Friday, May 13, 2016

All Except These Fellows Who Foolishly Signed Three-Year Papers.

Thanks to a certain movie, it’s kind of a well-known event among us Civil War nerds, that on May 23, 1863, 120 veterans from the from the defunct 2nd Maine—a two-year regiment that mustered-out on May 19—had to join unwillingly the ranks of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. These 120 unfortunate soldiers had to undergo their unpleasant transfer because, back in 1861, they had foolishly signed on for a three-year tour-of-duty instead of a two-year tour-of-duty, unlike everyone else in their regiment. Understandably, this merger put the 20th Maine’s commander, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, in an unenviable position. His corps commander, Major General George Meade, had told him to force the 2nd Maine men to join the 20th Maine or to execute them; or as Meade wrote, “make them do duty, or shoot them down.” Famously, Chamberlain handled the dyspeptic 2nd Maine veterans in a generous way, telling them that it was their choice to fight or not. He would not execute a single soldier for the crime of wanting to return home with his former unit. Amazingly, of those 120 “mutineers” from the 2nd Maine, all but six elected to honor their enlistment contract, choosing to fight alongside the soldiers of the 20th Maine for an additional year.

I prefer to remind people that the 20th Maine was not the only regiment attached to the Army of the Potomac that received an influx of disgruntled soldiers in May 1863, men who formerly belonged to disbanded two-year regiments. In today’s tale, I’d like to profile a lesser-known group of “foolish” three-year soldiers who had to be transferred when their two-year regiments went home, the men of the 37th and 38th New York.

Here’s how their tale began.

When New York mobilized for war, Governor Edwin Morgan called up thirty-eight regiments to be officered, organized, and equipped at the state’s expense. (He numbered these units the 1st through 38th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments.) As regiments go, they were not terribly unusual. They followed the standard protocols and regulations that governed regiments in federal service; however, unusually, Morgan decreed that all men who enlisted into these thirty-eight regiments would serve only two years in the army, instead of three. (At this point in the war, Union infantrymen typically enlisted for a three-year tour-of-duty.) Eventually, in late-May 1861, the War Department—which had grown desperate for more regiments to come to the defense of Washington—accepted Morgan’s two-year men into federal service, even promising to uphold the important stipulation that they would not serve no longer than two years. However, Secretary of War Simon Cameron insisted that Morgan must cease recruiting two-year men immediately. Thereafter, all soldiers from New York had to be enlisted for three years’ duty, the same as in other states.

The next unit raised in New York, the 39th New York Volunteers (which mustered-in on June 6), became the state’s first three-year regiment. However, Cameron’s order created a problem for two of the two-year regiments, those that were still in the process of mobilizing. Neither the 37th nor 38th New York had filled their ranks by the time Cameron issued the order to cease recruiting two-year men. It took each regiment another week to fill, which meant that both units had to complete their organization by recruiting a sizable portion of men who were signed on for three years, even though the bulk of both regiments had signed on for only two years. (The 37th New York mustered-in on June 6 and 7, and the 38th New York mustered-in on June 3 and June 8.) After serving for several weeks in the defenses of Washington, both regiments joined the Army of the Potomac in the autumn, and by the spring of 1862, they were assigned to the same division in the 3rd Corps. For the next year, the two New York regiments witnessed heavy action, fighting on the Peninsula, at Second Bull Run, at Chantilly, at Fredericksburg, and at Chancellorsville. By the end of May 1863, the 37th New York counted up eighty-one killed-in-action and fifty-eight dead by other causes, while the 38th New York tallied seventy-five killed-in-action and forty-six dead by other causes. During their short time in federal service, the two-year recruits from these two regiments had fought and bled copiously. It is no exaggeration to say that the volunteers of the 37th and 38th New York had made incredible sacrifices for their country.

When the Army of Potomac licked its wounds at Falmouth after the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville, high command had to decide what to do about the three-year men who served in those two regiments. During the first week of June, the two-year men expected to return to New York City, 170 from the 37th Regiment and fifty-seven from the 38th. But what should be done about those who still had an additional year of service? Those contingents were not small in number. The 37th New York contained 238, while the 38th New York contained 387. Should they be sent home to muster-out with their regiments, or should the army find another way to use them? The New Yorkers’ divisional commander, Major General David Birney, decided to send the two-year men home as planned, while transferring the three-year men to another regiment, the 40th New York. Under Birney’s order, the veterans from the 37th New York joined their new regiment on May 29, while the veterans from the 38th New York joined on June 3. “They were a valuable addition,” remembered the regimental historian of the 40th (although was not present to witness the merger), “and they gave tone and vitality to our weakened ranks.”

In truth, the fusion of these three regiments was not at all cordial. Most of the three-year recruits from the 37th and 38th New York wanted to go home alongside their two-year brethren and they felt betrayed when the army denied their request. In fact, they became increasingly stubborn about it because Brig. Gen. Hobart Ward (the brigade commander and the former colonel of the 38th New York) informed his men that they would go home on June 3, no matter what. Private William L. Hauptman, a twenty-three-year-old Bronx native who belonged to Company E, 38th New York, recalled how he underwent a change of emotions thanks to Ward’s influence: “Before Genl. Ward told me that I was going home I had made up my mind to stay three years, but when he announced Publicly that the recruits of the 38th N.Y. would go home, why I then made up my mind to go.”

