Furloughs were formal leaves from military service granted to enlisted men from the Union or Confederate armies. These furloughs, whether bestowed on Yankee or Rebel soldiers, could only be granted by commanding officers attached to the soldier's company or regiment. Military officers also could apply for furloughs, but the rules that applied were often at least nominally different, and officer furloughs were more commonly called "leaves."
How the Furlough Programs Worked
Furlough requests in both the Northern and Southern armies were torturous affairs. Requests were subject to approval from a long list of offices, and it could take months to receive a definitive answer. Moreover, this long wait often ended in disappointment, with the request refused. Perhaps inevitably, the seeming capriciousness of commanders in determining who would and would not receive furloughs led to conspiracy theories among the rank and file. "There always seemed to be grounds for finding partiality in cases where furloughs were granted, and these were seized upon and magnified by those who were disappointed," wrote one scholar in describing the prevailing sentiments in Confederate units. "Married men complained that single comrades were preferred, and vice versa; poor men were convinced that wealthy men were favored, privates grumbled that officers received a disproportionate share of leaves" (Wiley 1992, p. 139).
Soldiers who did receive furloughs typically received leave of several weeks, in part to accommodate the extensive travel time that was often required simply to get to and from home. Men on furlough were required to leave government-issued firearms and other equipment behind. They were also required to carry army documents that provided beginning and ending dates for the furlough, detailed description of the furloughed soldier's physical appearance and unit affiliation, and a record of pay and subsistence allowances furnished. Furlough papers clearly warned soldiers that failure to return to military service by the date specified would result in their classification as a deserter.
Anger and Dismay
As the Civil War progressed, both armies used promises of generous furloughs to encourage reenlistment. Entire Union regiments, for example, were offered "veteran's furloughs" if they reenlisted. This inducement had its desired effect, for it gave veterans a means by which they could simultaneously remain committed to military duties and check on family and property back home. Some soldiers who took these veteran's furloughs, however, found it difficult to depart again from home once they were back in the loving arms of family.
Another problem was that the armies broke their furlough promises to some soldiers. As the war progressed and Union forces moved deeper into Southern territory, Federal commanders increasingly turned down furlough requests on the grounds that the soldiers were too far from home to make furloughs practical. In the Confederate Army, meanwhile, troop shortages and military setbacks in various theatres of operation made it increasingly difficult for soldiers to coax furlough approvals from commanders. This in turn created significant morale problems in many Rebel units. As Confederate General Daniel H. Hill (1821–1889) opined, "If our brave soldiers are not permitted to visit their homes, the next generation in the South will be composed of the descendants of skulkers and cowards" (quoted in Robertson 1984, p. 55).
Military authorities in both the North and South had a ready assortment of responses to these complaints. When they denied furloughs that had been previously promised in return for reenlistment (or for procuring recruits or returning deserters to their units), they patiently explained that rising desertion rates and the evolving military situation made it impossible for them to make good on their promises. In the face of this disappointment, thousands of soldiers simply went home anyhow.
Robertson, James I., Jr. Soldiers Blue and Gray. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.
Robertson, James I., Jr., and the editors of Time-Life Books. Tenting Tonight: The Soldier's Life. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1984.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy. Indianapolis, IN, and New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1943. Reprint, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.
Williams, David. A People's History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom. New York: New Press, 2005.