Public Humiliation in the 87th PA
Coward. Yellow. Uncourageous. Turn-tail. Deserter.
Harsh words indeed; certainly words that the majority of us would never want associated with our character. Going AWOL or deserting from the military for generations has been frowned upon by the authorities, not to mention the effects on families and friends. There are legal ramifications, as well as moral and ethical questions.
In the Civil War, deserters were often rounded up and publicly hung or shot, at times by their friends and colleagues who were ordered to serve in firing squads. Imprisonment was also common. In Adams County following the war, the shame of public humilation was added to the ruined reputation of its deserters.
More than a year after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. Army was still chasing down the whereabouts of men who had deserted their commands during the conflict. Many of the deserters had fled to the West to start anew, sometimes under assumed names. A few slunk back to their hometowns and tried to go on with their lives.
On October 6, 1866, James J. Fink, the Clerk of the Court for Adams County, notarized a list of local men who were still unaccounted for, including six men in the 87th Pennsylvania. The regiment had been raised in Adams and York counties and had mustered into service in September 1861 in York at Camp Scott.
The local newspapers published the list of deserters, I’m sure much to the humiliation of the men’s parents and loved ones. Here is one sample entry:
Miller, Henry, private, company I, age 32, height 5 feet, 7 1/2 inches, complexion fair, eyes grey, hair brown, born in Adams County, Pa., occupation painter, enlisted or enrolled September 12, 1861, at York, Pa., deserted February 11, 1862, in Cockeysville, Md.
We can never know the circumstances that led these once enthusiastic volunteers to leave the army and their comrades and disappear. Perhaps, some were legitimate; men who were ill or exhausted, straggled from the ranks, and died an anonymous death far from home. Others, however, were more sinister, slinking away from their companies and leaving no trace of their whereabouts. I cannot and will not judge these men, as I will never walk in their shoes or face the pressures and frustrations they faced as soldiers in the Union Army.
The newspaper printed their names and allowed the public judge them for themselves. One questions whether any of the scores of men from dozens of regiments whose names were made public were ever apprehended or brought to justice.