What exactly happened during the discussion about what to do with the 37th and 38th New York is still a bit unclear, but it appears that a disagreement occurred between several high-ranking officers. General Ward insisted that all the members of his old regiment should be discharged on June 3, regardless of their enlistment contract, while General Birney believed that all the three-year men should serve out their time in the 40th New York. Unable to come to an agreement, the two generals decided to consult the 38th New York’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robert F. Allason. Unable to speak strongly or register any sort of convincing opinion on behalf of his men, Allason demurred to Birney’s wishes, refusing to ask for the three-year recruits’ early discharge. Private Hauptman described the complexity of this arrangement and the prejudice he believed actuated the decision:

Col. Allason is to blame for not taking the recruits home, he would not take the responsibility. I might say that Genl. Dead Beat Birney had a hand in the Pie, he never was a very great favorite of the 38th or of Ward. Birney used to be the law partner to Secretary [of War Edwin] Stanton, its all in the family. Genl. Ward when he left [regimental command] made everything all right so there would be no difficulty about our going [home], but as soon as he left, Birney was Boss. . . . No doubt he dreams every night of the great Victory he gained over the 38th[.] the boys all swear Vengeance against Allason, poor man, I would not [want to] be in his shoes for any amount.

With the decision thus rendered by Allason and Birney, the 565 three-year men of the 37th and 38th New York had to join the ranks of the 40th New York, like it or not. Private Hauptman made it clear that this verdict cast a pall over the two regiments. He wrote to a friend: “my expectations, as well as others, ran very high, so high that it made the fall all the worse. . . . A great many were wounded (in the feelings) [when the news came].” Although he professed to have prepared himself for the possibility of staying on additional year, Hauptman admitted to homesickness. He wrote, “I would have given $100 to go home with the Regiment, even if I had to go back the next day. For the past twenty one months all I have been thinking about was going home with the Regiment but to be humbugged in this manner, makes the little I have done for the Union go for nothing, in my estimation.”

Unwillingly, Hauptman joined Company F, 40th New York, but as he admitted to a friend, the word “mutiny” rumbled from lip to lip among the other three-year men. Hauptman believed, “Stack Arms will be the word.” The other 38th New York soldiers “swear they will never go into a fight with the 40th.” As for Hauptman, dark, perilous thoughts filled his mind as he contemplated his next move. He wrote, “If I was alone in the world and had no friends, why french leave [desertion] would be the [way to] go, but as I have a few friends that think a little of me, I will stay in the Army for their sake if not my own.”

Near as I can tell, the 40th New York’s commander, Colonel Thomas Egan, did not have an inspirational speech to motivate his reluctant three-year men, quite unlike the situation involving Chamberlain and the 2nd Maine. Egan demanded that all of his new soldiers respect his authority, and with that, he took his regiment north to fight at Gettysburg, where 150 of his soldiers fell killed or wounded. I wonder if those feelings of betrayal crept into the minds of the 37th and 38th New York soldiers as they battled their way across the “Valley of Death.”

Maybe those thoughts escaped Hauptman, at least. Despite all his grousing, he re-enlisted on January 18, 1864, and served with the 40th New York for the rest of the war.

There aren't many photographs of the soldiers from the 37th and 38th New York Volunteers, but there is this one. This depicts the officers of the 37th New York (known as the "Irish Rifles"). The officer in the middle is Colonel Samuel B. Hayman.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Behalf of a Grateful Nation: My Tribute to Dusty Kleiss


Tales from the Army of the Potomac is a blog dedicated to the valiant Union soldiers who fought in the Civil War, but occasionally I feel the need to let my interest in the Pacific War intrude in my Civil War affairs. Let this be one of those times.

For those of you who pay attention to the goings-on in my life, recently, I had to say farewell to a friend of mine, Captain Dusty Kleiss. He died on Friday, April 22, 2016. He was 100 years old.

Dusty was a dive bomber pilot who served in World War 2. During the opening days of the Pacific War, he belonged to Scouting Squadron Six, a carrier-based squadron attached to USS Enterprise (CV-6). He fought in several important engagements: The Battle of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941), the Battle of the Marshall Islands (February 1, 1942), the Battle of Wake Island (February 24, 1942), the Battle of Marcus Island (March 4, 1942), and the Battle of Midway (June 4-6, 1942). At Midway, on June 4, Dusty piloted a Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless dive bomber labelled 6-S-7. Together with his squadron and his trusty gunner, RM 3/c John W. Snowden, Dusty participated in two missions that led to the sinking of four Japanese carriers. Dusty’s bombs scored direct hits on two of those carriers, the Kaga and the Hiryu. On June 6, Dusty participated in another mission. During this one, he made another direct hit, this time on a Japanese cruiser, the Mikuma. He was the only American pilot during the Battle of Midway to score three direct hits. As far as I’m concerned, he was the most indispensable American aviator at the battle because he caused the most physical damage of any U.S. pilot in the air during those three decisive days. During the war, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross. After the Battle of Midway, Dusty spent another twenty years in the Navy, retiring as a captain in 1962.

