Friday, April 8, 2016

“The Execution was Openly Condemned”: Friday Afternoon Executions in the Army of the Potomac, Part 2.

On August 1, 1863, the Army of the Potomac settled along the banks of the Rappahannock River. Under orders from the War Department, it ceased its three-week pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s army, a chase commenced after its incredible victory at Gettysburg. As the summer entered its hottest days, the Union army made preparations to bivouac and acquire some much-needed rest. However, that period of inactivity restarted the weekly executions of convicted deserters. For the past few weeks, the generals had been debating what action to take about the rash of desertion spreading through the army. Most agreed that the first federal draft, which had gone into effect during the second week of July, had spawned an unruly class of men known as “bounty jumpers,” enlistees who substituted for drafted men, who took their enlistment bonus and then deserted, leaving the army without recruits and the federal government defrauded out of tens of thousands of dollars.

Eager to send a warning to all arriving draftees and substitutes, the new army commander, Major General George Gordon Meade, signed orders instructing his divisional commanders to carry out executions for recently convicted deserters. This policy was identical to that of his predecessor, Joseph Hooker. However, Meade had to contend with an obstacle that Hooker did not. With the Battle of Gettysburg passed, Abraham Lincoln wanted to return to a lenient policy, pardoning deserters who were under sentence of death. In fact, on July 24, even as Meade’s army skirmished with Confederates near Front Royal, Lincoln issued a stay of execution for six convicted deserters attached to the Army of the Potomac. 

Lincoln wanted Meade to wield a merciful hand, but apparently, Lincoln’s insistence on forgiveness had limits. When flagrant cases surfaced, Lincoln refused to stand in the way of capital punishment. It is a hard to explain why Lincoln involved himself in some cases and not others, and in the end, his policy of leniency is a bit of mystery. But in the end, Meade proved to be the hardliner in the relationship. He advised carrying out the death sentences attached to these flagrant cases, and once again, military justice ran unfettered. The same as Hooker, Meade decreed that every Friday the convicted deserters needed to be shot between the hours of noon and 4 P.M.

Prior to the Gettysburg Campaign, the Army of the Potomac had executed only four men for the crime of desertion—the subject of my previous post. Thus, only the unlucky soldiers of the 1st and 12th Corps had the unfortunate distinction of watching capital punishment carried out to its fullest degree. After the Gettysburg Campaign concluded, the soldiers of the 2nd and 6th Corps witnessed their first executions. Four more men—Thomas Jewett, Jesse Mayberry, William Hill, and John Smith—joined the growing list.

On August 14, the 6th Corps executed Private Thomas Jewett of the 5th Maine. Jewett was a thirty-three-year-old laborer from Rockland, Maine, who deserted his regiment during the Battle of Salem Church, May 3, 1863. Authorities arrested him in Washington, D.C., and on July 17, returned him to his regiment. His court-martial lasted eight days. (Among other items, it determined that Jewett had also deserted the Royal Army before entering into U.S. service. In essence, his execution would serve justice for two countries.) By August 7, with a two-thirds vote, the court found him “guilty” and sentenced him to death by musketry.

At the appointed hour, a wagon bore Jewett and his coffin to the three-sided box formed by the 1st Division, 6th Corps, near its Warrenton encampment. The scene was gut-wrenching, so remembered Lieutenant George Bicknell, a member of Jewett’s 5th Maine. The band, wrote Bicknell, was playing “the most melancholy and soul-depressing piece of music written upon five bars. The whole arrangement was calculated to awe the victim.” Strangely, this downhearted scene seemed to have no effect on the condemned prisoner, who, according to Bicknell, “To all external appearances, at least, . . . met his death calmly.” As Jewett passed his old regiment, he waved his hand cheerfully, saying, “Goodbye, boys!” Indeed, remembered Bicknell, Jewett “seemed to have estimated the necessary amount of nerve which was requisite to carry him through, and prided himself on being able to exhibit it.”

After parading past the entire division, Jewett knelt on his coffin, joined a chaplain in prayer, and when finished, the provost marshal blindfolded him. Then, the provost marshal signaled to the firing party, which consisted of six men, one of whom wielded a weapon with a blank charge. The executioners volleyed into the prisoner, hitting him with all five musket balls. Jewett died instantly. After that, the 1st Division closed ranks and marched off the field, passing his badly mangled corpse. Bicknell related that it was done so “that all might read the lesson of the results which follow treachery and desertion. It was a most awful sight.”

The scene produced another demoralizing display, one equal in gruesomeness to the executions held on June 12 and June 19, especially since the men of the 1st Division, 6th Corps, had never seen anything like it in their lives. Another observer, Surgeon Daniel Holt of the 121st New York, confirmed that few men could stomach such an inhumane form of death. Although Holt and his men had seen plenty of battle, this kind of death was nothing comparable to it. He wrote home, “It is a sad sight, and I think I shall never again witness such an [sic] one if I can help it. Unlike death in battle, when all is excitement and you are looking for it, here every preparation is made and all the steadiness of decorum marks the whole transaction.”

Seven days later, the parade of executions continued, and another segment of the Army of the Potomac carried on with the Friday killings. This time, the condemned man was Private Jesse Mayberry, 71st Pennsylvania. Mayberry—a married Philadelphian with three children—enlisted in the Union army on August 20, 1862, when he was twenty-seven-years-old. He did not stay long in the army. After a mere eighteen days, he deserted from his unit while it was stationed at Fort Slocum. Arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced, he too faced death by musketry.

