Confederate Desertion and PFC Bowe Bergdahl

USA_PFC_BoweBergdahl_ACU_CroppedOne 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.

As a historian I struggle just to begin to understand the experiences of these men. Having never served in the military and having never experienced a battlefield my frame of reference for understanding the soldiers’ experience is severely handicapped. In the end, I must admit that I am grasping at straws. In the case of the Confederate soldiers I studied for this particular essay all I can do is try to come to terms with the complexity of their experience as individuals and as members of a military community at war. I refrain from judgment.

It is with this in mind that I find it so disheartening having to listen to and read the vitriol leveled at United States army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who spent five years of captivity with the Taliban in Afghanistan. There is evidence that he deserted his unit. I support the government’s work that led to his release and I also believe that the military should investigate the reasons for Bergdahl’s disappearance from his base and follow up accordingly. This is between Bergdahl and the military.

As for me, I don’t want to play politics with this case. All I can do is thank PFC Bowe Bergdahl for doing the best that he could.

35 comments… add one
  • Chris Coleman Jun 10, 2014 @ 19:07

    A soldier wanders off base; five years later he is lucky to survive guerilla captivity and returns home to vilification, trial by media and cynical political explanation. During the American Revolution our “patriots” frequently left their unit for various reasons: to visit their wife, harvest the crops or just to find food to eat. Nobody today calls them traitors or thinks to vilify them to score low political points.
    At Shiloh, most of Grant’s men ran away, desperate to escape the enemy. Ambrose Bierce and his comrades had to march through them at bayonet point to get to the front. He also observed of these “heroes” we honor today that, “an army’s bravest men are its cowards. The death which they would not meet at the hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” At the battle of Nashville, in the face of overwhelming Federal firepower and shoeless and hungry, the once brave and gallant Confederate Army of Tennessee threw down the weapons and either surrendered or ran away. How much corruption, human rights abuse and senseless violence Bergdahl observed in Afghanistan I don’t know; but all the CHICKEN HAWKS who condemn him perhaps need to serve a tour of duty there before they judge him.

  • Craig L. Jun 10, 2014 @ 14:56

    Weren’t there some soldier characters in Doctorow’s novel, The March, who had grown accustomed to switching sides on a fairly regular basis, depending on which army seemed to offer the best odds for survival in any given battle?

    • Paul Taylor Jun 11, 2014 @ 4:26

      “In my line of work, you gotta be able either to sing “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” or “Dixie” with equal enthusiasm… dependin’ upon present company.”

      From The Outlaw Josey Wales

  • Craig L. Jun 10, 2014 @ 2:36

    The newspaper in the main town in the county where my great great grandfather lived when he enlisted in the local regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War has a searchable online microfilm database that goes back to before the turn of the 20th century. I searched the database for pages that referenced my great grandfather’s youngest brother who remained in that county until around 1940. He had served as a pallbearer at a funeral around 1903 for a deceased veteran who had enlisted as a replacement on the same day as my great great grandfather and had lived in the same township and served in the same company in the same regiment. One of the other pallbearers was the son of the deceased veteran. He died of a heart attack the day after the funeral. Once I got the hang of it I pulled up quite a few more pages that referenced my great great uncle to get a general picture of his life as someone orphaned by the war. One of the pages I pulled up was from about 1912. It had an article with another name I recognized from the company roster, a man who had deserted the unit about a month after it went into service. The article was about a car accident in which an old man crossing a downtown street was run over and killed by a young man in his early twenties with the same surname as another soldier from the unit. The description in the article seemed to suggest he’d gone for the brake and hit the accelerator by mistake. There were apparently three other young men in the car about the same age as the driver.

  • Jerry McKenzie Jun 9, 2014 @ 15:11

    In my genealogy research I’ve find quite a few cousins and in-laws who deserted, but only in one instance was it left on their “permanent record” (a private in the 5th Kentucky Cavalry [Union] who even did a stint in the stockade before being returned to his regiment and his officer refusing to dismiss this black mark). It seems deserters were forgiven if they returned to duty or at least received no punishment other than a loss of pay. In most cases they just fell off the rolls and there was no mention of why.

  • Chris Lese Jun 9, 2014 @ 9:03

    “In the case of the Confederate soldiers I studied for this particular essay all I can do is try to come to terms with the complexity of their experience as individuals and as members of a military community at war.”

