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?

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