Dear Ms. Campbell,
Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!
Military law is governed by Acts of Congress. On 10 April 1806, the United States Congress enacted 101 Articles of War which applied to both the Army and the Navy. We suggest that you review An act establishing rules and articles for the government of the armies of the United States… Article 20 on page 18 provides for a penalty of death or other punishment as by sentence of court martial may be inflicted. This was revised May 29, 1830 to specify that desertion in times of peace not be punished with death. Also, even without the peacetime exemption, many courts martial chose to inflict lesser punishments.
We searched the National Archives Catalog and located Court Martial Case Files, 12/1800 - 10/1894 in the Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army) (Record Group 153) that may include examples of courts martial trials for desertion in the 1850s. For more information about these records, please email the National Archives at Washington, DC - Textual Reference (RDT1) at Archives1reference@nara.gov.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and pursuant to guidance received from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), NARA has adjusted its normal operations to balance the need of completing its mission-critical work while also adhering to the recommended social distancing for the safety of NARA staff. As a result of this re-prioritization of activities, you may experience a delay in receiving an initial acknowledgement as well as a substantive response to your reference request from RDT1. We apologize for this inconvenience and appreciate your understanding and patience.
We also searched online and located “Were They Really Rogues: Desertion in the 19th Century.” In addition to the information in the article itself, it lists many sources in the Notes section at the end that may suggest additional avenues for research. In addition, The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898 by Edward M. Coffman may provide insight into this topic, as might books in the Indian Wars.
We hope this is helpful. Best of luck with your research!