I first met Dusty back in January 2012. Together with my wife, I traveled to his apartment at the Air Force Village (now Blue Skies of Texas), a retirement community in San Antonio located just outside of Lackland Air Force Base. Originally, Laura and I wanted to interview him for a short article we were writing for the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s historical journal, the Daybook. Our visit became a bit more involved than we thought. Soon, we came back a second time, and then a third, and we made many phone calls. In the end, we conducted hours upon hours of interviews, as Dusty shared his life story, his intimate tales, opinions, and confessions. He was a veteran with an interesting story to tell, and he wanted someone to remember it.

What struck me the most about Dusty was the fact that he hated to be called a hero. It bothered him greatly. He encountered the term often. Whenever he did public presentations on the Battle of Midway—and he did a great many for the nearby Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas—visitors came up to him and called him a hero. This is no surprise. As is our custom nowadays, we tend to revere the World War 2 generation, calling them heroes whenever the opportunity presents itself. This was a tradition set in place by historians and politicians. For instance, in his 1997 book about World War 2 GIs, Stephen Ambrose wrote, “So they fought and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be profoundly grateful.” In 2004, President George W. Bush said: “They saved our country, and thereby saved the liberty of mankind.” I could go on. It’s fairly easy to find similar expressions of gratitude.

Dusty hated that kind of attention. “I’m anything but a hero,” he once told a reporter. “I was only doing what at the time was the proper thing to do.” During one of our conversations, he recollected an incident where the USAA invited him to be the guest of honor at their 2011 Memorial Day Commemoration. The whole event made him uncomfortable. He grumbled, “They just wanted to make me into some kind of hero. Just garbage!”

I watched the video of the event in question. The USAA showed a 12-minute clip that profiled Dusty and his actions at the Battle of Midway. At one point, Hugh Ambrose (son of Stephen Ambrose) asked Dusty to stand up and be recognized. Timidly, he arose from his seat in the corner, and the spotlight came on him. Without prompting, the audience surged from their seats and gave him a standing ovation. For two minutes the audience applauded loudly. My friend, Dusty, clutched a USS Enterprise ball cap nervously. Then, when the clapping subsided, he said, “I don’t deserve it, but I sure thank you.”

Dusty’s modesty only made me love him more. I rarely use the word, “hero.” After spending years in academia, I gained a healthy suspicion of the expression. Perhaps it is jaded of me to think this way, but whenever I hear the word, my eyebrows tilt in doubt. In my lifetime, I’ve only ever told one living person that he was my hero; that man was Dusty.

After one of our trips to San Antonio, my wife and I bid Dusty goodbye in the lobby of Air Force Village. After giving him a hug, I said: “Now, Dusty, I know you hate to be called a hero, but I want to let you know that you’re mine.” I expected him to grumble some self-effacing retort, but he didn’t. He giggled happily and stood there smiling. My wife Laura and I walked down a long hallway, bound for our rental car and a trip to the airport. When we looked back, we could see Dusty there, still in the hallway, still smiling happily.

I don’t know how to explain it. Dusty shrugged off every compliment he ever received about his service in World War 2, but for some reason, when I gave him the same effuse praise, he let it slide.

I prefer to think that my estimation of him is accurate. Back in 1941, the U.S. Navy asked a great deal from him. Effectively, the country said: “You will kill our foe. You will do this by dropping out of the sky like a meteor. You will plummet to earth and release your bomb at the last minute. Most likely, you will be killed in attempting this. You may be shot down. You may be hit by your own bomb blast. You might not pull out of your 240-knot dive. You might run out of gas on your trip back to your carrier. . . . But you will do this for us. We need to win and you must make the sacrifice.”

Dusty attempted to make the sacrifice. There were nineteen pilots in Dusty’s squadron at the Battle of Midway. Seven died in the battle. Two more died later in the war. As Dusty explained it, he just happened to be in the lucky half that lived. Even more luckily, he outlived the other nine who survived the war. In fact, Dusty was the last dive bomber veteran alive to have served at Midway, and I suspect, he was the last American pilot to have served at that battle. Four years ago, he wrote this for my wife’s museum’s publication: “At age ninety-six, I wonder why the Good Lord has spared me, perhaps the last dive bomber pilot that bombed a ship in the Battle of Midway? . . . The only thing I can presume is that He has not yet found me worthy to reach all those other Saints above us.”

On April 29, 2016, Dusty’s friends and family placed his earthly remains to rest in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. I had to honor to be there to witness it. As happens at military funerals, a Navy officer handed Dusty’s son, Jack, Jr., the flag that draped his father’s coffin and thanked him “on behalf of a grateful nation.” Lacking the talent to describe the emotion that impregnated those proceedings, I will say simply that I was truly moved by seeing it.

Dusty was my hero because he always knew that a living hero would be too proud. He didn’t die at Midway, and for that I am grateful; he lived long enough to become my cherished friend.

Now that I am back in Norfolk, I plan to have chicken wings and beer in his honor. (This was Dusty’s favorite meal, and incidentally, it’s also mine.) I respect the word “hero” too much not to keep his memory fresh in my mind.

