The guide, a negro, had misled us during the night, and, to obviate the delay of retracing our steps. Col. Dahlgren, on the representations of the negro that an excellent ford was to be found at Dover Mills, concluded to cross at that point. After two hours’ halt we again moved on, and soon reached Dover Mills, but only to meet disappointment.
Dover Milles, Civil War era illustration
The negro had deceived us, no ford existed at this point nor any means of crossing the river. He then stated that the ford was three miles below: this was obviously false, as the river was evidently navigable to and above this place, as we saw a sloop going down the river.
… he came into our lines from Richmond … [and] was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung in conformity with the terms of his service. The negro became greatly alarmed, stated confusedly that he was mistaken, thought we intended to cross the river in boats, and finally said that he had done wrong, was sorry, etc. The colonel ordered him to be hung, — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch dangling by the roadside.
Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around.
This expedition’s leader, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, abandoned the effort and in the attempt to fall back, rode into a Confederate ambush the next day. He died in the fusillade, while his men were captured.
The body of this late Col. Dahlgren, on whose authority our misfortunate guide was put to death, was found by the Confederates to bear some startling papers* … indicating that the intent of his ill-starred expedition was not merely to liberate starving northern prisoners, but that “once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”
Within days, the story was abroad and Richmond newspapers floridly outraged at this proposed breach of chivalrous warfare.
Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to quash public demands for the Dahlgren party’s summary execution, the documents may indeed have marked a turning point in the war’s conduct, a public announcement of total warfare sufficient for the South to “inaugurate a system of bloody retaliations.”** If so, it was a well-timed license: the Confederacy was in the process of being steamrolled and would soon require recourse to more desperate strategems.
There are, in fact, some historians who postulate that it was “bloody retaliation” for Dahlgren’s attempt on the Confederate president that ultimately led southern agents to initiate the late-war plots against Abraham Lincoln’s person — resulting ultimately in Lincoln’s assassination:
Ulric Dahlgren, and [his] probable patron [U.S. Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy’s president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president.
That is some blowback.
Books exploring the alleged link between the Dahlgren Papers and the Lincoln assassination
* It must be said that the Dahlgren papers have been continually contested as frauds from the moment they were known, though many historians do indeed consider them legitimate. We are in no position to contribute to that debate, and for the purposes of this post’s narration the question is immaterial: the papers, forged or not, certainly existed, were widely publicized, and genuinely angered many southerners.
** These words are the demand of the March 8, 1864 Richmond Dispatch.
On this date in 1864, Confederate ranger A.G. Willis — whose Christian name is given as Albert or Absalom — was captured in Rappahannock County, Virginia and summarily, spectacularly hanged.
The context was the increasingly dirty war in Virginia against Confederate guerrilla John Mosby, whose rangers were severely hampering Union operations in Virginia. The northern army had resorted to less than genteel expedients with the previous month’s summary execution of a half-dozen (actual or suspected) Mosby’s Rangers.
[Col. William] Powell’s men had first tied the rope they used to hang Willis with to the top of a young sapling, which was then bent nearly double. When it was released, it shot Willis skyward in an abrupt, strangled flight. Powell was jubilant about the execution he had ordered. Powell stated in his report: “I wish it distinctly understood by the Rebel authorities that if two to one is not sufficient I will increase it to 22 to one, and leave the consequences in the hands of my Government.”
We don’t have a picture of this jubilation-worthy execution, but we’ll make do with the picture in our heads.
It was on this date 1873 that the Modoc leader Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack, was hanged with three comrades by United States forces after the Modoc War.
Reading from a familiar script, the encroaching whites had squeezed Modocs off their ancestral land and onto a reservation — in fact, the reservation of another, rival tribe. Jack led his people off that uncomfortable lodgings, bidding to return home in 1865 — only to be rounded up and re-confined.
A second attempt to break out would result in his execution.
When an actual fight broke out at the inevitable surrender negotiation, outright skirmishing ensued as everyone reached for their guns.
“Who will try them?” Jack asked. “White men or Indians?”
