Archive for August 26th, 2015

1864: William Howe, deserter

3 comments August 26th, 2015 Headsman

From the Philadelphia Daily Age, Aug. 30, 1864.


In view of the coming draft the Government has found it necessary to hang a man.

The victim selected was a poor man, with a wife and children living in Perkiomen township, Montgomery county. He was a small farmer, with six acres, and engaged occasionally in the manufacture of tobacco and cigars. He lived in a Democratic county and township, where trouble was possible as to the draft, and certain at the election.

He was a man of good character, and ordinarily of gentle disposition. His dying words were: “I commend my wife and little ones to the charity of the world, and I ask pardon of those I may have injured and hope they will forgive me and pray for my soul.”

He was a brave man, had proved it on the battle-field, and as the press report says he told his counsel, “he faced the last music like a soldier.”

Such, in brief, was William H. Howe, of Montgomery county, who, on Friday last, was hanged at Fort Mifflin, where, one of the “loyal” newspapers of this city remarks, “the proceedings were conducted most harmoniously.”


Fort Mifflin as it appeared in 1870. William Howe was the only prisoner ever known to have been executed there.

But this is not all: the Government, in selecting this victim and making this example, was determined to show the Democrats of Montgomery county, that no antecedent merits or services could soften its heart or mitigate its doom of vengeance.

Howe was one of those unfortunate men who, excited by prevalent enthusiasm, and imagining that the authorities would protect their soldiers, enlisted two years ago in a Pennsylvania volunteer regiment. He entered the service in August, 1862, just before Antietam — when Pope‘s army was defeated, and Washington was threatened, and Mr. Lincoln frightened out of his wits.

Howe was one of those of whom Mr. Seward wrote to Mr. Dayton: “Our new levies are coming in in great numbers and in high spirits.” He went through the whole campaign at Fredericksburg, being

one of the five men who came off the field with the colors of his regiment! He exchanged his musket for an Enfield rifle, and again went upon the field with our skirmishers, and remained there all night till next day. He escaped by swimming the Rappahannock river.

Such were his merits, who was ignominiously hanged last Friday.

Now, a word as to his delinquencies. We again quote the loyal reports:

At the time he left the regiment he was suffering from inflammation of the bowels, and the regimental hospital being burned down, and having neither surgeons nor medicines, he, with some twenty others, determined to look out for themselves for treatment and reported themselves to the hospitals at Washington. Afterwards he and Augustus Beiting, a member of his company, returned to their homes.

For some two months afterwards Howe was confined to his bed.

This, we presume, was called “desertion.”

Two poor fellows, wasted by the most agonizing of diseases, with no hospital roof to cover them, and, mark this! gentle reader, who hear of champagne dinners and tableaux in our suburban hospitals, “having neither surgeons nor medicines,” wander back to their homes, and lay their wearied limbs and throbbing temples on the humble bed in Perkiomen. This was the initiate crime, though not the one for which he died. Let us see what that was, for we have no wish to do injustice to the executioners. We do not at all agree with the Press, which says “that having once given the facts, a further statement is superfluous.”

The scene of the crime was his home in Montgomery county.

That county has a Perkiomen township, and a Chiltern township, not many miles apart. Little over a year ago, in the latter township, a poor but most respectable white man, Mrs. Butler’s gardener, walking quietly on a public road, was shot down like a dog by a negro soldier, and died in agony.

For this dark deed of blood, the penalty was a mild conviction for manslaughter, — which it as much resembled as it did arson or burglary, — a sentence for a few years, and, if we mistake not, a pardon.

The negro ruffian, unlike poor Howe, had never done a deed of valor, or probably fired a musket till he pulled the trigger at the wayfarer on the Chiltern lanes. He was one of the League pets — a Chestnut street darling, and had a claim on the sympathy and mercy of those who judge always gently a negro’s fault.

Not so William H. Howe, the white Perkiomen soldier.

His deed of wrong was this: About midnight of the 21st June, 1863, he was awakened from a deep sleep — till then the sleep of innocence — by an alarm supposed to be given by the companion who had accompanied him home, that the Provost Marshal was coming to arrest him.

The first impulse was incredulity. The next, to try to escape. The last, resistance.

