Emerging Civil War welcomes back Michael Aubrecht
As the war dragged on into its third and fourth years, soldiers on both sides of the conflict began to flee the army in record numbers. Some were traumatized by the horrors they had witnessed, others were shamed by the atrocities they had committed and many more were disenchanted with their cause. Southern troops were more likely to desert, as their supplies dwindled at a more rapid rate compared to their Northern counterparts who were better outfitted. According to Dr. James I. Robertson Jr. in Tenting Tonight, approximately one in every seven Confederates would eventually desert.
As the soldiers fell into a deeper sense of desperation, the futility of their fight became overwhelming at times. One Rebel soldier wrote, “Many of our people at home have become so demoralized that they write to their husbands, sons, and brothers that desertion is now not dishonorable.”
In order to curb a mass exodus from the ranks of the Confederate army, officers made grim examples of those who were apprehended while attempting to abandon their duty. Some estimated the odds of success to be three to one in favor of the soldier. Those who were caught, however, were dealt with in a swift and deadly manner. Following a court-martial, deserters would often be sentenced to death by firing squad.
The entire camp witnessed these public executions in an effort to strike fear in the hearts of would-be fugitives. Each prisoner had an opportunity for prayer with a camp chaplain or priest and then was blindfolded and (hopefully) shot dead in the chest by a group of riflemen who usually had one loaded rifle and the rest with only powder in place of bullets. This was done to help dispel guilt. Many times the prisoner’s body was positioned to fall right into a coffin.
Sometimes, the lack of marksmanship among the firing squad required additional volleys to finish the job. The addition suffering of a former comrade made this horrific affair all the more difficult to watch.
As the trauma of war destroyed one’s optimism, the risk of death and disgrace became less frightening. Some Confederate officials worried about the negative effect of camp executions on what remained of troop morale. An editorial penned for the Augusta Daily Chronicle & Sentinel questioned the effectiveness of execution when it wrote, “What a sad warning to the living! Will any profit by it?”
In an effort to petition for the return of those missing, one governor wrote a reassuring affirmation that stated,
Many of you have, doubtless, remained at home after the expiration date of your furloughs, without the intention to desert the cause of your country… Many of you have left your Commands without leave, under the mistaken notion that the highest duty required you to provide sustenance and protection to your families…
He added, “I am authorized to say that ALL WHO WILL without delay VOLUNTARILY return to their Commands, will receive a lenient and merciful consideration; and that none, who so return within forty days from this date, will have the penalty of death inflicted on them.”
Many soldiers recalled the punishments levied on their comrades in letters home:
Letter from Spencer Glasgow Welch, a surgeon in the 13th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry (McGowan’s Brigade), to his wife:
Camp near Rappahannock River Va
March 5, 1863
…A man was shot near our regiment last Sunday for desertion. It was a very solemn scene. The condemned man was seated on his coffin with his hands tied across his breast. A file of twelve soldiers was brought up to within six feet of him, and at the command, a volley was fired right into his breast.…These severe punishments seem necessary to preserve discipline…
Spencer Glasgow Welch
Account of deserter execution printed in the September 26, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly:
…The crime of desertion has been one of the greatest drawbacks to our army. …Desertion is the greatest crime of the soldier…The sentence of death being so seldom enforced they considered it a safe game. They all suffered terribly mentally, and as they marched to their own funeral they staggered with mortal agony like a drunken man…
Over 500 men, representing both North and South, were shot or hanged during the four-year conflict, two-thirds of them for desertion. As the war continued into its later years the penalty of death was often overlooked in order to preserve the dwindling ranks of the Confederate army. Desertion remained unacceptable but if the individual was willing to return to duty and contribute to the cause they were often spared from execution.
In the end the act of execution was a necessary evil that illustrated just how far the Confederate army was willing to go in order to achieve independence from the United States.
Encyclopedia Virginia, Military Executions during the Civil War, http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Military_Executions_During_the_Civil_War
Excerpts from bound volumes from the Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania Military Park Service (BV# 027-02: Misc. Letters from Simeon David, 14th North Carolina.)
Harper’s Weekly, September 26, 1863.
Robertson, James I., Jr. Tenting Tonight. New York: Time-Life Books, 1984.
Welch, Spencer Glasgow. A Confederate Surgeon’s Letters to His Wife. N.p.: Neale Publishing Company, 1911.
Michael Aubrecht is an author, as well as a Civil War historian. He has written several books including The Civil War in Spotsylvania and Historic Churches of Fredericksburg. Michael lives in historic Fredericksburg. Visit his blog online at https://maubrecht.wordpress.com/.