Desertion During the Civil War

by Ella Lonn

Most people today consider desertion the ultimate act of rebellion against one’s nation. During the Civil War, however,  many Americans had a more complex understanding of this act of defiance, refusing to condemn every deserter as a seditious traitor. The thousands of Northerners and Southerners who abandoned their military obligations did so for a host of reasons, many of which had little to do with nationalism or the war’s overriding political goals. Leaving the ranks or staying put was not a simple question of loyalty. Historian Ella Lonn was one of the first scholars to recognize desertion as a complicated and often contradictory political act. She identified several interrelated causes of desertion in her pathbreaking Desertion During the Civil War, originally published in 1928. Most Civil War books have a staying power of a few decades, typically losing favor with each new generation of scholars who rework the past through their own particular framework. Lonn’s work, however, continues to be the starting point on this controversial subject.

The incomprehensible human carnage of World War I shattered the United States’ idealism about the glory of battle. Lonn, deeply disturbed by what had transpired on the trench-scarred fields of Europe, felt the time had come to overturn the heroic interpretation of the Civil War. It was a risky move, since Lonn wrote at a time when many Civil War veterans were still alive and were quick to denounce anyone who dared question their reputations. She approached the issue with great delicacy, making sure she did not demonize the men who had fled the ranks. Lonn’s empathy can be traced to her sensitivity to the social context in which soldiers lived and fought. Rather than simply focusing on the army as an insulated world, cut off from the home front, Lonn showed how the rank and file remained under the influence of the people left at home.

In a poignant letter from a North Carolina woman to her husband in Robert E. Lee’s army, Lonn quoted: “My dear Edward:—I have always been proud of you, and since your connection with the Confederate army, I have been prouder of you than ever before. I would not have you do anything wrong for the world….Last night, I was aroused by little Eddie’s crying. I called and said ‘What is the matter, Eddie?’ and he said, ‘O mamma! I am so hungry.’ And Lucy, Edward, your darling Lucy; she never complains, but she is growing thinner and thinner every day. And before God, Edward, unless you come home, we must die.”

Letters such as this, combined with the hardships of campaigning and the horrors of battle, pushed many Rebels to slip away from the ranks in the middle of the night. These men, however, did not leave as an act of protest against the Confederacy or to show their loyalty to the Union. They were dissenters because of bread-and-butter issues that consumed the South by forcing people to make gut-wrenching choices between survival and national allegiance. Lonn even suggested that many of the deserters would eventually return to the army—until the fall of 1864, when she discovered a mass exodus of Confederates that badly depleted Southern armies and set the stage for the final Union victory.

Lonn found similar causes for desertion on the Union side, believing that hardships in the army and general war weariness prompted many to head back across the Mason-Dixon Line. Once they returned to Northern soil, many deserters often found communities that protected these wayward soldiers from federal authorities. That finding is one of Lonn’s most suggestive and intriguing, one historians are still exploring today in trying to understand the many home fronts that existed in the North. Resistance against the Union war effort also included men fleeing to Canada, a side of the conflict that was an obscure footnote until Lonn’s scholarship.

More than anything else, Desertion During the Civil War forced Americans to see war as something other than a gallant adventure. It was, as Lonn wisely argues, a catastrophic event that engulfed both soldiers and civilians, severing treasured family and community bonds and leaving many in the ranks so desperate that they risked the highest punishment of the nation—execution—in order to return home, and for some, to a way of life that they no longer believed was worth fighting or dying for.


Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.