On this date* in 1814, an American army in Buffalo, N.Y., shaken by desertions lined up five absconding soldiers for execution.
The memoirs of one Jarvis Hanks, a drummer, recalled the singular scene that ensued.
In this alternative history of the war of 1812, the sergeant commanding the firing party and the soldier not executed make their way down the continent as an odd couple and fight in the Battle of New Orleans.
During the time we remained at Buffalo, five men were sentenced to be publicly shot for the offence of desertion. They were dressed in white robes with white caps upon their heads, and a red target fastened over the heart. The army was drawn up into a hollow square to witness the example that was about to be made of their comrades who had proved recreant to the regulations of the service. Five graves were dug in a row, five coffins placed near them, also in a line, with distance between coffins and graves to enable the criminals to kneel between them. About twelve men were assigned to the execution of each offender. Their guns were loaded by officers, and they were not permitted to examine them afterwards until they had fired.
All things being in readiness, the chaplain made a prayer, the caps were pulled down over the eyes of the poor culprits, and the word of command given: “Ready! Aim! Fire!” They all fell! Some into their graves, some over their coffins. One struggled faintly and the commanding officer ordered a sergeant to approach and end his misery. He obeyed by putting the muzzle of his piece within a yard of his head, and discharging it. This quieted him perfectly!
At this time one of the condemned slowly arose from his recumbent position to his knees and was assisted to his feet. His first remark was, “By God, I thought I was dead”. In consequence of his youth and the peculiar circumstances of his case, he had been reprieved, but the fact was not communicated to him until this moment. He had anticipated execution with his comrades, and when the report of the guns took place, he fell with them, though not a ball touched him. The platoon assigned to him had guns given to them which were not charged, or at least had nothing but powder in them.
Even Dostoyevsky didn’t get to the point where the mock executioners actually “fired”.
* This execution, which obviously has a folklorish quality, has somewhat slippery particulars. The not-necessarily-dependable dating of the Espy file (pdf) places it on this date, as does The Rivers of War, which squares with the quoted soldier’s account of timing and the known troop movements. Hanks’ writings (and that of two other War of 1812 soldiers) is published in Soldiers of 1814: American Enlisted Men’s Memoirs of the Niagara Campaign. (Review.)
Espy names the executed soldiers as John Black, Mahlon Christie, George Orcote, and Isaac Kent.