1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “the first victims of American fascism” 1621: Bohemia’s “Day of Blood”

1864: William Johnson, a bad example

June 20th, 2008 Headsman

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.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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11 thoughts on “1864: William Johnson, a bad example”

  1. haberler says:

    There are few things better in life than a slice of pie.

  2. Athena says:

    wonderful information thanks for share it

  3. Cat Power says:

    Hey can you put the page numbers of the book where you found all this info?

  4. Meaghan says:

    @Sallie: You’d right, he was, though I never heard of any photo. It’s been suggested that Emmett’s dad’s was just a victim of racial discrimination and the charges against him were possibly trumped up. It’s impossible to know at this date, but as Emmett’s mother recorded in her memoir, the guy WAS a violent man.

  5. I believe Emmett Till’s father was also hanged in Italy for the rape and murder of Italian girls. There is a photograph someplace.

  6. Scott says:

    There were 10 soldiers executed for rape and murder in WWI as well as several in WWII for the same offense. Eddie Slovak is the only soldier since the War Between the States to be executed for desertion. Right, Wrong, or Indifferent, that is what happened.

  7. Patience says:

    He was hung because he was deserter, and he tried to assult a woman outside of a confederate courthouse. Even today, desertion and assult in the military can be punishable by life in federal prison (or death according to my military spouse), back then they used to get carried away alot!

  8. jesus says:

    but why did he get hung the article makes no sense

  9. jesus says:


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