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Federal detectives arrested York County PA deserter

Washington D.C. Evening Union, August 20, 1863. Courtesy of

Leonard Shields was a young man with a troubled conscience and an agonized soul. A 22-year-old resident of rural Union Township in Adams County, Pennsylvania, he had enlisted in the Federal army on August 16, 1862 as a substitute for a draftee named Augustus Mehring. During much of the Civil War, a man who was drafted could hire a paid substitute who would serve in the army in his place. It was a controversial policy, one that often allowed wealthier men to stay home while poorer ones who needed quick cash took their place in the ranks. It is not known how much Mehring paid Shields, but amounts from $150 to $300 were typical, depending upon the regiment, circumstances, and any side deals. At times, the substitute took the money and ran away. Such was the case with Private Shields, whose greed perhaps outweighed his patriotism and bravery.
On November 7, 1862, Shields and his fellow soldiers in Company E of the 165th Pennsylvania Drafted Militia were mustered into the Union army. It did not take long for Leonard to bounty jump. By November 20, he was officially listed as having deserted his regiment before it was formally organized at Chambersburg and Gettysburg on the 25th. He never reported for duty as assigned.
His troubles were only beginning…

Records on Leonard Shields are incomplete, but apparently he moved to York County, perhaps to avoid criticism from his family and neighbors for dodging his duty in the 165th PDM. Perhaps he thought he was out of the reach of the local constabulary. In any event, sometime after the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign, when York County farmers were devastated by Rebel raiding parties, Shields received notification that he had been drafted back into the army.
After being notified that he had been selected in the draft lottery, Shields made a pair of unwise decisions. First, he chose to avoid military service, duplicating his choice back the previous November. Secondly, and perhaps the most ill-advised, he decided to show up at the army headquarters in Washington D.C. and plead his case, trying to “circumvent Father Abraham.” In mid-August, detectives working for Col. L. C. Baker, the Chief of the National Detective Police during the Civil War, arrested Shields for draft evasion and turned him over to the district Provost Marshal for trial and punishment.
I have not found the results of Shields’ encounter with the military police, but it’s likely he served time in the camp jail cell. After that, his whereabouts are unknown. Perhaps he joined the thousands of former Civil War soldiers who headed west to start a new life, perhaps under an assumed name. Perhaps he returned home to Pennsylvania and lived a quiet life away from the public eye.
In any event, the troubled Leonard Shields has gone down in history as one of the few deserters from a regiment raised in York County, Pennsylvania.
For the details on the military service of thousands of other Civil War soldiers with tied to York and Adams counties, please visit the website of the York County Heritage Trust, where author / researcher Dennis W. Brandt has graciously donated his impressive database to YCHT for public on-line viewing.