On this date in 1864, the Union army in the American Civil War hanged a black deserter outside Petersburg, Va., for — in the delicate words of the army dispatch — “an attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at the New-Kent Court-house.”
The Union army was just taking up position for the coming monthslong siege of the Confederate capital, Richmond. Johnson, who confessed to deserting another unit, offered savvy blue commanders a win-hearts-and-minds opportunity: a public reassurance that the Old Dominion’s dim view of Negro outrages upon young ladies would be honored by its soon-to-be occupiers.
Not bad in theory. The execution left something to be desired.
The field of public relations being very much in its infancy, the upshot of this salutary demonstration seems not to have been conveyed to its target audience; so, when a defending Confederate battery caught sight of the gallows being thrown up in brazen view of its own lines, it jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that the Yanks were about to make an example of a southern spy. Rebel guns promptly made the Union detachment their “target audience.” An artillery shot struck one Sgt. Maj. G. F. Polley (or Polly) and “tore him all to pieces” before
[a] flag of truce was sent out to inform the enemy that a negro was to be hung who had insulted a white woman the day before; they stopped firing. We then marched back and saw the negro hung.
The return on investment for the souls of Johnson and the misfortunate NCO was altogether unsatisfactory:
The incident was cleverly turned to advantage by the Confederates, who had been losing hundreds of Negro laborers by desertion. The Rebels marched Negroes past the spot, pointing out to them the perils of fleeing their lines, saying that the Yankees hanged all ‘Contrabands.’ For weeks nocturnal escapes of Negroes ceased on that front. (Source)
It wasn’t a total loss, however. The Library of Congress ended up with some striking archival photos.
(There’s a better touch-up of this last photograph of Johnson’s body being cut down here.)