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"Prisoners and Deserters" Topic

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Personal logo enfant perdus Supporting Member of TMP26 Aug 2014 6:46 p.m. PST

After 20+ years of being a "serious dabbler" in the ACW, one of the mysteries that still eludes me is the garrulous nature of POWs and deserters. Every campaign and every battle seems chock full of men who, finding themselves in enemy hands, are all too happy to share as much information as they can with their captors. Why is this?

Regarding POWs, I realize that the protocol of "name, rank and serial number" is relatively modern, but prisoners in the ACW seem too frequently at pains to provide all they know. I don't think I've ever read of a case of anything like torture, or even serious coercion. Yet in account after account, POWs relate not only their unit, but details of higher formations, locations and rates of march, information about fatigue and morale levels, ammunition supply, the state of the commissary, and occasionally the latest gossip about quarrels at HQ.

The same can be said of deserters. On the surface, one could simply assume, "He deserted. Why should he care what he tells the enemy?" Yet I think we would overwhelmingly agree that nearly all deserters fell under the heading of "I don't want no more of army life," as opposed to "I've changed my mind and no longer support the CSA/USA, and indeed wish to hasten its demise." It seems odd to me that someone who just wanted "out" would be so free with information that would likely get a lot of his former comrades killed.

So, I'm hoping that one of the experts with deeper knowledge of the ACW and 19thC mindsets can help explain this.

Personal logo Extra Crispy Sponsoring Member of TMP26 Aug 2014 6:50 p.m. PST

Because your captor was not "from another country." Heck, reading a Shiloh book and they talk about how watching the enemy too closely was rude.

Personal logo enfant perdus Supporting Member of TMP26 Aug 2014 7:02 p.m. PST

I can get that the degree of familiarity could lead to a lot of unguarded talk.

-You hungry Yank? --Sure am. We ate the last of our hardtack two days ago.

-You look footsore Johnny. --I should say so. Our Division marched 30 miles in the last two days, and most of us without shoes.

But all too often it was more than that. There was a deliberate nature to it that doesn't make sense to me.

Personal logo Dan Cyr Supporting Member of TMP26 Aug 2014 8:59 p.m. PST

Look at the role newspapers and their reporters (and foreign visitors) played and you'll see that the idea of "security" was unknown by both sides.

Soldiers were not told to be quiet and most had no issues discussing the war with fellow Americans.

Was not until radio became common and WWI with its propaganda messages that keeping one's mouth shut became a standard policy.


KatieL27 Aug 2014 3:20 a.m. PST

Also, people are pretty dumb and will tell you way too much.

One day, at Cambridge, a "yoof" got on the train and sat down. By the time I got off the train, a stop later, I'd learned that;

He had been arrested trying to sell stolen bicycles to Cash Converters. He'd been escorted to the station by the city's constables and handed over to the Transport Police to be put on the train because his bail conditions included leaving Cambridge and not re-entering until his court date. He had previous. He was expecting to go to jail. He didn't want anyone to tell his father (who was in prison himself), because his father would beat him up again for taking after him when they were both out of prison at the same time.

Oh yes, and stealing bicycles shouldn't be a crime because he wanted to do it because he needed the money to pay for drugs…

That's what he was happy to tell people who could overhear… I wonder what in conversation he'd tell people?

I've also had to sit and listen (for an hour) to someone in a suit who was on the phone to someone working out how to defraud his business parter of his co-ownership by transferring ownership in unreportably small amounts to another business until the chap ended up owning half of nothing at which point he could be cut loose.

Then there was the lawyer who was fairly obviously talking with a client about how to trump up misconduct charges to allow them to get rid of a staff member they didn't like very much without any risk of ending up in an employment tribunal.

Yeah. I'd think your average squaddie will gossip useful stuff at you in exchange for some tea and a sandwich.

Personal logo John the Greater Supporting Member of TMP27 Aug 2014 5:32 a.m. PST

Look at the role newspapers and their reporters

It was astounding the lack of security regarding newspapers. The only saving grace is that they often got it wrong (of course reporting every camp rumor is not exactly the best way of getting it right!)

The point about prisoners talking to fellow Americans is well taken. People tend to blab when they are comfortable and bored. I have often considered introducing a "loudmouth prisoner" random event when conducting an ACW campaign.

TKindred Supporting Member of TMP27 Aug 2014 6:02 a.m. PST

Sherman despised reporters and newspapers. In one of his letters he states:

The early battles of the Civil War, Mr. Ewing said, sharpened Sherman's enmity toward the press.

