Confederate stragglers

by Fred Ray on July 11, 2006 · 0 comments

Dmitri Rotov is into an interesting subject now: that of straggling. This was a problem for both sides, but seems to have been worse for the Confederates. Just as one example, in his post-Antietam report, General D. H. Hill complains of

The enormous straggling. The battle was fought with less than 30,000 men. Had all our stragglers been up, McClellan’s army would have been completely crushed or annihilated. Doubtless the want of shoes, the want of food, and physical exhaustion had kept many brave men from being with the army; but thousands of thieving poltroons had kept away from sheer cowardice. The straggler is generally a thief and always a coward, lost to all sense of shame; he can only be kept in ranks by a strict and sanguinary discipline.

(source OR Ser I XIX/1: 1018)

However, the fall of 1862 can’t really be seen as typical. Both armies had been under enormous stress since spring and had suffered severe losses in their command structures. This was particularly true of the Federals. McClellan ended up in command of an ad hoc army composed of parts of his Peninsular army and Pope’s demoralized Army of Virginia, plus quite a number of new regiments that had been in uniform for less than six weeks. These men were just not up to marching long distances.

I haven’t looked closely at the issue, but there are those who claim that on September 18, 1862, stragglers coming in had just about made up the losses that Lee had suffered the day before. Hill describes the two types of straggler — the man who dropped out from exhaustion and the man who just wanted to stay out of battle. By 1864 both armies had taken stern measures against straggling, but these were never entirely effective.

This is one of those long-overlooked topics that merits a closer look.

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