Desertions reached epidemic proportions

S.A. Gerald of Matagorda, Texas, wrote Confederate Veteran magazine after the war: “…for two or three months [in 1865]…I was on detail on the ‘dead line,’ on duty at night, the only object being to catch any who might desert to the Yankees.”

J.S. McNeilly, who claimed to be the last sergeant-major of the 21st Regiment though his name is not recorded on Howell’s muster listing for the brigade, wrote for the Mississippi Historical Society in 1913:

“As there was no firing on the outposts, desertion by men on picket detail was easy and safe. Raised high above the sally port of the Union works, was an arch, topped with lighted lanterns bearing the words: ‘While the lamp holds out to burn, the vilest rebel may return.'”

Historian Robert K. Krick: “Desertions reached epidemic proportions in the Confederate armies during the winter of 1864-1865.”

That was especially true in the Army of Northern Virginia whose scant surviving records show that between Feb. 15 and March 18, almost 3,000 deserted.

“According to Federal records,” however, independent historian Robert G. Evans wrote, “over 1,750 came over to their side, thus leaving about 1,250 who probably just went home.”

Individual soldier records for the 13th Regiment, found by independent historian Jess McLean, confirm that at least seven men from six companies were tallied as deserters from Dec. 1, 1864 through March 1, 1865. Subtracting men in hospital and on furlough, the once 1,000-strong regiment probably numbered fewer than 100 men during the period.

McLean’s deserters were: Private William J. McDaniel of the Newton Rifles; Private William Bates and Private William R. Kellum of the Spartan Band; Private Joseph E. Perry of the Pettus Guards; Fifth Sergeant Frank M. Ross of the Minutemen of Attala; Private R. L. Morris of the Winston Guards; and Private Elias Kelly of the Wayne Rifles.

But there were probably more than these. For one thing, rations were scant and a private’s pay of about $11 a month was almost worthless. Inflation had robbed it of purchasing power. And their duty was more difficult than ever.

“By early spring,” historian Joseph T. Glatthaar wrote, “the Petersburg-Richmond defenses extended forty-five miles. Generally, Rebel defenders stood in the works five to six feet apart.”

And illness among them was prevalent: “Reduced rations with severely limited vitamin intake and excessive exposure to cold temperatures,” Glatthaar continued, “spawned widespread illness that winter. Many soldiers in various brigades suffered bouts of scurvy…Personal hygiene nearly disappeared, which also bred illness.”

General Lee convinced President Jefferson Davis to, as Glatthaar wrote, “authorize amnesty for all deserters who returned to the army within twenty days or reported to an enrolling officer in areas where transportation back to their respective army was difficult.”

One of those who may have been having such difficulties was Major George Lavelle Donald, the onetime 1st Lieutenant of the Secessionists who had taken command of the brigade after Cedar Creek back in October. Donald was  furloughed for forty days on Jan. 25, according to Jess McLean, on “a general leave of indulgence.” He was due back in April but McLean found no record of his return.

The desertions continued. Lee’s staff officer Col. Walter H. Taylor wrote in his memoir “Four Years With Lee,” of this period that “the loss to the army by desertion averaged a hundred men a day.”

The command was so worried that it intercepted letters to soldiers and sent them on to headquarters which found, Taylor wrote, “mothers, wives & sisters [telling] of their inability to respond to the appeals of hungry children for bread, or to provide proper care & remedies for the sick, &, in the name of all that was dear, appealed to the men to come home, & rescue them from the ills which they suffered & the starvation which threatened them.”

The soldiers also were starving. “…it is the insufficiency of rations,” Lt. Col. J.H. Duncan of the 16th Mississippi Regiment wrote his brigade commander. “Our men do not get enough to eat.”

General Kershaw agreed. “To these deficiencies of food I attribute the number of desertions daily occurring and a general feeling of depression existing.”

Historian Glatthaar: “Throughout 1864, rations seldom exceeded a pound of corn meal and a quarter pound of beef or bacon, and only occasionally did men receive vegetables. By early 1865, the commissary could not sustain even that meager bounty. Many days the government could supply troops with either meat or a starch—cornmeal or flour—but not both.”

There were executions of some captured deserters in some units, particularly in Pickett’s division, to try to halt the tide. But in some units desertions were so numerous that some Rebel pickets took to firing on the deserters as they fled to the Union lines.

“Men went across the lines,” Krick wrote in his history of Parker’s Virginia Battery, which was then posted near Chaffin’s Bluff just north of the James River, “and were fired on by their old friends near Parker’s Battery so frequently that, [Private] Royal Figg declared, ‘picket-firing on the lines was more frequently caused by that than by an advance of the enemy.'”

There was a bitter joke of the time which several memoirists recalled in different ways. Here is Longstreet’s artillery chief Porter Alexander’s version: “It was of this period that the story was told of the half-frozen Confederate picket, who sat on a stump & took stock of his nearly bare feet & thin & ragged clothes & empty haversack & exclaimed, “Well, damn me if ever I love another Country!

Still, as Glatthaar concluded: “Tens of thousands stayed on to the very end. Many of them, like their army commander, placed their faith in God to see them through the crisis.”

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
This entry was posted in Humpreys Mississippi Brigade, Muster Rolls, Newton Rifles, Siege of Petersburg, The Minute Men of Attala, The Pettus Guards, The Secessionists, The Spartan Band, The Winston Guards and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Desertions reached epidemic proportions

  1. Nate says:

    Rare realistic information about desertion late in the war, regiment in Trans Mississippi recruited from across the river.

  2. Try John Seymour McNeely, Company E “Hurricane Rifles”, 21st Mississippi

  3. Dick Stanley says:

    There is no J.S. McNeely in Howell’s muster rolll, Kendall, only a Private Seymour McNeely. And none at all with the McNeilly spelling, which was well established by J.S.’s Mississippi Historical Society papers on the brigade. He is often quoted in histories and novels because he claimed to have overheard Barksdale and Longstreet at Gettysburg.

  4. Pvt. J. S. McNeely is on the Wilkinson County Muster Roll.

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