The Draft and Desertion

Some African Americans as well as foreign- and native-born men volunteered, but others entered the ranks through the operation of the Union and Confederate drafts. The outnumbered Confederacy needed every man it could get into its ranks, and consequently, it adopted conscription in April 1862 with the Union following suit in March 1863. Soldiers already in the army endorsed the draft as a means to make service in the war more equitable, but they expressed skepticism regarding the fighting ability of men forced into the army. The precise impact that conscription had on the size of Civil War armies is debatable. For instance, incomplete records indicate that of the 776,000 Union men drafted, only 46,000 shouldered weapons. Yet the Union draft could still be considered a success as a stimulus to volunteering. Avoiding the stigma of being branded as a conscript, a volunteer often had a greater choice of units and, if he played his cards right, could receive local, state, and federal bounties totaling as high as $1,000 (at a time when the average worker earned $460 a year). Conscription did not affect all citizens equally, and many Northern and Southern soldiers concurred that the exemptions in their respective drafts had made the conflict into a rich man's war but a poor man's fight. Both sides provided means for legally avoiding the draft, which, in the North, included the long-standing military tradition of providing a substitute in one's place or the payment of a $300 commutation fee. The South also allowed for substitutes and exempted men in key occupations—generally those judged essential for the war or for society. Most controversially, the Confederacy exempted one man for each plantation comprising 20 or more slaves, leading a Johnny Reb to voice the common complaint that the poor had to bear the burden of fighting, while the rich were ''living at home enjoying life because they have a few negroes'' (Mitchell 1988, 160).

Nevertheless, despite these class-based exemptions, evidence regarding the assertion that the conflict represented a poor man's fight is not entirely clear-cut. Unquestionably, farmers accounted for the largest group in both armies, and some of these men undoubtedly resented the idea that their wealthier neighbors had found ways to avoid military service. Studies of the Union Army indicate that white-collared workers were slightly underrepre-sented in the army, but this can be explained by the relative youth of the soldiers. In fact, more likely laborers, the group most often associated with the lower class, and immigrants did not serve in numbers corresponding to their presence in society. In the South, evidence indicates that slaveholders actually served at a rate higher than their percentage of the population would indicate, and of the 30,000 men eligible to gain exemption based on the ''20-negro law,'' only 4,000 to 5,000 did so—a figure that represented only 3 percent of all men who obtained exemptions. Regardless of the precise figures, many common soldiers retained the perception that this conflict was a rich man's war and poor man's fight, and they continued to begrudge the message sent by these class-based privileges.

For angry soldiers who could not legally avoid service, desertion offered a possible escape route. Again, figures are imprecise, but estimates contend that 200,000 Northerners and 100,000 Southerners deserted. On both sides, substitutes, draftees, and those enlisting simply to earn a bounty—''bounty jumpers''—were considered the most likely to desert. Desertion hurt the Confederacy more than the Union, for the Confederate total represented a higher percentage of its army, and with a smaller pool of potential soldiers, they were less easily replaced. Partially owing to the effects of desertion, Confederate War Department figures in 1865 depict an army with the strength of almost 360,000 men on paper but with only 160,000 present for duty. Given the perceived hopelessness of the cause, however, this speaks as much to the dedication of those who remained as it does to the infidelity of those who deserted. A few deserters headed toward enemy lines, but home communities represented a far more likely destination. Receiving plaintive appeals depicting starvation and other privations on the home front, some Confederate soldiers concluded that the army had abandoned them, that the Confederacy was doomed to failure, and that they could better protect their families by returning home rather than by remaining on the front lines. By 1865, the destitution on the home front and the inability of the Confederate government to provide for soldiers' families led one North Carolina private to conclude that for most people on the home front, ''desertion now is not dishonorable'' (Robertson 1988, 136). Poorer soldiers also justified their decision to desert with the ''rich man's war, poor man's fight'' complaint, contending that if their slaveholding neighbors could remain at home, then they should not have to risk their lives for the cause either. Aware that news from home could contribute to desertion, Confederate officials requested that women use their influence to persuade their soldier-relatives to stay in the army, and some women did remind their kinfolk that allegations of cowardice would damage their family as much or even more than material deprivation.

