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Just, and Unjust, Deserts

By Daniel Hubbard | July 24, 2011

Everyone who researches their family history wants a good story. Almost everyone who finds a soldier in their family, at least secretly, hopes to find a good story of martial glory. Usually we don’t find those stories of glory but we at least come away with a story of a typical soldier who honorably did his duty. Sometimes other things turn up and that too is a story.

Researching a Civil War relative for a client, I came across a word that one rarely, if ever, wants to find in a war record—deserter. Deserter is not usually a particularly honorable word. So why might it be attached to your ancestor?

One obvious reason for the word “deserter” is exactly what people think of when we hear the word. People think of cowardice, perhaps some sort of stress related breakdown. The word “deserter” is also usually thought of as a one way thing. My understanding is that this intent not to return and an intent to avoid hazardous duty are part of the official definition of desertion in U.S. Military Law.

Not a Real Furlough but Not Desertion Either

When wars were fought in one’s own neighborhood  and military discipline was not up to modern standards, the temptation to simply walk home was always there. One can read of dismayed officers during the American Revolution complaining of how their soldiers simply came and went as they pleased. Soldiers, on the other hand, often felt that when not obviously needed they could simply leave and harvest their crops or perhaps avoid the atrocious conditions in camp.

In camp there was often little food, some of it actually dangerous to eat. Sanitation could be so bad that the time in between battles was more dangerous than the battles themselves. In those less disciplined times, many a soldier gave himself a “do-it-yourself furlough.” Though they did leave their units without permission, these men intended to return.

Bounty Jumping

That kind of absent soldier might be able to generate some understanding. Few, however,  felt sympathetic to a type of deserter that appeared during the Civil War, the bounty jumper. A bounty jumper might prove to be a colorful character and a source for some interesting stories but he was also a professional deserter. The math was fairly simple. During the Civil War a private made about $13 a month. He might get paid a total of $1000 to enlist because of various bounties offered to encourage volunteers. A few men made a business of collecting their bounties and then escaping, only to reenlist and repeat the process. Some repeated the process dozens of times. Some men even collected bounties from both sides. One bounty jumper, Adam Worth, was later dubbed “The Napoleon of the criminal world” by a Scotland Yard detective and served as part of the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

Obviously, these men were not exactly well regarded. Captured bounty jumpers were often hanged. One odd episode involved a guard shooting a bounty jumper in a restaurant as the man tried to desert. The shooting resulted in a bill for damages being sent by the owner of the restaurant to the deserter’s unit along with this note-

CAPT. DUNNING—Dear Sir: If your men had shot the bounty-jumper through the head instead of the wrist. I would have been perfectly satisfied to have pocketed the damages. Please instruct them to do so next time, and I will take the chance of another shot free of charge.

I Deserted? Really?

Sometimes desertion was more a mistake than anything else. The desertion that I uncovered was probably this kind. The man enlisted but when it was time to muster into his unit, he failed to appear. During the time between enlisting and when he should have mustered in, he enlisted in another unit for a longer period, probably assuming that the second enlistment would nullify the first. He went on to serve his second unit honorably and rose to sergeant. He fought at places like Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. When his time was up in 1864 he reenlisted and was at Appomattox Court House when the surrender occurred. From the records that I’ve found, his “ill-gotten gains” from the first enlistment amounted to $9. I wonder if he ever actually received his $9 or even knew he was listed as a deserter.

There is a story behind every significant word in the bits of evidence we find. Sometime the story is better than we’d expect. Sometimes it is worse. Sometimes it leads on to other things. Sometime it will just give you something to think about.

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