Tally Ho! Dusty! You’re the bravest man I ever met.
This photograph depicts LTJG N. Jack "Dusty" Kleiss (1916-2016) in the summer of 1942. He is arm-in-arm with his wife, Jean Mochon.
This image depicts USS Enterprise (CV-6) in April 1942. That plane in the foreground is 6-S-7 with Dusty at the controls. 

That's Dusty in the middle. My wife and I are on either side.
April 29, 2016.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

“It is a Sight No One Need Be Desirous of Seeing”: Friday Afternoon Executions in the Army of the Potomac, Part 6.

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.

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.

Monday, April 18, 2016

“Friday Was Execution Day”: Friday Afternoon Executions in the Army of the Potomac, Part 5.

As the previous posts have made clear, in the summer of 1863, the Army of the Potomac unveiled a new policy of executing convicted deserters every Friday afternoon. This tradition began on June 12, when the Iron Brigade executed Private John P. Woods during the march to Gettysburg. The following Friday, the 12th Corps executed three more men near Leesburg. After Gettysburg, the army executed one man on August 14, another on August 21, two more on August 28, and then it held two mass executions on August 29 and September 18, killing twelve more deserters between them. By the end of the summer, twenty deserters had faced capital justice. It became clear to many in the Army of the Potomac that they would continue to witness executions every weekend until the desertion stopped. Indeed, so wrote Sergeant Thomas P. Meyer: “Friday was execution day and no Friday passed without shooting deserters in some part of the army.”

If a deserter had been convicted the week before and received no Presidential pardon, his division formed up to watch him die. After the mass execution of September 18, the next two Fridays witnessed executions.

·         On September 25, the 1st Division, 12th Corps, executed Private John Timlin (145th New York) and the 1st Corps executed Private Charles Williams (4th Maryland)
·         On October 2, the 1st Division, 2nd Corps, executed Private Adam Schmalz (66th New York) (Additionally, the 2nd Division, 1st Corps, executed Private William Smitz of the 90th Pennsylvania for sleeping on sentry duty)

For this post, I’d like to focus on just one of these executions, the one that killed Adam Schmalz of the 66th New York. Schmalz was just twenty-years-old when he died. He enlisted in Company E of his regiment on October 23, 1861, in New York City. He served with his regiment for more than a year, but then deserted on July 1, 1863, as the Army of the Potomac was marching to Gettysburg. On July 27, Union troops captured him in Hanover and he stood his court-martial on September 1. One observer left behind an unflattering description of him. Adjutant Charles Ramsey of the 148th Pennsylvania called him “an undersized, stoop-shouldered, black haired man with a furtive restless look in his eyes, without a suggestion of color in his face.”

Schmalz’s execution is interesting because it was recorded in detail by the last man to speak to him, the chaplain who conducted his last rites. During the last week of September, Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell became concerned that the army had not provided Schmalz with any spiritual guidance in his final hours. The young prisoner was not terribly religious and he rejected all the chaplains from his brigade because they did not belong to his denomination. Accordingly, Caldwell hunted up Reverend Emory Stevens of the 148th Pennsylvania to officiate at Schmalz’s execution. Schmalz was a Methodist and Stevens was one of only two Methodist chaplains in the division. Stevens agreed to Caldwell’s request, even though he was in no mood to do it. He had seen the executions of Privates Hill and Smith (see one of my previous posts) and the scene had rattled him to the core.

Further, Stevens believed he had his work cut out for him. Schmalz was completely ignorant of his scripture. As Stevens wrote home, “I found him to be very ignorant on all religious subjects and seeing that I would have to be his teacher as well as his spiritual advisor, I commenced at the alphabet of religion.” As the minister told it, somehow, he completed his conversion of the condemned man, getting him to praise God loudly. According to Stevens, by Thursday night—the night before the execution—Schmalz had come to understand the theory of redemption and the minister was certain of his “genuine conversion.” He commented, “He was too ignorant to be susceptible of deception or hypocrisy.”

At the hour of execution, October 2, Schmalz was singing hymns when the provost marshal came for him. Unruffled by the news, Schmalz quietly took Stevens’s arm and walked off with him, following behind four soldiers selected to carry his coffin. A single drummer beat the march to the three-sided box formed by the men of the 1st Division, 2nd Corps. Along the way, Schmalz said happily, “Chaplain, it seems to me that the Lord goes with me wherever I go,” a comment that apparently calmed the normally flustered minister. At the gravesite, the provost marshal read the order of execution. Stevens prayed with Schmalz for a few minutes and then shook his hand, bidding him farewell. Stevens remembered, “He never moved a muscle—was as composed and cheerful as I have ever been in all my life.” The provost marshal applied the blindfold and gave the signal. As Stevens remembered it, “Strange to tell, though a few weeks ago I stood off and saw the execution of two men, I was so shocked that I could hardly stand on my feet, I led this young man to the place of execution, attended him in his last moments and saw him shot, put in his coffin and buried without the least emotion or unpleasant feeling.”

