Term of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts in History

Document Type and Release Option

Thesis (restricted to Georgia Southern)


Department of History

Committee Chair

Alan C. Downs

Committee Member 1

Donald A. Rakestraw

Committee Member 2

John W. Steinberg


Unlike most topics pertaining to the history of the American Civil War, the study of desertion has received little attention from historians of the conflict. The historiography of the Civil War is saturated with volumes of texts dealing with nearly every topic imaginable. Yet, in a war that is often glorified, it is the rare historian who has attempted an analysis of one of the conflict's darker aspects. Only three book-length treatments have been published on the problem of desertion during the war: Ella Lonn's Desertion during the Civil War in 1928, Bessie Martin's Desertion of Alabama Troops from the Confederate Army: A Study in Sectionalism in 1932, and Mark A. Weitz's A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the Civil War in 2000. These three texts scrutinize the "traditional explanations" for desertion, including battle fatigue, poor camp conditions, and homesickness, and they clearly favor the study of the Confederate deserter. The Union deserter has received only nominal consideration. This study is an effort to give the Union deserter some long-overdue attention. More specifically, it endeavors to examine not only the "traditional explanations" for desertion, but by focusing on the Army of the Potomac (the most well known Union army) it also explores some of the heretofore ignored causes for the problem of desertion. While the aforementioned "traditional explanations" certainly have validity in the Army of the Potomac, a host of other factors contributed to desertion's development into a crisis. Chief among these factors was the political-military mismanagement of the Army of the Potomac. The first two years of the war were crucial to the development of the desertion crisis, for during that time, the soldiers in the army lost nearly every battle in which they participated, endured the passage of controversial legislation, and suffered under the leadership of no less than seven commanding generals. Moreover, the efforts made by the Lincoln administration to stem the tide of desertion were inadequate. For the remainder of the conflict, the government was left trying to clean up the mess created by its prior negligence. Not only did Union war policy cause desertion, but the lack of adequate measures to discourage soldiers from voting with their feet perpetuated the problem as well.

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