Both armies used a combination of the carrot and the stick to solve the desertion problem. Promises of amnesty mixed with threats of punishment succeeded in returning at least 80,000 Union and 21,000 Confederate deserters to the ranks. Deserters and others who violated military rules risked punishment if caught. Penalties varied based both on the offense, with some of the most common infractions being insubordination, drunkenness, theft, and absence without leave, and on the whim of the officer in charge. Nevertheless, for soldiers in both armies, the punishments increased in severity over the course of the war. These could include public humiliations such as having one's head shaved or having to wear a placard describing one's crime to more painful treatments. Convicted soldiers could be forced to wear a ball and chain or a barrel or ride a saw horse for hours. Being bucked and gagged—which meant having a bayonet inserted in one's mouth, being put into a seated position with one's knees drawn to

Prisoners of war behind Confederate lines suffered from a general lack of food and other basic necessities. This emaciated Union soldier eventually obtained his freedom. (Library of Congress)

one's chest, having a stick run between the legs, and then having one's arms placed beneath the stick and one's hands tied in front of the legs— produced terrible cramping and pain over a number of hours. Other men could be hung by their thumbs, branded, face hard labor, or in the most extreme cases, face execution. Of the 267 Union soldiers executed during the Civil War, 147 had been convicted of desertion. Confederate records do not provide a total number of executions, but circumstantial evidence indicates that the South executed more men than the North. In addition to the men executed, other men sentenced to die received last-minute reprieves as a reminder not to repeat their crimes. With punishments designed to deter soldiers from repeating their comrades' mistakes, commanders compelled soldiers to either witness or participate in these public affairs.

Punishments inflicted by one's own army paled in comparison to some of the treatment of prisoners of war. More than 400,000 soldiers—slightly more than 200,000 Confederates and slightly less than 200,000 Union men—headed to prison camps. In the early part of the war, these stays could be tolerable and brief as the Union and Confederacy regularly exchanged prisoners. If the numbers to be exchanged were not equivalent, men could be paroled until an official exchange occurred. When the Confederacy announced that it would not treat black soldiers as prisoners of war, the North ended the exchange program in 1863. This cessation contributed to prison overcrowding, most infamously at the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, Georgia. At one point, 33,000 Union soldiers there lived in a 26-acre enclosure meant to hold only 10,000 men. The combination of overcrowding, lack of shelter, inadequate food, poor sanitation, and guards with itchy trigger fingers led to the death of almost 30 percent of the inmates. Soldiers who survived emerged in horrible physical condition, and undoubtedly the publication of pictures of these survivors added fuel to Northern hostility and contributed to the postwar execution of the camp's commandant, Henry Wirz, the only man executed for war crimes during the Civil War.

Confederates countered complaints about their prisons with the assertion that Southern prison problems resulted from the collapse in the Confederate supply system but that poor treatment in Union prisons resulted from malice. The Union did reduce the rations in their prison camps 25 percent in response to reports of the conditions in the South, but the overall conditions in Northern prisoner-of-war camps did not descend to Southern depths—only 12 percent of Southern prisoners in the North died in contrast to the 15.5 percent of Northern prisoners of war who perished. Nonetheless, the closeness of those figures and the deaths of 25 percent of the Confederates housed at a camp in Elmira, New York, demonstrate that the South did not have a monopoly on prisoner mistreatment.

Despite these prison atrocities, the Civil War still can be described as a brother's war. This phrase has many meanings. In some cases, relatives joined opposing sides. Even President Lincoln saw four of his brothers-in-law take up arms for the Confederacy. Additionally, with the Union serving as a family writ large, Southern secession metaphorically represented the splitting up of a family. Also, soldiers, particularly since they had come from the same community and often had relatives in their unit, saw their comrades as a band of brothers. This solidarity, which historians have termed small-unit cohesion, helped them maintain their commitment to their respective causes. Finally, Civil War soldiers often viewed their supposed enemies as brothers. They shared not only a common language, culture, and religion, but also faced similar experiences, which forged a common bond between Union and Confederate troops. On occasion, opposing troops dined together, and most soldiers adhered to a gentleman's agreement not to shoot men on picket duty. Overall, these men recognized that, as soldiers, they shared an attachment that united them in a way that civilians and even most officers could not understand. By the time of the Confederacy's defeat in 1865, Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs, in four years of fighting, had grown accustomed to similar hardships such as poor food and terrible medical care, had together seen the elephant at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Gettysburg, and they had persevered.

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