If Stevens felt reassured by Schmalz’s conversion and tranquil demeanor, the soldiers in the ranks didn’t have the same warm, fuzzy feeling. Few of them exhibited pleasure with how the execution was carried out. As happened at other executions, the firing squad failed to get a clean kill. Adjutant Ramsey, one of the observers, wrote that Schmalz was “shot to death with a relentless promptness and dispatch that seemed to me revolting to the last degree. It fell to my lot to see many executions after that, but none of them impressed me as this one did.”

Schmalz was hit four or six times in the chest, but the volley didn’t kill him. He fell off his coffin and began writhing on the ground. Using his navy revolver, the provost marshal had to deliver the coup ’de grace by shooting Schmalz through the head at close range. Sergeant Meyer, another disgusted member of the audience, wrote, “This was the first execution for desertion in our Division and it was a butchery. The victim was shot four times; the executioners emptied their guns on him; he received two bullets from a navy revolver into the head at close range, before the surgeon in attendance pronounced him dead,” Worse, remembered Meyer, when the 1st Division marched off the field, the soldiers had to look at the carnage up close. He wrote, “Then the whole division was made to march in single column close by the victim, to view the poor mangled and blood covered body of this hapless mortal.”

Schmalz left behind a mother and four brothers.


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

“This Horrid Affair”: Friday Afternoon Executions in the Army of the Potomac, Part 4.

September 18, 1863, was a black day for the Army of the Potomac. Recently, courts-martial had finished determining the cases of seven deserters. All of them had received death sentences. Orders went to five divisional commanders, instructing them to carry out the executions between 1 P.M. and 4 P.M. By the end of the day, all seven deserters were dead; however, few of the spectators believed the lives of the condemned men had been extinguished in any sort of humane way.

As mentioned in the previous posts, Friday afternoon executions had become something of a tradition. After every court-martial, the slate of condemned deserters had until Friday to acquire a Presidential pardon or face a firing squad. Although Lincoln had been generous with pardons early in the war, he backed off during the summer of 1863, allowing Union generals to send a clear message to the army’s deserters and bounty jumpers. Desertion was now a capital crime. However, as several of the recent executions had proved, the killing of deserters did not always happen cleanly. The next surge of executions—those of September 18—continued to prove that point.

That day, the men scheduled for death were:

·         Private Albert Jones, Company K, 3rd Maryland Volunteers
·         Private Cornelius Treece, Company K, 78th New York Volunteers
·         Private William Smith, Company E, 78th New York Volunteers
·         Private George Van, Company D, 12th New York Volunteers
·         Corporal Jacob Wierdain, Company G, 119th New York Volunteers
·         Private George Layton, Company K, 14th Connecticut Volunteers
·         Private Edward Elliott, Company I, 14th Connecticut Volunteers

Friday, September 18, was a wet, blustery day. A rough storm had blown in overnight, making the scene especially grim and dour. At 1:30, Major General Carl Schurz’s division formed three sides of a box just south of its encampment at Catlett’s Station in preparation for the execution of Corporal Jacob Wierdain (sometimes listed as Airdam), a New York City resident who had enlisted on September 5, 1862, and who had deserted twice already. As the troops waited, a sharp rain shower rolled in, soaking them, and they soon broke for cover. After 2 P.M.—when the storm passed—Schurz’s troops returned to the field to carry out the execution. Sometime after 3 P.M., after waiting in agonizing silence for nearly an hour, a brass band approached, playing the “Death March.” A wagon followed. It carried Wierdain, a minister, and his coffin. The wagon unloaded the condemned man at his grave, a rude hole dug along the open side of the square.

Second Lieutenant William S. Moffat of the 143rd New York stood in the line of troops. Writing to his wife that evening, he described the appearance of the prisoner. He wrote, “I observed that he appeared weak & seemed to stagger a little when he alighted. He was led around the north end to the west side of the grave by the minister & both knelt upon the coffin while he offered a brief prayer which I could not hear.” As Wierdain and the minister completed their religious services, the twenty-four men selected to carry out the execution readied their weapons and formed into two lines. They had less than an hour to finish off the ceremony before the 4 P.M. deadline rolled in. Accordingly, the execution squad did not give Wierdain much time to get a last look at life. Lieutenant Moffat completed his story:

Before the conclusion of the prayer a man came behind him & tied a white handkerchief over his eyes & at its close the minister assisted to turn around and seat himself on the coffin. The minister after shaking him by the hand withdrew and the next moment eleven shots were fired into his breast. He instantly fell backward across the coffin and must have died instantly for he never stirred after he fell. Physicians examined his pulse for a few moments, then his body was lifted by four men and laid in the box, the red blood streaming from his breast and down his sides. The cover was nailed down & the box lowered into the grave; another brief prayer was made, the earth hastily thrown in & heaped upon the grave and within ten minutes from the time he sat there a living man, he was buried and we were gone!

Moffat’s opinion of the execution was especially telling, considering that he had served on the court that condemned Wierdain. (Indeed, Moffat had been the one to pronounce sentence.) When he returned to camp, Moffat penned a four-page letter to his wife describing what he saw. Moffat believed the execution must have served a greater purpose than ending one man’s life. He wrote, “I felt badly at the time [I sentenced him] but there are so many deserting lately that we felt that an example must be made of some of them as a warning & a terror to others.”

