During the Civil War the state of North Carolina provided more soldiers for service than any other state in the Confederacy, and had a higher death total as well. To many this would seem a badge of honor that one would want to show off, yet there is a more pessimistic view of the ‘Tar Heel’ state, one of disloyalty and abandonment. Evidence from the war suggests that North Carolina had the highest desertion rate among the Confederate states by a wide margin. This exhibit will attempt to prove this wrong. Evidence supporting a wide variety of reasons for desertion will be provided. North Carolina was not the unified front one might think, and certain priorities took precedence over military service. Also, there will be a section on what the military, Confederate federal and North Carolina state and local governments attempted to do about the desertion problem. Desertion was a major issue during the Civil War, on both sides of the conflict. When the War turned into a war of attrition, the South could not keep up with the demand of running the war any longer.
Various primary sources are used in this exhibit. There is a proclamation from Governor Vance that talks about the harm of desertion and what the government will do to solve the problem. A biography of a man that deserted is an example of personal reasons behind why he left, and what the man had to deal with after he left. Also, there are various letters from soldiers to their families and back again that talk about conditions of the military and their justifications for leaving as well. Lastly, there is a letter from a North Carolina commander to Governor Vance about the lack of supplies and how the men will start deserting if they are not resupplied as soon as possible. The connection between the primary sources and this exhibit will attempt to show the reasons behind desertion and the reaction of the government and military to such a threat.
Secondary sources will be utilized to back up the ideas of the primary sources and solidify the points that this exhibit is trying to make regarding desertion. The authors of these articles have different opinions on desertion, yet there is consensus that desertion was a problem. There are a few that will be used, however, to point out that the problem was not as bad as made out to be, and the reputation that North Carolina gained from the war is unjustified. Secondary sources will also be used to back up the reasons behind desertion and the reaction the government and military had to try and solve the problem.
In order to gain an understanding behind the desertion problem in the state of North Carolina it is first and foremost important to define what desertion really is. There were many different definitions of desertion during the Civil War. The terms AWOL (away without leave) and desertion were both used interchangeably during the war, yet are not the same (Reid 1981, 239). This problem came about because the Confederate States of America never came up with a clear and concise definition of what desertion really was (Reid 1981, 239). A deserter is a man who leaves the army without permission with no intention of returning (Reid 1981, 239). These differences could have been clearly established, yet where not, and the army suffered because of inadequate record keeping, especially in the late hours of the war. Careless officers would list men who were not really deserters as such, and thus the desertion numbers increased (Reid 1981, 239). With this clear understanding of what desertion was, and how it was thought of during the Civil War, a person can better understand the reasons and reactions to this problem.
North Carolina was labeled as the state with the highest desertion numbers. This reputation is unjustified for a number of reasons. When reading the sources on desertion from North Carolina there is a difference in opinion on the exact number of deserters. Most evidence comes from the provost marshal general from after the war, yet in the latter days of the war competent record keeping kept data from being too useful (Reid 1981, 240). One must be careful in how to approach data and putting too much of an emphasis on one source for information can lead to disparities. Newspapers were notorious for exaggerating the number of deserters and a lot of them had their facts and numbers wrong (Reid 1981, 240). There is evidence to suggest that some men returned to their posts after they had checked on their families or helped them with the harvest (King-Owen 2011, 351). While this may still be a form of desertion, they would return and fight as loyal soldiers until the end of the war. One example of this is Francis Marion Poteet, who left his unit for home because his son died, and he was needed to help with the harvest. He went back to his unit willingly when he got the chance, and was still punished by being put in the stockade (Poteet, 1864). There was also a lack of socialization in the military that caused them to have equal loyalties to the military and their families (Bearman 1991, 323). This was caused by a lack of training and military involvement. In today’s military this problem does not exist because of transference of identity from civil life to the life of the military, thus all focus can be put on that one aspect. The soldiers in North Carolina and throughout the Confederacy did not have this transference, and the fighting was happening in their own backyard, so there was a sense that they needed to desert to protect their families (King-Owen 2011, 351). Because of this evidence, it is clear that one must be careful when examining primary evidence. There are plenty of sources that point out desertion was not at the high level that North Carolina is reputed to have, and that the desertion numbers resemble most other states in the Confederate States of America.