After years of development, Penn State University Libraries, in partnership with the Richards Civil War Era Center, has launched the Pennsylvania Civil War Deserters Database. Containing more than 24,000 individual records of soldiers, the interactive database allows users to search the compiled records for individual solders by name, but also identify groups of soldiers by specific criteria such as blacksmiths who deserted or number of desertions following the Battle of Gettysburg.
The database, a digitized copy of an original 1866 roster of Pennsylvania’s Civil War deserters, titled “The Descriptive List of Deserters, Supplied by the U.S.” and compiled by the Provost Marshal General’s Office at the request of the Pennsylvania legislature, represents a powerful untapped resource for researchers and students, specifically for Civil War and military historians, and genealogists.
“We expect this trove of data will get heavy use from military history scholars and inspire creative data uses that can generate new conclusions about who deserted from the Union Army,” said Eric Novotny, history librarian at Penn State University Libraries. “Additionally, we hope community members will make use of the database to learn about family members who served.”
The original document, a 274-page large leather-bound book, was donated to Penn State’s Eberly Family Special Collections Library by the Centre County Library & Historical Museum, where it had been housed for decades. The 1866 roster was created for use by Pennsylvania’s counties for the purpose of disqualifying men from voting who had enlisted in the Union army and later failed to report for duty. Cited as deserters, such men were considered disloyal Democrats by the Republican-dominated Pennsylvania legislature, who sought to discriminate against them by restricting their votes. The document included physical descriptors such as height and weight; military rank and enlistment date; and demographic descriptors including birthplace, occupation and ethnicity. This information enabled election officials in the 1866 election to challenge suspected deserters at the polls to prevent them from casting ballots.
Today, the roster provides a wealth of information on the kinds of people who deserted and details that could aid in understanding this period of America’s struggle to preserve the nation, said William Blair, Walter L. and Helen P. Ferree Professor of Middle American History and director of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University. Blair, who was instrumental in the digitization and creation of the interactive database created from “The Descriptive List of Deserters,” sees the database as singular in its design and application, specifically because of its interactive nature.
“When massaged by historians, the data could reveal regional patterns of desertion in the state, the social status of the men, whether foreigners deserted more than native born (or vice versa), and the peak times for desertion,” Blair wrote in 2011, adding “Historians may discover other ways to employ the information in the future.”
For instance, similar databases might include some of the same information about soldiers, listed digitally and available for research. But the Roster of Pennsylvania Deserters database is interactive, meaning that users can search the compiled records for individual soldiers by name, but also identify groups of soldiers by more specific criteria such as location of birth, enlistment or desertion, as well as rank, branch, regiment, unit or occupation. Since becoming fully operational, the hope is that the database will be invaluable to historians, genealogists and Civil War enthusiasts across Pennsylvania, since deserter records exist for every county within the commonwealth.
“The Roster of Pennsylvania Deserters database represents an untapped resource for researchers and students, said Blair. “Scholars have scarcely touched this kind of record, and we can’t wait to see the mysteries that it will help solve.”