On the night of the crime, Hopper and four other soldiers were hanging out in a cafe in the town of Welkenraedt, Belgium, just outside of Liege. Just after midnight, Hopper got into an argument with one of his companions, Private Randolph Jackson Jr.
The two men argued frequently and the other three in the group were used to it, and didn’t take them seriously when they started threatening to shoot each other. Finally Private Jackson handed Hopper his gun, presumably daring him to shoot. Hopper shot him dead, then told the witnesses, “You didn’t see nothing.”
At his court-martial, he did not testify and there was no defense. Hopper protested about this later, saying he didn’t get a fair trial: “My Defense Counsel said he was going to tell them. Told me to stay silent. So, he got up and told them I wasn’t guilty. He didn’t say much else.”
Unlike many military men sentenced to death during World War II, Hopper showed remorse for what he had done. Still he asked for leniency and penned a letter to General Eisenhower beginning:
Dear Sir, I was tried for mudder and the court find me guilty and sences me to be hong Sir. And Sir I am asking you to please Sir look in to this mader close Sir for me because I have made a great mucstake Sir and wont you give me another chanch in the armey.
Hopper’s IQ tested at 50, putting him in the moderately mentally retarded range, and a psychiatrist who evaluated him stated he had a mental age of about nine, “bordering on mental deficiency.” Someone with that degree of mental disability would not be permitted to be executed today.
Some people argued that the death sentence should be commuted to life in prison, citing Hopper’s intellectual impairment and the lack of premeditation. Weighing against that was his prior recorded offenses of going AWOL and being in Liege without an official pass. The Brigadier General who reviewed the case recommended that the death sentence stand, and Eisenhower agreed.
Hopper died on a clear, warm morning in Le Mans, France. At 11:00 a.m., his hands and ankles were bound and he said his last words to the chaplain: “Father, I would like you to write to my mother.” The trap sprung at 11:01 and Hopper was pronounced dead at 11:24.
David Cobb, Private, Company C, 827th Engineer Battalion (Aviation), on March 12, 1943 achieved the milestone distinction of becoming the first U.S. soldier executed in Great Britain.
On December 27, 1942 — a mere 11 days after arriving in Britain — Cobb was ordered by a Lt. Robert Cobner to surrender his weapon when the private popped off to him during a routine inspection. Instead, Cobb shot Cobner dead.
He was hanged by the British executioner Thomas Pierrepoint at Shepton Mallet prison — a fortress dating to 1610 and still in use to the present day. The U.S. Army employed part of the prison during World War II to carry out 18 military executions; over half of these men were, like Cobb, black.
The retaliatory executions a U.S. Army lieutenant carried out on this date in 1861 helped set in motion a decade-long war with the Apaches.
Three years out of West Point and brand new to Arizona’s Fort Buchanan, George Bascom in retrospect was probably not the ideal ambassador to send out with orders to retrieve a young half-Apache boy kidnapped from a ranch by an Indian raid. (Along with all the cattle.)
Since nobody was present at the time, the identity of the raiders just wasn’t known — but someone’s suspicions affixed on the wily and dangerous* Chiricahua warrior Cochise. The Chiriachuas were just one group among the Apache peoples; they ranged from Mexico to southeastern New Mexico and southwestern Arizona, and were divided into many small local groups each with their own leader — like Cochise.
Lt. Bascom would be killed in a Civil War engagement a year after the events in this post without leaving posterity his memoirs, so his understanding of Apache society can only be guessed at. But his on-the-make bullheadedness is universal to every time and place where young men can be found. “Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and of course a gentleman,” Arizona frontiersman Charles Poston later remembered. “But he was unfortunately a fool.”
Lt. Bascom and Cochise.
The greenhorn lieutenant rode out with 54 cavalrymen to Apache Pass and lured Cochise to a confabulation. Cochise showed up with his brother, wife, and children — clearly expecting some sort of social call.
Cochise was entirely unaware of the kidnapping, and unaware that Bascom considered him the kidnapper. He offered to find out about it and retrieve the boy from whomever had him.
