numbers, sometimes fifty at a time, but avoiding punishment by reenlisting in the Virginia Regulars.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from More Damning than Slaughter by Mark A. Weitz Copyright © 2005 by University of Nebraska Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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