The Free State of Jones and the ‘Poor Man’s Fight’

Desertion, Free State of Jones

The new movie, The Free State of Jones, does a number of things to challenge the Lost Cause narrative of the American Civil War. It not only places slavery at the center of the story, but it also destroys the popular idea that white Southerners were united in their cause for independence. I suspect that for many people who saw the movie the Civil War is best understood as a ‘rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.’ While such a label may capture the class and race dynamics of Jones County, Mississippi it is not at all clear as to the extent to which it explains the rest of the Confederate South.

What follows ought not to be interpreted as a criticism of the movie. I have long stated that it is a mistake to critique movies as works of historical scholarship. I maintain that Free State of Jones does a very good job of portraying life in one small county during the war and into Reconstruction.

Dissatisfaction with the war is captured early on in FSOJ with Newton Knight’s decision to desert from the Confederate army. Knight and others abandon the army in response to the Confederacy’s conscription act and a policy that exempted wealthy slaveowners from having to serve. On the face of it there seems to be no clearer way to demonstrate your frustration with a cause than by risking your life and walking away. And as we now know through a good deal of solid scholarship, tens of thousands of Confederates did just that throughout the war. The interpretation of desertion that has emerged, however, challenges the notion that it can be reduced to anti-Confederate sentiment or a belief among the rank and file that they were fighting a ‘rich man’s war.’

Even before looking at desertion we need to acknowledge that a number of historians, including Joseph Glatthaar, have challenged the assumption that slaveowners were under represented in the Confederate army. In fact, he found just the opposite in the case of the Army of Northern Virginia. Colin Woodward and others have also argued persuasively that non-slaveowners by and large remained united with slaveowners and understood the extent to which their defense of home hinged on protecting slavery. This was certainly magnified in the period following emancipation and the introduction of black soldiers as I argue in my book on the battle of the Crater.

Desertion is a trickier subject to get your head around. First, historians have shown that desertion did not necessarily signal that Confederate soldiers had given up on the cause or that they believed they were fighting a ‘rich man’s war.’ Confederate soldiers were pulled in many different directions during the war. These men believed that they had the right to abandon their posts temporarily to assist their families during difficult times. There was no harm done, they believed, if they could sneak off for a week or two without their officers noticing.

Soldiers were also notorious for straggling, which was often mistaken for desertion. Katy Meier’s new book demonstrates that Confederates embraced straggling to engage in what she calls “self-care,” which may have ultimately contributed to keeping men in the ranks even if they were occasionally deemed to be deserters.

Desertion was certainly a problem for Confederate armies, but it may not have proven fatal to the war effort until the very end. Confederates experienced a great deal of desertion and straggling during the period between the Seven Days and Sharpsburg, but the army recovered in time for the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and managed to field a strong and confident force in time for the Gettysburg campaign in the summer of 1863. While the Army of Northern Virginia dealt with a slow stream of deserters beginning in May 1864 it wasn’t until October-November that, according to Tracy Power, the situation became dire.

A closer look at desertion may in the end tell us much more about how the Confederacy managed to last as long as it did rather than why it failed.

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27 comments… add one
  • London John Jul 13, 2016 @ 2:09

    Confederate executions for desertion included those of known Unionists who had been conscripted because they were Unionists. Are these subtracted from the total when estimating the importance of Confederates getting fed up?
    It seems to be accepted that fighting on their home ground was an advantage for the Confederates. But it also meant that it was feasible for deserters to get home. There must have been a trade-off in motivation between “defending hearth and home” in the field and looking after that H&H in person.

    • Kevin Levin Jul 13, 2016 @ 2:25

      In fact, one of the largest executions took place in North Carolina in February 1864 involving Unionists. They were treated as deserters.

      • Bruce H Vail Jul 13, 2016 @ 5:30

        It’s an interesting detail of Civil War history that after the war was over there was a call for for CSA Gen. George Pickett to be prosecuted for these executions in Kinston, N.C..

        Pickett actually fled the country (to Canada) for fear of prosecution. It’s not clear to me whether he fled because of separate calls for all U.S. Army officers who served in the Confederate armed forces to be charged with treason, or whether Pickett’s Canadian sojourn was related only to the Kinston affair.