Wierdan was not the only soldier to die that afternoon, and because of the foul weather, all the other executions had to be rushed, just as his had been. Over at Raccoon Fordthe encampment of the 1st Division, 12th Army CorpsBrigadier General Alpheus Williams made arrangements to carry out the execution of Private Albert Jones, Company K, 3rd Maryland. Of all the men executed on that fateful day, Jones possessed the longest enlistment, having joined the Union army on November 13, 1861. Apparently a young man, Jones had deserted twice, and after his second infraction, the court threw the book at him. In the early afternoon, Williams formed his division into three sides of a square. Jones’s coffin sat at the open end, and awaiting him were his entire division and about a dozen men assigned to the firing squad.

Apparently, Williams decided not to wait out the storm. He held the execution amid the wind and rain. “It was and equinoctial day,” Williams wrote home afterward, “high wind and cold rain, a regular gale, which howled through the woods and poured in torrents. It cleared up about noon, partially, and I had the unpleasant task of calling out my division to shoot a deserter. It began to poor again in equinoctial torrents as my troops were forming, and the gloom of the weather was in concert with the melancholy duty.”  Williams called forth his provost guard to escort Jones to his coffin. One of the men standing in the 1st Division’s line, twenty-one-year-old Sergeant Henry C. Morhous of the 123rd New York, remembered Jones’s appearance. Morhous later wrote, “The young man to all appearance was not over twenty-two years of age, slightly built, with fair face and black eyes—probably the idol of his doting mother at home.”

Unlike some of the other executions carried out on this unpleasant day, Jones’s death went forward without a hitch. The prisoner’s guards marched Jones up to his coffin and sat him down. As Morhous recalled, Jones “cast one long, lingering look at the troops surrounding him, at the beautiful hills way off across the Rapidan, as if fully realizing that it was the last time he should look upon things earthly, and was then blindfolded and seated upon his coffin.” As Williams described it, “The poor fellow sat on his coffin and fell back stone dead at the discharge, like one going to sleep. It was his second desertion. . . . Of course, he had no hope of escape.” With that, Williams instructed his division to form into column and parade past Jones’s corpse. Each man got a good look at him, a reminder of the deadly consequences of desertion.

Jones was lucky in that his execution was quick and painless. The situation was not so fortunate in the nearby camp of the 2nd Division, 12th Corps. At midafternoon, Brigadier General John W. Geary’s soldiers carried out the executions of Privates Cornelius Treece and William Smith. Both men belonged to the same regiment, the 78th New York, and both men had enlisted at around the same time, the winter of 1862. Treece (or Trace or Truss, as he was sometimes listed) was twenty-three-years-old and came from Indiana. Smith was thirty-five-years-old and came from Alden, New York, the oldest of all the deserters executed on September 18. Geary’s recollection of the event emphasized the necessity of the executions. To him, they were a warning to the army’s newly-arrived draftees and substitutes that desertion would no longer be tolerated. Writing home to his wife, Geary aired his feelings:

Yesterday, two soldiers of this Division were executed for the crime of Desertion. They were shot to death by musketry, in presence of [the] entire division drawn up in a hollow square of three sides. The men were killed by a firing party of 12 men after which the entire Division marched past the place of execution, and then the deceased were buried without honors. Such is military life and discipline.

Referring to the nearby execution of Jones, Geary wrote, “There was one man shot for the same crime in the first Division of this Corps, and 16 [sic] within the entire army. Thus you see the crime of desertion will no longer go unpunished, when so many expiate their crimes on the same day.”

Despite Geary’s attempt to defend the executions as a military necessity, some men who witnessed Treece’s and Smith’s deaths complained that the firing parties had not carried out their terminations with any mercy. The wet weather had seeped into their rifles, making it difficult for the executioners to ensure a clean kill on the first volley. One witness, Sergeant Henry Hayward of the 28th Pennsylvania, wrote to his father with disgust: “we have just come from the place of execution where 2 men from our division were shot for desertion. they did not kill them [on] the first volley. the reserve had to come up. it was an awful sight. after the first volley, one of them was still setting on his Coffin.” Lieutenant George K. Collins of the 149th New York confirmed the story. Writing years later, he remembered, “The marksmen selected [by Geary], for some reason, did not perform their duty in a skillful manner, and hence one or two subsequent shots were fired to relieve the sufferers from agony.”

Displeasure also appeared at the execution of Private George Van (or Vane), who died by the hands of the firing squad attached to the 1st Division, 5th Corps, although, here, the soldiers expressed contempt, not at the manner of death, but that the execution had even gone forward. Private Van, a twenty-four-year-old farmer, enlisted on November 26, 1861, in Buffalo, New York. He served with his regiment until the middle of the Peninsula Campaign, when, on May 13, 1862, he deserted at White House Landing. Although Van’s regiment, the 12th New York, mustered out a year later, the War Department still held him accountable for the year of service he had dodged. Authorities apprehended him in August 1863 and returned him to his old division. By the thirteenth of the month, a court-martial found him guilty.

