A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the Civil War

By Mark A. Weitz | Go to book overview

been the subject of a large desertion study encompassing all of its soldiers, it has provided fertile ground for smaller historical studies. Two recent studies have added to the body of scholarship on North Carolina. One quantitative study attributes North Carolina's desertion to political beliefs that were unique to certain regions of the state. Another looks at two North Carolina regiments and the impact of changing leadership structures on desertion within each unit.8 Unlike the North Carolina histories, my study examines Georgia desertion county by county. It is based on a statistical record compiled by the Union as well as the wartime correspondence of Georgia's soldiers and civilians. Georgia desertion has been tracked by the deserter's county of residence, the time when that county fell under Union occupation, and the date on which a deserter took the oath of allegiance and returned home. These sources, particularly the Union records, provide verification of desertion numbers previously unavailable.

The main primary source I used makes it possible to investigate desertion among Georgia's Confederate troops as never before. The Register of Confederate Deserters provides a detailed list of Confederate soldiers who deserted, took the oath of allegiance, and were allowed to return home. These deserters were no different than those who went directly home, except they had to evade neither the Confederate authorities nor the Union army.9 Finally, those men who are listed in the register have left no doubt that they deserted.

Both Lonn and Martin calculated desertion by using estimates based on the daily rolls of men reporting and absent from duty as listed in the Official Records. According to most wartime estimates, over one hundred thousand soldiers deserted the Confederate army over the course of the war.10 These numbers are speculative and may reflect improper conduct but not desertion. Civil War legal codes defined desertion as leaving the military service without authorization and intending to remain absent. Despite the legal definition, skulkers, stragglers, men absent without leave, members of one unit fighting in another, and anyone who could not otherwise be accounted for were included as deserters in the Official Records. Given the vast size of many Civil War battles, as well as the large number of dead and wounded who never were found, the desertion estimates include men who did not desert but whose absence could not otherwise be explained. Survivors who were captured, taken to an enemy hospital, or wounded and left untreated in some remote corner of the battlefield, for example, may have been mistakenly reported as deserters.

Besides various causes of separation, intent was a second key issue. Just because a man left his unit without permission did not necessarily mean that he never intended to return.11 Some, such as Pvt. Asa Lewis, only wanted a brief

-4-

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A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the Civil War
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Tables viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - Seeds of Desertion 10
  • Chapter Two - Preparing for the Prodigal Son 35
  • Chapter Three - Patterns of Flight 61
  • Chapter Four - Calls from Home 90
  • Chapter Five - Faces of Desertion 121
  • Chapter Six - Unanswered Calls 139
  • Conclusion 171
  • Appendix: Methodology 181
  • Notes 183
  • Bibliographical Essay 215
  • Index 219
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