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January 18, 2014

Civil War deserters challenged local law enforcers in 1864

The Daily Star

---- — Area law enforcers had their hands full with rough-and-tumble activities in the early months of 1864. While there were still many enlisting in the Civil War, there were also many local deserters from the front lines, and it was the latter men who challenged the authorities. These accounts came from January editions of The Oneonta Herald.

“A DESPERADO.—Sheriff Mather a few days ago arrested a deserter in the town of Milford, named Doolitttle,” it was reported on Jan. 6, 1864. “Doolittle, when arrested, claimed to have a discharge and the Sheriff went with him to his house to satisfy himself of the truth of the claim. Instead of producing a discharge, he presented a loaded revolver to the Sheriff’s breast, and said: ‘there is my discharge and G—d d—n you, if you don’t leave the house I’ll blow you through.’ This took the Sheriff by surprise, as it was not the sort of discharge he was looking for. The Sheriff left the house and started for assistance, and Doolittle started out to make his escape. The Sheriff observing his intention, endeavored to head him off, when Doolittle fired at him, the ball missing by a few inches. The Sheriff returned the fire, and the deserter deserted for the woods, followed by the Sheriff and several others, and made good his escape, although the sheriff fired three more shots at him, and followed him for several more hours, when all track of him was lost. Doolittle has deserted twice, and knowing his fate should be retaken, was determined to sell his life as dearly as possible. Some of the Copperheads express great satisfaction at the escape of Doolittle, and regret exceedingly that he did not murder the Sheriff.”

Copperheads were a political group at the time opposed to the Civil War, persuading Union soldiers to desert. They were highly encouraged by the Confederacy.

“DESERTER SHOT.—Officer Selah Fish went to Pittsfield, Otsego county, on Sunday to arrest a deserter named Brown,” came news on Jan. 20. “He entered the house where the young man was stopping and found him in the company of his father. On stating his business, the two made an attack on him, one of them striking him with a knife. The deserter then tried to escape, when Mr. Fish fired upon him. The first shot struck him in the arm, above the elbow; the second in the leg below the knee; the third, which stopped him, in the thigh. Brown was brought to Norwich and lodged in jail, and on Monday the balls were taken out. He was pretty badly hurt.”

The deserter Brown was likely an observer of this next event, seen in the Jan. 27 edition, shared from the weekly Chenango County Telegraph.

“ATTEMPT TO OPEN THE JAIL.—On Thursday night, the Sheriff being absent on business, his son Charles was left in charge of the jail, about 11 o’clock he was awakened by a knock upon the outside door…and on asking ‘who was there?’ was answered, ‘a man with a prisoner.’ He opened the door and a single man, of large frame and slouching habit, stalked into the sitting room and took his seat near the door that opens into the hall next to the cells. He demanded the keyes (sic) and was ordered to leave. Then a scuffle ensued, in which Charley was thrown down and slightly choked. Charley got to his feat (sic) and seized the poker, with which he knocked the intruder down. On being let up he made another demonstration, but was impelled towards the outer door by a well-directed blow and was finally thrust out.”

“This was a very bold attempt to open the doors of our local prison, and we have no doubt that the Sheriff will bring the offender to punishment as soon as he can lay hands upon him.”

These were only a few reports of problems with war deserters during the early months of 1864.

On Monday: Local educational debates and advancements were prominent news items in January 1969.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at His website is His columns can be found at