In the previous five posts, I profiled the cases of convicted deserters executed by the Army of the Potomac. From June 12 to October 2, the army executed twenty-three men for that crime. If you have been reading along, you know I have an explanation for why this surge of executions came when it did. I argue that Abraham Lincoln temporarily abandoned his normally lenient policy of pardoning convicted deserters when, in mid-1863, the stories of repeated Union defeats darkened his days. However, by late-autumn, Lincoln’s natural affinity for mercy resurfaced, and he began pardoning deserters who petitioned him. In October, he pardoned two convicted deserters from the 119th Pennsylvania whose parents begged for clemency, and in November, he did the same for a soldier from the 49th Pennsylvania. However, not all cases seemed to have warranted or been brought to his attention. Even after the bloody execution of Adam Schmalz, four more men suffered death by firing squad:
· On October 9, the 1st Division, 6th Corps, executed Private Joseph Connelly (4th New Jersey)
· On October 16, the 1st Division, 2nd Corps, executed Private James Haley (116th Pennsylvania) and the 1st Division, 3rd Corps, executed Private Henry Beardsley (5th Michigan)
· On October 30, the 2nd Division, 2nd Corps, executed Private John Roberts (15th Massachusetts)
By the last month of the year, the number of executed deserters had risen to twenty-seven, and every corps (except the Cavalry Corps) had carried out executions for deserters. The executions went on hiatus when Meade’s army embarked on the Rappahannock and Mine Run Campaigns, but when it returned to Brandy Station and established winter quarters, the executions started again, and justice was meted out on two more Fridays.
For this post, I’d like to examine those last two Fridays. They were December 4 and December 18. Even though many soldiers who witnessed them were viewing executions for the second or third time, these killings were just as vivid to the audience as they had been earlier in the year.
On December 4, the 1st Division, 3rd Corps, executed Private Cyrus Hunter, a soldier attached to the 3rd Maine. Corporal Wyman White of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters remembered Hunter’s case vividly. “The story of his troubles was sad,” White confided to his journal. “He could not be driven into a fight, and he acknowledged himself a coward.” In the past, the officers 3rd Maine had tried to be gracious with Hunter, assigning him to non-combat tasks. But even so, Hunter still deserted, and when he did, it cost him his officers’ good graces. He stood his court-martial, and upon conviction, he faced a death sentence.
December 4 was a beautiful day, weather-wise. The 1st Division, 3rd Corps, formed into a three-sided box with little trouble and it patiently awaited the arrival of Private Hunter. An ambulance carrying his coffin started the procession, followed by the drum corps, the provost marshal, and then a guard of five men at the position of “reverse arms.” Hunter and his chaplain followed next, followed by five more guards carrying their weapons at “charge bayonet.” Observers remarked how Hunter looked every inch a soldier, even as he marched to death at the hands of his comrades. Private Samuel B. Wing, who served in Hunter’s company, remembered that the condemned man was “in the prime of life, fine proportioned, weighing about 180 pounds, fine features and complexion, healthy, strong, and vigorous.” Corporal White agreed. He wrote, “The prisoner was a fine, clean looking man, I should judge about thirty years old and about six feet in height. He had a beautiful full beard and was in fine form physically.”
Additionally, Hunter betrayed no emotion as he walked to his grave. As he marched past his old company, Private Wing noticed his countenance. He wrote, “He seemed wholly indifferent to [his fate]. The chaplain who walked beside him, told me that he was perfectly unmoved and unconcerned. Oh! How hard the human heart can become!” Corporal White confirmed the same air of indifference. He wrote, “The man to be shot marched around that long line of soldiers, all facing him, as unconcerned as any man there, keeping step to the dead march being played by the drum corps, and he, the man who was too much of a coward to fight in battle.”
Private Hunter sat on his coffin and died cleanly, but only a few in the audience liked what they saw. Corporal White wondered how a professed coward could meet death so bravely. With disgust, White wagered, “It seemed to me that this man might have been made a brave and good soldier if his officers had taken the right course with him. It always seemed to me that the man ought not to have been shot.” Private Wing, who was a draftee and unused to such hard scenes, opined, “Some say, it was all right, that he deserved it; but it is more than I ever want to see again, or ever want to carry in my memory long.”
