Desertion plagued Georgia regiments during the Civil War (1861-65) and, in addition to other factors, debilitated the Confederate war effort. Deserters were not merely cowards or ne’er-do-wells; some were seasoned veterans from battle-hardened regiments.
The most significant wave of desertion among Georgia soldiers occurred from late 1863 through 1864 in the wake of the Battle of Chickamauga and of Union general William T. Sherman’s Atlanta campaign. The proximity of the army to soldiers’ homes following those battles, Sherman’s advance through the state, and Georgians’ sense of duty to alleviate the social and economic hardships endured by their families and communities encouraged Confederates to abandon the ranks and return home. According to historian Ella Lonn, of the approximately 103,400 enlisted men who deserted the Confederacy by war’s end, 6,797 were from Georgia. Among the eleven Confederate states with significant (defined as more than 3,500) numbers of deserters, Georgia ranked sixth—behind North Carolina (23,694), Tennessee (12,155), Virginia (12,071), Mississippi (11,604), and Arkansas (10,029). The bulk of Georgia deserters belonged to the Army of Tennessee and hailed from the north Georgia mountains and upper Piedmont region.
As neither Confederate nor Union forces initially possessed a formal policy regarding deserters, individual officers adopted impromptu regulations. It was not until 1863, when the U.S. War Department approved General Orders No. 286 and U.S. president Abraham Lincoln launched his Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, that Union forces established a formal policy on desertion. Federal policies encouraged Confederate desertion and attempted to shorten the war not only by pardoning and restoring citizenship rights to deserters who took a loyalty oath to the Union but also by allowing former Confederates to return to their homes. In August 1864 Union general Ulysses S. Grant issued Circular No. 31, which rewarded Confederate deserters with monetary incentives and transport home.
In response to these Union policies, the Confederate Congress passed legislation in an attempt to stifle desertion and maintain Confederate armies. In December 1863 Confederate authorities passed an act that made it illegal for civilians to transport, feed, or shelter deserters. This act also made it a crime for family members to encourage soldiers to return home. On August 10, 1864, Confederate general Robert E. Lee also attempted to sustain his fighting force by issuing General Orders No. 64, which offered amnesty to any deserter who returned to Confederate service.
Patterns of Desertion
In his study of desertion patterns in Georgia, historian Mark Weitz estimates that 3,368 Georgians deserted and hid behind Union lines. Desertion was most common among enlisted soldiers and low-ranking officers. Nearly 93 percent of Georgia deserters were privates or noncommissioned officers. In contrast to traditional patterns of Confederate desertion, which peaked in the fall and winter of 1864, Georgia’s wave of desertion had subsided by late 1864. Of the Georgians who fled to Union lines and took the oath of allegiance to the Union, more than 90 percent fled between December 1, 1863, and December 31, 1864.
Roughly 400 Georgians had enlisted in the Union army by the end of the war, but it remains unclear how many of these loyalists had deserted Confederate armies. Although communities in the Georgia mountains provided only 114 Confederate companies, or 14 percent of the total number of Georgia units, the majority of deserters hailed from that region. They accounted for approximately 2,058, or 61 percent, of the soldiers who abandoned the Confederacy for Union lines.
Motivations for Desertion
Various factors influenced the increased desertion rates among Georgia highlanders. Because of Sherman’s advance on Atlanta, those Georgians in Confederate units along his route were in close proximity to their homes in the mountains and upper Piedmont, which made returning to their communities more feasible. As the Union army upheld lenient desertion policies, its presence throughout north Georgia encouraged desertion. Soldiers also deserted in an attempt to alleviate the hardships endured by their families and communities. Enlistment in the army kept men away from their homes for extended periods and destroyed the economic foundation of semi-subsistent mountain families. Crop failures, as well as salt shortages and guerrilla raids, plagued north Georgia communities. Deteriorating home-front conditions compelled many families to write soldiers and urge them to desert and return home. Despite Governor Joseph E. Brown’s attempts to maintain order and relieve shortages of food and other supplies, many soldiers lost faith in the state’s ability to do so and chose family loyalty over allegiance to the Confederate army.
Whereas the sixty-three plantation-belt counties in the lowlands provided more than 50 percent of the volunteer infantry companies, desertion rates among soldiers hailing from this region were among the lowest in the state. This phenomenon may be partially accounted for by the fact that Confederate social and military authority remained reasonably intact in the lowlands for most of the war, making it perilous for would-be deserters from the area to flee home.
Although Sherman’s march to the sea from Atlanta to Savannah was brutal, Union forces advanced rapidly, were largely unopposed, and did not occupy any place along the route long enough for deserters to flee to their lines. Also, because the majority of regiments from central and south Georgia belonged to the Army of Northern Virginia and engaged in battles far from their homes, potential deserters found it much less practical to return home than did those serving in the Army of Tennessee. It was also difficult for the lowland Georgians in the Army of Tennessee to flee home because the army returned to Tennessee instead of pursuing Sherman through southeast Georgia.
The economic structure of the plantation belt and the widespread use of enslaved labor also allowed lowland Georgians to remain in the Confederate army without worries for the safety of their homes and families. Whereas the 1864 Confederate Conscription Act depleted north Georgia of its male population, wealthy plantation owners in the lowlands were able to apply for exemptions. While 3,368 Georgians deserted to Union lines throughout the war, approximately 11,000 affluent Georgia men received exemptions and were able to remain in their communities and maintain social and economic stability. When Union and Confederate armies left the state in early 1865, desertions among Georgia troops persisted but at a greatly reduced rate until the war’s end.