Wednesday, April 6, 2016

“The Way of the Transgressor is Hard”: Friday Afternoon Executions in the Army of the Potomac, Part 1.

In 1863, between June and December, the Army of the Potomac executed thirty-three men for the crime of desertion. These were the first deserters executed by the Union’s most illustrious army, and their deaths represented an important turn in its storied history. If the Yanks did not know it before, by the end of December, they understood clearly the message their commanders wanted them to receive. The Civil War was serious business, serious enough to end the mercy informally doled out to those men who swore Oaths of Allegiance and then backed out before seeing them through.

Of course, military executions were not entirely unknown to the bluecoats. They had been utilized by U.S. forces since the founding of the country, and during the first two years of the war, April 1861 to April 1863, the War Department sanctioned the execution of twenty-seven Union soldiers. However, all of these men were charged with crimes other than desertion: murder, theft, mutiny, and rape. Even so, of these twenty-seven executions, only five of were conducted by the Army of the Potomac. To see a soldier killed by his comrades as a matter of military justice was a rare thing for that particular army.

That is, until June 1863.

It was a low point for Abraham Lincoln, who normally approached matters of military justice with a kind, merciful hand. In the past, accused deserters who faced the death penalty usually received a Presidential pardon through a hand-written appeal. (In fact, even as late as June 4, Lincoln pardoned three deserters belonging to the 146th New York who were scheduled to be shot to death.)

However, the summer of 1863 changed Lincoln’s optimistic demeanor. Grant’s Vicksburg campaign was stalled, the Army of the Potomac was reeling from its defeat at Chancellorsville, and the Copperheads were mounting a tour-de-force in the coming state elections. With a manpower draft set to go into effect in July and desertions daily on the rise, Lincoln decided to take a step back, yielding to pressure from his generals who urged him not to the pardon the next batch of convicted deserters. The army had to show its enlisted ranks that, once sworn to service, they could not back out.

Thus, in June 1863, as the Army of the Potomac unexpectedly made its way north in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the men in the ranks witnessed something that they had never seen before: soldiers executed for the crime of leaving the army at will—abandoning their comrades in arms—before their term of service had expired.

This and the next five posts intend to examine six clusters of executions. The first “batch” of condemned men consisted of four privates executed in mid-June. The executions occurred on two successive Fridays: June 12 and June 19. On these two days—and for the remainder of the war—the Army of the Potomac executed its condemned men on Fridays only—and only in the afternoon.

The first man to face capital punishment for desertion was Private John P. Woods of Company F, 19th Indiana. Woods was a likely candidate, considering that he had deserted twice within the previous six months, and when he was arrested for the second time, Union soldiers apprehended him while he was wearing an enemy uniform.
Woods faced his first court-martial after the Battle of Fredericksburg; he had fled his regiment and did not return to it until January 31, 1863, an absence of seventy-four days. At his trial, he presented a capable defense, one that flummoxed the prosecution, and after several hours of testimony, he found was “not guilty.” However, Woods did not escape prosecution after his second arrest. Before the Battle of Chancellorsville, he again fled his regiment, procured a Confederate uniform, and after the battle, he attempted to turn himself in to Union pickets by claiming to be a Confederate deserter seeking asylum. His story made little sense to the Union officers who interrogated him, and it wasn’t long until they identified him as a deserter from the renowned Iron Brigade. Woods faced his second court-martial on May 29. He pleaded “guilty” but begged for mercy based on conscientious principle:

I cant fight. I cannot stand it to fight. I am ashamed to make the statement, but I may as well do it now as at any other time. I never could stand a fight. I never could bear to shoot at any body. I have done my duty in every way but fight. I have tried to do it but cannot. I am perfectly willing to work all my lifetime for the United States in every other way but fight. I have tried to do it but cannot. . . . I am willing to do all I could for my country. I like it as much as anybody does. I was always willing to try to fight for my country, but I never could. I am willing to try to fight for it again. I am ashamed of my conduct and will always try to do better hereafter.