Bascom, whose troops had surrounded the tent during the parley, accused Cochise of lying to him. Cochise had twice the impertinent lieutnant’s years and at least that multiple of Bascom’s sense, and must have been affronted by his opposite number’s behavior — but when Bascom announced that he would be taking Cochise and his companions as prisoners pending the return of the raiders’ spoils, the Apache commander whipped a knife out of its sheath and instantly slashed his escape route through the wall of the tent. Bursting past the shocked troops (they were as inexperienced as their officer), Cochise escaped into the twilight. This “Bascom Affair” (to Anglos) is remembered more evocatively by Apaches as “Cut Through The Tent”.
But the tent-knifing was only the start of it.
Cochise’s party did not manage to follow his escape, so Bascom now held Cochise’s brother, wife, son, and two other warriors. The Apache tried to put himself in a negotiating position by seizing hostages of his own — first a Butterfield stagecoach stationmaster named Wallace, and later three white men seized from a passing wagon train.
Nor were the hostages’ the only lives at stake. Cochise’s band, including the soon-to-be-legendary Geronimo, had assembled and their campfires burned menacingly in the hills around the little stage station where Bascom’s force fortified themselves. Bascom could have defused it all with a hostage swap, but the kid had his orders and stubbornly refused to make the trade unless it included the one hostage Cochise didn’t have: that little boy from the ranch.
At length, reinforcements for the beleaguered cavalry began arriving, one such party bringing three other Apaches captured en route and entirely unrelated to Cochise. “Troops were sent out to search for us,” a much older Geronimo recalled in his memoirs. “But as we had disbanded, it was, of course, impossible for them to locate any hostile camp … while they searched we watched them from our hiding places and laughed at their failures.”
Despairing now of seeing his family again, Cochise had his hostages killed and dispersed, leaving the mutilated remains to be discovered by his antagonists with the help of circling buzzards. When they did so, they retaliated in fury — releasing only Cochise’s wife and child, but hanging the six other hostages, including Cochise’s brother. In the narration of Sgt. Daniel Robinson,
After witnessing the fiendish acts committed by the Apaches, the minds of our officers and men were filled with horror, and in retaliation, it was decided in Council, that the captive Indians should die. On the 19th we broke camp to return to our respective posts leaving a Sergeant and eight men to take charge of the station until relieved. We halted about half a mile from the station where there was a little grove of Cedar trees. The Indians were brought to the front with their hands tied behind their backs, and led up to the trees. Noosed picket ropes were placed around their necks, the ends thrown over the limbs of the trees and manned by an equal number of willing hands. A signal was given and away flew the spirits of the unfortunate Indians — not to the happy hunting grounds of Indian tradition. According to their ideas or belief in a hereafter, those who die by hanging can never reach that region of bliss. I was in an ambulance with the other Sergeant, and must confess it was a sad spectacle to look upon. An illustration of the Indians sense of Justice: “That the innocent must suffer for the guilty.” And the white man’s notion — “That the only good Indians are dead ones.” Whatever it may be, I do not think it was much worse than the present policy of penning them up on Reservations and starving them to death. (See Cochise: Firsthand Accounts of the Chiricahua Apache Chief.)
A devastating decade-long war against Cochise and his equally able father-in-law Mangas Coloradas ensued, and right when the army most needed its military resources for the Civil War. The conflict claimed hundreds or thousands of lives, crippled mining and ranching, and depopulated fearful white settlements around Apache country in favor of “gravestones … by the road-side like sentinels, bearing the invariable description ‘Killed by the Apaches'”.
A fort near the Texas border was later named for Bascom. The kidnapped boy was never recovered and grew up in a different Apache tribe.
Tom Jeffords (Jimmy Stewart): “Cochise didn’t start this war! A snooty little lieutenant fresh out of the east started it. He flew a flag of truce which Cochise honored, and then he hanged Cochise’s brother and five others under the flag.”
* Cochise was officially at peace with the Americans at this point and hostile to Mexicans. In “Cochise: Apache War Leader, 1858-1861,” in the Journal of Arizona History (Spring 1965), Barbara Ann Tyler argues that the reality of the situation was that his warband flexibly shifted between temporary peace and opportunistic small raids, moving north and south of the Mexican border as convenient.
On this date in 1949, Dr. Hiroshi Iwanami was hanged on Guam for murdering ten American POWs during World War II.