The words Provost Marshal, associated in a soldier’s mind with thoughts of severity, and cruelty, and sternness, have an awful sound by day or night. Those who think all Provost Marshals resemble the effeminate fribbles who superintend the draft in our streets, can form no idea of the real spectre.

Howe seized his musket, probably the one he brought in triumph from the bloody field of Fredericksburg, and fired it in the darkness, killing the enrolling officer.

The negro’s deliberate homicide is manslaughter. The white man’s rash or passionate misadventure is capital murder.

“I never,” said Howe on the scaffold, “sought the life of the man I killed. I never wished it, and I feel God will pardon me for taking it as I did.”

This, then, is the deed for which this poor fellow was condemned and died — and for which, in view of the draft, no mercy was found in the hearts of Joseph Holt and Abraham Lincoln.

Of the trial by some unknown, irresponsible military court, of which the prisoner’s prosecutor was the President, we do not care to speak. We think of it as history does of the judges who, a hundred years ago, sent to his bloody grave, according to the forms of martial law, a gallant English sailor, whom the hard-hearted monarch of that day refused to pardon, but executed “to encourage the others.” It is a sad record altogether.

And then the feeble attempt at a habeas corpus in the Federal Court, and the citation of Wolfe Tone‘s case, with its suggestive hint at suicide! The whole thing seems like a hideous mockery.

The Judge’s idea that Howe, like Tone, had waived the writ by appearing before the court martial, seems a little odd, but we do not presume to criticise judicial action, and we are very sure the Judge must have been reluctant to deny relief to a Montgomery county man, one of his former constituents. The writ, however, was refused, and last Friday, the white man was hanged, and the enrolling officer was avenged.

Howe died like a brave man. He parted with his wife and three little children with deep emotion, and then his work was done.

He was taken in an ambulance by a back way from the Penitentiary, now, it seems, used as a military prison, to the river and thence in a boat to Fort Mifflin.

“Neither guard nor prisoner,” says the North American, “uttered one word during the run down to the Fort.” There was quite a crowd to welcome him.

“The steamer Don Juan,” says the Press, “was chartered for the purpose and took down the members of the Press club.”

“The gallows,” kindly loaned by the Inspectors of the County Prison, says the same paper, “was the one on which the Scupinskis, Arthur Spring and Maddocks were hanged.” In other words, the brave Fredericksburg soldier — the Perkiomen volunteer — was ostentatiously disgraced by being put on a level in this respect with mean, mercenary murderers — and Howe died without a murmur or complaint, keeping his word that “he would face the music like a soldier.” And thus the hideous narrative concludes: “The body was taken down and placed in charge of Mr. Black, the Government undertaker, who had it embalmed yesterday afternoon and sent to Howe’s widow.”

And it will be carried to his home — and the embalmer, proud of his skill, will take off the coffin lid, and the widow and the three little children will look at the swollen and blackened features of him they loved so well, and they will think of the pride with which he used to tell, and the interest with which they used to listen to the tale of his rescuing the regimental flag at Fredericksburg — and the neighbors will come and look, and in many a lacerated and agonized heart the question will be asked, “why was there no mercy for him?”

The Fishing Creek Confederacy details Civil War draft resistance in a different Democratic region of Pennsylvania.

To us the whole thing seems simply horrible; and badly as we think of it, doubly atrocious will have been the deed, if the reason given for this execution be the true one. The Press, which may certainly be considered the organ of the Administration here, thus accounts for the severity in this case:

The deceased exhibited great bravery at the first battle of Fredericksburg, and after several color bearers had been shot down, he seized the standard and bore it through the heat of the contest. These were noble traits, which he is yet entitled to. It is very evident that he did not intend to kill Mr. Bartlett, but society at that time, in that part of Pennsylvania, was tainted with Copperheadism, and it may be well supposed that the draft resisting, dark lantern conspirators had the effect to instil in the mind of Howe some of the poison for which their victim was hung instead of themselves.

According to this, this brave soldier was hanged because he lived in a Democratic region. The negro of the Chiltern Hills was spared because Government bankers, and Abolition lecturers and shoddy contractors there do congregate, and the township gives a Republican majority.

The patience of the people of Pennsylvania really seems inexhaustible; and all we can hope to do is to help to make up the awful record of atrocity for the long deferred, but inevitable day of retribution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Pennsylvania,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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