- More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army
"Working in concert with the Confederacy's other problems, desertion truly crippled the Confederate war effort and in the end hurt much more than [battlefield] slaughter" (p. 294). This is the conclusion that author Mark A. Weitz draws in his new book More Damning than Slaughter. Weitz is a former director of the Civil War Studies Program at Gettysburg College and in 2000 published A Higher Duty: Desertion among Georgia Troops during the American Civil War. The author's aim in this work is to look more broadly at desertion in the Confederacy and its impact. Weitz more than succeeds at this goal.
The structure of the book is broadly chronological as the author demonstrates that desertion was a major issue long before the Confederate collapse in 1865 and reveals how the seeds of this military disease were laid in the way the Southern armies were formed in 1861. The book looks at why Southern [End Page 513] soldiers deserted and repeatedly demonstrates how often appeals of hardships back home were too much to bear. Weitz then shows how this strain on the willingness to stay in the ranks was also negatively affected by conscription and the widespread perception of a "rich man's war and poor man's fight," as well as the Union policy that allowed deserters to swear allegiance to the Union and either go west to fight on the frontier or return home.
However, the book is not limited to a simple analysis of desertion. Weitz demonstrates that while desertion started as a military problem, draining away desperately needed manpower from Southern armies, deserters had a larger impact on the Confederate war effort inside the Confederacy as deserter bands preyed on civilians and undermined local and state authorities. The book also examines the cultural aspect of desertions and the social implications of a perceived breaking of the promise between government and families that if men joined the army and went away to fight, the government would protect the communities left behind. As Union advances overran Southern areas, this promise was deemed to be broken and this often both caused and excused the military crime of desertion.
The strengths of this book include solid scholarship on a difficult topic with both anecdotal and statistical analysis of deserters and desertion and a willingness to try to link desertion to broader cultural, social, and political issues. The greatest weakness is simply the price of the book, which is unfortunate given the scholarly value of its arguments. As a new entry in the debate over why the South lost, More Damning than Slaughter expands the understanding of the Confederate war effort and the Southern home front and demonstrates how desertion, when widespread and accepted, eroded the war effort far beyond the impact of thinned army ranks.
APO AE 09724-6001