    Hi Kevin,
    As my students and I travelled through the South last week we learned about Confederate deserters and the “complexity of their of their experiences as individuals.” Our Park Ranger guided tour at Chickamauga shared the stories of two small farmers that resided on that battleground and served in the CSA but later swore allegiance to the USA. One soldier switched sides after his home and family-life were destroyed from the battle; his home was burned to the ground, farm fields devastated and wife and children lived in a nearby ravine. It appears he left his Cause behind to help his family. Another Chickamauga-native Confederate chose to fight for the Union out west against Native Americans rather than continue fighting Sherman. You can imagine the great conversations students had over the decisions these Confederates made and the complexity these stories provided to explaining why soldiers fought or did not fight.

    Also of interest is that both of these “Galvanized Yankees” returned to the Chickamauga community and one even served in public office. I would think they would have been run out of town by the soldiers in grey who stuck out the war but our guide mentioned that those personal war records were kept very quiet and not discussed. Another aspect to this topic of Confederate desertion that really intrigued our group were the reactions by Union Soldiers at seeing Confederate deserters in jail with them at the Old Charleston Jail and Andersonville.

    As luck would have it, our group happened to be at Andersonville the day that PFC Bergdahl was released. Our Park Ranger guide did an incredible job connecting that news to the complexity of soldier experiences in the Civil War that could lead a soldier to desert (connecting to what we learned at Chickamauga) and to the decisions our Executive Branch has made whether to exchange or not exchange prisoners with the enemy.

    I have not done so but this is such an interesting topic and one that could be used in the classroom to help provide students better insight into the human aspects and complexity of war, then and now.


    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 10:04

      Hi Chris,

      So glad to hear that you and your students were there to hear about Bergdahl’s release in that particular setting.

  • Buck Buchanan Jun 9, 2014 @ 6:05

    I have been following thsi sad case for the past five years and there are not a lot of good to come out of it.

    For starters there are some questions about whether SGT Begdahl* 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division was a very good soldier and would he have been able to enlist even 3 years earlier. It is not secret that the Army lowered dstandards to meet the manpower pressures of 2 wars with an All Volunteer force. Read the following article.

    His unit was also considered within Army circles as less than stellar. There were ample discipline issues.

    Also you can find numerous sources tell of SGT Bergdahl’s distance from his fellow Soldiers. He did not act the way normal Infantrymen in the 21st Century act. That no doubt caused some ostracism in the Alpha Dog world of the infantry. Being in combat is an isolational experience; with the Infantry more so. If he had emntioned at any point that he enjoyed ballet I will guarantee he would have caught holy hell from his fellow Soldiers. Like it or not, that is fact. But he was in a world which is even more isolational. The 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division is an Airborne Brigade Comabt Team…i.e., everyone is supposed to be airborne qualified…i.e., a paratrooper. Looking at his photo SGT Bergdahl is not wearing the Basic Parachutist Badge…i.e., Airborne Wings. Since he is wearing the unit insignia and a maroon beret this would mean he had arrived at his unit in Alasaka. He may have been assigned to 4/25 ID right out of Basic without stopping at Airborne school as a directed personnel fill to get the unit ready for deployment. This would have deferred his Airborne Schoo date to later.

    But the rule is you have to volunteer for the Airborne. What probably happened was the unit needed Soldiers to fill for deployment and he was sent to fill the quota because no one envisioend a need for a combat assault jump in Afghanistan.

    So he would have been a non-Airborne qualified Infantryman assigned to an Airborne Infatry squad…and his life would have been tougher than normal. Paratroopers consider non-Airborne troops as well, lets just say wimp is a polite term. The act of military parachuting is not natural…neither is Infantry combat. Much is done to motivate these young men to get ready to thrive in that world.

    So a person who did not act and think like many of the others, with a perceived lack of skills and dedication, would have a very difficult time in that environment and would be considered a crappy soldeir…more so if the unit itself was not a good one.

    And this is not armchair psychoanalysis…I was a paratrooper and commanded a mechanized Infantry AND and Air Assult Infantry company. I was not in combat but the same dynamics were in play.

    So let’s let the investigation continue and let the military justice system take whatever course it needs to take.

    * IAW DOD regulation and policy Bowe Bergdahl was promoted from Private First Class/E-3 to Specialist/E-4 and then Sergeant/E-5 on the first available eligible date
    for promotion consideration while he was in a POW status. The belief is that a servicemember is still in fight and will try to take the fight to the enemy in anyway possible….trying escape, lying to captors, whatever. It is automatically assumed that service in captivity is honorable. All pay and allowances continue and are held for the servicemember for their return or paid to their dependents.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 6:07

      Thanks for the additional information and for your unique perspective.

