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.