''I will illustrate why I regard newspaper correspondents as spies,'' Sherman wrote on Feb. 17, 1863. ''A spy is one who furnishes an enemy with knowledge useful to him and dangerous to us. I say in giving intelligence to the enemy, in sowing discord & discontent in an army, these men fulfill all the conditions of spies. I am satisfied they have cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars & brought our country to the brink of ruin & that unless the nuisance is abated we are lost.''

''While they cry about blood & slaughter they are the direct cause of more bloodshed than fifty times their number of armed Rebels,'' he wrote.

link to the article here:


79thPA Supporting Member of TMP27 Aug 2014 7:31 a.m. PST

Because operation security was not something the average soldier thought about. Add in the fact that most people like to be social and both sides spoke the same language, and you've got soldiers running off at the mouth.

jowady27 Aug 2014 2:02 p.m. PST

Its why they came up with that whole, name/rank/serial number bit. Sometime take a gander at a book entitled "The Secret War for the Union". It covers the development and growth of a little known Federal entity, the Bureau of Military Intelligence. Begun largely as a response to the unreliable intelligence provided by Pinkerton and Company, as the war progressed it became quite a professional outfit. They interrogated prisoners (largely) to build Orders of Battle, estimates of strength, estimates of enemy intentions and the like. They were the forerunners of a modern G2 section. Many Union Commanders though never used the BMI to its full potential.

Cleburne186327 Aug 2014 2:27 p.m. PST

Yeah, when I read Sears' book on Chancellorsville it really opened my eyes to the creation/existence of the BMI and the roll it played in the battle.

John Miller27 Aug 2014 2:47 p.m. PST

An interesting comment on the mindset of the times, General Grant relates how he accidentially came across a Confederate enlisted man, (filling his canteen in a river, I believe), and had a casual conversation with him but goes on to mention that he made no attempt to elicit any military information from the Confederate, seemingly implying that that would have been unfair. John Miller

Last Hussar Supporting Member of TMP27 Aug 2014 4:06 p.m. PST

Because the were Cheese eating surrender monkeys?

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP27 Aug 2014 7:13 p.m. PST

Different times, different worldviews

As I recall there were no specific instructions about what to and not to tell someone who captured you – plus the higher-ups may have had the idea (deluded as it is) that the enlisted men didn't know all that much

Plus in an army of newly raised citizen-soldiers, as astutely noted above, a little friendship and a cup of hot coffee goes a long way

I also agree that people seem to have an amazing willingness to share just about anything with near complete strangers

TKindred Supporting Member of TMP27 Aug 2014 7:21 p.m. PST

A point of clarification while we're talking about POW's and deserters.

During the ACW, there was no such classification as AWOL. You were either present (or accounted for), missing, or a deserter. The "missing" classification only applied during battle, as in, missing when we called the roll that evening.

If you took off for a few days you were considered a deserter, with all the potential penalties attached to that violation of the Army's regulations. Same with guys who failed to return after a furlough, etc.

So when someone is listed as a "deserter" it may be that he's taken "French Leave" for a few days. It could also be that he was scarfed up by an enemy patrol, and since no one saw him be captured, he could also be listed as a deserter until the word came back that he was a POW, etc.

Just wanted to add that bit.

donlowry28 Aug 2014 6:24 p.m. PST

A related question I've wondered about is the treatment of enemy deserters: Were they treated as POWs? i.e. sent to a prison camp? Seems like a disincentive to desert. The Confederates often sent "deserters" into Union lines with disinformation. What incentive was used to induce them to do so?

Personal logo enfant perdus Supporting Member of TMP29 Aug 2014 6:46 p.m. PST

I appreciate the input from everybody. Even without formal regulations on the subject, I had just assumed it would be common sense to not knowingly, deliberately give information to the enemy.

Different times, different mindsets indeed.

1968billsfan Supporting Member of TMP02 Sep 2014 3:59 a.m. PST

While we are on the subject, does anyone know of 15mm figures for prisoners? I use a home version of Rally 'round the Flag and have rules for units that are overwhelmed by a successful charge, that have a proportion of prisoners taken. These guys then need an escort to the rear by the winners. Another use would be for green or veteran units shedding slackers upon being asked to storm entrenchments.

GoodOldRebel12 Sep 2014 3:43 a.m. PST

there must be some random packs or individual figures lurking out there in ranges both 15mm and 28mm …hidden in the lower reaches of catalogues? I cant recall the company but the produce in 28mm those three confederates (part of tom chamberlain's johnny reb collection)featured in "Gettysburg" …the ones fighting for their "rats"

TKindred Supporting Member of TMP12 Sep 2014 3:21 p.m. PST

I would think it would be possible to make POW minis out of artillery crewmen.

guineapigfury12 Sep 2014 7:52 p.m. PST

I know Blue Moon is working on some for their 15/18mm line. I've been very happy with their other products and am looking forward to the prisoner packs when they become available. Sets are 15ACW-77 and 78.

