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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

Desertion By Michigan Men in the American Civil War

by Gordon Thorsby

Five Men of the 118th PA for desertion executed Before the V Corps, 1863. From Alfred Waud (LOC)

Desertion in the Civil War from men in Michigan was as common as other states. Desertion was not just someone trying to avoid fighting. It wasn't all the issue of being drafted. It was more complicated than that. It was often several reasons combined. It was fear of death in battle, troubles at home, death of comrades, isolation and more. Whatever the reasons, there was shame and dishonor associated with the act. For men around Shiawassee and Saginaw Counties of Michigan, desertion occurred for many and the cases following were almost all permanent.

One man may have lacked any good reason to fight as a primary reason for deserting. John Kanzig, a recent immigrant of Switzerland was among the drafted. Kanzig was enlisted into the 140th New York Infantry on 8/19/63 at Arkwright, NY. His enlistment was 35 days after Gettysburg and the 140th lost 133 men and its Colonel on Little Round Top on July 2nd. It was also in the midst of the New York Draft Riots. Kanzig was already in the field when on September 19, the 140th was awaiting to enter the battle of Culpeper Court House. Kanzig deserted ten days later and later resettled in Michigan as did other Western New Yorkers. Today, Kanzig is buried in St. Charles.

Fear was another cause. Alonzo Lacey, 25, from Osh Kosh when he enlisted in the 18th Wisconsin on 11/25/61. He had reasons to fight but he deserted on 12/30/1862 as a Corporal. The 18th Wisconsin Infantry was a green regiment in April of the year when a large portion of the regiment was captured in the Hornet’s Nest, one of the worst fights during the entire War. Lacey was returned and could or would not go on fighting. He eventually resettled after the war and is buried in Flushing. John Tyler Stevens was drafted into the 8th Michigan Cavalry on12/30/1863 in Chesaning and only 17. He fought in the Atlanta Campaign but deserted on 10/10/64 at Nicholasville, KY while the regiment was refitting after the disastrous Macon raid where many from the regiment were captured and sent to Andersonville Prison.

The draft increased the numbers of desertions. Alonzo Bull, 21, was drafted in December 1863. He deserted two months later in Kentucky and hid in a small town in the Appalachians trying to avoid fighting in the10th Michigan cavalry. Provost guards discovered his whereabouts and returned him back a month and a half later. In 1890 and now 48, he did not remember details of his service. His veteran status is still under review today. James Clark, 28, was enlisted into the 4th Michigan Infantry on 9/14/64 when he disappeared while somewhere while en route to Detroit on 9/17. Truman Cole was also drafted into the 10th Michigan Cavalry on 10/19/64 at St. Charles but deserted somewhere near Grand Rapids before the regiment left the state on 11/25. While Clark returned to St. Charles, Cole left the State to unknown regions.

Heavier guards accompanied draftees and men from Michigan left for Canada but still desertions increased. Some of the men probably “bounty-jumped.” John Kavanaugh, 32, of Taymouth volunteered on 12/30/62 at Niles into the 8th Mich Cavalry. He deserted on 2/12/63 a month and a half later. David Bussey was 21 and a resident of Taymouth when he volunteered for the 5th Michigan Cavalry on 8/14/62. He deserted on 12/5/62, just four months later. Arthur J. Patterson volunteered for the 3rd Michigan Cavalry on 9/7/62 in East Saginaw. Earning a small bounty, he deserted 1/1/63. His records indicate he went to Canada. Samuel Brown, at 22 volunteered for the 5th Michigan Cavalry on 12/14/62 in Detroit. With bounty money or for an unknown reason, he was reported deserted the very same day. There was Jonathan Bennett was drafted into the 82nd Pennsylvania Infantry on 8/26/63. He deserted, was captured and was returned to the unit where he served out the war being discharged 7/13/65. He served in the Chesaning local chapter of the GAR. John Delamater, 25, also of Chesaning, volunteered in the 14th Michigan Infantry on 12/19/1861 in Owosso. The regiment did little major fighting until the Atlanta Campaign, and Delamater re-enlisted on 2/14/1864. He avoided the campaign when he deserted shortly thereafter and got married. He was recorded as a “bounty jumper.”


According to area writings and records, some deserters were welcomed back into the communities and families. Other individuals never returned. Nathan Richardson, 23, was one welcomed after the war but possibly if they knew of his desertion during the war. Richardson volunteered into the 110th NY on 8/11/62 at Oswego NY. The 110th along with some other regiments served in some of the worst, mosquito ridden, disease infested campaigns including South Carolina and the Siege of Port Hudson. While on garrison duty at Ft. Jefferson, FL, he simply up and left in May1864. Maybe he had done enough? He moved to New Haven in the late 1860’s. Commodore Perry Miller “CP” volunteered with the 14th Michigan in 1861 at Montrose but was from Chesaning. He re-enlisted in 1864 as a sharpshooter but deserted during the Siege around Atlanta. One man wouldn't make a difference?

A major reason for desertion in the area was simply the end of the war but not for their service.

Charles Wilson was drafted in Co. A 7th Michigan Cavalry 2/28/65 at 34. He was in the Grand Review in Washington, but he was not discharged yet. Wilson changed that when he deserted from Chapel Point, MD and returned home to Chesaning. John Lato Graves, 22, volunteered with the 11th Michigan Infantry in August1861 at Coldwater. With a promotion to Sergeant on August 1, 1865, he deserted and went home. Home was his preferred promotion. Brothers James and Jefferson Woodward were both drafted into the 15th Michigan Infantry in September and November respectively,1864. While James was discharged in May 1865, Jeff was stuck until he discharged himself in late June. Another set of brothers, Jackson and Pembroke Severn of Mt. Morris were 22 and 21 when they were drafted in September 1864 into the 29th Michigan Infantry. They both deserted on August 8,1865 while on guard duty at Murfreesboro, TN. The war was over and so were they and the army. Where they eventually wound up after the war is unknown.

Some men redeemed their desertion. George "Orange" Williams, 17, of New Haven joined the 16th Michigan in August 1861 with eleven others from the Chesaning area. On Sept. 7, Orange vanished and based on the diary of O.W. Damon, William’s action was not approved of by his comrades. What they did not know or acknowledge was that in September 1862, Williams joined Company G, 6th Michigan Cavalry, part of Custer's Wolverine Brigade. Williams was in every fight of the regiment. He fought at Gettysburg, Trevillion Station, the Shenandoah campaign, and even the final fighting around Appomattox in 1865. For his bravery, Williams was promoted to the rank of sergeant serving to the regiment's mustering out in 1866 in Texas. Williams joined the Paps Thomas Post 121 after the war, but the records indicated neither desertion nor bravery for anyone. All were welcome no matter how because they survived. Maybe veterans preferred not to judge because every man considered deserting at one time or another?

Note One: At least six other men from the area were known to have deserted. The article illustrates a large number.

Note Two: No soldier from the area is known to have been executed for desertion during the Civil War.


The War for the Common Soldier, by Carmichael, Peter S., University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

The Civil War Letters of Harrison Henry Carson, edited by Len Thomas, Comet Publishing, 2012.

Paps Thomas Post 121 of the Grand Army of the Republic, Michigan, River Rapids Library, Chesaning, MI.

Historical Data Sources, Inc., P.O. Bos 25, Duxbury, MA 02331.

"War Diary," of O.W. Damon, by Orrin Weston Damon, written 1861-1864, edited by O.W. Damon 1903.

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