Getting out of the Scrape: Rebel Deserters in the Atlanta Campaign

    One of the recurring themes of reading correspondence of the Atlanta campaign, especially on the Federal side, is the phenomenon of Confederate deserters, sometimes in large groups, coming into Federal lines. A disproportionate number of these deserters were either Georgians or Tennesseans, who "seceded" from the Confederacy due to the proximity to the homes, the desire to help their families deal with troubles, waning war fortunes of the Confederacy itself, and the generous policies from the Federal government which encouraged (even with monetary awards and transportation home) desertion. Historian Mark Weitz studied this phenomenon and reported that 93% of the deserters were enlisted men and that of the Georgians who deserted, more than 60% had homes in northern Georgia which was then within Federal lines. 

    "Desertions from the enemy's ranks are becoming more and more frequent as the tide of the rebellion ebbs southward," commented Captain Alfred E. Lee of the 82nd Ohio on July 8, 1864. "The northern Georgians and Tennesseans come in by companies and almost by regiments at each retrograde movement. They invariably express themselves ready for any measure that will stop the war and restore them to their homes. Now and then a rabid Rebel is taken who still holds to his 'Southern principles.' None of them, however, can give any intelligible account of what they're fighting for. 'Pat Cleburne,' said one of them the other day, 'tells us we are fighting for vengeance."

By the summer of 1864, thousands of veterans of the Army of the Tennessee had grown war weary and decided to leave the army.  "The Tennessee and northern Georgia troops declared they would retreat no further than Atlanta. Even officers as high as the grade of captain were deserting and coming over to our side. A Rebel captain had said that if the question of peace or war was left to all their soldiers of no higher grade they would decide for peace at once," one Federal wrote. 

    The deserters usually made their appearance at night along the picket lines, but Corporal Erastus Winters of Co. K of the 50th Ohio recalled meeting a group of Georgia soldiers in late June. "Last night, there was no firing done by the pickets; the Yanks and Johnnies got to talking together. Our boys asked them what regiment they belonged to and they answered back the 37th Georgia. Our boys invited them over and this morning early five of them came over and gave themselves up," he wrote. "They seemed pleased to get out of the scrape. Hardly a day passed but some of them come over and surrender to our boys." A few weeks later, Winters related another incident where a Confederate sergeant gave himself up and proved wonderfully chatty about conditions within Atlanta. "He reports their lines much weakened in places as they have had to stretch them out so long to keep us from cutting their railroad. He says if we get possession of the road once, their army would have to leave here double-quick as that would shut off their supplies." Winters wrote this on August 22nd; eleven days later, the Confederates were torching Atlanta and retreating South after Sherman did just what this deserting sergeant suggested. 

    Captain Ira J. Bloomfield of the 26th Illinois Infantry recalled an instance where an entire company deserted. It occurred the night of June 13, 1864 when his regiment had picket duty.  The company proved to be Co. D of the 54th Virginia Infantry headed by Captain Asa H. Boothe along with his two lieutenants and 31 enlisted men. "They were placed on picket last night and all came over," he reported. "They said they came from Floyd Co., Virginia and most of them had seen considerable service but a few were late conscripts. Most of them were stout, hearty soldiers and reasonably well-clothed. They looked grim and dirty for their everlasting gray looks nearly like the ground at best. The officers were dressed much as the men, their rank being designated by stripes on the collar. I heard the captain conversing with General Logan and he appeared to be quite an intelligent man. They expressed themselves as being heartily tired of their cause and said there were many more ready to come over as they had done, and only waited an opportunity. Captain Boothe said those suspected were closely watched; the plan had been long arranged between him and his company and they left the first chance they had."

    As the Army of Tennessee fell back from line after line until they stood outside the very borders of the city of Atlanta, the flow of deserters into Federal lines continued daily. Captain Charles D. Miller of the 76th Ohio noted in early August that the Tennessee and northern Georgia troops still constituted most of the deserters. "The Tennessee and northern Georgia troops declared they would retreat no further than Atlanta. Even officers as high as the grade of captain were deserting and coming over to our side. A Rebel captain had said that if the question of peace or war was left to all their soldiers of no higher grade they would decide for peace at once," he wrote. 

