The Deserters of Steelton

Men drafted during the first World War would have been required to report for basic training at camps like this one in Elizabethtown. Many of the deserters on the lists likely failed to show up at these camps. This image was taken by me at the Pennsylvania State Archives on March 12, 2020.

This post is a continuation of my previous one. In that post, I discussed my discovery of the World War I deserter lists in the Pennsylvania State Archives which had a disproportionate number of names listed as coming from Steelton. With help from my professor, Dr. Pettegrew, I have been studying the demographics of the Steelton names on the deserter lists. What we have found is rather puzzling.

Looking through the census records for Steelton for 1910 and 1920, we found the names on the deserter lists to be very elusive. While individuals with the same or similar last names would appear, none of them were matches for the ones on the deserter lists. Even these similar names never corresponded with the addresses the deserters were listed as registering under. We decided a more productive strategy was to look at the addresses provided. We could use the census data to discover who lived at these places when the census was taken. Since Steelton was somewhat segregated by race and nationality during this period, this should at least give us a general idea on the demographics on the names on the lists.

In both census years, roughly three quarters of the addresses were in the same ward, Ward 3. In contrast with my initial theory, only 17% in 1910 and 10% in 1920 were occupied by immigrants. The rest had all been born in the United States. 64% of the occupants in 1910 and 82% in 1920 were African American. This gave me pretty good evidence that most of the deserters on the lists were probably African American as well. This theory was reinforced by some newspaper articles from the time period I was able to find that discuss the deserters from Steelton. They frequently take time to mention if the deserter in question was “colored.” The articles also reveal that it is likely most deserters either were drafted and failed to report to their training camps or reenlisted after the war and left their stations without permission.

But why? Why this demographic? The U.S. Army during World War I was highly segregated (just like the rest of the country), so that may have had something to do with their reluctance to report for duty. Many may have resented the idea of being shipped overseas to fight in a war they had no stake in, possibly leaving families behind without support. Another article from the time suggests another possibility, that at least some of the men may have been falsely accused. The article reported that at least two men listed as deserters on a list published by the draft board were actually serving as officers at the time. This was in 1917, about four years before the lists I discovered in the archives were issued. This points to the possibility of the same mistake occurring again.

There is another factor to consider. The difficulty of finding these men in the census suggests a great deal of instability in their lives. They may have been moving too frequently for the census to catch them, and some may even have been homeless. What we do know is that in both 1910 and 1920, almost three quarters of households in the wards the deserters originated (Wards 3, 4, and 5 in 1910 and Wards 1, 3, 4, and 5 in 1920) from did not own their own property. They either rented property or boarded with other families. In 1910, only 58 out of the 259 heads of African American households within them owned property. In 1920, things had improved slightly, with 110 out of 439 household heads owning property. In both cases, however, this was slightly below the rate for the rest of the wards, 20-25% African American property owners to general 25-30%. In 1910, the percentage of African Americans in these wards who boarded with other families was slightly below that of the rest of the town, 18% to the general 20%. By 1920, however, the situation was reversed, with the percentage of African American boarders more than double the rate of the rest of the town, 24% to the town’s 10%. This most likely points to an influx of African American migrants, probably from the south, taking up residence in Steelton. It is possible that many of the names on the deserter lists consisted of these people. In any case, the findings point to emerging racial tensions in Steelton, a microcosm of the experience of the nation as a whole, though perhaps not quite as intense as in other places.

There is another problem I should bring up. In my last post, I mentioned how I was only able to get through one box of material during my research at the archives. This box primarily contained material pertaining to the 1917 draft in Dauphin and Cumberland counties as well as the deserter lists from the same region. It is possible that other boxes could have also contained similar lists that would have altered my findings. I find the possibility unlikely, given the organization of material in the archives, but it should be noted nonetheless.

Based on data from the 1910 and 1920 censuses of Steelton, it is likely that most of the men whose names were on the deserter lists were African American soldiers, like these men from the 366th Infantry Regiment, a segregated unit that fought in World War I. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black_soldiers_wwi.jpg

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