Today we’re returning to the hills of wild and wonderful West Virginia to take a very personal look at an issue that has plagued armies since the dawn of time – desertion. It was a constant drain on manpower for both armies during the Civil War. Most studies show that somewhere in the ballpark of 10 percent of the men mustered for service in the Union armies deserted. Southern armies saw a similar rate of desertion, but these numbers could fluctuate wildly (1). The tide of military fortune was one factor. After the crushing defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg desertion rates spiked in the Army of the Potomac, and claims that 200 men a day were leaving the army were not uncommon. Confederate armies saw massive jumps in desertion in late 1864 and early 1865, as it became clear that the tide of the war had decisively turned. Political events had their effect as well. Unpopular policy, like the Confederate Conscription Act and Lincon’s Emancipation Proclamation encouraged some men to abandon their respective causes.
Most deserters, however, were likely motivated by more personal factors. Some men were simply homesick, or had enough of military life. For some the horrors of combat were too much to bear any longer. Many men in the south left their units and returned home, fearful for their family’s safety as northern armies made inroads. These sentiments were spurred on by the US Government, who offered amnesty to rebel deserters and allowed them to return home. Other deserters were more mercenary, and made a living as a “bounty jumper” – that is enlisting in order to collect a bonus, then deserting and “jumping” to another regiment to repeat the process. Regardless of the motivation, however, desertion could be extremely dangerous. Deserters faced imprisonment or execution if caught.
Of the more than 5,000 men who served in the Home Brigade during the war around 400 deserted, for a desertion rate of around 8 percent. This is slightly lower than the overall rates for other Union troops, and we can guess at the reasons why. Proximity to home and family possibly played a role in this. While desertions weren’t quite as common it was certainly not uncommon for men in the Home Brigade to go AWOL – typically for a few days at a time – and then return to the ranks. Unlike men serving farther to the south it was easy for them to see their loved ones. Remember too, that for these men they were protecting their own homes and farms along the Upper Potomac, so there was motivation to stay.
One deserter who served in the Potomac Home Brigade was 18 year old Private John Foskey. He enlisted at Cumberland in Company I of the 2nd PHB Infantry in October 1862. At 5’5″ tall he was a small young man, with light hair and gray eyes (2). In his civilian life he was a farmer. In almost every respect he seemed typical of the men who served in the Home Brigade…except for one thing. He didn’t desert from the Potomac Home Brigade…Private Foskey deserted into the Potomac Home Brigade.
The first clue that John Foskey had an interesting backstory came in his compiled service record. Not only does it provide that great physical description, but it also states his place of birth:
Foskey was born in Johnson County, Georgia. Now, there are a handful of guys from the deep south who end up in the Home Brigade. Most of them moved north in the years before the war, but not John Foskey. Here he is in the 1860 census, living near Wrightsville smack in the middle of Johnson County:
John was living with his parents and six siblings in year before the war broke out on a 1,700 acre sheep farm (3). In the spring of 1862 John and his brothers Jonas and William (along with a number of other relatives) joined up with Company F of the 48th Georgia Infantry – nicknamed the “Battleground Guards” (4). The Georgians were sent north to serve in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Foskey brothers saw action during the Seven Days, at 2nd Manassas, and Antietam. As Lee’s army crossed back into Virginia following his abortive Maryland Campaign, however, it seems that John Foskey had enough. We don’t know his motivations, but on September 22, 1862 the young private left his unit and his brothers behind as they marched from Martinsburg towards Winchester. This was the last mention of Foskey in the Confederate records.
It doesn’t take long for John Foskey to reappear in Union service records, and a little over two weeks later and he’s 40 miles northwest of Winchester in Cumberland, Maryland. He joined Company I of the 2nd PHB Infantry on October 11.
