Civil War Profiles: ‘Instant death’ for desertion during the Civil War

About 2.75 million soldiers donned uniforms during the Civil War. There was a considerable disparity, however, considering some 2 million served for the North and only 750,000 for the South.

Union soldiers represented 12.5 percent of the Northern population of 22 million, while Confederate troops constituted 15 percent of the 5 million whites (not counting 4 million blacks) in the South. For a variety of reasons, large numbers of recruits on both sides deserted the ranks — 279 thousand Yankee soldiers (12.7 percent), and 104 thousand Rebels (8.5 percent) — during the four-year-long conflict.

A study by Ella Lonn titled “Desertion During the Civil War” discusses the many causes for desertion, and the areas of the country that generated the most deserters. New York (45,000) produced the highest number for the North, and North Carolina (24,000) holds the dubious honor for the South.

The list of causes for desertion include: illness, mismanagement by higher authorities, poor conditions in camp, bad food, insufficient clothing and problems with pay, to name a few. Not even the sentence of death if captured seemed to turn the tide of those who risked their lives to return home to be with their loved ones.

Political issues were strong motivators influencing disgruntled and disheartened soldiers. Unionists and anti-Confederates back home in the South, as well as peace advocates in the North, enticed fellow citizens and loved ones to desert, and offered them protection.

When the North instituted the draft in 1862, unwilling participants fled to Canada — not unlike the more recent Vietnam War. A provost marshal in New York estimated more than half the deserters from the state had gone to Canada, and by 1864, overall estimates of those who had crossed the border ranged from 10,000 to 15,000.

Northern soldiers also defected to Southern military units and either made their way back into the North or drifted into the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas and Arkansas. Some joined Southern-oriented partisan rangers, or became “freebooters” attacking wagon trains for whatever valuables they carried.

These areas became sanctuaries for deserters, and residents were plagued by roaming Southern and Northern soldiers turned bushwhackers who committed depredations against private property — causing people to leave their homes seeking safer environs.

Union authorities enticed Rebels to desert into the North, where they could either join the Union army or take jobs on farms or federal work projects. In select cases, deserters were allowed to return to their homes in the South — if those homes were in Union-occupied territory.

The ultimate penalty for desertion if caught meant standing blindfolded before a firing squad. Following a court martial, execution typically occurred with the entire assembled unit as witnesses, to discourage emulation of the guilty party’s bad example.

Prior to the battle at Gettysburg, Pa., in July 1863, Union commander Maj. Gen. George G. Meade issued a circular to his troops. It read, “Commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldier who fails in his duty at this hour.”

The prevalence of desertion on the part of Northern soldiers at times meant that President Abraham Lincoln became the final arbiter of their fate. Appeals from family and friends on behalf of the condemned soldiers often motivated the compassionate president to lessen or overturn the sentence.

Roy P. Basler’s “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,” includes a June 2, 1863, message from Lincoln to Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker about Philip Margraff, 5th New York Regiment, who was “under sentence to be shot on Friday … as a deserter.” The president chose to review the condemned soldier’s case before sentence was carried out, and decided that Margraff’s execution “should be respited till further order from me…”

Desertion and cowardice find their way into Civil War fiction, including Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain,” about a Confederate soldier’s escape from a hospital to avoid the brutality of warfare, while Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage” portrayed the dilemma facing Union soldier Henry Fleming after he fled the battlefield during an enemy attack.

The nature of the Civil War dictated that many deserters eventually returned to their units, once assured of family members’ welfare after spending time at home. Given the longevity and ferocity of the conflict that produced an estimated 1.8 million casualties (killed, wounded, and missing or captured), the incidence of desertion could well have been much higher.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at or visit his website at


By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point