The day of the execution, August 21, the 2nd Corps was stationed at Morrisville. The procession began at the headquarters of the 2nd Division, 2nd Corps. A brass band struck up the “dead march,” and led the cortege: the brass band in front; next, four soldiers carrying the coffin on their shoulders; next, Mayberry came arm-in-arm with his chaplain, who, according to a witness, “never ceased talking consolation and cheer to the victim, who was very pale, yet heroically firm, keeping step to his own dead march.” Next, a platoon of twelve armed executioners marched in column, followed by a squad of twelve guards.

 Sergeant Thomas Meyer described the next few minutes:

The Chaplain offered [a] prayer, then shook his hand, bade him good-bye, asked him to be firm and then stepped aside. The condemned arose, took off his coat, threw it aside; the officer in charge stepped up and blindfolded him with a white handkerchief, seated him on his coffin and stepped aside. All was now ready. The condemned with both hands pulled wide open the front of his shirt, baring his entire breast, holding fast awaiting the leaden bullet. Most agonizing must have been this moment of suspense.

From a distance of ten paces, eight men from the execution squad fired a volley. Mayberry spun half way around and fell, hanging on his coffin, not dead. As had happened at the very first execution—that of Private Woods—the first volley had failed to get a clean kill. Mayberry writhed in pain, violently moving his hands and feet. The provost marshal beckoned to the reserve squad—four men—and two volunteers came forward. They came to within point blank range, placed the muzzles of their guns into Mayberry’s chest, and fired. After that, Mayberry stopped twitching. The attending physician pronounced him dead thirty minutes later. As Sergeant Meyer remembered it, “A deep murmur of disgust swept through the troops in attendance, and the execution was openly condemned.”

If the soldiers of the 2nd Division, 2nd Corps, hoped they would never see another botched execution, they were soundly disappointed. One week later, August 28, they had to form again and see the execution of two more men assigned to their division. They were:

·         Private William F. Hill, 20th Massachusetts
·         Private John Smith, (sometimes listed as Thomas Waters) 1st Company, Massachusetts Sharpshooters

Private William Hill, age 22, of the 20th Massachusetts enlisted on July 14, 1862. He was unmarried, but had a 75-year-old father and five brothers and sisters. Although he volunteered for service, he claimed that he had been coerced into signing his name, a recruiter having gotten him drunk shortly before he enrolled. Hill served with his regiment until after the Battle of Antietam, when he deserted from Bolivar Heights, Virginia. He returned to his home in North Brookfield, Massachusetts, and remained there until June 1863 when a policeman arrested him.

Private John Smith, age 37, was married but had no children. He enlisted on December 1, 1862, and fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg. In January 1863, he deserted his unit, which was stationed at Falmouth. He returned to Boston, where he lived, but when the draft act came, he decided to return to the army as a substitute, going in the place of a friend who had been drafted, even accepting $300 as compensation. Unfortunately, Smith was assigned to the 19th Massachusetts, which as it happened, contained his old unit, the 1st Company, Massachusetts Sharpshooters. (During the summer of the 1863, the Massachusetts Sharpshooter company had been transferred from the 15th Massachusetts to the 19th Massachusetts, and Smith had no idea that by re-enlisting he would be confronting his old comrades.) Although Smith gave a false name, the Sharpshooters recognized him and ordered his arrest. By August 27, the courts-martial of both men had turned out “guilty verdicts” and their divisional commander, Brigadier General Alexander Webb, ordered them executed by firing squad on the first available Friday, which was August 28.

At 2:30 P.M., Webb’s division formed for the execution on the road leading to Bealton Station, taking up three sides of a square. At the open edge, a fatigue detail dug two graves and placed two wooden coffins. In the center of the square, a sixteen-person firing party led by Lieutenant Mahlon Black readied its rifles. A corporal’s guard led the two condemned men to the scene of the execution where a chaplain from the 72nd Pennsylvania conducted religious services. When the prayers ended, Lieutenant Black ordered the two men to kneel in front of their coffins and blindfolds placed over their eyes. Black shook each prisoner by the hand and then stepped to the left, beckoning to the firing party. He ordered, “Ready! Aim!-” At this point, Private Smith raised both hands into the air, exclaiming twice, “Oh, God have mercy upon us!” Before Black could shout, “fire,” all sixteen rifles went off, so one observer wrote, “and in the same instant the two unfortunate men fell forward, Smith on the left and Hill on the right. The former lay motionless on his back, at full length, with arms partly folded over his breast; the mouth opened and shut a few times, a heave and a sigh followed, and he was dead.”

Hill remained still for a moment, but then commenced to writhe in the grass. As had happened at the execution of Private John P. Woods and Jesse Mayberry, the firing squad had failed in its job to get a clean kill. Lieutenant Black called up one of the reserve firing squad, and ordered him to put a bullet through Hill’s head. According to a newspaper reporter who witnessed it, the ball passed through Hill’s skull, “causing the brain to ooze out on the grass.” Still, Hill continued to writhe. Another reserve executioner came up and blasted Hill through the head, and “strange as it may seem,” wrote the reporter, “it was a full two minutes before his life was extinct.”

Regardless of their opinions about the need for the executions, many soldiers disliked the gruesome terminations they had seen. They hoped these few death sentences would be sufficient to end the deserter problem. Captain Henry L. Abbott, an officer who watched the deaths of Hill and Smith, wrote to his father on September 4, saying, “Deserters are shot every Friday, 5 or ten at a time, & I trust the evil will soon be cured.”
This was wishful thinking.

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