Woods’s contrition did not sway the court, and after due deliberation, it declared him guilty and sentenced him to be “shot to death with muskets” at a time and place approved by the army commander, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. Upon receiving the summary of the conviction, Hooker immediately returned an order that instructed the divisional commander, Maj. Gen. James Wadsworth, to carry out the execution between the hours of noon and 4 P.M. on Friday, June 12.

As it turned out, Wadsworth’s division happened to be on the move when that day came along. At the time, the division was traveling along the road between Bull Run and Deep Run. When 2 P.M. came, Wadsworth ordered the column to halt, and he instructed the Iron Brigade to form into square and conduct the execution. The brigade formed three sides of the square and put a firing party of eight men in the middle. A sergeant’s guard conducted Private Woods—who had been sitting atop his own coffin, which had been carried inside an ambulance for the past five days—to the open side of the square. The sergeant shackled him and then turned over the proceedings to Lieutenant Clayton Rogers, the divisional provost marshal, who applied the blindfold.

The swiftness of the whole affair caught one observer off guard. Chaplain Joseph H. Twichell, who normally belonged to the 3rd Corps, had been traveling with Wadsworth’s division for the past few days. He recollected that, at the time of the execution, Woods had been without a minister of the faith. (Apparently, the chaplain assigned to him—who was from the 7th Wisconsin—could not be found.) Twichell wrote, “I had by this time perceived to my amazement that no clergyman was with the man. . . . Yet to me it seemed hard that the poor fellow was left to pass through the fearful trial alone—that some friend should not have been with him to sympathize with him, at least, during his last earthly day, and help him meet his fate like a man.” Despite his misgivings, Twichell could not force himself to intervene or offer up any sort of final prayer: “Still I had no thought of visiting him myself, because he was not of my own part of the army, and I felt my blood chill at the bare idea.”

At the insistence of the corps commander, Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, who wished to “have the affair hurried up,” Lieutenant Rogers delivered the commands, “Ready, Aim, Fire!” and eight muskets went off. Four balls struck Woods, toppling him over onto his coffin. Despite the damage caused by the lead projectiles, Woods survived the first volley. (As we will see in future posts, this problem repeated itself over and over as the year went on—failure to kill the accused quickly and cleanly.) Lieutenant Rogers called two members of the reserve firing party to advance to within three feet of Woods. On his command, they shot him in the head, blasting his skull into fragments. At that, the surgeon pronounced him dead. One officer remembered, “We left the men digging his grave and resumed the march as if nothing had happened.”

The soldiers of the Iron Brigade felt mixed emotions about what they had seen. Although some approved the execution as a necessary recourse, few of them felt good about it. Lieutenant Colonel Rufus Dawes, who, incidentally, had been ordered to select the eight men assigned to the firing squad, wrote to his fiancée, “The men, I assure you, dislike to be called upon for such a duty. . . . All fire at the dropping of a white handkerchief, each, in mercy, aiming at a vital part and each hoping that his is the blank cartridge with which one musket is charged.”

Although Woods’s death was the most infamous of the summer executions, his was not the only one to happen during the Gettysburg Campaign. A lesser-known set of executions occurred on June 19 at Leesburg, Virginia. The condemned men were:

·         Private William Grover, Company A, 46th Pennsylvania
·         Private William McKee, Company A, 46th Pennsylvania
·         Private Christopher Krubart, Company B, 13th New Jersey

