Historians have argued over the proper way to interpret the act of desertion—whether it should be regarded as a protest against the state or a reaction to the specific and immediate problems that soldiers faced (such as inadequate rations, excessively strict officers, etc.). Consensus has been made more difficult by the lack of reliable quantitative evidence demonstrating both the volume and timing of desertion. Patterns in Virginia suggest that Virginia’s Confederate soldiers deserted for a variety of reasons. A careful study of the 44th Virginia Infantry Regiment revealed a shockingly high desertion rate of nearly 30 percent, but it persuasively attributed this to a range of quotidian factors faced by soldiers in the regiment, including faulty equipment, spoiled food, and unresponsive officers. In other words, the complex set of factors that shaped Virginians’ decisions to abandon the army cannot be reduced to a simple expression of discontent over the Confederate war effort. Without a doubt, Confederate soldiers disliked many of their government’s policies, but most pursued other ways of expressing those concerns.
Desertion was common from the beginning of the war, but, until early in 1862, it was not always defined as such. When the war unexpectedly lasted past the first summer and fall, Virginia recruits began taking what many called “French leave” by absenting themselves for a few days or longer in order to visit friends and family (the term comes from an eighteenth-century French custom of leaving a reception without saying a formal good bye to the host or hostess). Officers pursued these men with varying degrees of diligence, but because most returned in time for the spring campaigns, few were formally charged with and punished for desertion.
This changed with the first Conscription Act, passed by the Confederate Congress on April 16, 1862, which required all males between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve in the military. In so doing, the legislation more carefully defined the legal parameters of loyalty and duty while also setting up rigorous enforcement provisions. Desertion, like avoiding the draft, would come to be seen, legally at least, as an act of disloyalty sometimes punishable by death. In addition, the Conscription Act also automatically reenlisted one-year volunteers for three years, causing an uproar of protest among soldiers. The Northern draft, passed in March 1863, caused rioting in New York and yet did not automatically reenlist soldiers who were already serving. Thinking the law unfair, Confederate soldiers deserted at their highest rates during 1862.
During both of Robert E. Lee‘s invasions of the North—the Maryland Campaign during the fall of 1862 and the Gettysburg Campaign the following summer—the Army of Northern Virginia suffered serious attrition from “straggling” and desertion. Lee himself estimated that a third of his force was absent at the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Some of these men were too weak to maintain the year’s punishing schedule of marching, especially after the grueling campaigns from the Seven Days through Second Manassas. Men suffered from a critical lack of shoes, clothing, and food, and, following the campaign, Lee quickly moved to fix problems in the Confederate quartermaster department. Other soldiers deserted not for lack of supplies but because they opposed on principle Lee’s decision to take the war north. Still others probably deserted with no intention of returning, even when the army returned to Virginia.
Soldiers and civilians alike soon became fed up with the lack of discipline in the army, leading the Confederate military to undertake harsher methods of enforcement. Lee believed that military executions were sometimes necessary, particularly in the cases of habitual deserters. Just prior to the Second Battle of Manassas, Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson ordered three such men publicly executed. On August 19, 1862, they were marched in front of open graves and shot in the presence of thousands of witnesses, provoking a variety of responses. While some soldiers expressed anger and revulsion at the incident, others respected the level of discipline it represented. In general, soldiers believed that executions were sometimes necessary, but felt that in this case the sudden decision to enforce the letter of the law was unfair.
The government and military also used methods other than execution to battle desertion. Detachments of troops scoured the countryside in an effort to find stragglers and deserters and return them to the ranks. In the mountains of southwestern Virginia, bands of deserters resisted capture by the government, and by late in 1864 they posed a serious enough threat that the Confederate government sent regular soldiers to Floyd County to restore order. In that region, at least, desertion did in fact represent a rejection of the Confederacy.
As in the early days of the war, few of the thousands who “fell away” during marches were charged with desertion. In fact, as the Army of Northern Virginia returned to Virginia after its northern campaigns, many of those who had fallen out of the ranks due to fatigue and injury returned. In August 1863, following defeat at Gettysburg, Confederate president Jefferson Davis offered a full amnesty for deserters in order to replenish the army’s depleted ranks. French leaves, meanwhile, were authorized on the company level in order to help ward off longer-term desertions.
Desertions escalated substantially in the final months of the war, as Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant finally broke through Lee’s defense of Richmond and Petersburg, on April 2, 1865, and sent the Confederate army west in retreat. As many as several hundred men per night fled the army even before Richmond fell. On the march toward Appomattox, thousands more also deserted—mostly Virginians and North Carolinians, whose homes were already temptingly close.