The commanding officer of the naval hospital on Japan’s South Pacific stronghold of Truk, Iwanami was condemned by the postwar U.S. Navy war crimes tribunal for overseeing — and rather reveling in — the sadistic murders of ten American POWs that fell into his hands in 1944.
From the Newcastle (NSW, Australia) Morning Herald & Miners’ Advocate, July 16, 1947
In addition to murder, Iwanami was charged with “preventing the honorable burial” of bodies and with “dissection” and “mutilation” of them. Iwanami had used all ten of his victims for so-called medical experiments. Four of his January 1944 victims had tourniquets placed on their arms and legs by Iwanami for long periods. Two of the POWs had their tourniquets removed in two hours, and the other two at the end of seven hours. The latter two died immediately of shock, but the former survived. On the same day, four others were injected with streptococcus bacteria to cause blood poisoning. All four developed high fevers and soon died.
On February 1, 1944, the two survivors from the tourniquet experiment were marched to a hill in back of the hospital. Naked, with their legs stretched out as far as possible, the men were tied to stakes. Iwanami’s staff then placed a small explosive charge three feet in front of each foot of each victim. The resulting explosion blew off the feet of the men, but both victims survived. Their amazing endurance was short-lived, because Iwanami ordered the men strangled; an aide accomplished the task with his bare hands. Their bodies were returned to the hospital, where they were dissected, and all vital organs were placed in specimen jars. Only some of the organs from the blood poisoning victims were kept, and their bodies were tossed off a nearby cliff.
During an evening meal near the end of July 1944, Iwanami asked his staff if they would assist him in experiments on two more POWs. Instead of answering quickly in the affirmative, the men asked about the value of such experiments. Refusing to discuss the issue, Iwanami ordered his men, instead, to participate in the execution of the two POWs. This time there was no opposition to the order. The two Americans were suspended from a bar placed between two trees. With the order to “stab with spirit,” the hospital staff then began their bayonet practice. There was little left of the bodies after the practice was over, and those bodies, one of them headless, were buried near the scene of the execution. Shortly before his capture, Iwanami had the bodies exhumed and thrown into the sea.
… the trial was as bizarre as the defendants. Three of Iwanami’s old hospital staff members committed suicide, leaving word that they would rather die than testify against their commanding officer. Another, Lt. Shinji Sakagami, took great pride in the fact that he had strangled two POWs. A staunch advocate of the Japanese war effort and, like so many of his colleagues, convinced that death was better than surrender, he hoped his actions in Truk would serve as a warning to the future enemies of Japan. Iwanami was sentenced to death, although he attempted to cheat the hangman. Smuggling a small, sharpened pencil into his holding cell, Iwanami stood at one end of the tight quarters, shouted “Banzai,” and vaulted against the opposite wall. The pencil was held close to his heart, but it did little damage. Both witnesses on the scene and the commission wondered why a surgeon would have failed to aim the pencil properly. Iwanami’s hanging proceeded as planned, and the most generous verdict for a member of his staff was ten years in prison.
Sheridan, who had in the course of that campaign made his lasting fame by rallying his troops after an initially devastating Confederate surprise attack, was highly concerned at the prospect of rebel spies and infiltrators.
Our two poor fellows, Henry Regley and Charles King, were actually nothing of the sort — just bounty jumper who donned the blue uniform to collect a cash reward for joining up, and then deserted at the first opportunity. Given the state’s primitive tools in the 1860s for monitoring individual citizens or verifying identity, many bounty jumpers simply repeated the enlistment-desertion cycle several times.
Being shot as a deserter was one of the occupational hazards — a small one, but a real one. But being shot as a spy? Well, General Sheridan was on the lookout.
These deserters on their way out of camp happened to bump into a patrol of “Confederates”: actually a Union detail Sheridan had uniformed like the enemy for sneaky reconnaissance. What ensued next was your basic comedy of mistaken identity … with a double execution at the end.
Henry Recli [sic] of Co. L and Christian A. Gross, alias Charles King of the same Company, a German by birth, left the regiment while at the present camp. A party of scouts led by Major [Young] of Gen. Sheridan’s staff, at their head, dressed in rebel uniforms met these men up the valley, a number of miles outside the picket lines. As they conversed with them, the deserters supposing them to be genuine rebels, gave them the contraband information, and stated that they had been trying to desert for some time. They assented to a proposal to exchange clothing, and then were arrested.
