March 10, 1863 (Tuesday)
Desertions in the Federal Army had grown to near epidemic proportions over the long and harsh winter. It was not simply the holidays or the longing for home and family that made men desert – though both certainly helped. Adding to it, the Army of the Potomac, for example, had not been paid in six months. For many, it was an aversion to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, released officially on January 1st.
When General Joe Hooker took over command of the Army of the Potomac, over 85,000 troops were absent without leave. He testified that “desertions were at the rate of about 200 a day.” Hooker had tried to stem the tide, but mostly managed, at first, to make it worse. He severely limited the issuing of furloughs and leaves, allowing only 2% of any regiment to be legally away at one time.
If the soldier on leave was late, the next soldier could not go until the first came back. This bottlenecked official absentees and skyrocketed desertions. By March, the problem had grown so bad that Lincoln had to step in.
The punishments for desertion were so harsh – in some cases death – that it made no sense for a deserter to return to the fold. And so on this date, Lincoln gave amnesty to any deserter if they returned by April 1. The following day, the proclamation was in all of the major newspapers.
By Lincoln’s order, any deserter returning to the ranks “may be restored to their respective regiments without punishment except the forfeiture of pay and allowances during their absence.” Any found after that time, however, ” shall be arrested as deserters, and punished as the law provides.”
In the proclamation, Lincoln blamed not his policies or the policies of his officers, not the scarcity of food and supplies, not even the lack of pay, but “evil disposed and disloyal persons, at sundry places” for enticing soldiers to desert.
These desertions, were, said Lincoln, “weakening the strength of the armies and prolonging the war, giving aid and comfort to the enemy, and cruelly exposing the gallant and faithful soldiers remaining in the ranks to increased hardships and dangers.”
He called upon “all patriotic and faithful citizens to oppose and resist the aforementioned dangerous and treasonable crimes, and aid in restoring to their regiments all soldiers absent without leave.”
In closing, he urged the citizens “to assist in the execution of the act of Congress for “enrolling and calling out the national forces and for other purposes,” [the Draft] and to support the proper authorities in the prosecution and punishment of offenders against said act and aid in suppressing the insurrection and the rebellion.”
Now, every citizen had to act as a watchdog, keeping tabs on neighbors, and reporting anything suspicious to the proper authorities.
The main meaning of the proclamation was to return the deserters to their regiments. What really put the stop on desertions was when Lincoln gave up his right to commute the sentences of those absent without leave, which he would shortly do.
After the amnesty, when a deserter was captured, he was drummed before his regiment and shot to death. After a few such displays, many more soldiers thought twice about leaving the ranks.1
- Sources: Chancellorsville by John Bigelow, Jr; New York Times, March 11, 1863; Desertion During the Civil War by Ella Lonn. [↩]