Thursday, March 26, 2020

Deserters or Prisoners, or Both?

A prisoner of war category, which occurred quite often during the Petersburg Campaign, are those soldiers who willingly went over to the enemy. I think these men fall into somewhat of a nebulous zone. Are they deserters or prisoners, or both? I personally tend to associate the "deserter" label with those that left their armies, not going to the enemy, but away from the fighting, usually toward home. In effect, they are officially prisoners of war, and often were sent to camps for incarceration, but not being captured in battle or without resistance seemingly makes them different. 

During the Petersburg Campaign, where the distance between opposing picket lines were sometimes measured by feet or a few yards, the opportunities abounded for worn out or frustrated soldiers to end their service by going over to the other side. Dusk, night time, and early mornings cloaked movements and enhanced chances of success. The Union army even posted messages that they would pay Confederates to bring in their rifles and equipment to encourage them to make the effort. 

While recently reading Col. Elisha Hunt Rhodes' (pictured above) diary, published as All for the Union, I came across an entry in late February 1865 where he encountered a group of Southerners running the picket gauntlet. After serving as Officer of the Day on the picket line just southwest of Petersburg, Hunt returned to his winter quarters hut to catch a little sleep. Before nodding off, he "told the sergeant in charge of the guard at the hut not to allow any deserters to enter until he had called me. After sleeping a short time I heard some one say 'Colonel,' and looking up saw four Rebels standing in the hut."

Being so near the picket line, Hunt was understandably startled. He wrote, "My first thought was that I was captured, and reaching down into my boot leg (My boots were on.) I pulled out my revolver and drew the hammer back. The sergeant said 'Hold on, Colonel,' and recognizing his voice I woke up fully and realized the situation. The four Rebels were deserters and belonged to the 37th North Carolina Regiment. I examined them and took down their answers to certain questions on paper and then after taking the cartridges from their boxes, sent them with the memoranda to the Provost Marshal at [VI] Corps. The object of sending questions and answers in writing to Corps Headquarters is to see they tell the same story twice alike."

While taking down the information, one of the Tarheels told Rhodes that one of his comrades also wanted to come over and a gave Rhodes the friend's name. Sure enough, some firing was heard and another North Carolinian came bounding into the Union picket line. Rhodes took a chance and addressed the soldier by the name provided by his friend earlier. The new prisoner was astonished that Rhodes knew his name and regiment. As he was being taken away the deserter/prisoner said to Rhodes, "I know you Yankees are smart, but I cannot see how you found out so much about me." Rhodes replied "Oh, that is all right, we have ways of getting the news that you people know nothing about."