American Civil War for Kids - Deserters
In the beginning of the war, deserters, if caught, received a variety of punishments. They could be fined, flogged, imprisoned, or shot. Desertion became worse as the war continued. It is estimated that one of every seven Confederates and one in every ten Union soldiers deserted the army.
In the Union, some desertion had to do with the enlistment bounty. In the North, men were paid to join the army. Some collected the bounty, deserted as soon as possible, and then reenlisted in a different place, collected the bounty, and so on. But the key reason for deserting in both the North and the South was not the terrible conditions or the horrors of battle. The key reason was the begging they received in their letters from loved ones, pleading with them to come home. Men were homesick anyway, but when they received letters telling them their family was starving and surely would die if they did not come home, some could not resist the plea. Some of the packages men received included civilian clothes to help them escape.
Both the Union and the Confederacy needed fighting men. Killing deserters did not seem to be a very good use of available manpower. By 1863, both the Union and the Confederacy began offering pardons - if men who deserted would return to their units voluntarily, some were pardoned and were allowed to continue the job they had before they deserted. But there was always the risk that they would not be pardoned but instead shot as the punishment or pardon was up to the commanding officer of each unit. The North started offering pardons to Confederate soldiers who would desert and go home. If they could not go home, the Union would give them a ride North. The Union would even buy their guns and equipment. The South offered Union soldiers who deserted a pardon and a civilian job in the South, and sometimes even land.