Imperium et libertas12 Sep 2014 7:52 p.m. PST

Interesting discussion.

I have recently read that, in the Boer War, it was very common for captured Boers to simply switch sides and join the 'evil' British, and this during what is generally regarded as a very bitter and unpleasant guerrilla campaign:

"Others joined British units in ones and twos, serving as guides and scouts, as Colonel Allenby recorded: ‘Where there is one Boer now, there were 100 then; and their spirit is much tamer. My three guides were fighting me in those days. They are such good, charming fellows'. Captain Miller of the Gordon Highlanders wrote home to say: ‘The Boers are funny fellows. We caught one the other day who immediately offered to be a guide, and took part the day after in a night march, and brought in one of his pals, as pleased as Punch – and this is a common thing. Immediately they are caught they are all anxious (I have seen few exceptions) to serve against their own people'"

It really made me wonder why they were fighting tooth-and-nail in the first place and makes the 'crime' of talking openly with your captors look positively heroic!

67thtigers13 Sep 2014 3:02 a.m. PST

On the BMI, looking at the data provided it is actually not any more reliable than that Pinkerton provided. Remember it reported that at Gettysburg Lee had, PFD:

92,000 infantry
6-8,000 cavalry (later raised to 12,000 when they worked out Imboden was with Lee)
270 guns

Which is a much worse overestimation than Pinkerton ever made (noting Pinkerton was reporting estimates of the higher "aggregate present").

One of Pinkerton's major int sources was debriefs of prisoners, and as part of that they were asked their unit, who their colonel, BG and MG was and it was put in a table of the notional orbat. The problem was Pinkerton had captured members that self-reported their regiments as ones that weren't there. Hence he overestimated by 36 infantry regiments and 1 cavalry regiment.

Some of these are explainable, three of the regiments had failed to organise and the men transferred to existing units for example. Others not so. The dispositions of the "extra" 36 inf regts were:

9 are with the Army of Tennessee
9 are with the Army of the Mississippi
7 are with the Charleston garrison
4 are with the Army of Southwest Virginia
3 failed to complete organisation, and the men were transferred to units in the ANV
2 were in NC
1 was in SC
1 was with the Army of the West

donlowry13 Sep 2014 9:39 a.m. PST

What is your source for these numbers?

Choctaw13 Sep 2014 10:43 a.m. PST

As a law enforcement criminal investigator, I have been trained extensively in the interview process. Most of the people I question don't know I'm using rather sophisticated techniques on them. However, you would be surprised at the number of people who just love to talk and will spew forth an amazing amount of useful information with little effort on my part. Times change but people remain remarkably the same.

guineapigfury13 Sep 2014 12:06 p.m. PST

We're also forgetting that these men had exactly zero training on how to conduct themselves if captured. Nor did most American Servicemembers until after the Korean War. They had been given the "Rank, Name, Serial Number" plan and that fell apart quite quickly. Conduct of the POWs in that conflict was often disgraceful. This led to the introduction of SERE. Surprisingly enough, people who've been trained how to deal with a particular situation tend to perform better in that situation than those who haven't.

67thtigers14 Sep 2014 12:56 p.m. PST

The regiments? Pinkerton published his estimate in his "Spy of the Rebellion" book. I simply checked them off against the Seven Days orbat and then checked where the extras were.

The extra 36 infantry regiments are:

Va – 36th, 43rd, 45th, 51st, 59th, 61st, 65th
Ga – 25th, 33rd, 37th, 40th, 41st, 43rd, 46th, 47th, 51st, 52nd, 55th, 56th, 58th, 59th
NC – 29th, 32nd, 39th
Tn – 26th
La – 3rd, 4th, 13th
Ala – 18th, 19th, 21st
SC – 11th, 19th
Ark – 1st, 2nd
Tx – 2nd

donlowry15 Sep 2014 9:29 a.m. PST

92,000 infantry
6-8,000 cavalry (later raised to 12,000 when they worked out Imboden was with Lee)
270 guns

These numbers.

67thtigers15 Sep 2014 10:20 a.m. PST

Fishel's Secret War for the Union. Mind you he glosses over them.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP08 Jun 2021 4:45 p.m. PST

Desertion, Cowardice and Punishment



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