Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Roberta L. Wollons

Second Advisor

Paul Bookbinder

Third Advisor

Julie P. Winch


The written history of the United States Civil War provides limited analysis on the topic of desertion and execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac. The specific numbers involved are well documented. With the exception of occasional narratives on the executions themselves, there is no examination of the human decisions taken; beginning with the soldier’s choice to desert. In addition, while the military court-martial trial was rigid in its structure and process, it allowed for discretion in the sentencing phase. Human choice exerted its greatest influence in the aftermath of the trial as the sentence was reviewed up through the military chain of command. Ultimately, the case would arrive at the desk of President Abraham Lincoln; the final arbitrator of life or death. Fortunately for the convicted, they had a compassionate Commander in Chief and President Lincoln personally intervened in hundreds of their cases.

There were over 200,000 incidents of desertion from the Union Armies during the Civil War. Desertion and other crimes resulted in 75,961 court-martial trials and 1,883 soldiers were sentenced to be executed. A total of 265 men were executed and 147 of those were for desertion. This paper provides a micro history of eight soldiers from Massachusetts regiments executed for desertion. They are contrasted against seven soldiers from Massachusetts regiments pardoned for the same capital crime of desertion. Extrapolating the data elements of the accused, along with their trial testimonies, allows for the identification of three major factors that influenced whether a soldier who deserted was executed or pardoned.

A second contribution to the historical record on the Civil War is the identification of the personal data elements found in these men’s lives. By consolidating these elements, such as place of birth, a profile of the typical deserter emerges. This deserter profile can be contrasted against a historically codified profile of a typical Union soldier. Ultimately, while these deserters were denigrated for their crime of desertion, they deserve to have their stories heard. In doing so, it is possible to identify who these men really were and what their role was in the United States Civil War.