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 an 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 a 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.


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.