“White men, of course,” Meacham admitted.
“Then will you give up the men who killed the Indian women and children on Lost River, to be tried by the Modocs?”
Meacham shook his head. “The Modoc law is dead; the white man’s law rules the country now; only one law lives at a time.”
“Will you try the men who fired on my people?” Jack continued. “By your own law?”
Meacham knew and Captain Jack knew that this could not be done. “The white man’s law rules the country,” the commissioner replied. “The Indian law is dead.”
You gotta look forward, not back.
In the Modoc camp, militants like Hooker Jim were gaining sway, and by disputing his leadership and even his manhood eventually persuaded/forced Captain Jack to ambush the U.S. general in charge during one of their interminable parleys.
Far from striking a decisive blow at the head of the enemy, this anathematized Captain Jack and triggered a massive, and this time successful, army incursion. Jack persisted on the run for a few months, but he was finally captured wih the help of Modoc turncoats — including that former radical Hooker Jim, who induced him to kill the general in the first place.
“You intend to buy your liberty and freedom by running me to earth and delivering me to the soldiers. You realize that life is sweet, but you did not think so when you forced me to promise that I would kill that man, [General] Canby … I thought we would stand side by side if we did fight, and die fighting. I see now I am the only one to forfeit … Oh, you bird-hearted men, you turned against me.”
-Jack to Hooker Jim
Captain Jack was hanged at Fort Klamath, Oregon after a perfunctory trial all in English, with no lawyer to plead their case. (And the gallows being built outside during the trial, to complete the scene.) The executed Modocs’ corpses were shipped back to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (rumor had it that they appeared for a time as circus attractions), and only returned to the Modoc in 1984.
On this date in 1861, Vermont private William Scott of the new-formed Army of the Potomac, then fortifying Washington D.C. for the unfolding Civil War in the aftermath of Bull Run, was led out for execution for having fallen asleep at his post.
The so-called Sleeping Sentinel took a sick comrade’s watch even though he himself was bushed, and … well, you know the rest.
Condemned for a dereliction of duty which “may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army” (the words of the army’s commander Gen. McClellan), Scott still attracted widespread sympathy due to the obviously sympathetic nature of his situation. He was a youth new to war, with an exemplary military record outside of his forty winks.
“The American people,” reckoned the New York Times, “are quite unprepared to hear of a measure of such fearful and unwarned rigor as that which was awarded private SCOTT.”
Appeals went straight to the White House, which was conveniently located in the Army of the Potomac’s back yard, and freshman president Abraham Lincoln magnanimously spared the lad.
Still, wanting to use the case to impress military discipline upon the rabble of corn-fed conscripts, that clemency was delivered with a terrifyingly dramatic flourish. Scott was left to contemplate his last hours on the earth, and, Dostoyevsky-like, marched out to the stake ostensibly to face the firing squad. Only then did he and his fellow-soldiers hear the commutation order.*
This exhilarating climax did not long stay the hand of the Reaper, as it transpired.
The story was also made into a 1914 silent film, which sadly doesn’t seem to be available online: but never fear, this syrupy poem will amply represent our Sentinel’s contribution to the canon.
But God is love – and finite minds can faintly comprehend
How gentle Mercy, in His rule, may with stern Justice blend;
And this poor soldier, seized and bound, found none to justify,
While war’s inexorable law decreed that he must die.
‘Twas night. In a secluded room, with measured tread and slow,
A statesman of commanding mien paced gravely to and fro.
Oppressed, he pondered on a land by civil discord rent;
On brothers armed in deadly strife: it was the President!
The woes of thirty millions filled his burdened heart with grief;
Embattled hosts, on land and sea, acknowledged him their chief;
And yet, amid the din of war, he heard the plaintive cry
Of that poor soldier, as he lay in prison, doomed to die!
‘Twas morning. On a tented field, and through the heated haze,
Flashed back, from lines of burnished arms, the sun’s effulgent blaze;
While, from a somber prison house, seen slowly to emerge,
A sad procession, o’er the sward, moved to a muffled dirge.