In the midst of the Atlanta campaign, the presidential campaign of 1864 was heating up as shown by this broadside advocating the election of George B, McClellan. Federal accounts that discuss the political motivations of Confederate deserters are few, but the deserters may be the ultimate example of "voting by their feet." By the end of the war, more than 100,000 Confederates had deserted and thousands of these had even "swallowed the wedge," as they colorfully termed taking the oath of allegiance to the United States. 

    A soldier correspondent with the 65th Ohio dismissed the veracity of the stories told by the deserters and saw the end result of one who was caught by the Rebel army. "The prisoners tell us all kinds of tales and they are not to be relied on at all," he wrote. "There is one hanging within 100 paces of me. His feet are so close to the ground that he can almost touch it. He was hung from a hickory tree and looks as though he has been hanging for several days. He had his descriptive list in his pocket and the general opinion was that he may have hung himself. This does not seem at all possible and I think he was hung by some of the chivalry because he was making an effort to get out of the army. It is the hardest sight I ever saw."

    Among the Confederate deserters there was sometimes a surprise, as remembered by one soldier in the 108th Ohio. The regiment was on picket duty near Rossville, Georgia when a Rebel captain and two privates came within their lines and gave themselves up. "The captain walked in and on surrendering himself to one of the pickets, recognized him as his own son," it was reported. The Rebel captain exclaimed "Oh, my son!" and tried to hug him, but the Ohioan shoved him back with an oath. "Your son? Get out you infernal old rebel! Do you suppose I would have you for a father?' The persistent Rebel said, "But I am your long absent father." The soldier laughed, "My father? Well boys, that's a go. Here is a damned old Rebel says he is my father when my father has been dead these seven years." The old man collapsed to his knees and fell on to a nearby tree stump in tears "while the pickets looked on in astonishment. Composing himself, the Rebel captain called the soldier to him and related incidents of a family nature that were unquestionable evidence of the truth of his assertions," it was reported. "As the old man recounted minutely all that he had passed through in the South, the picket gradually softened, and he, too, found relief in tears."

A group of four Confederate deserters approach a Federal picket post in 1864.  "They seemed pleased to get out of the scrape. Hardly a day passed but some of them come over and surrender to our boys," one Ohioan remembered. 

    Once the Rebels were within Federal lines, they were gathered into a group and marched off to corps headquarters to be turned over to the provost marshal. Captain Miller of the 76th Ohio recalls leading a contingent of  Confederates in late July. "I had 82 Rebels under my charge and as they largely outnumbered us, I took the precaution to march them in close order in the middle of the road while I deployed my men on each side with fixed bayonets and loaded arms. There were several officers whom I marched at the head of the column and I kept near them with a cocked revolver in my hand. I told my men in their hearing that if any of the prisoners broke ranks to shoot them down. The Rebel men were very jolly and happy, laughing at my precautions and said they were glad to be captured," he wrote. 


Masters, Daniel, editor. Alfred E. Lee's Civil War. Perrysburg: Columbian Arsenal Press, 2018, pg. 157

Bennett, Stewart and Barbara Tillery, editors. The Struggle for the Life of the Republic. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2004, pgs. 189 and 199

Winters, Erastus. A Buckeye in the 50th Ohio, 1862-1865. A Civil War Memoir. St. Martin: Commonwealth Book Company, 2016, pgs. 87 and 101

"An Incident on Picket," Belvidere Standard (Illinois), September 20, 1864, pg. 1

Letter from Captain Ira J. Bloomfield, Co. K, 26th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, Daily Pantagraph (Illinois), June 23, 1864, pg. 1

Letter from Mack, Co. H, 65th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Guernsey Times (Ohio), July 21, 1864, pg. 1


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