    • B D E Jun 24, 2014 @ 7:23

      First off, I was with the 4/25th BDE for 8 years. The BDE trained well and was highly disciplined! ALL AIRBORNE units have non-airborne Soldiers in them…even the SF Support group! I was there when this Soldier walked off and one thing is true about everything being said…WE LOST 6 SOLDIERS AND THE ATTACKS INCREASED DRAMATICALLY! Let the military investigate yes…the truth shall come out but DONT EVER bash a unit to try and justify a Soldiers actions. You were not in combat, you were not there, you were not part of that BDE…keep your personal opinions about that BDE to your damn self…as well as the rest of you talking about giving him a fair chance yet you want to “Quote” what the media says! The guy is a deserter…period!
      And…most units make you take your badges off while in combat, if you ever deployed you would have known that.

  • Dudley Bokoski Jun 8, 2014 @ 7:06

    A critical difference is if a soldier, north or south, went into enemy lines during the Civil War they would have been captured by someone who spoke the same language and whose cultural background was similar. And this is what makes understanding Bergdahl’s situation very difficult. It is hard to imagine how anyone in his circumstances could construct a scenario in which walking away into Afghanistan would end well for him.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 8, 2014 @ 7:22

      Indeed, there are a number of unanswered questions about his soldier experience.

  • London John Jun 7, 2014 @ 3:36

    I believe the Confederates used execution for desertion to terrorize Southern Unionists. Suspected Union sympathisers were preferentially conscripted, and if they did not report for service they were treated as deserters. If after being sent notice of conscription they joined the Union army and were subsequently captured they were executed as deserters even though they had never been in the Confederate army. This may have been the case in the mass hanging at Kinston NC you mention in the article.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2014 @ 3:48

      I didn’t see any evidence of that, but it is an interesting suggestion. I would have to go back and look at the evidence specifically surrounding the Kinston execution. Thanks.

  • Paul Taylor Jun 7, 2014 @ 3:33

    A question: In the context of US military history, the noble policy that “we do not leave our people behind” during an active war seems fairly recent. Is this correct, and if so, when did this policy come into play? I cannot recall any war where we would have traded the equivalent of 5 enemy generals for one sergeant while the conflict was still ongoing, but I might be wrong. In my humble opinion, that is the crux of the criticism; not that we made a deal for Bergdahl, but the terms.

    By the way, didn’t Grant stop the prisoner exchanges because he felt the Confederates were ending up back on the battlefield despite any promises given through parole or exchange?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 7, 2014 @ 3:50

      I don’t think I can shed much light on your questions. My post was intended to address the vitriol leveled at Bergdahl of which there has been a great deal. I am in no way suggesting that the terms under which the exchange was made ought not to be scrutinized.

  • Patrick Young Jun 6, 2014 @ 20:01

    I just hope we let our justice system deal with this case.

  • Brendan Bossard Jun 6, 2014 @ 17:36

    In a letter dated August 21, 1863, Pres. Lincoln wrote some wise words to Gen. Meade regarding a William Thompson, who was sentenced to be shot for desertion: “He is represented to me to be very young, with symptoms of insanity. Please postpone the execution till further order.” (_Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859 to 1865_, Library of America, 1989, p. 494) Although the ages probably differ, the principle is the same in this case, I think.

    On the lighter side of things, there seems to have been quite a problem with “desertions” in the Army of the Potomac under Gen. McClellan during the Peninsula campaign. Having been told that 160,000 soldiers had gone into the Army, Pres. Lincoln estimated that 45,000 soldiers had disappeared from the ranks by mid-July, 1862, in a pointed letter to the General. (ibid, p. 342) So we have a rather minor problem with desertions nowadays.

  • Marian Latimer Jun 6, 2014 @ 15:48

    This just saddens me. So many conflicting stories and/or rumors have come up regarding this soldier. No one knows what happened. I have heard one report that this unit was disorganized and somewhat loose in discipline in general. I am not convinced he set out to renounce his citizenship and I also don’t think this is an episode of “Homeland” either. I do know that mental health issues are rampant in the returning forces and from what I’ve heard about some of these backwater outposts in Afghanistan, someone losing it and acting out is credible. I would think the people who are screaming about the Constitution being trashed these days would be upholding one of the tenets of the Bill of Rights and that is one is innocent until proven guilty. These five Taliban prisoners are not the first to be turned over either. No matter what is done by this administration, it’s just wrong. Ironic that on the anniversary of D-Day, during a time when the nation was fairly united, that there is such acrimony. I am trying to see it from this poor man’s side and from that of his family. I believe he’s probably suffered enough no matter what happened.