And in the midst, with faltering step, and pale and anxious face,
In manacles, between two guards, a soldier had his place.
A youth, led out to die; and yet it was not death, but shame,
That smote his gallant heart with dread, and shook his manly frame!
Still on, before the marshalled ranks, the train pursued its way,
Up to the designated spot, whereon a coffin lay-
His coffin! And, with reeling brain, despairing, desolate-
He took his station by its side, abandoned to his fate!
Then came across his wavering sight strange pictures in the air:
He saw his distant mountain home; he saw his parents there;
He saw them bowed with hopeless grief, through fast declining years;
He saw a nameless grave; and then, the vision closed-in tears!
Yet once again. In double file, advancing, then, he saw
Twelve comrades, sternly set apart to execute the law-
But saw no more; his senses swam-deep darkness settled round-
And, shuddering, he awaited now the fatal volley’s sound!
Then suddenly was heard the sounds of steeds and wheels approach,
And, rolling through a cloud of dust, appeared a stately coach.
On, past the guards, and through the field, its rapid course was bent,
Till, halting, ‘mid the lines was seen the nation’s President!**
He came to save that stricken soul, now waking from despair;
And from a thousand voices rose a shout which rent the air!
The pardoned soldier understood the tones of jubilee,
And, bounding from his fetters, blessed the hand that made him free!
A few letters from Scott’s own hand are preserved here. A (defunct) mini-blog exploring the case in detail can be perused here.
** Obviously, Lincoln did not actually bring his presidential person to the execution grounds to issue this pardon in the flesh: in fact, the presiding officer on-site simply read out the pardon: “the President of the United States has expressed a wish that as this is the first condemnation to death in this army for this crime, mercy may be extended to the criminal.”
In this non-chronological story, Peyton Farquhar, “a well to do planter, of an old and highly respected Alabama family,” is entrapped by a Union spy purporting to be a Confederate agent to attempt an act of sabotage in the face of a hanging warning issued by the Union army.
It can be ballparked in late August or early September based on its location in northern Alabama, which essentially didn’t see Civil War activity until the very end of the war. Except, that is, for the maneuvering building up to the Battle of Chickamauga fought just over the border in southeastern Tennessee September 19-20, 1863.* That also squares with seasonal indicators in the text pointing to summer, e.g.: “the flood of last winter had lodged a great quantity of driftwood against the wooden pier at this end of the bridge. It is now dry and would burn like tinder.”
At any rate, the story begins with Farquhar stationed on Owl Creek Bridge awaiting execution … but the rope snaps as he falls, giving him a bid for freedom. As for what happens next: read the story, or take in this economical screen adaptation by French director Robert Enrico aired for American audiences on The Twilight Zone.
The decade following establishment of the “permanent Indian frontier” was a bad time for the eastern tribes. The great Cherokee nation had survived more than a hundred years of the white man’s wars, diseases, and whiskey, but now it was to be blotted out. Because the Cherokees numbered several thousands, their removal to the West was planned to be in gradual stages, but discovery of Appalachian gold within their territory brought on a clamor for their immediate wholesale exodus. During the autumn of 1838, General Winfield Scott‘s soldiers rounded them up and concentrated them into camps. (A few hundred escaped to the Smoky Mountains and many years later were given a small reservation in North Carolina.) From the prison camps they were started westward to Indian Territory. On the long winter trek, one of every four Cherokees died from cold, hunger, or disease. They called the march their “trail of tears.”
This date in 2010 happens to be Thanksgiving in the United States.
Dating to the Civil War in its modern incarnation, its ancestral event is the “first thanksgiving” wherein European colonists* chowed down with the Wampanoags who had saved them from starvation in New England.
This moment of apparent amity obviously also presages the near-annihilation of native peoples by those European colonists over the succeeding centuries; even in 1621, the seeds of future conflict were at hand. By the very next year, Wampanoag chief Massasoit would demand the execution of legendary Pilgrim-befriender Tisquantum (Squanto).
