More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army

More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army

More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army

More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

In May 1865, Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith looked to Texas as the last hope of the Confederacy. Once the master of “Kirby Smithdom,” a vast area of the Confederate trans-Mississippi free of Union control, Smith found himself pushed into the Lone Star state with one last shot to stop the Union invader. With what remained of the trans-Mississippi army in Texas, Smith believed he could carry on the fight. From Shreveport, Louisiana, he tried to rally his small army, and in a circular addressed simply to his soldiers he laid out the situation. the revolution was in crisis. Robert E. Lee and his army were prisoners of war, and any hope the Confederacy had of survival depended on the efforts of this western army. He believed they possessed the means to continue resistance and that if the four-year-long struggle were to have any meaning, this army had to step up, protect their homes and their honor, and keep fighting. He begged the men to “stand by your colors—maintain your discipline … the numbers—the discipline and the efficiency of this army will secure to our country terms, that a proud people can with honor accept.”

The objective of the war had changed: peace with honor had replaced absolute victory. But regardless of the goal, the war continued, and Smith looked to his soldiers to do their duty. Within thirty days Smith had surrendered. the instrument of his defeat was not the Union army but rather his own troops. Before his eyes, what remained of the army deserted en masse and dissolved into the Texas countryside. Smith found his soldiers'conduct appalling and said so in a May 30 proclamation that came four days after his official surrender. in words that could not mask his disappointment, Smith lashed out at the faceless men who were to have been the instrument of resistance but instead had disbanded and headed home, taking their weapons and equipment with them. “I am left a commander without an army, a general without troops, you have made your choice. It was unwise and unpatriotic but it is final. I pray you not live to regret it.” Smith was certain there would be a price, predicting that“the enemy will now possess your country and dictate his own laws. You have voluntarily destroyed . . .

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