May 2, 2023 - Lincoln's Grand Army    Comments Off on Enterprising Union Soldiers

Enterprising Union Soldiers

The excerpt below from William B. Feis’s “Grant’s Secret Service” notes the efforts the Northern military utilized to encourage desertion within the Southern ranks. It often backfired as described below, but as the war progressed found men tired of combat, being near starvation and willing to provide information to the enemy.  It is noted that if Northern interrogators thought information provided was suspicious, they were “not above resorting to torture to loosen tongues.” One was tied up by the thumbs “which made a perfect lunatic of him for twenty-four hours.”

Enterprising Union Soldiers

“During the winter of early 1865, Northern officials were concerned about the increase in Northern desertion as a result of Grant’s Special Order Number Eighty-two, which updated an earlier policy designed to endue Southern soldiers to defect.

Under the new orders, copies of which were spirited into Southern lines, deserters who took an oath to Lincoln’s union would receive subsistence and, if their homes were within Northern lines, free transportation back to their families. If their homes were behind enemy lines, the federal government would transport them without charge to “any point in the Northern States.”

Anxious to get home, some enterprising Northern soldiers sensed an opportunity and left their regiments (usually while on picket duty) and disguised themselves as Southern deserters. With any luck they might convince their “captors“ that “home” was in enemy territory, which meant free transportation anywhere in the North.

The policy was designed to shrink Southern armies through desertion, but the prospect of Northern runaways slipping through the cracks and being sent not to the stockade, but home at government expense, forced the army to act.   Capt. John McEntee’s primary mission at occupied Norfolk, a concentration point for processing Southern prisoners, was to be the official “examining officer” tasked with using his familiarity with the Southern army’s organization (which few enlisted men knew anything about) to trip up Northern deserters and close this avenue for escaping military service.”

(Grant’s Secret Service. The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox. William B. Feis, University of Nebraska Press, 2002, pp. 199-200; 259)

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