One of the most intriguing things I uncovered in researching the war in Virginia between August and December, 1863, was the symmetry between the antagonists. To a remarkable degree, both Lee and Meade faced the same problems and dealt with them in the same way. When it came to stamping out the dangerous scourge of desertion, the execution of convicted offenders proved to be vital to reducing the levels to acceptable levels for each side.
Here is a passage from my book detailing the Army of the Potomac's efforts to fight desertion.
"Shortly after the First Battle of Bull Run, the Federal government's call for more troops produced hundreds of regiments whose men enlisted for a term of two or three years. Now, with more than 24 months of those three years almost gone, many regiments that answered the nation's call in 1861 were ready to go home. As the men in these outfits saw it, they had done their part and now it was someone else's turn.
The army was going to lose a good number of its experienced soldiers if all of those eligible went home when their enlistments expired in early 1864. This problem was accentuated by the fact that men being drafted to replace these veterans were not turning out to be very reliable soldiers; indeed, many of these replacements were not even making it to the army at all.
At the heart of this difficulty was Federal conscription law. When recruiting began to dry up after November, 1862, the result of prolonged fighting and heavy casualties, the Federal government resorted to the draft. The Enrollment Act of 1863, provided for the conscription of whatever number of troops state governments were not able to supply through volunteering. It was hoped the threat of being drafted, considered an ignoble way to enter the army, would induce hesitant men to enlist. The stratagem worked for a while. But the legislation also allowed a man to avoid service by either paying a $300 commutation fee or hiring a substitute to go in his place. The hiring of a substitute permanently removed one's name from the draft rolls. The commutation fee did not, and it would have to be paid each time a man's name was drawn for the draft.
Needless to say, the system caused problems. Many thought it inconsistent with the ethic of a free nation to compel men to military service. Others were outraged by the reality that the wealthy could buy their way out of their duty, raising the specter of "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Indeed, by the time the war ended, 86,724 men had paid the commutation fee and avoided going into the service. That number represented more men than were in the entire Army of the Potomac in August, 1863.
To the soldiers in the field, already experiencing the rigors and dangers of war, commutation was bad enough. But an even more vile practice in their eyes was bounty jumping. As the conscription system was structured, the federal government made periodic calls on the states to furnish more men. Each state was given a quota of troops to provide. The state governments in turn issued quotas to their various counties, townships and municipalities. If a certain locality could not produce its quota by voluntary enlistments, the balance would be made up by conscripting enough men from that area to make up the shortfall.
The draft was generally unpopular and politicians were eager to do anything that would prevent their voters from being conscripted. One way for a locality to avoid having any of its citizens drafted was to induce men from elsewhere to enlist in its district. In this way, those outside the community would provide officials with a way to meet their quota and prevent locals from being compelled to serve.
The pool of men who might be brought into the service this way was not altogether large. As a result, cash incentives were offered to convince potential "volunteers" to sign up. The use of money to attract recruits soon brought fierce competition among counties, towns and cities, creating a financial contest to see which could offer the highest reward. These monetary inducements were called bounties, and depending on where a man chose to join, he could collect a payment from the federal, state and local government. A bounty could quickly add up to over $1000 – a princely sum in 1863. These large rewards convinced many to sign their name on the muster role.
The real problem was that bounties were inducements to join the army, but not necessarily incentives to do any fighting. There were plenty of unscrupulous characters willing to enlist, often under an assumed name, collect their bounty and then desert at the first possible moment. Once at a safe distance they would repeat the process in a different location. Such men were known as bounty jumpers and they deserted in large numbers, as did many drafted men who were unable to buy a substitute or pay the commutation fee.
The effect of this was to produce large numbers of men who were supposed to reinforce the army, but very few who actually did so. The difficulties of the draft were exacerbated by the ill-advised way the Union previously dispatched reinforcements to the army. It was far easier to raise new units than it was to enlist men as replacements for existing commands. This also allowed governors more political patronage by passing out officer's commissions in newly created regiments and batteries. Thus new men came to the army in new regiments and very few came to fill the gaps of veteran units already in the field.
As a result, many of the finest commands in the army were no more than mere shadows; some regiments numbered what individual companies were to muster under the army's table of organization. A full strength infantry regiment contained 1,000 men. By 1863, most could assemble less than 600 and many no more than two or three hundred.
The 14th Connecticut was a prime example. In August, 1863, its ranks contained only 80 original members. Losses in the regiment had been so high it was earmarked to receive a large number of replacements, mostly drafted men and substitutes. The 14th sent an officer north to collect a group of these replacements and escort them back to Virginia. Starting with 117 men, he managed to arrive in camp with only 42. The others deserted along the way; most of them disappearing in New York City. On August 10, another collection of 143 replacements reached the 14th Connecticut's encampment. Within six days, 54 of these men deserted. On the eighteenth, the regiment reported that of the over 200 replacements sent, 134 had run away.
