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.|