I am informed by Chaplain John L. Frazee, whose trying duty it was to be with the condemned during their last hours, that both persisted in their innocence to the last. When told by the Provost Marshall Lee, that they were to die at noon, they said they knew that the night before, when they were in Winchester, at which place Gross, who had always signed his name as Charles King, wrote a letter to friends in Philadelphia, signed Christian A. Gross, in which he expressed his doubts of the carrying out of the sentence. The chaplain believes this idea deceived them until the last moment, although they yielded a sort of mechanical compliance with the solemn services held with them in private, and kneeled in prayer before being taken from prison.
Private Friederich Jaeckel’s drawing in his diary of the two deserters, again via New Jersey Butterfly Boys. Though that book’s caption places this on January 6, 1864, context suggests this must in fact be our 1865 incident; there is no indication I can find of an executed pair in the army dating to exactly one year before.
The details of the execution of this kind are terribly formal and impressive. Fully three thousand cavalrymen were drawn upon three sides of a square upon a gentle slope a little way from headquarters. Each regimental and brigade staff was with its organization and centrally stationed was Gen. Custer and his staff and body guard. When the Division was arranged, Provost Marshall Lee gave orders that the condemned should be brought forth, and thoroughly unused as I was to seeing death in that shape, the memories clustering about that slow moving group, seem as if burned in my brain.
The Provost Marshall, preceded by the band, with a small body guard, led — then the firing party, made up of twelve picked men from our own regiment. A large open wagon, drawn by four white horses, came next — in which there were two coffins, upon each of which sat a doomed man riding backwards, with feet ironed and hands tied behind. Each had a long white scarf about the head. Besides these rode the Chaplain and a proper guard dismounted closed the rear.
The fine brigade band, which had marched in silence until near the Division, when the first side of the square was reached, began playing a Dead March, and thus did this little group march slowly around inside the whole army, and at last halt at an open grave — dug in the center.
The men were now lifted from the wagon, the Coffins duly placed, and the men seated as before facing the whole Division. Marshall Lee then, from his horse, read the order and warrant … brief religious services were held, the Chaplain reading a portion of the burial service, and offering prayer for the condemned. Neither had anything to say, and the Chaplain retired a few paces. The faces of the men were then covered, and the firing party quickly drawn up in line with pieces previously carefully loaded and placed in their hands. One of the twelve had, by a merciful regulation in the Articles of War, a blank cartridge, and each comrade had the hope that he should send no fatal ball.
More rapidly than I can trace this account was the preparation done. Ten paces off stood the line — each man sternly appreciative of his fearful duty.
“Attention” Ready! Aim! Fire! The report was almost as if one carbine had responded. Two bodies fallen backwards and dead were all that remained of Recli and Gross. The surgeon in a few moments pronounced life extinct; and the scene closed by marching the whole body of troops past their Coffins, lying as they fell — this most solemn warning one can imagine to the soldier — to be faithful to himself, his oath and his Country. MANATOM
* Abraham Lincoln’s hilarious description of the 1.65-meter (5′ 5″) “Little Phil”: “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”
The Third was subsequently transferred to Union-occupied Jacksonville, Florida for duty garrisoning a conquered town of the Confederacy whose white citizens chafed doubly at their presence. But the unit had weathered both the boredom of the garrison and the hostility of white Floridians, and was set to muster out and return home on Halloween of 1865.
All U.S. Colored Troop regiments were officered by white men, putting an inevitable racial tinge on the inherent potential tension between enlistees and their commanders — the triggering event in our story. Heading the Third was a fellow named John L. Brower, Lieutenant Colonel by rank courtesy of his political connections but of nearly no actual military experience.
Ohio National Guard Judge Advocate General Kevin Bennett, in his 1992 article about the mutiny,* calls Brower a “martinet”; elevated to command of the Third on September 12 for what should have been a mostly ceremonial interim, Brower delighted in enforcing stringent wartime discipline months after Appomattox. While no man welcomes the taste of the lash when he’s one foot out the door back to civilian life, excess discipline meted out by cruel white overseers was particularly bad form for Colored Troop regiments.