The Connecticut experience was hardly unique. Major Henry Abbot complained that conscripts for the 20th Massachusetts were "deserting terribly." Out of a pool of 200 draftees, 30 had already deserted, while another 40 were in the hospital, "ill of diseases which they had when they" joined the army. "This drafting business is, everywhere throughout the army without an exception, so far as I can learn… a most lamentable failure," Abbot wrote. Although he believed conscripts were really just paid volunteers, he felt the circumstances of their enlistment deprived them of the "pride, self respect & honor" felt by "even the worst of the volunteers" of 1861. To keep these men from running away, it seemed Meade had one half of his army "guarding the other half."
Most veterans had little regard for draftees or substitutes. Major Henry Winkler pronounced the opinion of many when he lamented that substitutes were "uncouth, untrained, insubordinate, mutinous, [and] everything bad." One captain referred to a group of 109 replacements received by the 118th Pennsylvania as a "fearful lot of loafers, bummers and substitutes." In an effort to mentally prepare them for the new career on which they were embarking, he took pains to impress upon them that they were "now of no earthly account but to carry a musket… obey orders literally, draw and eat the rations issued, growl to no purpose, and, when it becomes necessary, stand up and get shot." The officer feared turning these men into soldiers would be a "task which will bother us very much," and take a considerable amount of time.
Despite the initial reservations of commanders and enlisted men alike, draftees who stayed with the army generally went on to make good soldiers. Henry Abbot found himself unexpectedly concluding the conscripts brought into the 20th Massachusetts proved "better than the men that originally made up" the regiment. Although six or seven had deserted, and despite the fact drill instructors had "put the screws to them like the devil," the major thought they would become "excellent soldiers… in time."
If men who were drafted and did not desert eventually proved good soldiers, men who came into the army as the result of receiving a bounty invariably made bad ones, if they stayed around to become soldiers at all. The desertion problem they created, while not quite the same as the one Lee faced, was equally serious. The ease with which bounty jumpers got away was very damaging to the morale of the army. It also made clear how readily a melancholy soldier, who believed he had already done his share, might go home.
As was the case with the Rebels, the officers of the Army of the Potomac realized stern discipline was required to stem the tide of deserters. The methods the Union used to combat desertion were the same as those employed by the Confederates. On March 10, 1863, Lincoln issued a general amnesty promising no punishment for any man absent without leave who returned to his unit by the beginning of April. But, like Jefferson Davis' amnesty, Lincoln's appeal achieved only a modest success.
Army regulations in 1860 authorized the payment of $30 "for the arrest and delivery of a deserter to an officer of the army.” But for some reason the United States Congress lowered the authorized payment to $5 in September 1861. This seriously reduced the motivation, already slim, of anyone interested in capturing deserters. In July 1863, the reward was raised to $10, and in September it went back to $30. But the desired results were still lacking. The methods being used to combat desertion were so unsuccessful some officers began to offer a thirty-day furlough to any soldier who would help detect, stop or turn in a potential deserter.
Executing Deserters, Sept 1863 by Alfred Waud
As was the case with the Confederates, the only measure truly effective in stopping desertions was executing those convicted of the crime in front of their former units. The first execution that summer was of five Pennsylvania substitutes who, having "deliberately deserted after being regularly put into the service," were caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Before the executions were carried out, the men appealed to Lincoln for mercy. The president wrote Meade telling him these men made their request without giving any grounds for it whatsoever. Since he understood these "are very flagrant cases and that you deem their punishment as being indispensable to the service," Lincoln told his general that, unless he was mistaken in this understanding, he was to inform the culprits their appeal was denied.
Meade responded to the president, telling him the men in question were "substitute conscripts who enlisted for the purpose of deserting after receiving the bounty, and being the first of this class whose cases came before me, I believed that humanity, the safety of this army, and the most vital interests of the country required their prompt execution as an example, the publicity given to which might, and I trust in God, will, deter others from imitating their bad conduct." The day after Meade wrote Lincoln, all five deserters were shot to death by firing squad in front of 25,000 men.
Like their Confederate counterparts, the Northern troops required to witness executions had mixed feelings about the affairs. Repulsed by the spectacle they tended to have empathy for the "wretched, horrible predicament" of the condemned. Nonetheless, most soldiers approved their fate.
Brutal and hard to watch though they may have been, executions soon became an almost routine part of the army's activities. Every corps was supplied with a gallows and shooting ground for administering the fate of those convicted and sentenced to death. The executions were held every week and "scarcely a Friday passed … that some wretched deserter did not suffer the death penalty in the Army of the Potomac."
All of this received a great deal of attention in the Northern newspapers. Harper's Weekly published illustrations showing a September execution alongside a grisly account of the occasion and a lengthy editorial justifying the shooting of deserters, all penned by famed war correspondent and artist Alfred Waud. "The crime of desertion has been one of the greatest drawbacks to our army," Waud wrote. "If the men who have deserted their flag had but been present, on more than one occasion defeat would have been victory and victory the destruction of the enemy.” Asserting that desertion was the “greatest crime of the solider,” Waud felt the government had shied from the proper response for too long and was glad to report reluctance to execute deserters was a thing of the past."