In this week’s blog post, Daniel Farrell, explores the connections between federal desertion, treason, Copperheadism and imprisonment in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
In May 1863, Humphrey H. Hood, a surgeon for the Union Army, described for his wife, an interesting episode concerning an arrested deserter. Writing from Memphis, Tennessee, Hood explained how an unnamed Indianan soldier, accused of desertion, attempted to escape the guardhouse and was ultimately killed. The soldier appeared to have slipped out rather easily, but a 16-year-old guard quickly confronted him. Hesitant to shoot the man, the young guard let him escape, only to be ordered by a superior officer to pursue the man. When the guard caught up with the escapee, the Indianian refused to cooperate and the guard shot him as he attempted to flee.
The story did not end the story there. According to Hood, the deserter possessed a particularly obnoxious issue of the Chicago Times that contained an article excoriating President Abraham Lincoln for becoming a military despot. Apparently, the deserted clutched the paper in his dying hand, but it is plausible that Hood embellished the story – Copperheadism is a persistent theme in his letters. But the effect that Copperheads had on the army, both real and imagined, was a palpable fear expressed by Union soldiers and officers alike. A month before the Indianian’s inglorious end, Hood remarked that military officials had suppressed the Chicago Times in Memphis. That the deserter allegedly possessed the paper was only an affirmation of the Democratic Party’s ill effect on the army and the treason that Copperheads promoted.
When I began this blogging project, I noted that I was investigating the gray areas of civilian imprisonment. Essentially, I consider gray areas to be arrests made within a mixed civil-military context, or examples where ideology and individual action conflict with official military policy. Confederate guerrillas are a great example of this, as the Union military rarely treated captured guerrillas with consistency. Desertion, however, is less clear, and I often contemplate how to correctly integrate it into my broader analysis of loyalty and treason. Typically, the military (across multiple conflicts) treats desertion as a disciplinary problem. Civil War soldiers, according to Mark Weitz, primarily deserted over the rigors of camp life and perceived problems on the home front. Nevertheless, arrested deserters were neither civilian captives nor prisoners of war; they existed within their own category. For Union soldiers, however, the context of the American Civil War sometimes blurs these lines when Copperheadism entered the conversation on desertion. Military officials, fellow soldiers and citizens increasingly saw desertion as political.
Hood’s recollection was colorful but not unique. Across Southern Illinois, for example, where the federal military maintained a strong presence (due to its strategic location), military officials received numerous complaints about deserters and the “Copperheads” who harbored them. Deserters attempting to reenter civilian life occasionally violently resisted attempts to arrest them. Military officials similarly investigated and arrested those suspected of sheltering them and encouraging desertion. Reports surfaced that Union deserters were cooperating with Copperheads to form militias to resist the draft. In at least one case, the military dispersed such a group, numbering over one hundred men, albeit with minimal bloodshed. Parsing out fact from fiction does prove challenging, but what is certain is that the federal military, and Illinois Republicans more broadly, deeply feared Copperheads. Officers in Illinois regiments occasionally complained to state election officials that Copperheads encouraged desertion, or at “best,” political support for presidential candidate, George B. McClellan.
Similar evidence exists in Indiana, although reporting on Copperhead activity fell more heavily upon state and local officials. Specifically, the Indiana Legion, Indiana’s statewide home guard, was saddled with much of the state’s local defense. Deserters, Butternuts (Indiana’s preferred term for Copperheads), draft resisters, and the Knights of the Golden Circle were acute problems for the Legion. In January 1863, Captain J. W. Barrett reported a violent encounter with a federal deserter. Tracking the man in Warwick County, Indiana, Barrett confronted and attempted to arrest him. Rather than submit, the deserter opened fire and attempted to escape, with Barrett killing him in the scuffle. Yet similar to Hood, the man’s death was not the end of the story. Barrett remarked that “a certain class of men” would not “stand” for the deserter’s death. Undeterred, Barrett sarcastically noted that if his men were better equipped, he would force the local Butternuts “to stand it,” revealing the violent tensions supporters and opponents of the war routinely faced on the local level.
There is one example, however, where desertion and civilian identity straddle the line more closely. Missouri required all white males, 18 – 45, to enlist in the Enrolled Missouri Militia (EMM). Facing widespread resistance to the enrolment laws, state and military authorities worked to compel obedience. Henry J. Deal, a Colonel in the EMM, threatened the residents of Mississippi County, Missouri, that he would brand everyone refusing to enlist as a deserter, liable to arrest. Similar pronouncements were ordered across the state, and enforcement fell upon the EMM itself, forcing the militia to function as a police force. This situation presents an interesting question concerning the transition from civilian to soldier. Should EMM resisters be regarded as deserters, civilians, or something more akin to draft dodgers? Perhaps it’s semantics, but what is clear is that state and military officials regarded them as traitors and Southern sympathizers, rather than mere cowards.
Admittedly, I am more familiar with Confederate desertion. The War Department explicitly considered imprisoned Confederate deserters to be civilian prisoners under certain circumstances, allowing them the right to petition for their freedom – a topic, perhaps, worthy of a follow-up post. Federal desertion, however, cuts roughly across multiple themes and contexts, and runs into interpretive issues when political partisans employed Copperheadism as a pejorative. Most Union soldiers likely deserted for practical, rather than political reasons, but the connections between disloyalty, Copperheadism and desertion are worthy of investigation. Even so, I suspect the primary interpretive value lies in studying the anxieties caused by disloyalty on the home front, then within the motivations of any individual deserters. Observers routinely described federal desertion as a political, rather than practical problem.