So it’s also fitting to remember that this day in 1838** was the execution of Tsali, the hero of those escaped North Carolina Cherokee whom Brown mentions — a man tied to a tree and shot this date by the U.S. Army for resisting “Indian removal”.
When Washington’s ethnic cleansing policy shed its diplomatic cover for naked force, Tsali and his family killed some of the soldiers sent to capture them for removal.** General Scott was not amused.
The individuals guilty of this unprovoked outrage must be shot down; & there is another object demanding equal & immediate attention, viz: –the protection of the white families, residing in that region, who are, doubtless, much alarmed (& may be in great danger) at the most unexpected spirit of hostility evinced by the fugitive Indians about them by the murders in question.†
And, of course, they were. Tsali is said to die in that fearlessness of the noble savage, a fitting aspect for any martyr at the last.
I have a little boy…If he is not dead, tell him the last words of his father were that he must never go beyond the Father of Waters, but die in the land of his birth. It is sweet to die in one’s native land and be buried by the margins of one’s native stream.
It’s one of those ironies of empire (not unlike Thanksgiving Day itself) that Tsali’s dying wish was made possible by the very fact that other Cherokees collaborated in his death. Or at least, that’s how Tsali came to be remembered.
Other Cherokee with farms outside the boundaries of the formal Cherokee nation were then maneuvering to avoid the effects of the removal treaty — which by its own letter ought not apply to other Cherokee. William Holland Thomas, the remarkable Caucasian-born orphan adopted by the chief of these Cherokee, Dancing Bear, cut a deal with General Scott:
if [Dancing Bear's Cherokee] would seize Charley [Tsali] and the others who had been concerned in the attack upon the soldiers and surrender them for punishment, the pursuit [for other Cherokee in the Great Smokies] would be called off and the fugitives allowed to stay unmolested … he could secure respite for his sorely pressed followers, with the ultimate hope that they might be allowed to remain in their own country …
It was known that Charley and his party were in hiding in a cave of the Great Smokies, at the head of Deep creek, but it was not thought likely that he could be taken without bloodshed and a further delay which might prejudice the whole undertaking. Thomas determined to go to him and try to persuade him to come in and surrender. Declining Scott’s offer of an escort, he went alone to the cave, and, getting between the Indians and their guns as they were sitting around the fire near the entrance, he walked up to Charley and announced his message. The old man listened in silence and then said simply, “I will come in. I don’t want to be hunted down by my own people.” They came in voluntarily and were shot … one only, a mere boy, being spared on account of his youth.†
Scott honored the deal, goes the story, and those un-removed Cherokee indeed persisted in North Carolina. Whether due to Tsali’s sacrifice or not, they remain there to this day: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, headquartered in Cherokee, N.C.
On November 25, 1838, Tsali was executed … They were ordered to kill him so they could stay in North Carolina. Tsali was killed. We are still here. Tsali is a Cherokee hero.
-Resolution of the Cherokee Tribal Council (Source)
** Or at least, the most widely reported date. The sourcing is slightly inconsistent and ambiguous as to whether all the family turned itself in and was shot together, or whether Tsali’s three kinsmen were executed on a previous date with Tsali shot on this date.
† As cited by Paul Kutsche, “The Tsali Legend: Culture Heroes and Historiography,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Autumn, 1963)
‡ These Cherokee would form a legion in the Confederate army which actually had the distinction — under then-Colonel William Thomas — of firing the last shots in the Civil War east of the Mississippi.
§ John Finger’s sacred cow-slaying take on the evolution of the Tsali legend in The Eastern Band of Cherokees: 1819-1900 is that only the family turned in voluntarily, but the army left Tsali alone once the younger men were killed, and the old man was mopped up (involuntarily) by the Cherokee themselves: “there was no noble sacrifice … [and] the capture and execution of Tsali little affected the right of the Qualla Cherokees to remain in North Carolina.”
On this date in 1948, seven SS men were hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison, condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the so-called Doctors Trial.