      • London John Jul 13, 2016 @ 5:39

        I believe that refers to white men from NC who had actually joined the US army and were captured. Were there also cases of Unionist sympathisers who were conscripted and either absconded before being forced into the army or deserted, but hadn’t subsequently joined the US army?

  • TFSmith Jul 12, 2016 @ 20:50

    One thing to keep in mind about both armies relative “laxness” in terms of dealing with enlisted men being absent without leave is these were, for the most part, locally-recruited hostilities only units led by, for the most part, volunteer officers from the same communities as their men.

    That changed over the course of the war as conscription became a keystone of the mobilization system, but the reality is that most officers and men in a given unit (with most of the exceptions being in the US forces, the regulars and federally-recruited unit like the USCTs) were from the same states, often the same counties, sometimes the same towns and cities and neighborhoods, and so many had some sort of ties beyond that simply of service … it’s one thing if a deserter is court-martialed by a court made up largely of regular officers, whose profession is that of the military; it is another if the officers are largely volunteers who expect to go “home” and live in the same communities as their soldiers’ and their families. Little awkward if one had voted for the execution of one’s neighbor’s boy…

    Be interesting if someone has researched the percentages of desertion in the RA and USN compared with the USVs.


  • bob carey Jul 12, 2016 @ 15:49

    I haven’t read Tracy Power’s book, but the dates mentioned in the

    post, May 1864 and October and November 1864 correspond with the beginning of the Overland Campaign and Lincoln’s re-election. The constant pressure that Grant, Sherman and the others Union commanders applied to the Confederacy must have had some effect on the desertion rates. Lincoln’s re-election eliminated the Confederacy’s last hope, although their leadership seemed not to grasp this, but maybe the rank and file did.
    I realize that some historians think that the hard war practices of the Union Army at this time hardened Confederate resolve but I am not totally convinced.

  • Richard McCormick Jul 12, 2016 @ 14:07

    In talks about individual soldiers’ motivation to fight, one conclusion I’ve frequently seen is that “there were as many reasons for fighting as there were soldiers who fought,” so cannot that be true for desertion – that there were as many reasons to desert (or struggle) as there were men who did so? I’m not saying it is not worth discussion, but that studying either side – why fight or why desert – will likely go in many different directions, perhaps depending on what the student wants or hopes to find.

  • Forester Jul 12, 2016 @ 11:07

    Now that I think about it, there might have been a “straggler” in my family.

    Allegedly my paternal great-great-grandfather, Andrew J. Randlett (44th Virginia), deserted and then came back. For some reason, the park service has two of him on record with different middle names (even though he was literally the only Randlett in the Confederacy, as they were a northern family). Legend is that he re-enlisted with a different middle name to avoid getting hung for desertion, but I can’t verify that story. I don’t even know how reenlisting would protect him.

    How the heck a New Hampshire Yankee ended up in the Confederacy is anybody’s guess (his cousins, including the architect James Randlett, were Union soldiers). His two enlistments in the same Confederate regiment are an even bigger mystery. Maybe he was a straggler?

    • Andy Hall Jul 12, 2016 @ 14:49

      Forester, here is Randlett’s compiled service record (CSR). According to this, he was absent without leave for a little over a month, from December 10, 1861 to January 18, 1862, after which his pay was stopped by a court martial. He was absent again in the late spring of 1862. It also looks like he was court-martialed again in early 1864 (reason unstated), but his sentence was remitted. He sounds like a soldier who skated very close to the edge; there’s one or two of those in every unit.

      I skimmed through the file and did not see a reference to him as a deserter, only that he has gone off from his unit without permission. There’s also no indication that he left the regiment and re-enlisted. The entries in the NPS database are based on the CSRs, and in those files is a single card for Andrew P. Randlett, redirecting to the user to Andrew J. Randlett. There are many, many duplicate/alternate names in the NPS database that don’t represent actual soldiers. Most likely, some clerk recorded his middle initial as P instead of J, requiring the addition of an entry for (a non-existent) Andrew P. Randlett.