  • Christy Jun 6, 2014 @ 12:53

    I was listening to a more in depth story on NPR two days ago and in it, apparently this young man had walked off post at 2 other bases. He was gone for a few hours to clear his head but he did on his own volition, return and carry out his duties. while this is certainly NOT the behavior one wants from a soldier–it also may suggest that this 23 year old was struggling with quite a few issues and was desperately trying to reconcile a person moral code against what he was seeing and asked to do. I have no excuse for him–simply because we do not know the extent of what really happened. But like any work place, rumors spread, the story builds and we get the level of commentary we are seeing. Regardless of how the military chooses to deal with him for those breaches–we do not leave soldiers behind. EVER.

    • Jimmy Dick Jun 6, 2014 @ 16:58

      There are a lot of questions that only Bergdahl can answer. We were not going to get those answers while he was a POW. Regardless of what happened, we do not leave our people behind. The is the end of that discussion.

      As for the political bullcrap going on over this, let us remember how the conservatives were whining about not getting him back. They only started the current whine fest when they weren’t part of the deal. The real truth here is very evident. The GOP does not give a rat’s ass about the US military unless they are making money off of it or sending our men and women to die for nothing. They’re big on troop support in speeches, but when it comes to actually doing something for our veterans they’re the biggest hypocrites around because they do nothing for the troops.

      • Brendan Bossard Jun 6, 2014 @ 18:50

        Jimmy: evidence, please. As a history teacher, you should know that what you just did is spout a bunch of ad hominem BS. I know a lot of GOPers who believe completely the opposite of what you just said, and I personally find it offensive in the extreme. The current political climate is a two-way affair.

      • Rod Nov 3, 2017 @ 18:39

        I think you are wrong on your opinion of the GOP! Lets get real here, it is both GOP and Democrats along with any other Liberals etc, etc!! iT IS ALL ABOUT MONEY nad they all are a bunch of greedy asses! Yeah, I am one of those Southern Redneck Deplorables that has put on a uniform for the right to say this. I think we need to get rid of every career politician and start over! A lot of people definitely wouldn’t like this, but life isn’t supposed to be easy peasy anyway!

        • HankC Nov 4, 2017 @ 8:24

          all politicians can be removed every 2, 4 or 6 years, depending on their position

  • Paul Taylor Jun 6, 2014 @ 12:43

    Kevin – I think one could make the case that there is a world of difference between a Confederate soldier deserting the army in 1865 to return to his starving and desperate family, as compared to the alleged reasons that Bergdahl abandoned his unit. Leaving the Confederate army for a family-in-dire-need reason probably generated more empathy in the ranks than political or so-called “cowardly” ones, even if the average private knew deep down that such desertion was still wrong.

    As for Bergdahl allegedly joining the enemy, I have read accounts of Confederate soldiers in Union prison camps supposedly wanting to join the Union army in order to get back at the Confederate authorities who forced them unwillingly into the ranks in the first place. While there may not be many obvious parallels between then and now, I do believe that war in general always creates startling similarities within the human psyche.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2014 @ 12:50

      I think one could make the case that there is a world of difference between a Confederate soldier deserting the army in 1865 to return to his starving and desperate family, as compared to the alleged reasons that Bergdahl abandoned his unit.

      I am in no way suggesting that there are no differences between the two wars. I am simply suggesting that I feel the same when thinking about the experiences of Confederate soldiers as well as soldiers such as Bergdahl. Again, I am not in a position to judge. As a citizen it is my responsibility first and foremost to understand. That willingness seems to be in very short supply these days.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Forester Jun 6, 2014 @ 11:53

    My great-great-great-granddaddy on my father’s side was a Confederate deserter from the 44th Virginia, part of Jackson’s “Army of the Valley.” His unit was the subject of a detailed study in 1991 that revealed a 30% desertion rate, according to Encyclopedia Virginia. He is listed under two names by the Park Service because he tried to reenlist twice to avoid being executed for desertion. He would eventually desert for a third time and never return to anything except a whiskey bottle. According to family legend, he was later killed by an electric streetcar while hobbling in a drunken stupor (though this could simply be slander).

    By all accounts, not an ancestor to be proud of. On the other hand, I wouldn’t exist if he had died (and his unit, the 44th Virginia, suffered some major losses and many were captured, leaving 12 enlisted men and 1 officer at the surrender in 1865). Thus, the lesson I take from his life is not to judge anyone for their decisions.

    It’s easy to bash “cowards,” but I suspect that us living folks have more cowards than heroes in our bloodlines, since heroes tend to get killed.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2014 @ 12:00

      Thanks for the comment.