The day after Hunter’s execution, General Meade signed General Order Number 104. Five more condemned deserters were added to the death list, their executions scheduled for December 18. The army intended to squeeze in one more mass execution before the New Year. The convicted men were:
· Private Winslow N. Allen, 76th New York
· Private George E. Blowers, 2nd Vermont
· Private John Tague, 5th Vermont
· Private William H. Devoe, 57th New York
· Private John McMann, 11th U.S. Regulars
The oldest of the condemned men was Private William H. Devoe, age forty-six, a native of Utica, New York. Devoe had enlisted back on September 15, 1861, and had fought with his regiment, the 57th New York, through some of its toughest battles. He was last seen on July 2, 1863, when his regiment plunged into the George Rose Wheatfield at Gettysburg. Sometime later, authorities apprehended him, and he faced a court martial for desertion. The men of Devoe’s regiment had a tough time making sense of his crime. As one of them later wrote, “He was not a ‘bounty jumper’ but one of the first enlistments, had passed through several battles and was reported missing after Gettysburg. It was truly a funeral procession when the regiment marched to his execution.” The 1st Division, 2nd Corps, formed at Stevensburg and carried out Devoe’s execution. According to an observer, he died quickly, falling over his coffin, “instantly dead.”
Of the five executions held on December 18, the case of Private Winslow Allen was likely the strangest. Allen enlisted in Company H, 76th New York, back on December 4, 1861, when he was almost twenty-four-years-old. He deserted in the spring of 1862 before his regiment ever saw combat and he made his way back home to his wife and child. For more than a year, he remained undetected, but then he chose to go to the front again as a substitute. Allen took a $300 bounty and returned to the Union army in September 1863 with a detachment of eight men. Oddly enough, he was assigned to his old regiment—indeed, to his old company! He gave a fake name—Newton—but when his sergeant called the roll, his old comrades recognized his voice. The officers took him into custody and Allen stood trial for desertion.
Apparently, Allen did not expect to die for his crime. Back when he deserted in 1862, the death sentence for deserters had always been commuted or pardoned. Private Albert Smith of Company D narrated, “So many had been arrested and either returned to duty or punished by imprisonment and loss of pay, that he could not believe he would be sentenced to death. Others who had been sentenced to be shot had been pardoned, so that after the decision became known to him he still indulged in hope.” Allen’s company commander, Captain Amos Swan, tried to explain to him that his hope was in vain. As Private Smith related, “A day or two before his death he began to realize his situation, and to set about making preparations to enter ‘The undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveler returns’.”
At 2 P.M., December 18, Allen’s death proceedings began, and the 1st Division, 1st Corps, formed for the execution. Allen did not have a chaplain to console him. Instead, he relied on Captain Swan escort Allen to the hollow square. As they marched arm-and-arm, the prisoner underwent a rapid change of emotion. At first, remembered Private Smith, “He seemed calm and collected, and declared himself ready to die, if such must be his fate.” But as Swan and Allen marched to the grave and coffin, Allen could see the faces in the crowd. Smith continued:
As they marched to the mournful measure of the death march, and neared the fatal spot where the rough coffin and gaping grave were waiting to receive their victim, he seemed suddenly struck with terror, and, seizing the Captain’s hand with a vice-like grasp, thus remained until they arrived at the coffin. Around him were formed his companions whom he had deserted. The grave which was to receive him as a loathsome criminal, was fresh beside him. It was a severe test of his physical courage. To none but the Captain was there the exhibition of the least emotion.
The sergeant of the guard placed Allen on the foot of his coffin. He tied a blindfold over his eyes and pinioned his hands. The provost marshal, Captain John A. Kellogg, read aloud the order of execution, and Captain Swan whispered into Allen’s ear: “Winslow, I can go no further with you; the rest of your dark journey is alone. Have you any last word[s] for your wife and child?” Allen replied, “No, Only tell them I love them all!” These were his last words. Swan stepped aside and Kellogg gave the signal. One member of Allen’s regiment, Private Uberto Burnham, wrote home that the execution was quick and painless: “Everything passed off in the best of order. The prisoner was hit by eleven bullets. He died without a struggle.” Private Smith agreed: “He died without a perceptible movement of a muscle.” Strangely, it was Allen’s birthday. He had just turned twenty-six.
Although only a few in the line wished to see Allen executed, his situation did not elicit many sympathies from the men who watched him die. One of the sterner characters wrote home: “It is hard, I know, but without such punishment there could be no army!”