John Foskey wasn’t the only Confederate deserter to find his way into the Potomac Home Brigade. There was Craven Shell of Clarke County, Virginia. He served with Chew’s Horse Artillery before deserting in the winter of 1863 and subsequently enlisting in the 13th Maryland (the old 1st PHB Infantry) in February, 1865. Another Clarke County native was John Carrigan, who I mentioned while discussing the Battle of Cool Spring . He served as a musician in the 2nd Virginia Regiment in the famed Stonewall Brigade. In the spring of 1862 he ran off and then reemerged as a musician in the 3rd PHB Infantry. In the summer of 1864 he guided Union forces over the Blue Ridge and to the Shenandoah River before the Battle of Cool Spring. Another Virginian, George C. Wilcher, has an equally fascinating story. A native of Mount Crawford in Rockingham County, Wilcher also served in the Stonewall Brigade, as a private in the 33rd Virginia Infantry. He was wounded at the first Battle of Manassas, but later rejoined his regiment. In November 1863 he deserted and the following March he entered the ranks of the 3rd PHB Infantry at Barton, Md. He went missing following the Battle of Monocacy and it was presumed that he had deserted again, but he later turned up in a hospital in Baltimore. It seems his wounds caught up with him at this point, as he was taken into the Veteran Reserve Corps and spent the remainder of his enlistment garrisoning forts in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He died in near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1910 at the ripe old age of 74.
Unfortunately, the story of John Foskey doesn’t have a happy ending. While service in the 2nd PHB Infantry wasn’t as intense as it had been in the 48th Georgia, the bushwhacking war in West Virginia still had its dangers. Foskey and many of his new comrades found this out the hard way in January 1864. Early on Friday, January 27 a detachment of the regiment, along with the 4th WV Cavalry and the Ringgold Cavalry, set out southward from New Creek with a large wagon train in tow. Their destination was the small garrison at Petersburg, WV, about 25 miles away as the crow flies.
Eighty wagons laden with supplies followed winding mountain roads to the valley of Patterson Creek until they got word that the 23rd Illinois was ahead near Moorefield Junction and to press on as quickly as possible. When they got to within 2 1/2 miles of that location they found the Illinoisians hard pressed by rebel troops near the village of Medley. The convoy escort fanned out, with the Marylanders taking the center of the line, the Illinois troops on the left, and the West Virginians on the right (5). No sooner had the Federals taken their position than Confederate artillery opened on them, and for the next eighty minutes the mountains echoed the sounds of battle. After having repulsed three Confederate charges the Federals were pressed back and orders were given to turn the wagons around. Chaos ensued as teamsters fled and wagons broke down. Orders were given to abandon the train in order to save the command. Half of the wagons were taken by the rebels, and the remainder were burned (6).
Federal losses were five killed, 34 wounded, and 35 missing (and assumed captured). Among the captured were at least five men of the 2nd PHB Infantry, including the unlucky Private Foskey. All five of the Home Brigaders would be sent to Andersonville. None of the five would survive the ordeal. Records don’t indicate the exact nature of John Foskey’s death. His service record simply states “died at Andersonville.”
That was the end of the remarkable story of one Civil War deserter. He served in both armies and through some of the hardest fighting of the war, only to be undone in a backwater ambush. In the end John Foskey received a cruelly ironic homecoming. He was a native son of Georgia, now buried wearing Union blue in an unmarked grave somewhere under the Georgia clay.
1 For more on the topic see Ella Lonn, Desertion during the Civil War (New York and London: Century Co., 1928); Mark A. Weitz, More Damning than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005); and Cashin, Joan E. “Deserters, Civilians, and Draft Resistance in the North,” in The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War, edited by Joan E. Cashin. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.
2 NARA M384. Compiled military service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to the State of Maryland. Roll: 0212
3 1860; Census Place: District 83, Johnson, Georgia; Archive Collection Number: T1137; Roll: T1137:5; Line: 25
4 NARA M266. Compiled service records of Confederate soldiers from Georgia units. Roll:0491
5 OR Series I, Volume 33. Pp 40-41.
6 Ibid p 30.