Henry A. Freeman
At fourteen, an age when most children are becoming adjusted to high school, Henry A. Freeman found himself alone on a picket line, a member of the Union Army just outside the Confederate capital of Richmond. Suddenly, a group of Confederates appeared, opening fire. The young man is overwhelmed, certainly scared and vulnerable. Wounded three times, Furthermore, Freeman is an African American, and knows that if he is captured by Confederate soldiers, he could be executed for inciting a “slave revolt”.
These conditions give some insight into what Henry A. Freeman of the 29th Connecticut had to endure. Freeman’s lack of records leaves an imprecise and vague account of his life and career as a soldier. Freeman enlisted in the 29th Connecticut in December 1863; to do so, he lied about his age, stating that he was 18. (When he applied for a pension record two decades later, he admitted that he was only 14 when he joined the army). Most of what we know about Freeman springs from his medical records. That night on picket duty near Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia - October 10th, 1864 - Freeman was struck by three bullets in rapid succession. The first struck him in the right arm, above the elbow. The second, below his right knee. The third hit him below the joint in his left thumb. The nature of his wounds suggests that Freeman encountered a large number of Confederates, and did not have time to run. Had he been captured by the Confederates, Freeman almost certainly would have been killed. However, he was rescued by his comrades, and sent first to a field hospital close behind the Union lines outside Richmond. Eventually, he made his way to the Knight General Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. Freeman remained in the hospital for months before returning to the Union Army. However, on March 25th, 1865, Henry Freeman deserted.
Knight Hospital, New Haven
Few words in the military carry as negative a stigma as desertion, which is usually associated with the abandonment of duty. And in 19th century America, duty meant a sacred responsibility. But, as historian Peter Carmichael demonstrates in his book The War for the Common Soldier, desertion was not uncommon. Nearly 300,000 men in the union army deserted over the duration of the war. That comes out to be around 14.3 percent, “based on 2.1 million Union enlisted.” Carmichael adds that the reasons “why a soldier would take such risks and desert can rarely be boiled down to a matter of loyalty or war weariness. (...) Poverty, disaffection for the cause, privations, resentment of tyrannical officers or the national government, and cries for relief from their home” could all spur desertion. Prior experiences also played a role. Men who were outstanding soldiers reached the point where they had seen too much, and walked away from the war. In late March, Union forces were told to prepare for what was expected to be the final assault on the Confederate fortifications around Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Henry Freeman deserted on March 25th. In hindsight, his actions, if not laudatory, seem understandable. There could be no doubt he had done his duty. The thought of another encounter with the Confederates may have seemed too much for Freeman, who had just returned from recovering from his serious wounds. Physically recovered, perhaps he never recovered from the trauma of that night on picket duty. And he was, after all, only 15 or 16 years old.