During the first two years of the war, however, military authorities generally treated desertion with leniency, and dealt with it by “such other punishment” as the law allowed. Public opinion simply would not tolerate the execution of volunteer soldiers. As U.S. president Abraham Lincoln observed, “You can’t order men shot by dozens or twenties. People won’t stand it.” A convicted deserter in 1862 might, for example, be branded on the hip with the letter “D,” sentenced to a period of hard labor, or subjected to forfeiture of pay and the right to a furlough. Some were dismissed from the service, while others were merely sentenced to wear a placard marked “Deserter.”
As food shortages and Union incursions deep into the Confederate heartland began to take their toll on Southern morale, desertions increased at an alarming rate, especially among conscripts. Virginia soldiers, under the added inducement of being relatively close to home, were especially apt to leave the ranks, if only for spring planting and fall harvest. In June 1862, Confederate general James Longstreet estimated that, of the 32,000 Virginia soldiers under his command, fully 7,000 were absent without leave.
The first executions for desertion in the Army of Northern Virginia took place at Mount Pisgah Church on August 19, 1862, when three men of Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro’s division and two from Brigadier General Jubal A. Early’s division—all from the Shenandoah Valley or from the counties of what is now West Virginia—were shot by firing squad under orders from Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. As Colonel Samuel Bassett French, Jackson’s aide, wrote, “the preservation of the army itself was dependent on the maintenance of discipline, and discipline could not be had if desertions were longer to go unpunished.”
Military executions remained rare, however. During the summer of 1862, only 12 percent of convicted deserters were sentenced to die, and of those, 40 percent were pardoned. During the final year of the war, however, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee informed Confederate president Jefferson Davis that unless the steady stream of desertions could be checked, “I fear the army cannot be kept together.” Consequently, in April 1865, Lee, who had regularly recommended clemency for deserters, determined that failure to enact heavy penalties upon those who fled the army “encourages others to hope for like impunity,” and therefore called for stricter punishments.
Although never as draconian as in the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg—where, according to memoirist Sam Watkins, deserters “were summarily shot without any trial”—punishments in the Army of Northern Virginia became more severe, and by the autumn of 1863 courts-martial for capital offenses had become a matter of routine. Several deserters were executed in the spring of 1864, and firing squads remained active until the evacuations of Richmond and Petersburg.
The example cited in the Richmond Daily Dispatch of September 10, 1863, seems fairly typical. At four o’clock on the afternoon of September 5, ten deserters from the 3rd North Carolina Infantry, a regiment in Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s corps, were executed near Orange Court House. The condemned men’s division was formed on three sides of a square, “with side arms and without colors,” the paper reported, “whilst ten stakes ranged in a row on the fourth side” making the line where the execution would take place. The prisoners, under escort, followed the officer of the day into the square, followed in turn by the brigade band playing the ‘Dead March.'”
“The bearing of the prisoners was calm and self-possessed,” the Daily Dispatch continued, “and they marched to the place of their execution with a step as accurate in its cadence as that of the guard who conducted them.” Before the assembled division, the officer of the day read their offences and their sentences. The regimental chaplain then knelt with the prisoners in prayer. Their comrades, “used as they were to the blood and carnage of twenty battlefields, beheld with uncontrollable emotion the solemn preparation for the execution of the condemned, and seemed to be penetrated with the solemnity of the religious services which were being carried on.”
The prisoners were then tied to their stakes, their arms pinioned behind their backs. Ten firing squads, each led by a non-commissioned officer, advanced. The condemned men were blindfolded “to shut out the sight of the muzzles of the muskets leveled not more than ten paces from them,” but, according to the reporter, the ten “broke out into loud and frequent appeals to the Almighty to have mercy on their souls and pardon their sins.” But the officer of the day gave the command, “Ready!” and “the clicking of the locks alone broke the silence that prevailed; ‘aim!’ and the muzzles of the guns were pointed with unerring aim at the breasts of the miserable condemned, and the very breathing of the crowd seemed stopped in a terrible suspense; ‘fire!’ and the corpses of ten men hung in the horrible relaxation of death to the stakes where they were pinioned.”
The division then filed past the dead, leaving the field to the burial detail. “So perish those who would betray their country in its hour of need and peril,” the report concluded. “The sentence of these men was as just as their execution was prompt. Necessity demanded their blood—justice approved, and even tearful mercy sanctioned it.”
Perhaps the most notorious mass execution came at the order of Major General George E. Pickett who, in February 1864, as commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, authorized the hanging of twenty-two prisoners of war—men of the 2nd North Carolina Infantry (Union)—whom he deemed to have been deserters from the Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, United States authorities recommended that formal charges be filed against Pickett, and only the intervention of Ulysses S. Grant prevented his arrest and trial.
Despite the rising number of executions, even in the war’s final two years, relatively few deserters were sentenced to death, and many of those saw their sentences reduced or remitted by military or civil authorities. As historian J. Tracy Power has concluded, “Lee, his officers and the Confederate authorities would all struggle to strike a balance between severity and leniency when dealing with deserters,” and although deserters were often convicted by courts-martial, “individual sentences varied so widely that their value as a deterrent was virtually nonexistent.”