By most accounts, Private Van stood his death sentence with bravery. Once again, the execution squads rushed the condemned man to the scene. At 3 P.M.—just one hour from the deadline—near Culpeper Court House, the soldiers of the 1st Division, 5th Corps, formed to watch Van die. Captain Francis Donaldson, an officer attached to the 118th Pennsylvania, remembered the scene vividly:

3 P.M. [our] division paraded to witness execution of a private of the 12th N.Y. shot for desertion. We occupied a high ground overlooking a valley in which the execution took place. This was a sad affair. The prisoner was a brave man, a very brave man indeed to the last. He walked jauntingly along to the selected spot, refused to have his eyes bandaged, declined the services of the chaplain and stood looking at and facing the firing party. As the volley of musketry rang out in the stillness, a loud Oh! of mingled pity and horror involuntarily burst from the men. No matter what his crime, no matter how guilty, he was a bold, brave fellow, and we all felt sorry for him. . . . We returned to camp in silence.

Of all the executions, the ones that killed Privates George Layton and Edward Elliott produced the most irritation. It took several tries for the ill-prepared firing squad to deliver the killing blow. The two soldiers, Layton and Edwards, had the shortest terms of service of any of the condemned men. Both had mustered into the ranks of 14th Connecticut on July 18, 1863. Elliott was a twenty-two-year-old draftee and Layton (sometimes written as Laton) was a twenty-year-old substitute who often went by a fake name (either George Joy or Charles Eastman).

Late in the afternoon, the 3rd Division, 2nd Corps, formed up to witness Elliott’s and Layton’s deaths. Major General William French, who normally commanded the 3rd Corps, held temporary command of the 3rd Division’s execution proceedings. What historians know about the debacle comes from The Valiant Hours, a memoir written by Private Thomas F. Galwey of 8th Ohio. According to him, the firing squads botched the execution horribly. When all was ready, the two firing parties took position in front of Layton and Elliott. At a command from the provost marshal, the squads pulled their triggers. The first volley struck one of the two deserters (Galwey did not say which one), wounding him slightly. He fell over, bleeding on his coffin. The other condemned man did not receive a scratch. In fact, after he heard the volley, he broke loose from his pinion and snatched the handkerchief from his eyes. Galwey remembered, “A murmur of mingled pity and disgust ran through the division. Most of the pieces had only snapped caps. Here was either wanton carelessness in the Provost Guard or a Providential interposition to save the lives of the men.”

General French fumed at the firing squads’ failure. He ordered the un-wounded deserter rebound and re-blindfolded and instructed the squads to reload. In a few minutes, a second volley rang out, but with no different result. This time, the firing squads wounded the injured man a second time (but did not kill him), and they completely missed the un-wounded man, driving him—as Galwey described it—“into a paroxysm of fear and trembling without even hitting him!” Now, an audible groan passed through the division, revealing the soldiers’ abhorrence of the proceedings.  Galwey narrated the conclusion:

The left-hand squad fired once more, killing the wounded deserter, for he fell back upon his coffin and never stirred again. But the right-hand squad only wounded the unhit man at the next volley. He continued to struggle to free himself of his pinions. The guns had evidently been loaded the evening before and become wet from the rains which fell during the night. The Provost Marshal now brought up his men, one by one, and made them pull the trigger with the muzzle almost touching the unfortunate devil’s head! But strange to relate, they only snapped caps, the victim shivering visibly each time. At last the Provost Marshal himself, drawing his revolver, placed the muzzle at the man’s head and discharged all the barrels of it! This finished the man and he fell over into his coffin and never moved again. General French rode up. As we could plainly see, he was indignant at this clumsy butchery. Artists representing the New York newspapers or magazines made on-the-spot sketches of this horrid affair.

As Galwey’s account made clear, it took several tries to kill the condemned deserters because the wet weather had fouled some of rifles belonging to the execution squads. The killing of these seven deserters had been done in a rush. It was desperate attempt to complete the killings before the 4 P.M. deadline. Thus, it made for a very horrid affair all around.
This is an unidentified Union deserter photographed postmortem. Was he one of those killed in the summer of 1863?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

“The Thought of this Bloody Execution Sickens Me”: A Saturday Afternoon Execution in the Army of the Potomac, Part 3.

Of all the executions conducted by the Army of the Potomac in 1863, there was only one that did not fall on a Friday. On Saturday, August 29, the 5th Corps executed five men belonging to the 118th Pennsylvania. Initially, all five were scheduled to face firing squads on the previous day, but due to a prolonged dialogue between Abraham Lincoln and George Meade, the executions were postponed by twenty-four hours.

The men slated for execution were:

·         Private Charles Walter (sometimes listed as Charles Zene), 118th Pennsylvania
·         Private Emil Lae (sometimes listed as Emile Duffie or Emil Duffe), 118th Pennsylvania
·         Private George Kuhne (sometimes listed as George Week), 118th Pennsylvania
·         Private John Rainese (sometimes listed as George Rionese), 118th Pennsylvania
·         Private John Folaney (sometimes listed as John Folancy), 118th Pennsylvania

All five men had enlisted that summer, going to the front as substitutes of drafted men. Murmurs of disgust echoed through the army after the rulings of the courts-martial had been issued. Four of the accused did not speak English, none of them had been given defense attorneys (or even been made aware that they could request counsel), and two of the trials were conducted in less than twenty minutes. The executions “ought not to have taken place,” wrote the 118th Pennsylvania’s chaplain years later.

