Our brave AWOLs

Our final Ben Stein question asked "How could all the men and women who participated in the war have been so amazingly brave?"

I would have less complaint with the question, "How could all the men and women who lasted out a battle have been so amazingly brave?"

The formula, "all the men and women who participated in the war" being "so amazingly brave" does not come close to the reality. Not even a little bit. It's a product of our social promotion mindset, its a little certificate of achievement we want to award everyone for showing up for work, shaved and sober.

In these armies, few actually showed up for work; often more people called in sick than clocked in for their daily ration of menace and mayhem.

The reality was overwhelmingly one of desertion, malingering, illegal leave-taking (furloughs authorized by officers not empowered to grant them), and on the battlefield itself, there was a great deal of dropping out through shirking.

There is a tendency among Civil War historians to take the Official Record's monthly muster roll for pay as something approaching battlefield strength. This would be the most inflated number available, since it represents the elected officers of the company taking care of their people in the most important matter of pay.

A better number, and it is still inflated, is that given for the various armies in The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865), GPO 1875. This is not a primary source you have ever seen cited outside of this blog. And that's a direct reflection on Civil War historians.

The medical department did not want their death, disease, injury, and recovery statistics corrupted by the nonsense found in monthly payroll counts, so they took the trouble to add "together the mean strengths given in the individual [daily morning] reports consolidated for the month." The morning reports were the basis for the day's details and included everyone accounted for as "present for duty." The result was a better number that was also a smaller number than our imaginations, fueled by pop history, will allow.

For example, notice the medical department's view of the manpower pool of the Army of the Potomac as it marches towards Richmond:

4/62 - 71,250
5/62 - 72,536
6/62 - 78,733

This is the total count of men available to McClellan to capture Richmond; this is before illness, wounds, malingering, battlefield desertion, and shirking. Doesn't match the pop history version of things, does it?

McClellan and Lincoln had an ongoing dialog about the ghostly contingent that existed on paper but not in the field; Lincoln's quip about shoveling fleas across a barnyard was in the context of their ongoing discussion about this.

In speaking to some ladies after Antietam, Lincoln told them that McClellan lost 30,000 men to straggling within two hours of the start of the battle.

At the end of the battle on the Antietam, Mac had George Meade, then commanding Hooker's Corps, prepare a secret memo for Lincoln's visit telling how many men Hooker had brought into battle versus what the returns said he brought to bear. Here is Meade:

I prepared a statement showing that Hooker's corps on paper was thirty-one thousand five hundred strong; that of this number there were present for duty only twelve thousand, and of these, a numerical list, made on the day of battle after we came out of action, showed only seven thousand. Hence, while the United States were *paying* and the authorities at Washington were *relying* and basing their orders and plans on the belief that we had thirty-one thousand five hundred men, facts showed that we had in reality, on the field fighting, only nine thousand. As to the seven thousand that came out of the fight, we should add some two thousand killed and wounded in it. (Geo Meade, letter to his wife, 10/5/62)

Here is an artillery colonel on the same unit:

This corps has been filling up by the incoming of stragglers, and arrival of some recruits, so that we now have twice as many men present as we had a week ago. Still not half those borne on the company rolls are present. (Charles Wainwright, Diary of Battle, 9/26/62)

By 1863, the situation was barely manageable. The same colonel, Charles Wainwright, observed during the Mine Run campaign:

Never have I seen so many stragglers from the Army. [...] But when about halfway to the ford, in a place where the wood was somewhat more open, I
saw thousands, literally acres of them, cooking their coffee or sleeping around their fires.

In one horrifying episode very early in the Peninsula campaign, chief surgeon Charles Tripler tried to get 260 sick soldiers off on a boat, the Daniel Webster No. 1, bound for Boston. Stragglers had rushed on board and taken posession. They set off without the 260. Tripler then counted 1,020 more skulkers in hospital tents who had failed to make their getaway on the Daniel Webster No. 1.

The rate of AWOL experienced by both sides was staggering. In making the Army of the Potomac and its soldiers the collective hero of their books, Nevins, Catton, McPherson, Sears, and their followers could never face this dark side of historical truth, so necessary to forming any idea of the real burden shouldered by those few willing to fight. And in the process, they misled poor Ben Stein, along with a lot of other people.