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Union Civil War reenactors on the march in this photo from June 2010

“Little York:” A Popular Little Place to Desert the Army

In reading through dozens of old accounts of soldiers visiting York, Pennsylvania, the researcher often will find the town referred to as “Little York.” I understand from long-time residents of York County that the diminutive adjective was still heard on occasion in casual conversation when they were young, but it is rarely (if ever) heard today. Little York appears in scores of Civil War accounts – regimental histories, diaries, letters, journals, etc. and was apparently still a popular designation during the period, albeit the term York appears much more frequently..
Interestingly, for some reason, one prominent usage of the term “Little York” in my vast files on the Civil War in York County occurs in accounts of soldiers who decided to quit the army and go AWOL in the town. Here are just a couple of examples:

From the annals of Company K of the 126th New York Volunteer Infantry comes this tidbit:

“JOHN JOYNER was born in Virgil, New York, and was by occupation a farmer; he enlisted August 9th, 1862, aged twenty-seven years, and was appointed Corporal; was in action at Harper’s Ferry, and deserted at Little York, Pennsylvania, November 26th, 1862.”
There is no record if Mr. Joyner returned to his home, or, like so many other Civil War deserters, headed West where he could start a new life (often under an assumed name in the days before drivers’ licenses, social security numbers, and other forms of identification). One can only speculate on his fate.

Here’s another Little York reference from Company I, 7th Rhode Island Infantry:
“NORTHUP, HENRY F. Residence, Portsmouth; enrolled Aug. 16, 1862; mustered in
Sept. 6; deserted at Little York, Pa., March 27, 1863.”

As with Joyner, Northrup disappeared from the Union army and from military records in Little York. York, of course, had a large military hospital, and, at times, wounded men would slip away and head for the hills. Also, the town was a popular stopping place for troop transport trains, and during liberty breaks, soldiers would simply stroll away, find a convenient hiding place, and await the eventual departure of the train without them. One can speculate that they visited local merchants, purchased civilians clothes, and set off for their final destinations.

Desertion was then (and is now) a risky proposition.

Being caught at times resulted in a public execution in front of your former comrades in arms.