Reasons for Desertion
The reasons for desertion were as varied as the many soldiers who left their posts (Bardolph 1964, 171). Many of the men wanted to get away for personal reasons, others because of a loss of faith or belief in the Confederate cause, and still other men left because of political differences that led them to believe they could no longer support the war. Not all men decided themselves to desert. Family and readings such as local newspapers such as W.W. Holden’s North Carolina Standard inspired or encouraged men to desertion (Bardolph 1964, 184). Whatever the reason, North Carolina soldiers did desert the army, and scholars agree that desertion was a major component to loosing the Civil War. Individual reasons that caused desertion of North Carolina soldiers are difficult to determine. A scholar could have the same number of reasons as deserters, yet there are some common themes among the masses. There were three major reasons for deserting from the army that primary sources revealed, and that was to protect ones family, help out around harvest time, or a change in political identity and support for the war.
As the war dragged on, the men felt that leaving their families unprotected was no longer a good idea. There were more and more bands of renegade and Union soldiers that were roaming the country-side (King-Owen 2011, 351). In order to endure their loyalty to the Confederacy they had to keep their families safe, so there was a chance of desertion. There were people that were trying to take advantage of the men’s families while they were away, and it was not only by Union soldiers, but neighbors as well (Poteet, 1864-01-07). Family members would write to their husbands or other family that were in the army to come home to help protect them. The collapse of the Confederacy led to some people being taken advantage of. Supplies were hard to come by, and some people were not above stealing from families that were unable to protect themselves (Poteet, 1864-01-27). Most of this information came from letters written to the soldiers from their family back home, and Poteet is a perfect example of this. For men who left for this reason, evidence suggests that they voluntarily returned to their units after they felt they could (King-Owen 2011, 351).
Another reason for desertion relates to the previous example. Men would leave their post to go home in order to help their family out during harvest time (King-Owen 2011, 352). Because men were the backbone to a successful harvest, and with the vast majority of them away at war, the rest of the family would have to deal with the harvest on their own. This was not always possible, and thus there was desertion to go home to for the harvest (Poteet, 1864-06-16). Growing enough food for the family became very important, especially towards the end of the war. When there was a son or other male family that were not in the army, there was not as much of a need for men to desert. Yet if a son were to die, like the son of the Poteet family, then needs change. That was another reason that Poteet deserted (Poteet, 1864-06-16). When families were unable to fend for themselves without the male head, the likely-hood of desertion increased. Yet, just as mentioned in the previous paragraph, people that left for this reason were more likely to return to their posts (King-Owen 2011, 351).
Not everything was due to the need to help or protect ones family. An autobiography written by one deserter talked about what would happen if he were caught, and how he witnessed the death of four men, three deserters, one their father. He mentions how he was no longer able to support the war because he questioned the slavery ideology that was the foundation of the war for the Confederacy (Younce, 1901). Some men could just not justify remaining with the army anymore, and Younce stated that he no longer believed in the war. In North Carolina, there was political unrest, as the governor election came about around the end of the war. So, who would the people vote for? Governor Vance was for the war, while the man running against him, Holden, was a vocal peace advocate, and there were some that found their ideals ran similar to him. They wanted the war to end (Poteet, 1864-06-16). Yet political support was still strong for the ‘War Governor’ (Vance) and he was only put out of office after the war was over, and later returned to power during the Reconciliation era of Reconstruction after Governor Holden was impeached (Bardolph 1964, 166-167).
There are many other reasons that men deserted the military, yet these three seem to be the most common. Of the three, the first two were made up of men who would willingly return after their job was done at home, as suggested by primary evidence and supported by secondary findings (King-Owen 2011, 351). This section is not to justify desertion or to make excuses, but to help in understanding why men deserted. Asking that question can lead one to realize that the Confederacy was falling apart from the inside, and the Union only pushed it over the edge (Bardolph 1964, 164).