Continuing with the theme of desertion [and here] from the past week here is a fascinating passage from Heny McNeal Turner, who served as an army chaplain for the United States Colored Troops. The following excerpt was written at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia on September 18, 1864 and appeared in The Christian Recorder a week later. Continue reading
Regardless of the assumptions and background knowledge that we bring, the presence of monuments on our Civil War battlefields may be one of the greatest obstacles to understanding the full range of soldier experiences. The monuments allow us to focus in on the most heroic stories and themes, which no doubt reinforces feelings of national pride and an understanding of what kind of behavior is expected. Such a focus, however, comes at the price of ignoring moments when soldiers fall short of what is expected of them in the heat of battle. Normally, we can safely ignore such moments, but it’s not so easy when one is thrust on us as is the case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who reportedly abandoned his station in Afghanistan and spent five years as a Taliban Prisoner of War. Continue reading
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
A few days ago I offered a few speculative words about the names of deserters that litter the letters of Captain John Christopher Winsmith of the 5th South Carolina Infantry. One of the recurring names in the letters is that of Bill Taylor. He lived in the Spartanburg area and so it seems reasonable to assume that Winsmith hoped that his family’s connections might be instrumental in forcing him back into the ranks. It should be noted that Winsmith singled out Taylor as having performed bravely in early battles, but that history was largely irrelevant as Winsmith himself had very little sympathy with deserters. He believed that the sacrifice of everyone in the army and on the home front was necessary if his “country” was to achieve independence. Taylor eventually did return to the army in the summer of 1863 after being arrested for desertion.
It’s sometimes difficult not to get attached to the central characters in the narrative that Winsmith weaves through his letters. You want to know how these people fair in the end. I was somewhat relieved that Taylor’s name didn’t reappear in subsequent letters. While Winsmith understandably had little patience with this man, it is hard not to sympathize with Taylor. Recent studies of desertion suggest that a decision to leave the army did not necessarily imply cowardice, a loss of faith in the cause or an intention to abandon comrades who had shared hardships and sacrificed for one another. Rather, soldiers were pulled in multiple directions and had to juggle multiple responsibilities as parents, husbands, and soldiers, which shifted over time depending on news from home and the front. I tend to see Taylor from this perspective or at least I would like to.
Taylor does make on final appearance in Winsmith’s letters written from Petersburg in the summer of 1864. On July 9, 1864 he wrote to his sister Janie:
I am sorry to write that Bill Taylor killed himself through and accident with his gun in the trenches yesterday. He was working with his gun when it fired off, tearing the top of his head away.
And on July 16 he shared the news with his mother:
I stated in my letter to Janie how Bill Taylor came to his death: It happened on the 8th inst. He was doing something with his gun, when it went off accidentally, tearing away the top of his head. It was a horrible death. He was buried near by and his grave marked. Bill had been doing his duty pretty well, and I regret his death. He had $25 in his pocket book – $68 in Confederate bills and $10 on the Bank of Knoxville, which last is not current. I can send the money to his wife, or Father can pay her $65 for me, whichever he thinks best.
I don’t mind admitting that I slumped back in my seat after reading this. It’s in these moments that the human cost and tragedy of war hits home for me. Poor Bill Taylor.
On this cold and dreary January day I was pleasantly surprised to find complimentary copies of the latest issue of Civil War Times waiting for me when I arrived home. This latest issue includes my article on Confederate executions. The goal of the essay is to explore how Confederate soldiers, along with civilians, responded to these events throughout the war. This is a condensed version of a much longer essay that I wrote for a graduate seminar back in 2004. Since it’s not one of the more hot-button topics I thought it would make for an interesting magazine article. I also wrote a 500-word sidebar on an execution that took place in Stonewall Jackson’s command in August 1862. Since I didn’t get a chance to do so in the essay I want to acknowledge two sources that were extremely helpful with this shorter piece on Jackson. The first is John Hennessy’s classic, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas and the other is Peter Carmichael’s excellent essay on the execution that appeared in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. 111 ). Dana Shoaf did an excellent job editing the essay and I absolutely love the layout in the print version. I also very much appreciate Dana’s enthusiasm when I first submitted the piece. He has done an outstanding job since taking over as editor. Luckily, if you can’t afford the print version you can read it Online. I hope you enjoy it. Comments are welcome if you manage to read through it.