From the standpoint of black Americans, the war had been all about destroying slavery; they had practically had to force this objective, and their own presence,** into the conflict. Being strung up by the thumbs for petty theft — Brower’s decreed punishment for one of his charges on October 29 — was far too evocative of the hated Slave Power.
“Inexperienced officers often assumed that because these men had been slaves before enlistment, they would bear to be treated as such afterwards,” one white Colored Troop commander later remembered. “Experience proved to the contrary. Any punishment resembling that meted out by the overseers caused irreparable damage.”†
The inclination of black troops to reject servile treatment and the anxiety that this provoked among their officers and the larger white community must surely be read in view of the perplexing new conditions following the Civil War.
Even among whites who supported it in principle, slavery abolition meant an unsettling and uncertain rearrangement of civilization — or at least, it potentially meant that. Would the economy continue to function without slavery? Would the daily conventions and assumptions that had sustained whites north and south have to be entirely renegotiated?
“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship,” Frederick Douglass had proclaimed. Now that the war had finished, what else did those musket-toting sable fellows think they had earned the right to?
Press reports over the course of 1865 show a continuing theme of “Negro mutinies”: it is for wiser studies than this post to determine whether the trend such stories represent is disturbances among the black soldiery, or an exaggerated preoccupation among their white countrymen. In either event, Jacksonville was very far from unique even if the punishments were exemplary.
From the June 16, 1865 Cleveland Plain Dealer, concerning black soldiers on a steamer bound for Texas calling at Fort Monroe who, chagrined at the assignment, refused to permit the steamer’s resuming its journey.
From the June 19, 1865 Philadelphia Inquirer, concerning a company refusing to embark for Texas. “Certain evil disposed persons put it into the heads of these credulous colored soldiers that they were to be sent to Texas as servants for the white troops,” runs the report. “Doubtless some secret enemies of the Government instilled similar subtle falsehoods into the simple minds of the blacks who were disarmed at Fortress Monroe a few days ago.”
From the September 30, 1865 Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), concerning a mutiny reported near Hilton, N.C.
From the Oct. 1, 1865 Daily Constitutionalist (Augusta, Ga.), reporting a disturbance begun when a black regiment demonstrated against a court-martial for one of their comrades accused (and acquitted) of stealing a hat.
In the midst of all of this — right about the time of the incident in this post, in fact — bulletins reached American shores of the Morant Bay Rebellion, a bloody rebellion of black laborers in British-controlled Jamaica. Slavery had been abolished on that Caribbean island more than 30 years prior: what did that uprising augur for the races in these United States?
Subtext becomes text: the Norwich (Conn.) Aurora, December 23, 1865. “The African released from restraint, and the passion of the savage provoked, will realize the scenes formerly witnessed in Hayti.” (The full article (pdf))
For our case, the name of the man punished like a slave is lost, but we do know what he did: steal some molasses from the kitchen. That’s how six of his comrades ultimately wound up looking down the barrels of their executioners.
A Lt. Greybill caught the greedy nosher and decreed a rough summary punishment, which the arriving Brower arrived helped to enforce on the resisting prisoner. “Tying up by the thumbs” was a brutal and humiliating treatment that lifted the man by those digits (often dislocated in the process) until only his toes remained on the ground, barely supporting his weight, and left him there for hours. In the film 12 Years a Slave, we see a man subjected to this sort of tiptoeing, but with a rope about the neck instead of about the thumbs.
Other enlisted men gathered around this pitiful scene, complaining about what they saw. A Private Jacob Plowden, who will eventually number among our day’s six executees, cried out that “it was a damn shame for a man to be tied up like that, white soldiers were not tied up that way nor other colored soldiers, only in our regiment.”
Plowden announced that “there was not going to be any more of it, that he would die on the spot but he would be damned if he wasn’t the man to cut him down.” Another private, Jonathan Miller, joined the incitement — “Let’s take him down, we are not going to have any more of tying men up by the thumbs.” A number of the black soldiers, 25 to 35 or so, began advancing on Brower and the hanging molasses-thief. Brower drew his sidearm and fired into them, wounding a man and sending the soldiers scurrying — some dispersing, but other dashing off to tents to arm themselves.
Several non-lethal fights now occurred in various spots around the camp between soldiers and officers, and eventually between the disaffected soldiers and arriving brethren from Company K, who had been summoned to calm the situation.
