“Never Was a Deserter” – An Officer Defends a Unionville Soldier’s Honor

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An engraving of a soldier deserting and being caught. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the fall of 1862, after the 18th Missouri Infantry’s trial by fire at Shiloh, Capt. George Wyckoff penned an official statement about one of his men. Pvt. Charles Gray of Company D went missing in the Spring of 1862 and was subsequently accused of desertion by the regimental command. However, for Capt. Wyckoff, he knew Gray was innocent and wanted to make the record straight.

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Capt. George Wyckoff after the war. Courtesy of FindaGrave.

While the Army of the Tennessee was stationed at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, Gray became seriously ill, stricken with chronic diarrhea. On April 15, Gray was officially admitted to a hospital on the field. In Gray’s official Compiled Service Record, there are many discrepancies. Gray was reportedly absent from February until April 9, 1862. The young soldier from Unionville, Missouri had no idea that his journey to a Northern hospital would turn into a debate over his “manhood” and “self honor.”

Eventually making his way to the U.S. General Hospital at Newburgh, Indiana, Gray died on June 7.

In his record, though, the Regiment had listed him as having deserted. His company commander, Capt. Wyckoff, wrote an official statement to prove that Gray had not deserted and had remained with his unit until May, when he was taken ill.

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Official statement by George Wyckoff, unknown date. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

The letter above is the official statement from the Missouri Historical Society’s manuscript collection in St. Louis.[1]

Now, Wyckoff’s testimony unveils quite a bit about who Gray was as a soldier. Firstly, Wyckoff had, “raised Company D’s ninety-two men almost entirely from Putnam [County].” So, Wyckoff, a Putnam County farmer, personally knew his men and clearly defended them.[2] If Gray had been a “shirker” or “deserter” as claimed, Wyckoff would not have defended his honor. Similar to what Dr. Peter S. Carmichael argued in his new study on the common soldier, many soldiers (even junior officers) understood that every soldier had his breaking point. Did Gray just go AWOL in the late winter/early spring of 1862 by returning home? Many soldiers understood that a visit home was essential to boosting a man’s morale and his battlefield performance.[3]

It is tough to say exactly what happened with Gray and why there are discrepancies in his record. But, we do know that his own company commander put his own military career on the line to defend his soldier and his honor.


Sources: 

  1. Statement of George Wyckoff, unknown date, Missouri Historical Society.
  2. Leslie Anders, The Eighteenth Missouri (Indianapolis, IN: The Bobbs-Merrill Company,  1968), 14.
  3. Peter S. Carmichael, The War for the Common Soldier: How Men Thought, Fought, and Survived in Civil War Armies (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 174-181.

One thought on ““Never Was a Deserter” – An Officer Defends a Unionville Soldier’s Honor

  1. My great-grandfather Henry Clay Shelton was too young to enlist in the Civil War, but his 8 older brothers all served. A few of them served under Capt. Wyckoff. Four of these brothers died of disease, and one brother (Daniel Morgan Shelton) was wounded at Shiloh and taken prisoner (his experiences in the war are recorded in “The 18th Missouri” by Leslie Anders.) They were from Unionville, Putnam County, Missouri.

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