Four of the hanged were doctors; three were non-physicians who assisted them. Their trial (which included 16 others, variously acquitted or sentenced to prison terms) by an American military tribunal was a conscious attempt to establish criminal responsibility among the medical profession.
To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law. These defendants did not kill in hot blood, nor for personal enrichment. Some of them may be sadists who killed and tortured for sport, but they are not all perverts. They are not ignorant men. Most of them are trained physicians and some of them are distinguished scientists. Yet these defendants, all of whom were fully able to comprehend the nature of their acts, and most of whom were exceptionally qualified to form a moral and professional judgment in this respect, are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures.
It is our deep obligation to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened. It is incumbent upon us to set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts.
Some of this was combat-related. How long can a downed pilot survive in the North Sea? Throw a POW into freezing water and find out.
Some was more conventional medical advancement, shorn of any ethical sense. How can we treat malaria? Inject some untermenschen and start testing.
And some of it was straight from the Nazis’ racial purification theology: euthanizing the disabled, castrating and murdering Jews and Gypsies, that sort of thing. It’s all a rich tapestry.
The doctors hanged this date included
Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and the co-director of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program**
SS hygienist Joachim Mrugowsky, for experiments with concentration camp prisoners
SS surgeon and German Red Cross head Karl Gebhart, who enjoyed experimenting with operations on unanaesthetized prisoners
Waldemar Hoven, chief doctor at Buchenwald
They kept company with three others who didn’t see the “patients” but pushed around the paper for those who did.
* In 1970, Telford wrote Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, arguing that American officials had committed war crimes in Vietnam because “we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg.”
** Karl Brandt was actually condemned to death by a Nazi court in the closing days of the war and only narrowly avoided execution. His crime? Moving his family out of Berlin so that they could surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians.
On December 1, 1945, German General Anton Dostler was shot by the American military at Aversa, Italy, for war crimes.
Gen. Dostler readied for execution, from the U.S. National Archives. Click for larger image, or click here for the post-execution photo.
Specifically, General Dostler was condemned for having ordered the summary execution of American saboteurs who had been taken behind enemy lines.* Dostler was the first German general tried by an American military commission, and the first put to death for war crimes.
There had been a group of German saboteurs captured in the United States during the war who had themselves been executed (after becoming the subject of Supreme Court landmark Ex parte Quirin). Here, a mirroring act on the German side brought a death sentence for its (supposed) author.
Dostler’s scenario therefore raised interesting questions of war crimes law, jurisdiction … and politics.
The essential legal difference between the German saboteurs and the OSS men shot at La Spezia was that the latter were found to have been taken in uniform. If uniformed, they were entitled to prisoner of war status; if not, then a summary execution might have been (however repugnant) permissible.
In a do-over, Dostler’s defense might have dug very deep into what met the Geneva Convention’s definition of a uniform.**
For the Germans, however, the saboteurs’ fate was decided by Hitler’s notorious Commando Order, inflicting immediate death on any enemy personnel (uniformed or not) captured behind German lines.†
Understandably, then, Dostler’s counsel seems to have been much more interested in pursuing the “superior orders” defense, and did so with gusto: in this early landmark trial, it was an as-yet untested strategem even though the Allied Powers had decided as a matter of policy not to protect potential war criminals on that basis. Not only was the Führerbefehl at work in general, but Dostler had kicked this specific decision upstairs to the office of Gen. Albert Kesselring, which had insisted upon the executions (to the point of directly phoning the fortress which held the Americans to ask why they weren’t dead yet).
Dostler defense attorney Col. Claudius Wolfe appeared to strike a chord with the tribunal’s career military officers in his closing summation, impressing upon them the danger to military order or to their own persons of establishing a precedent that subordinates can be held accountable for illegal orders from above.‡
We won the war this time, but no one knows who will win the next time. We might lose and then you gentlemen might find yourselves sitting where this man is now sitting…
If we find this man guilty because of political pressure or because he lost the war and is in our power, we might as well not have won the war. (New York Times, