- Conditional ConfederatesAbsenteeism among Western North Carolina Soldiers, 1861–1865
Sgt. Andrew Wyatt faced execution by firing squad. The Wilkes County, North Carolina, soldier, with ten other of his cohorts, had deserted from Company B of the 26th North Carolina Regiment. After attempting to cross the Roanoke River on December 10, 1862, they were arrested, court-martialed, found guilty, and sentenced to die. Blindfolded, Wyatt was ordered to kneel by the side of a recently excavated grave where he listened to an officer read his sentence. The firing squad tensed, preparing to send Wyatt to his maker. Dramatically, an orderly on horseback raced to the execution site with a pardon signed by Gen. Samuel G. French. Now convinced that Wyatt had deserted only to see his family but planned to return to his command, the officers of his regiment had decided to spare the condemned soldier. Later, when restored to his unit, Wyatt “bravely” gave his life to the Confederate cause at the battle of Gettysburg in 1863.1
Beyond its drama, Sgt. Andrew Wyatt’s story helps explain the motivations of soldiers who deserted from their posts. George C. Underwood completed his recollections of the 26th Regiment for publication in Walter Clark’s Histories [End Page 349] of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861–’65. Unlike many of his coauthors, Underwood chose specifically to write about desertions, taking the viewpoint that North Carolina’s record in the matter needed defending. Underwood claimed that “except in the closing days of the struggle, there were few, if any, desertions to the enemy. There were numerous cases of absence without leave, but the parties did not mean to desert their colors.” Underwood’s account responded to official tallies and reports that had besmirched North Carolina’s war record. Indeed, the 1866 Report of the Provost Marshal claimed that North Carolina lost 24,122 men to desertion, amounting to 23 percent of North Carolina’s entire soldier contribution. North Carolina earned both accolades for having provided more soldiers per capita than any other Confederate state and a badge of shame for having more deserters than any other Confederate state. From Underwood’s day to the present, the examination of disloyal deserters has continued to be a focus of studies of North Carolina’s Civil War experience.2
Several scholars have determined that western North Carolina men, like Sergeant Wyatt, deserted in larger numbers than their compatriots across the state did. Richard Reid’s 1981 study found a desertion rate of 16 percent for western North Carolina, compared to 12 percent for the state as a whole. Peter Bearman’s 1991 investigation of a random sample of soldiers concluded that desertion in the mountains reached as high as 24 percent. Katherine Guiffre concluded, like Bearman, that western North Carolina soldiers deserted at much higher rates.3 Only Guiffre has offered a compelling reason for why mountaineers left the army in droves, implying that mountaineers’ preference for the Union might have something to do with their desertion rates.4 Connections among Unionism, disloyalty, and desertion emerged as explanations of mountaineer behavior during the war and grew more persistent thereafter in the works of the “Unionist Appalachia” writers of the [End Page 350] late-nineteenth century.5 Today, a compelling body of recent scholarship has largely dismantled the notion of western North Carolina’s isolation from the South but it has not explained mountain desertions.6
New calculations of desertion by county show variation from 4.5 to 22 percent, explainable by circumstances of kinship, geography, and local politics rather than regional identity, slaveholding, or national politics. Moreover, statistical investigation of four companies from Buncombe County demonstrates a pattern of absenteeism that reinforces Sgt. Andrew Wyatt’s reason for desertion: men left their posts for short visits to their families but returned to duty. Though some mountain men joined bushwhacker and tory bands, most absentee soldiers seemed to have considered loyalty to family paramount to their conditional loyalty to the Confederacy. No good could come of a war for southern independence if a man’s family perished from hunger or bushwhacker attacks while he was...