The Irish Brigade is rightly regarded as one of the finest units to take the field during the American Civil War. However, just like all other Union formations, they had their ups and down in battle, and like other formations, they suffered from desertion. In order to examine this in further detail I have taken the Brigade’s 63rd New York Infantry as a case study, compiling desertion data on the 1,528 men who served in the regiment during the conflict. In the first of a series of posts, I have prepared a number of charts that explore different aspects of desertion in the 63rd. Included among them are the monthly desertions rates in the regiment through the war, with a daily focus on desertion in 1861. Also examined are the locations of desertions, and finally a comparative look at the ages of all the men in the 63rd relative to the ages of those who deserted.
The data on which these charts are based was drawn from the New York Adjutant General roster of the 63rd New York Infantry. Of the 1,528 men listed as serving in the regiment, 368 are recorded as having deserted during the conflict, for a total desertion rate of 24%. The first chart represents the numbers of desertions in the 63rd by month throughout their war service. To examine each of these charts in detail click on the images to enlarge them.
What is immediately noticeable is that the overwhelming majority of desertions from the 63rd New York Infantry took place in 1861, before the regiment had seen any active service. The other peaks in desertion were August-September 1862, January 1863, September-October 1863 (these are the only five months outside of 1861 that saw double-figure desertions) and to a lesser extent January-February 1864. There are a number of things to bear in mind when looking at this data. The first is one of scale and proportionality. The 63rd New York was a full-size regiment of nearly 1,000 men in late 1861, yet brought only 75 men into battle at Gettysburg in July 1863. The regiment’s numbers would rise once more in 1864 but would be quickly depleted again. It is nonetheless interesting to note how desertion rates appear to flatten out through 1864 and 1865, at a time when overall desertion averages in the Union army were on the rise. The other point to note is that not all desertions from the regiment actually occurred with the regiment, as will be explored in one of the charts below. Nonetheless, the 1861 figures in particular are interesting, and deserve further examination. The next chart examines desertions by day in the 63rd through 1861– again, click on the image to enlarge it an explore the data in more detail. (1)
Desertion was fundamentally an act that relied upon opportunity. There were large portions of a regiment’s service where it was difficult for men to desert, particularly if their intent was to go home (as opposed to deserting to the enemy). The best time to desert– for men who were so inclined– was when in camp and close to good lines of communication. Better again was to desert before you ever left home, which is what the majority of those who fled from the 63rd New York chose to do. It is interesting to note that despite the fanfare, pride and patriotism that was a hallmark of the formation of the Irish Brigade in 1861, large numbers of men quickly decided that service in the unit wasn’t for them.
As noted above, 1861 was by far and away the worst year for desertion from the 63rd. There are undoubtedly numerous reasons for this; many men likely found that military life was much more disciplinarian and structured than they had anticipated, while others may have taken the decision to depart due to issues with their officers or comrades. It is instructive to examine the data in closer detail. 156 men deserted the regiment between August and September 1861, with 73 of them in November alone. To put this in perspective, the closest subsequent desertion rates would come to the November 1861 figures was in October 1863, when 25 men deserted. Why was November so bad? One reason was undoubtedly disenchantment. The New York Irish-American reported that at the time there was ‘a good deal of discontent’ among the men of the regiment on their base at David’s Island, because of an ‘unaccountable delay in paying off the men.’ Whatever a soldier’s motivation for enlistment, if they were not getting money with which to provide for themselves or their family, they were going to be more reluctant to stay in service. A closer look at the data also reveals another reason behind the high November figures. The 28th November 1861 was the 63rd New York’s worst day of the war for desertion, when no fewer than 15 men departed. Why? The 28th November was the day the 63rd left New York for the seat of war. When it came to it, some of the men were not willing to leave New York. (2)
The third chart (above) examines the locations of desertions, organised by State (click the image to enlarge). As pointed out, opportunity was a major factor in desertion, and it is no surprise that the vast bulk of men departed from New York. Though some left while recuperating from wounds or on furlough, the majority of New York deserters after 1861 were new recruits, who only had time to be entered on the rolls before leaving, and so never actually saw active service with the regiment at the front.
Some men deserted because they didn’t like the military life, some because of erratic pay, others because they were no longer able to endure the horrors of conflict. As we have seen in a number of pension files, many men were also put under considerable pressure to desert by those at home, be they dependent parents or wives and children. With that in mind we might expect to see a higher proportion of men of likely married age departing the ranks. The fourth chart (above) looks at the ages of 63rd New York deserters, showing a concentration among those aged between 17 and 28. However, to examine any potential significance in this data it is necessary to also have information on the relative ages of all the men of the regiment, which is the purpose of the fifth chart (below).
The above chart illustrates the ages of all the men who served in the 63rd New York Infantry on enlistment. This chart is of course of significant interest in and of itself; the largest age group we see for soldiers in the regiment is the 26 to 28 bracket, with the majority of soldiers who served in the 63rd during the war aged between 17 and 28. It is nonetheless of note just how many of the regiment were aged between 29 and 44. When the age range of the entire regiment is compared with the age range of those who are known to have deserted, it seems to indicate no distinctions between age-groups when it came to likelihood to desert. To further examine this, we can look at the same data expressed as percentages, as has been done below.
This pie chart (above) shows the ages of all the men of the 63rd New York on enlistment expressed as percentages. It excludes those for whom no age was stated in the Adjutant-General report. 59% of those for whom we have figures were aged between 17 and 28. The remainder of the regiment were over this age. The pie chart below shows the deserter age groups as percentages (again excluding those for whom no age was stated). There is a remarkable correlation between the two, indicating that in the 63rd New York at least, age cannot be taken as an indicator of likelihood to desert, and those who were more likely to be married do not appear to have deserted at an appreciably higher rate than those who were not.
Almost one in four of all the soldiers who served in the 63rd New York Regiment of the Irish Brigade deserted during the American Civil War. The next post will drill further into the data to look at some specific examples and trends, such as the desertion rates of early war volunteers when compared with those who volunteered or were drafted in later years; the men who deserted during battle and campaigns, and those who took the decision to leave having been wounded.
(1) Lonn 1998, 152, 233-235; (2) New York Irish American 7th December 1861;
New York Irish American 7th December 1861. Departure of the 3d Irish Regiment, 63rd N.Y.S.V.
Adjutant-General 1901. Annual Report of the Adjutant-General of the State of New York for the Year 1901.
Lonn, Ella 1998. Desertion During the Civil War.