When I wrote the post I may not have made my thought process as clear as I could have--my thought about the deserters was that they no longer believed in the cause, or possibly may never have--and it is tragic that they lost their lives as a result.
Strictly thinking in black and white terms and military regulations, they got what they deserved. But I see this more in terms of gray.
A cause worth going to war for should be able to sustain itself by its intrinsic worth, and be kept going by the quality of the civilian and military leadership that helped take it to war. Masses of desertions are signs that something is wrong somewhere along the line, with the cause itself or with the leadership.
I am nowhere near the scholar that you and many of the others that post here are -- I have only been a serious student of the war for less than 2 years. In that time, I've been trying to play catchup -- reading Foote, Catton, Davis and the like, and beginning to read detailed battle accounts and the OR. So my thinking is not as well developed as it may be in the future. I will also add that a little knowledge on my part can be a dangerous thing :\ so as I tell my own students, more work is needed.
As a southerner (North Ga.) I have always subscribed to the "lost cause" line of thinking on purely emotional and cultural grounds. I simply loved the South and still do and it could do no wrong, past or present.
But with all due respect to those who thought in the years leading up to the War that the South could win, I offer, retroactively, a simple observation on human nature. Without preparation, coherent strategy, assistance from allies, clear headed (and far sighted) leadership at the top (Richmond), an adequate supply system to keep the men from freezing and starving, the war could not have been won because all these things coalesced to defeat the Cause eventually and this failure is one of leadership.
The spirit of the fighting man seemed lost by the fall of 1863 and it would appear that the prospects of victory for the south after that were dim. The men deserting from the army overwintering in Whitfield County, Georgia knew this, as the lowly private always understands more than the leadership assumes.
The fighting spirit revived somewhat after the defeat at Chattanooga, with Johhston's appearance in 1864, with Cleburne's and Forrest's magnificent leadership, and again at the end in the battles in NC, but something was lost there on the side of Missionary Ridge that couldn't be retrieved.
By the time the men were shot for desertion in Whitfield County in 1864, the political leadership could no longer sell the idea of armed conflict to the citizenry as a whole for the reasons mentioned above that had extinguished a lot of the spirit of the soldiers. Some of the men fought as bravely as ever, but desertions were bleeding the army of men who simply were exhausted, disgusted, sick, hungry, and worried about their families at home.
It's a bit off topic, but I cannot understand why the civilian leaders didn't see that it was all over long before they did. Going back to the fall of 1863 when I believe it actually ended except for the fighting, with large areas of land lost to the federals, a successful blockade going on, losses in killed and wounded, the prospect of the North arming former slaves, England's refusal to join us, etc. why continue? And why were the generals on the ground not moved to action by the death and destruction, the bleeding bare feet, the haggard, starving men?
In answer to my own question of why continue -- I offer the opinion that Jefferson Davis became unhinged at some point and allowed his personal pride and innate stubbornness to dictate military and political policy and this more than anything, brought our beloved South to ruin.
His behavior-- from the fall of Richmond and onward--is testament to this state of mind but his problems as a leader existed well before that. In April 1865, with his world crumbling around him, and nearly everyone in his circle saying it was over, he still resisted. This kind of man cannot lead a country and quite frankly, the Confederacy, right or wrong, deserved better.
I realize that these are controversial viewpoints and all are open to refutation; they are merely offered as my observations at this point in time. Perhaps time and deeper scholarship will change my mind.