The popular literature of the Civil War is filled with inspiring accounts of courage and sacrifice. Countless such acts, even if exaggerated, took place. Every great event, however, contains many stories that create bumps in the overall smooth narrative. One is the story of desertion during the American Civil War. Military officials estimated that about 200,000 men deserted the U. S. Army during the conflict. Illinois contributed to this number, though not in proportion to the number of Illinoisans who joined the military or were subject to a call for service.
What and why?
What exactly qualified as desertion? The most basic definition was any form of being absent from one’s unit without official leave. Army officials admitted that many men were unjustly listed as deserters due to poor record keeping and genuine inadvertence, especially in the confusion of battle and its aftermath. The definition also included men who had been called up in a draft but never appeared for examination and potential induction, or disappeared after having been examined and certified for service.
What led a man to take the risks involved in intentionally leaving his regiment? After all, the Articles of War governing the U.S. Army specified death by execution as a legitimate punishment for the crime.
Army officials believed that ignorance of military law and the fact that most new volunteer soldiers “had always freely acted according to their own ideas and wishes, restrained by no other legal requirements than those of the civil law governing a free people” caused many excusable problems, especially in the early months of the war.
Many men were moved to desertion by letters from family members telling of suffering at home in the absence of the chief breadwinner. Many (but by no means all) counties provided for financial assistance to soldiers’ families, but the support levels were generally low.
Others were thought to have left because they believed they could get by with it. In many areas opponents of the Lincoln government’s war policies helped to shield deserters from detection, sometimes allowing them to live openly at their homes.
Deserters from Illinois
Desertions from Illinois regiments reached their wartime high in October 1862. From the war’s earliest days the number of Illinois troops deserting in any month was generally a trickle of under 100. In July 1862 the rate climbed rapidly, to more than 300, continuing to grow until it reached 823 in October. It then began to fall, though slowly, until July 1863 when it fell to a fairly consistent rate near 100 per month. A single unit that certainly skewed the statistics was the 128th Illinois Infantry. In April 1863, after less than five months in service, the regiment’s roster had been reduced from 860 to 161, mostly by desertions. The War Department broke up the unit, bouncing the sadly incompetent officers and sending the remaining enlisted men to the 9th Illinois Infantry, where most served well.
In April 1863 the army created a new system of assistant provost marshals general operating in each state. One of this officer’s tasks was the apprehension of deserters. James Oakes, the assistant provost assigned to Illinois, reported in August 1865 that he had arrested and sent back to their units 5,805 Illinois deserters.
As was the case in other states, in some parts of Illinois military deserters could count on aid from neighbors. On January 28, 1863, Illinois Governor Yates telegraphed the War Department that civilians in several counties covered for deserters and that a mob in Paris (Edgar County) had forcibly rescued a deserter from military arrest. Fulton County was especially troublesome. During the summer of 1863 draft enrollment there was disrupted and several army deserters camped in the area, counting on local sympathy to protect them. In August 1863 Colonel Oakes informed newspapers of new army orders that deserters who surrendered themselves would be treated leniently, suffering only the loss of pay for the time they were absent.
The punishment of desertion by execution was seldom carried out. While more than 200,000 Union soldiers were reported as deserters, only about 200 paid with their lives. Those from Illinois and their execution dates were:
Valentine Benjamin, 44th Illinois Infantry, Nov. 13, 1863
Erastus Daily, 88th Illinois Infantry, Nov. 13, 1863
David Geer, 28th Illinois Infantry, March 4, 1865
Henry McLean, 2nd Illinois Light Artillery, Aug. 25, 1865
William Wilson, 12th Illinois Cavalry, July 28, 1865
Charles Conzet, 123rd Illinois Infantry—deserter
An Illinois case that sheds light on an important motivation for desertion was that of Charles Conzet, who lived near Greenup (Cumberland County). On January 9, 1863, Conzet deserted his post as a second lieutenant in Company B, 123rd Illinois Infantry, as the unit passed through Nashville, Tennessee. Weeks later he was taken into custody at his Illinois home and soon returned to Tennessee for trial.
At Conzet’s request Major James A. Connolly of the 123rd represented him at the court martial. After his appearance Connolly wrote of the affair:
“One of our young lieutenants deserted when our regiment came through Nashville, and he was arrested at his home in Illinois and brought back here in irons. He was tried on a charge of ‘desertion in the face of the enemy,’ before a general court martial at Murfreesboro, and he sent to me to defend him. I went, but I knew he was guilty and I wanted to see him punished, yet at the same time I was very sorry for him. He had been married very shortly before entering the service and he left his wife but very little money, expecting to receive pay form the government two months. In this he was disappointed like all the rest of us. His wife kept writing to him that she was out of money and could scarcely procure the necessaries of life, and finally she wrote him that she had become a mother. The poor fellow could stand it no longer, he didn’t know how to make out a leave of absence, and he determined to go home and make some provision for his wife and infant child, risking all consequences. This is his story and there is nothing in evidence to contradict it. I don’t yet know what the finding and sentence of the court is but I presume they found him guilty, and probably sentenced him to be shot, but I am sure President Lincoln will never let him be shot. It’s a hard case, but he had no business to have a wife—and baby to think about.”
The court found Conzet guilty of desertion and sentenced him “to be stripped of his badges of office, and shot until he is dead, with musketry.” His division commander and the army commander, William S. Rosecrans, approved the sentence. The regiment’s field officers and company captains petitioned Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for a commutation. They wrote that Conzet was “induced to abandon his post by letters from his wife begging him to come home an relieve her from her destitute condition, representing to him that the community in which she lived was opposed to the war, and would do nothing to relieve her necessities because her husband was in the Army.” They also noted that the regiment had not been paid for over five months and requested that the punishment be reduced to “reduction to the ranks with forfeiture of all pay and allowance.” Conzet himself wrote of his hope that he would “be allowed to return to his company so that he may yet prove himself to be a man.” Abraham Lincoln saved Conzet’s life but did not allow for the redemption of his honor. On September 24, 1864, the president ordered, “Let the prisoner be ordered from confinement and dishonorably dismissed [from] the service of the United States.”
Interested in learning more?
A marvelous, detailed study of Illinois military desertion during the Civil War is Bob Sterling, “Discouragement, Weariness, and War Politics: Desertions from Illinois Regiments during the Civil War,” Illinois Historical Journal 82 (Winter 1989), pp. 239-62, online at http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-1989winter/ishs-1989winter239.pdf .