Desertion (Civil War)

According to historian Mark Weitz, Arkansas ranks fifth out of the eleven Confederate states with significant (defined as more than 3,500) numbers of deserters. North Carolina is first on the list with 24,122, followed by Tennessee (12,308), Virginia (12,155), Mississippi (11,660), and Arkansas (10,095). Desertion was a common problem faced by commanders on both sides of the Civil War, although the issue has not been fully explored by military historians and exact numbers are hard to determine.

Causes of Desertion
Myriad reasons exist for desertion during the Civil War. Early in the war, some Confederate units in Arkansas deserted when rumors spread about local Native Americans raiding towns and scalping citizens; the soldiers left their units feeling that their place was at home protecting their families. Troops sometimes left the ranks because of disagreements with their leaders or due to lack of pay. After 1864,some Confederate soldiers probably saw that the war was likely to end in defeat. Other Confederates may have deserted simply because they thought the war would continue year after bloody year, with or without them.

Federal authorities encouraged Confederate soldiers to desert and even attempted to shorten the war by pardoning and restoring citizenship rights to deserters who took a loyalty oath to the Union. They even allowed some of these former Confederates to return to their homes. In August 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant issued Circular No. 31, which rewarded Confederate deserters with monetary incentives and even transport home.

There are challenges when studying the causes and effects of Confederate desertion in Arkansas, as there were few official reports from the Confederate high command on this subject. “The topic of Confederate desertion remains one of the least well understood in the field of Civil War scholarship,” wrote historian Gary W. Gallagher. Only a couple of books have attempted to tackle the subject—Ella Lonn’s Desertion during the Civil War (1928) and Mark Weitz’s More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army (2005). In his 1997 book The Confederate War, Gallagher called attention to a factor unique to desertion in the Confederate ranks: “The presence of Union armies on southern soil generated a type of Confederate desertion unknown among Union soldiers—and one that did not necessarily indicate weak will or unhappiness with the Confederacy.” The desire to protect land and loved ones from Union troops drove up the Confederate desertion rate late in the war, as men chose their duty to their families over their duty to the Confederacy.

Confederate soldiers were not the only deserters in the South. Many Union soldiers in Arkansas deserted because of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. One Confederate soldier in the Twelfth Texas wrote that there were reports in his camp that the western men were deserting Lincoln’s standard after the Emancipation Proclamation. Another soldier wrote, “The Feds is deserting the Northern Army and coming over to be payrolled. They said they sat out to fight for the Union but it has run into the Negro question and they ain’t going to have anything to do with it. They wont going to fight to free the negros.”

Incidents of Desertion in Arkansas
During the Prairie Grove Campaign in December 1862, the Confederates experienced serious desertion of conscripts. Several hundred of these deserters, mostly northern Arkansans who opposed secession, changed sides after the battle and enrolled in Arkansas Union regiments.

At Camp Hope (later renamed Camp Nelson), located near the settlement of Austin (later called Old Austin) in Lonoke County, as many as 20,000 Confederate soldiers were camped. In the summer of 1862, a mutiny occurred in which a number of soldiers whose enlistment had expired participated. After the initial group deserted—disgruntled about the lack of pay—eight soldiers were executed to deter additional deserters. A captain in the Fifth Arkansas Cavalry (CS) wrote about the problem of desertion within the Rebel ranks: “I believe we have 17 men in our company and about 250 to 275 men in the regiment all told. Last April, we had 900 men in the regiment.” Before the Action at Pine Bluff in 1863, a Kansas officer noted that dissatisfied Confederates, anywhere from ten to thirty per group, were coming into the Union lines. “The army west of the Mississippi is virtually played out,” he wrote.

Throughout the war, bands of Confederate deserters roamed and looted throughout many small communities in northwestern Arkansas, and Confederate regulars were tasked with fighting these guerrillas in addition to fighting the Union army. Colonel John C. Wright of the Twelfth Arkansas Cavalry (CS) noted that “in the hills and mountains south of Fort Smith, there were bands of deserters and jayhawkers who were robbing and terrorizing the Southern people.” Half of Wright’s regiment was sent to break up the guerrilla bands in 1863 and 1864. They succeeded as long as the regular Confederate forces remained in the area. But the marauding guerrillas would return as soon as the regular forces left. “Cavalry was the only way to deal with the outlaws,” Wright wrote.

Confederate general Thomas Hindman faced mass desertion among his troops in Arkansas. Several soldiers deserted when four regiments of cavalry were dismounted in order to save corn. When he arrived in Arkansas to take command, the men had not been paid. He took $400,000 in Confederate tax funds and tried to pay the men. “The unavoidable delay in doing so occasioned many to desert. In a word, desertion took place upon every conceivable pretext,” Hindman reported.

Combating Desertion
Since neither the Confederate nor the Union forces had a formal policy regarding deserters, individual officers often adopted their own regulations. It was not until the U.S. War Department approved General Order No. 286, and President Lincoln issued his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction later in 1863, that the Union army finally established a formal policy on desertion.

In response to Union policies encouraging their soldiers to desert, the Confederate Congress passed legislation in an attempt to combat desertion and maintain their armies in the field. In August 1863, General Order No. 38 was issued by Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith, the commander of the Trans-Mississippi District—which included Arkansas—offering a general pardon and amnesty to all Confederate soldiers within the department who returned to duty by September 30 of that year.

In early 1863, General Robert E. Lee issued General Order No. 80, which offered amnesty to any deserter who returned to Confederate service. The Confederate Congress also took other steps. In January 1864, an act was passed that made it illegal for civilians to transport, feed, or shelter deserters. This new law also made it a crime for family members to encourage soldiers to return home.

Desertion near War’s End
When the Confederacy’s eastern armies surrendered in April 1865, most Arkansas soldiers and civilians had lost their appetite for war. Despite official efforts to stop it, desertion quickly depleted Confederate units in the state. When Smith formally surrendered his command of the Trans-Mississippi District on June 2, 1865, only a few Confederate regiments remained intact in Arkansas. By the war’s end, it is estimated that the Confederacy lost 104,428 men to desertion. In contrast, the total number of Union deserters far exceeded that of the South. In three Northern states alone, Union deserters totaled more than 83,000; the total number of Union deserters may have exceeded 270,000.

For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

Christ, Mark K., ed. Rugged and Sublime: The Civil War in Arkansas. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Desertion in the Civil War Armies. (accessed January 7, 2014).

Gallagher, Gary W. The Confederate War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Lonn, Ella. Desertion during the Civil War. Gloucester, MA: American Historical Association, 1928.

Mackey, Robert Russell. The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861–1865. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.

Moneyhon, Carl H. The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas: Persistence in the Midst of Ruin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Reid, Mitchell. The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Shea, William L. Fields of Blood: The Prairie Grove Campaign. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Weitz, Mark A. More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Steven L. Warren
Overland Park, Kansas


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