Lt. Col. Brower exchanged shots with several of the men who armed themselves, and in a bit of symmetry with the distasteful punishment that had started the whole mess, he had his thumb shot off in the process. One of the privates who had been heard complaining of the thumb-hanging, now playing peacemaker, grabbed the injured officer and escorted him to a safe building, warning some men who tried to pursue them to “stop their damn foolishness.”
Elsewhere, a Lt. Fenno sabered a protestor, and got bashed over the head with a fence-post in response. Neither injury was life-threatening to its recipient. Some shots were exchanged elsewhere in camp and/or fired demonstratively into the air, again to no fatal effect. And a Private James Thomas cut down the post where the source of all the disturbance, the fellow who just wanted an extra ration of molasses, was hanging.
This was the whole of the commotion, which Company K reinforcements soon quelled.
In a speedy series of court-martials lasting from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3, thirteen men were convicted of mutiny in this affair, and a fourteenth of conduct prejudicial to good order (his offense: not during the mutiny but after all was over, saying of Brower, “the God-damned son of a bitch, he shot my cousin. Where is he? Let me see him.”) A fifteenth man was acquitted. All 15 accused mounted their own defense, without counsel or aid — generally endeavoring to show that they had either not armed themselves or (and this was the decisive factor for the six whose conviction carried a death sentence) not fired their weapon.
The trial itself posed interesting procedural dilemmas, which Bennett explores at length in his article: first, because it was a mutiny case, the white officers of the Third who comprised the jurors were also, awkwardly, the brother-officers of the witnesses who testified against the mutineers.
And second, although the Civil War was over, Florida still technically remained in a state of rebellion, and this enabled the unit to convene a general court-martial, issue death sentences, and even carry them out without allowing any appeal to Washington. General John Foster gave the final approval to the sentences and transmitted case files to Washington after the fact; that was all the six condemned had by way of legal or executive review.
On December 10, he received a telegraph ordering him to suspend one of the death sentences in response to an inquiry raised by U.S. Senator Edgar Cowan: Cowan had been contacted by one of his constituents, who represented that Private David Craig, whom the constituent had raised from childhood, had written him complaining of his wrongful conviction. According to Sen. Cowan, the allegation was that Craig had been directed to collect arms from the mutineers as the disturbance came to an end, but was thereafter arrested in the confusion for being armed with the weapons he collected. But December 10 was nine days too late, and the late Private Craig’s case file disturbingly seems to have been lost from the National Archives.
The other five shot by musketry this date were:
Lt. Col. Brower only testified at one of the courts-martial, and was sent home almost immediately afterwards. He’d lost his thumb for his adventure as an officer and a gentleman, but between the original provocative punishment that he helped enforce, and then inflaming a tense situation by shooting at his soldiers, the brass was probably just as pleased to see him go as were his subordinates.
The non-executed mutineers who received prison terms (up to 15 years) had their sentences commuted following a review in 1866. The rest of the regiment mustered out as scheduled at the end of October, two days after the Jacksonville Mutiny.
* B. Kevin Bennett, “The Jacksonville Mutiny”, Civil War History, Volume 38, Number 1, March 1992. Bennett’s article is the source of all of the quotes in this post not otherwise cited.
In an effort to quell the activities of Confederate guerrillas-slash-outlaws, Burbridge issued a still-notorious directive called Order 59: Citing the “rapid increase in this district of lawless bands of armed men,” the order threatened to expel Southern sympathizers and seize their property. Moreover, it warned: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.”
The outrages in question for this occasion were raids on Midway horse farms* (allegedly led by “Sue Mundy”) that, on November 1, resulted in a shootout fatal to one Adam Harper Jr.
Agreeably to Order 59, Burbridge had four of his prisoners — men with no specific connection to Harper’s death — shot on the town’s commons, forcing the local populace to attend the scene.
Shot by order of
Nov. 5 1864
Our Confederate Dead
Burbridge would be dismissed, and his Order 59 revoked, early the next year. “Thank God and President Lincoln,” was the reaction of the Louisville Journal.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.
Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.
The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.
Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.
And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?
One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”
Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.
We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:
Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …
He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:
“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.
The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular — sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of