Although he knew few of the details of the sketchy trials, Captain Francis Donaldson of the 118th Pennsylvania fretted about the coming execution in a letter to his brother. Clearly divided even in his own opinion, Donaldson could not stand in strong support of the executions, nor in rigid condemnation of them. In the past, he wrote, deserters had always been pardoned, “But now the law is to take its course. . . . My God! What a wretched, horrible predicament they are in. Enough to move the heart of stone. They have our most sincere sympathy, at the same time we approve the sentence. This has been a case of aggravated and systematic ‘bounty jumping,’ and they will be shot like dogs. Awful, most awful. I can write no more, the thought of this bloody execution sickens me.”

Realizing that President Lincoln was their only option for mercy, the five convicted deserters convinced someone to send him a telegram, which arrived at the White House on August 26 at 4:45 P.M.: “We the undersigned sentenced to suffer death for desertion, . . . humbly beg that you exercise your authority to commute our sentence, to imprisonment & hard labor, for any term of years, you may see fit, as we each have wives & children, depending upon us.”

Lincoln was not in the mood to consider their appeal. The next day, he telegraphed General Meade this response: “Walter, Rainese, Faline, Lae, & Kuhne appeal to me for mercy, without giving any ground for it whatever. I understand these are very flagrant cases, and that you deem their punishment as being indispensable to the service. If I am not mistaken in this, please let them know at once that their appeal is denied.” General Meade’s reply, which came a short time later, supported the President’s decision. These five men, Meade explained, would be the first substitutes executed by the army for the crime of desertion, and he considered it vital to make an example of them. He wrote, “They . . .  being the first of this class whose cases came before me, I believed that humanity, the safety of this Army, and the most vital interests of the Country, required their prompt execution as an example.”

Due to the question of the appeal, Meade postponed the execution until Saturday, although he still required it to take place between the hours of noon and 4 P.M. Thus, at 2:30 P.M., August 29, at the 5th Corps encampment near Beverly Ford, the entire corps formed on a slight rise of ground, and took the shape of a three-sided box with an opening near the five graves. The firing party consisted of eighty men; however, only forty of them possessed live rounds. At 3 P.M., the funeral procession appeared, starting with a brass band playing the “March of Saul,” followed by a provost guard of sixty men, then the five condemned men, then squads of eight carrying the coffins, and three chaplains (one priest, one rabbi, and one Protestant minister). The procession and prayers took about forty-five minutes to complete, and soon, the time approached fifteen minutes until the 4 P.M. deadline. As Captain Donaldson remembered, Major General Charles Griffin’s “shrill and penetrating voice was heard above the awful silence—‘Shoot these men, or after 10 minutes it will be murder. Shoot them at once!’”

Hastily, the sergeant of the guard tied handkerchiefs around the condemned men and the chaplains offered a few last-minute goodbyes. Donaldson narrated the next few minutes:

They hadn’t long to wait. ‘Attention guard,’ in the clear ringing tones called Capt. [James D.] Orne, ‘shoulder arms.’ ‘Forward march,’ and the solid steady tramp of the detail sounded appalling on the ear. Within 6 paces, ‘Halt,’ ordered the Captain. ‘Ready.’ ‘Aim.’ ‘Fire,’ and sixty pieces flashed full in the breasts of the deserters, and military justice was satisfied.

Four of the deserters slammed back on their coffins, upon which they were sitting, and the fifth remained upright. Captain Orne called up a surgeon to ask if the upright man was dead, as he intended to use his pistol on him if the musketry had failed to deliver a mortal blow. The surgeon pronounced the upright man dead, and with that, the burial details began boxing the remains, burying the coffins, and marking the graves. As the 5th Corps marched off the field, the brass band played a cheery tune, “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”

The soldiers who witnessed the executions of the five 118th Pennsylvania deserters tended to disagree on the results of what they had seen. Some confirmed what Donaldson claimed, that the band played merry tunes as the soldiers marched off the field. Others, however, argued that the exit was quiet and depressing. “Silently we viewed the solemn spectacle,” wrote a Massachusetts soldier years later, “and as silently returned to camp—not with cheerful, martial airs, as when a faithful soldier, having met a soldier’s death, is left to his last repose, but with the sad ceremony uneffaced,  and all deeply impressed with the ignominy of such an end.” A Pennsylvania officer expressed a sterner opinion: “Men who sell their blood for money and then desert deserve no sympathy.”

For the first two months, the Army of the Potomac had killed eight veterans who had deserted the cause. Now, five “bounty jumpers” had been added to the pile. They were not the last.
Of all the Army of the Potomac's executions, the August 29, 1863, execution of the 118th Pennsylvania's deserters was the one most often depicted. This image of the execution appeared in Harpers Weekly.
This sketch depicts the procession. Careful examination shows the coffins, the priest, the minister, and the  rabbi.

This sketch by Alfred Waud depicts the execution, although taken from a great distance.

Here's another sketch, but this one emphasizing the firing party.

Here's one more, based on the long shot above, showing the grandeur of the 5th Corps as it watched the five deserters die.