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"O/T Branding Deserters ACW" Topic

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GreyONE26 Jan 2015 3:17 p.m. PST

I was asked today by a book author from the UK, just how common was the branding of deserters during the American Civil War?

I recall reading about it being used at the start of the war, by the Union Army, but I never did read a lot about it. It seems shooting deserters was more common. I recall branding involved a letter "D" being burned onto the deserter's hip, but I was always left with the impression that this was rare. Prison seemed a more common punishment, or humiliation of having to wear a sign that read, "Deserter" around your neck in camp for a prescribed amount of time.

Who administered such brandings? Was it the unit's surgeon, or did he just look on, or was he even required?

Were other letters branded onto the convicted for other offences?

raylev3 Supporting Member of TMP26 Jan 2015 3:54 p.m. PST

Here's a link to punishment and desertion in the ACW…bottom line is that desertion was rarely punished despite the numbers of desertions, especially in the first two years of the war. Branding, although existing early in the war for both sides, was soon stopped -- it was rare. Of course, branding gets attention because of the imagery that goes along with it. More common was the public shaming of the individual in one form or another.

PDF link

As for executions only 400-500 men were executed for desertion during the entire war, and that total is for both sides.

See the above link and this one:


Here's a direct quote from the next link that fits:

At the beginning of the war flogging was a legal punishment, but it was banned in the US Army in August 1861 and in the Confederate Army in August 1862. Thereafter officers did occasionally have their men flogged, but this usually ended up with the officer facing a court-martial. Branding, however, remained legal throughout the war. Deserters were branded, usually on the forehead, cheek, hand, or hip, with the first letter of their crime. 'D' for deserter, 'C' for cowardice, 'T' for thief, or 'W' for worthlessness. Not all branding was done with hot irons; indelible ink was often used instead.


Bottom line: it happened, just not very common.

raylev3 Supporting Member of TMP26 Jan 2015 4:06 p.m. PST

Of course, there was a short lived TV series with Chuck Conners, of course, about an innocent deserter.

Here's the opening sequence to the show…timeless for a western.

YouTube link

And background:

The theme song caused us pre-teens to sing:

Stranded, stranded on a toilet bowl
What do you do when you're stranded
and you need another roll.

GreyONE26 Jan 2015 7:51 p.m. PST

Thank you, raylev3. Everything you provided is appreciated and very interesting to read. I knew a bit about the prison system, on both sides, but never really looked into the punishment part. Certainly widens my understanding of the war.

I have pass on what you posted here.


Personal logo John the Greater Supporting Member of TMP27 Jan 2015 9:03 a.m. PST

There were a number of creative punishments. These ranged from marching around camp with a placard decreeing the offense (thief, coward, drunkard, etc) to "bucking and gagging", making the offender carry various heavy objects, standing on a barrel for extended periods or tying an offender to a wagon wheel.

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