Like Woods, all three men were veteran soldiers. The two men who deserted from the 46th Pennsylvania, Grover and McKee, had deserted together. Grover was eighteen-years-old when he enlisted on August 21, 1861. McKee was nineteen-years-old when he enlisted five days later, on August 26. Grover was a butcher and McKee was a shoemaker. Both men lived in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. Although they had fought with their regiment for almost two years, they deserted it near Stafford Court House on June 4, 1863. They purchased civilian clothes in an attempt to fool Union scouts, but they were caught and arrested near Aquia Creek. In only a few hours, their courts-martial found them guilty and sentenced both to death. Major General Hooker approved the sentencing on or about June 7. The third soldier, Krubart, who was thirty-six, had deserted his regiment in 1862, and although he could have availed himself of President Lincoln’s blanket pardon for deserters issued back in April 1863, Krubart refused to come forward. Authorities arrested him near his home in New Jersey and sent him back to the army. Once there, a court-martial found him guilty and sentenced him with death. According to Hooker’s orders, Brigadier General Alpheus Williams, the commander of the 1st Division, 12th Corps, to which all three men belonged, had to carry out the execution between the hours of noon and 4 P.M.

When the appointed hours arrived, it was clear and sunny. According to orders, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum called out the entirety of the 12th Corps. He decreed that all 9,000 men had to witness the executions. According to Williams, he selected the spot well, a piece of land that resembled an amphitheater. The burial detail dug all three graves on a slight depression, two feet apart, facing a gentle swell where the observing troops could stand and watch the proceedings with no obstructions. According to an observer, the execution grounds were on a plot where the Edwards Ferry Road intersected with the Alexandria Pike. As the Iron Brigade had done one week earlier, the 12th Corps formed into a three-sided box, facing the graves. Three firing squads of eight men each faced the condemned.

According to all accounts, the execution went flawlessly. The chaplain of the 60th New York remembered: “They were instantly killed, each having been pierced by several balls. Their bodies were then placed in the coffins, and the troops marched past, in column by platoons, giving all an opportunity to view the corpses. These men were really not such great criminals as many others who had deserted earlier in the war, and who, on account of laxity of discipline, escaped punishment. Having, however, disobeyed orders, and deserted, and hereby incurred the penalty, desertion had become so frequent, that it had become absolutely necessary to enforce it.”

Brig. Gen. John Geary, another observer, wrote home: “It was certainly a solemn scene, and one never to be forgotten. Justice to the living requires some punishment for such crime, ‘Verily, the way of the transgressor is hard.’” As the Union troops marched North, heading to their date with destiny at Gettysburg, no doubt all of them hoped they would never see such a terrible scene repeated ever again.

As we will see in future posts, they were dead wrong.
This sketch, which appeared in Harper's Weekly, depicts the executions of Grover, McKee, and Krubart, the three deserters executed by the 12th Corps at Leesburg on June 19, 1863.


  1. I am reading Noah Trudeau's' Gettysburg: a Testing of Courage. Trudeau mentions John P. Woods had a chaplain with him before he was executed, "allowed a last moment with a chaplain" (Trudeau p. 37), your accounting points otherwise. Have you explored the discrepancy before? I am deeply moved by this accounting and so appreciate your information.
    I hope we can connect. I am part of a group, Gettysburg Grit, exploring the expansiveness of the human condition from Gettysburg to the present. The energy of these accountings continue to arouse and impact emotional stillness, even with the buffer of distance and time. I can be reached at if you have time to comment on my question.
    Thank you!

    1. Holly, sure thing. I'll send you an email when I have a moment. I'd never noticed the discrepancy. I'll see if I can track down Trudeau's source. I'd be shocked, though, if Twichell was incorrect. He was usually quite observant about such details.

  2. Excellent blog! I notice the Harper's illustration depicts five-man firing squads; I think the account here is 8-man squads. Would the extra three have been the reserve for the coup de grace? Or perhaps the number included an NCO supervising the squad? Thanks, Joseph

    1. My instinct is to say that the sketch artist for Harpers Weekly just got lazy and drew in only five men instead of eight. But you are absolutely correct in that, as a precaution, there was always a reserve ready in case the first volley failed to get a kill. Perhaps that's what what went on at the June 19 execution. 5 in front, 3 in reserve. It does make sense.