Westchester County, NY
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According to the book The Union Preserved,1 the following explanation was given for the frequent appearance of the word "deserted" in the muster rolls.
Another term that appears quite often, and which in context is sometimes quite confusing, is the word "deserted." Evidence indicates that this term had a meaning somewhat different from its modern connotation. Technically, desertion is the act of leaving military service without the intention of returning. The extreme penalty for this act, especially in wartime, is death. Throughout the Civil War, in both the Union and Confederate armies, many men were caught, tried, and executed for desertion. The abstracts of muster rolls use the term "deserted" with alarming frequency. Yet with nearly as great a frequency other entries might appear in the soldier's record, occurring chronologically later thant the so-called "desertion."
The best explanation for this perplexing inconsistency is that the clerks who made the entries on the reports were imprecise, and actually meant that the solders were "missing in action" (a term which post-dates the Civil War). While a certain number of "desertions" were desertion in the legal sense, a much larger number do contain later entries within the same service record, such as "a prisoner at Andersonville" or "in hospital at Washington." It seems that the majority of "deserted" notations simple mean that the company officer or clerk could not account for an individual after a battle. (See Note 3.)
Note 3: Another possible explanation for this practice may reside with the issuance of General Order No. 92, which was issued by the U.S. War Department on July 31, 1862, under Secretary of War Edwin M. Station's signature. This order stipulated that on August 18, 1862, "each Regiment and Corps shall be mustered" and "all officers and privates fit for duty absent at that time will be regarded as absent without cause" and "treated as deserters." It is possible, therefore, that the company clerks in complying with this order simply marked as deserted many men for whom they could not account. For the full text of the order see U.S. War Department, "The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies," 127 vols., index, and atlas (Washington, D. C: GPO, 1880-1901), Series III, 2:286-87.
1Holzer, Harold, Editor. Lorello, Daniel, compiler. The Union Preserved: A Guide to Civil War Records in the New York State Archives [New York: Fordham University Press & the NY State Archives Partnership Trust, 1999], Appendix A, page 93 and pages 94-95.
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