One of the essays that I wrote in graduate school at the University of Richmond was on desertion in the Confederate army. I published a short version of the piece in Civil War Times, which you can read here and I am hoping to publish a longer and more analytical version somewhere in the near future. My interest was with those deserters who were tried and executed and specifically with how their comrades responded. As many of you know these executions were public events meant to influence the behavior and resolve of the hundreds and even thousands who often were ordered to attend.
What struck me was the overwhelming support that these executions had within the ranks. Soldiers understood that discipline and unit cohesion was paramount to the survival of the army and that unchecked desertion would ultimately lead to defeat. But even though there was widespread support for executions soldiers expressed sympathy for the condemned. Soldiers understood many of the forces influencing their comrades’ decisions to desert and on occasion acknowledged that they could just as easily be facing the firing squad. The ease with which men sympathized with one another, no doubt, reflected their experiential common ground. Continue reading →