      It’s easy to bash “cowards,”…

      One of the things I was struck by in the letters and diaries of Confederates is their admission that comrades executed for desertion may have been steadfast and even risked their lives in previous battles. That line between cowardess and bravery comes through as quite thin. I guess it’s easy to judge Bergdahl based on this action alone without considering his service in its totality.

      • Lee Jun 6, 2014 @ 17:02


        I made this same point in giving a presentation on desertion during the Civil War (on both sides) to my roundtable–the Baltimore Civil War Roundtable– and an SCV camp. While I certainly don’t admire desertion, many of those who did had indeed participated in numerous bloody battles, something which I have never done and don’t know how I would perform if I did. So I’m in no position to feel superior to these men.

  • Al Mackey Jun 6, 2014 @ 11:06

    Like you, Kevin, I’m trying to come to terms with what I think about Bergdahl. I’ll point out that much of the vitriol is directed at him from his former comrades who didn’t desert. I don’t think there are a lot of parallels to the Confederate experience, though. Confederate soldiers were there for the duration of the war. That’s not what Bergdahl faced in Afghanistan. He had an end date where he would be going home. The night he walked off the base, he apparently left a note that, according to the New York Times, said he wanted to renounce his US citizenship. It will take time to sort out the conflicting information, but from what I’ve seen, we’re not getting the full truth from the White House, and we’re not going to get the truth from political partisans on the other side of the aisle either. I’m not sure he did the best he could at this point. More to come, I’m sure.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 6, 2014 @ 11:40

      Thanks for the comment, Al. I appreciate the overall differences between the war in Afghanistan and the Civil War. The media has certainly done a good job of finding men in his unit who are willing to criticize Bergdahl and that is their right. At the same time I have no doubt that there are others in his unit who would rather not share their thoughts through the hysteria machine that is mainstream news.

      Whatever “the truth” of this situation is in the end I am not in a position to judge his actions. Soldiers desert in war for any number of reasons. This is no different. The government needed men and women to serve in two of the most ill-conceived and mismanaged wars in recent memory. Bergdahl volunteered and we didn’t give his reasons for doing so a care in the world. It was very convenient. Now in the situation of a soldier apparently behaving less than honorably we have no sympathy or even the willingness to wait for a thorough investigation.

      Just another example of a nation woefully detached from the military and I include myself in this.

    • M.D. Blough Jun 9, 2014 @ 10:10

      Al, the NY Times is backtracking somewhat on the “he left a letter” story.

      >>The [2009] report is also said to cite members of his platoon as saying that he may have taken a shorter unauthorized walk outside the concertina wire of his combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan before he left for good, in an episode that was apparently not reported up the chain of command. The newspaper Military Times on Wednesday first reported that claim, also citing officials familiar with the military’s report.

      But the report is said to contain no mention of Sergeant Bergdahl’s having left behind a letter in his tent that explicitly said he was deserting and explained his disillusionment, as a retired senior military official briefed on the investigation at the time told The New York Times this week.

      Asked about what appeared to be a disconnect, the retired officer insisted that he remembered reading a field report discussing the existence of such a letter in the early days of the search and was unable to explain why it was not mentioned in the final investigative report.<<

      So now we're dealing with, instead of a well-established fact, a single individual's memory of the alleged contents of a field report that are not mentioned in the final report. Of other reports of this alleged letter, I don't know of any that we can definitely state that the individual SAW such a letter, much less accurately report its contents years later, or, perhaps, that they heard rumors of such a letter that has since been converted into fact in the person's memory.

      Please, everyone, I agree with Kevin, let's use caution here. As an active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces, Sgt. Bergdahl is entitled to his due process rights under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If he is PROVEN, after an OBJECTIVE investigation, of violating the UCMJ, then he is subject to the appropriate punishment. However, please, if he's not guilty of anything other than stupidity or carelessness, don't make this man live under a cloud in which he's convicted without trial for the rest of his life. Whatever the truth of how he was captured, he's going to have a hard road to travel after 5 years as a captive of the Taliban. However, it's also true of the men of his unit who are criticizing him. In order to seek due process for Sgt. Bergdahl, we don't need to trash his critics among his fellow soldiers with the scuttlebutt and innuendo either. Anyone who studies the Civil War knows what a complex and fragile thing memory is.

      Let's just do something unique these days. Let's wait to make up our minds until all the evidence is in.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014 @ 10:17

        Thanks, Margaret. I couldn’t have said it any better.

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