Meanwhile, over in the camp of the 2nd Division, 6th Corps, a dual execution occurred, this one for Private John Tague and Private George Blowers. As always, the division assigned to carry out the killings formed up in a three-sided box facing the graves. The soldiers who observed the execution stood at “order arms” for about one hour until two ambulances drove onto the site, bearing the condemned men and their coffins. One of the soldiers in line, Private Wilbur Fisk, wrote, “It seemed as if some horrible tragedy in a theater were about to be enacted, rather than a real preparation for an execution.” The most alarming thing about it was the behavior of John Tague, who, as the orders of execution were being read, threw his hat onto the ground in bold defiance. Two chaplains stepped to the sides of Tague and Blowers, bade them kneel, and delivered a prayer. After that, the sergeant of the guard conducted them to their coffins and made them kneel again. He put two massive rings around their necks which suspended targets on their chests. (By now, authorities had realized that the firing squads needed to be coaxed into taking a kill shot.) Strangely, this execution contained no reserve. That is, no one expected the prisoners to live beyond the first volley. Two platoons of men faced each prisoner, and the prisoners were not blindfolded. Private Fisk recorded the final moments:
Blowers had been sick, his head slightly drooped as if oppressed with a terrible sense of the fate he was about to meet. He had requested that he might see his brother in Co. A, but his brother was not there. He had no heart to see the execution, and had been excused from coming. Tague was firm and erect till the last moment, and when the order was given to fire, he fell like dead weight, his face resting on the ground, and his feet still remaining on the coffin. Blowers fell at the same time. He exclaimed, “O dear me!” struggled for a moment, and was dead. Immediately our attention was called away by the loud orders of our commanding officers, and we marched in columns around the spot where the bodies of the two men were lying just as they fell. God grant that another such punishment may never be needed in the Potomac Army.
This was Private Fisk’s first execution. Like many who witnessed such tragic scenes, he never forgot what he saw:
I never was obliged to witness a sight like that before, and I sincerely hope a long time may intervene before I am thus called upon again. . . . These men were made examples, and executed in the presence of the Division, to deter others from the same crime. Alas, that it should be necessary! Such terrible scenes can only blunt men’s finer sensibilities and burden them the more; and Heaven knows that the influences of a soldier’s life are hardening enough already. . . . I have seen men shot down by scores and hundreds in the field of battle, and have stood within arm’s reach of comrades that were shot dead; but I believe I never have witnessed that from which any soul shrunk with such horror, as to see those two soldiers shot dead in cold blood at the iron decree of military law.
Finally, over at the encampment of the 2nd Division, 5th Corps, the Army of the Potomac carried out one more execution. Only a few hours earlier, the soldiers of that division had learned that high command intended to execute Private John McMann of the 11th U.S. Regulars. No one was in the mood for it, yet the division marched one mile from camp, through awful mud, and formed a three-sided box. The enlisted men grumbled until the procession appeared, which cast a pall of silence over the scene. The band arrived first, followed by the eleven executioners. Next, came four men carrying the coffin, the condemned prisoner, a chaplain, and a provost guard of forty men. Of all the deserters killed between June and December, Private McMann showed the most surprising sense of decorum. According to Sergeant Porter Marshall of the 155th Pennsylvania, “The culprit marched to the time with a firm step, recognizing acquaintances and saluting the Generals as he passed them.” After parading past his former comrades, McMann kneeled in front of his grave and joined the chaplain in prayer which lasted five to ten minutes. Then, the chaplain blindfolded him, shook his hand, and stepped to the side. Sergeant Marshall remembered, “Everything was as still as death. He remained on his knees, his head erect. The officer gave the command by signs, and when the guns cracked, he fell forward on his face and knees, and in a few minutes he was in his grave and we were on our way back to camp.”
Although nearly every member of the 2nd Division, 5th Corps, had seen an execution before—most of them had been present to witness the August 29 execution of the five deserters from the 118th Pennsylvania—none of them felt that the scene had gotten any easier. Sergeant Marshall wrote, “We had hoped, after witnessing the execution of the five deserters at Beverly Ford, that it would never be necessary to witness another. It is a sight that no one need be desirous of seeing.”
Amazingly, all six soldiers executed in December had died cleanly, something that could not be said about the executions carried out in the previous months.
Amazingly, all six soldiers executed in December had died cleanly, something that could not be said about the executions carried out in the previous months.
In any event, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac had five months to mull over what they had seen. In May 1864, the army marched into the Wilderness. The real killing began. At that point, more sinister images filled their nightmares.