      • Forester Jul 15, 2016 @ 16:40

        Thanks, Andy! Your response made my day. I’m glad to finally have some information about Andrew Randlett to go with the name and photograph. 🙂

        Sorry I didn’t thank you sooner, but I was busy getting ready for an anatomy & physiology exam.

    • Andy Hall Jul 12, 2016 @ 15:14

      “How the heck a New Hampshire Yankee ended up in the Confederacy is anybody’s guess (his cousins, including the architect James Randlett, were Union soldiers).”

      At the time of the 1860 U.S. Census he was working as a watchman on the High Bridge over the Appomattox River in Prince Edward County, Virginia.

      • Forester Jun 11, 2017 @ 14:00

        Sorry I never thanked you for the info, Andy. Almost a year late, but I appreciate it.

        I’m well-aware of that High Bridge! My maternal Grandfather (age 96 in 2017) grew up near there, and once had to walk across it at midnight around 1940. This was on my mother’s side and no relation to Andrew Randlett on my father’s.

        I’m surprised that my father’s great-grandfather lived so near my mother’s people. Everything connects. Southern whites are inbred. 😀 LOL

  • Ken Hoffman Jul 12, 2016 @ 5:52

    The “Rich Man’s War” thesis is bound up with the “Loss of Will” thesis. I know of one historian who has written four books supporting the RMW thesis, but I’ve been pursued by Glatthaar’s and Sheehan-Dean’s books on the AoNV that the RMW thesis js more than just questionable (but it seems certain that the AoNV had more steadfast commitment than the other Confederate armies). Likewise, in my view, Gallagher and McPherson have dismantled the Loss of Will thesis quite well. I find McPherson’s “reversibility fallacy” very useful, especially regarding desertion. Your last sentence reminded me of Gallagher’s comment (paraphrased), “The question isn’t why did the Confederacy quit, its how did they last so long.”

    In the 1920s, Ella Lonn calculated that Union desertion rates were slightly higher than Confederate desertion rates. That’s probably not true. Lonn only had the O.R. to work from and 1920s calculation techniques were more simplistic than today’s. The bigger problem, as I see it, is that not only were many Confederate records destroyed during the war, but in the final six months of the war, as morale deteriorated and Confederacy issues such as procuring meat for the soldiers became drastic, I suspect that counting deserting soldiers was not a high priority for . So I add about 30,000 desertions to Lonn’s 105. That makes the Confederate rate higher than the Union rate but not by any significant amount. And McPherson rightly put the horse back in front of the cart when he claimed that loss of morale did not cause military defeats as much as military defeats caused a loss of moral.

    In 1925, A.B. Moore’s did a great job in shredding the Loss Cause claim of a unified South. But I think the 1970’s book “Why the South Lost” went too far (as did a lot of 70s revisionism. Since the mid-80s, the historians I refer to as post-revisionists (McPherson, et al) have struck a sensible balance between the extremes of the unified South and the war most southerners refused to fight.

    The combined morale/desertion/draft evasion issue is one of my favorite topics of of the war. I, too would love to see more work done on desertion, but I’m doubting there are many more undiscovered, unanalyzed records left to work with. To me, Mark Weitz’s work has taken a better tack than counting heads. He points to protection of family as the primary reason for a large number of late war desertions instead of demoralization of impending defeat. Supposed desertions assumed from soldier’s grousing over the 20 slave law now seems much less important than late war issues.

    • Ken Hoffman Jul 12, 2016 @ 6:48

      My apologies from the many typos in this last post (“pursued” instead of “persuaded,” agghhh!). Last week I bought a Dell laptop with something called Touchpad and it is difficult to work with at first. I can’t fix all of the errors but the name of A.B. Moore’s 1925 book that got dropped is “Conscription and Conflict in the Confederacy.”

  • Forester Jul 12, 2016 @ 4:02

    “Straggling”? That’s a term I’ve never heard before in Civil War studies. How long were they able to ‘straggle’ away from the ranks without being executed for desertion?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2016 @ 4:04

      I don’t know that I can answer that question.

      • Forester Jul 12, 2016 @ 5:21

        No worries. That’s one of the fascinating things about the Civil War …. 150 years later and we’re still discovering new questions to ask and answer. 🙂

    • msb Jul 12, 2016 @ 5:20

      I think the term was pretty commonly used on both sides, but I’d be glad to hear more about it from those more knowledgeable than I.

