Soldiers, Deserters, and Turncoats

by Fred Ray on February 8, 2009 · 10 comments

Both the Union and Confederacy had to fight two wars—one against their external enemy, one against their own people. Some  people simply wanted to avoid the war or military service, while others willingly drew the sword against their own people. In the Union it was relatively easy to avoid military service; in the Confederacy it was much more difficult. Not a few men switched sides for one reason or another.

One such was another of my ancestors, S. F. Ray. A small farmer in Baldwin County, Alabama, he avoided the initial calls for military service but signed up with a local cavalry company in early 1862. By that time conscription was in force and he would have had to serve somewhere. Local service allowed him to avoid being sent to some distant theater. The company eventually became part of the 3rd Florida Cavalry Battalion, which in turn was absorbed into the 15th Confederate Cavalry, an amalgam of five Florida and five Alabama cavalry companies under the command of the raffish Col. Harry Maury.

Ray, who in the family tradition was “agin slavery,” deserted in late 1863, spent Christmas with his family, and presented himself in January at Fort Barrancas (near Pensacola, Florida) for service in the First Florida Cavalry (US), an outfit composed mainly of “gophers” (a slang term for local people)—deserters and Unionists. Although I like to think his motives were ideological the fact that the Yankees were offering a $300 bounty (a huge amount of money for that time and place) might have had something to do with it. Ray eventually rose to the rank of sergeant and was mentioned in dispatches for his success on a scouting expedition. Had he been captured he almost certainly would have been shot as a deserter.

Baldwin County Alabama seems to have been somewhat of a hotbed of anti-Confederate activity, and this may have helped ease S. F. Ray’s return to civilian life after his discharge in 1865, as might the fact that he stood 6’2″ and worked a good bit of the time as a blacksmith. He remained a respected member of the community and served many years as a justice of the peace. Later in life both he and later his widow drew a government pension, and as a Union veteran he was able to claim a substantial piece of land under a federal program.

Yet another chapter in the forgotten war inside the South.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to the Florida Archives, which has a note about the two Florida Union Cavalry regiments.

It is not commonly known that in addition to the Confederate units that were raised in Florida during the Civil War, two regiments of cavalry were organized in the state to serve in the Union Army.  These units, the First and Second Florida Cavalry Regiments, consisted of elements from Florida’s sizeable pro-Union minority, along with disaffected ex-Confederates.  A large percentage of the men were deserters from Confederate service, while many of the unit’s officers came from outside of the state.
The First Florida Cavalry was organized at Fort Barrancas (Pensacola) from December 1863 to August 1864.  The unit operated in west Florida and southern Alabama during its enlistment.  Elements of the First Florida Cavalry participated in various scouts and expeditions, among which were actions at Camp Gonzalez and near Pollard, Alabama; the expedition to Marianna, Florida; and the campaign against Mobile, Alabama.  The regiment was mustered out of service in November 1865.


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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Moore February 9, 2009 at 1:34 pm

Interesting story about your ancestor, Fred. Thanks for sharing.

How was he finally able to explain-away his prior service in the Confederacy in order to obtain the Union pension? Just curious to hear more about what you may have found in his pension records. I’ve seen others do it in pension applications, but in most cases, the first response was a rejection, followed by an appeal with a fair number of testimonials providing proof of “not having borne arms voluntarily against the U.S.”


Robert Moore February 9, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Fred, also wanted to let you know that I added a link from Southern Unionists Chronicles to this story. Thanks again for sharing.


Fred Ray February 9, 2009 at 6:20 pm

If he had any problems they are not reflected in his pension record. Just about Southerner would have had prior Confederate service, since the draft was universal, unless he deserted prior to being conscripted. When he enlisted in US forces he would have had to take the oath of allegiance also.

His widow did have problems and apparently had to hire an attorney in Washington to pursue an appeal. This, so far as I’m able to tell, turned on her being able to prove that she was his lawful wife rather than any questions of prior Confederate service.


Robert Moore February 9, 2009 at 7:52 pm

That’s interesting. Perhaps he provided evidence enough in the initial application that he did not “voluntarily bear arms against the US.” In my experience with the Union pensions of former Confederates, no matter whether they took the oath to enlist or not, this was something that had to be proved.


Fred Ray February 9, 2009 at 9:11 pm

No question that he did “voluntarily bear arms” — he was not conscripted, altho he would have been like anyone else. Seems a rather two-faced policy to me, first to accept someone’s oath and service, then deny them a pension for something they did prior to it. That would have applied to virtually all the enlisted men of the 1st FL Cav. (US).


Robert Moore February 9, 2009 at 9:19 pm

Well, go figure. I’ve also run across a soldier who was awarded the MOH and was denied a pension!


Fred Ray February 9, 2009 at 9:49 pm

Really? I will defer to you since my knowledge of the subject is limited to my ancestor, but I will take another look at his pension file.

As I said, he also took advantage of a gov’t program that made land available to Union veterans at low cost.


Robert Moore February 10, 2009 at 7:08 am

The MOH pension thing, I thought, was rather bizarre. He clearly had injuries justifying compensation. The only thing that I can think of that blocked his getting the pension was that, after the war, he returned to England (Philip Baybutt, 2nd Mass. Cav.). His widow, however, received a pension (and she applied from England).

The entire Union pension system would be an excellent subject for study if someone would dare take it on (quite a massive undertaking).

Nonetheless, you having brought this up has re-ignited my interest in several issues surrounding Southerners in the Union army. Have you checked his home community in Alabama to see how many there served in the Union army?


Fred Ray February 11, 2009 at 10:38 am

No, but the 15th Confed. Cav. suffered from a major desertion problem and many, if not most, of the men in the 1st FL Cav. (US) were “alumni” of the 15th. There are rosters at both the Florida Archives in Tallahassee and at the Pensacola Public Library, so it should be a fairly straightforward matter to see who drops off one roster as a deserter and turns up on the other one.


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