    • Ken Noe Jul 12, 2016 @ 6:02

      Straggling was constant, but depending on factors such as miles covered, weather, and experience, it could vary greatly. James McPherson discusses how it increased before battle. Some soldiers wandered into camp hours after a march ended. Others came in days or weeks later. According to conventional wisdom, Lee left perhaps a third of his exhausted army south of the Potomac during the Antietam Campaign. Sometimes stragglers just disappeared altogether, scooped up the enemy, killed by civilians, or they simply deserted. As Katy Meier points out, commanders hated straggling and increasingly used cavalry to close up stragglers, but that seems to have been hit-and-miss at best. Overall, the best word to describe their treatment is probably ‘inconsistent.’

      I’ve never seen an estimate about numbers of executions, but my sense is that there were relatively few given the numbers involved. Bragg has a bad reputation, for example, but my sense of the Kentucky Campaign is that a lot of soldiers just kept describing the same few executions over and over again, with an embellishment here and there.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2016 @ 6:12

        Hi Ken,

        Agreed re: reasons for straggling. Thanks.

        I am working on an essay on Confederate military executions, but I have yet to find a firm number. I have read 500, but the sources are questionable. There may have been relatively few, but they span much of the war and do tell us quite a bit about how soldiers viewed desertion. Admittedly, my own work is still sketchy.

      • Bruce H Vail Jul 12, 2016 @ 6:43

        Best estimates for the number of executions carried out is about 500, including both sides. About two-thirds of these were for the crime of desertion.

        This is really quite a lot when you think about it (and much, much higher than in other war involving the US armed forces). If we say the war lasted 50 months, then that is 10 executions per month, or 2-3 each week. Of course, the execution were far less frequent in the early part of the war, so the judicial killings were actually bunched up toward the latter half of the conflict.

        A certain muddiness enters the picture when you start to look at individual cases. For example, I looked at a case where 7 men from the 3rd North Carolina were put to death in Sept. 1863. A group of 10 had deserted their camp at Orange Court House, Va., but had been recaptured after a gunfight in which one of the pursuing officers was killed. So the 7 were charged with murder. Were they executed for murder? or desertion? Not really easy to say.

    • Ken Hoffman Jul 12, 2016 @ 6:34

      “Straggling” is a real Civil War term. There was also something known as “French Leave” (disappearing for a few days to visit family and friends). This was tolerated to varying degrees depending on the military commander’s disposition. In most cases executions were done in severe case (like a second attempt at a permanent desertion) to set an example for the other soldiers. It wasn’t considered wise to execute large amounts of men for small infractions when there was a very limited pool of soldiers to draw on. But as the potential soldier pool dwindled, straggling and French leave soldiers were dealt with more severely.

      This is a very good article on Confederate desertion by LSU professor Aaron Sheehan-Dean (I mentioned him in my previous post) that discusses these issues and much more. In his Further Reading list he notes the books by Lonn and Weitz I mentioned as well as several other studies.

      • Kevin Levin Jul 12, 2016 @ 6:43

        For an excellent case study on desertion (French Leave) see Peter Carmichael’s article, “So Far From God and So Close to Stonewall Jackson: The Executions of Three Shenandoah Valley Soldiers,” in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography [No.1, (2003)].

    • Andy Hall Jul 12, 2016 @ 6:49

      I don’t have an analysis at hand, but I can say anecdotally that I’ve seen numerous service records of Confederate soldiers who get marked down as deserters, and then turn up in the nest muster roll with no indication at all in their record of a court martial or formal disciplinary proceeding against them. My “feel” in this is that most commanders were loathe to formally prosecute men for straggling/absent without leave/desertion unless the case was egregious.

      Again anecdotally, there were lots of desertions here in my part of Texas, but only two men were executed in Galveston — one (the infamous Nicaragua Smith) who had gone over the the Federals and enlisted with them, and another who was attempting to go over to the Federals. (And the latter received a last-minute reprieve of his sentence that came too late.) Those who just went home generally suffered lesser punishments, if any, when they were caught and returned to duty.

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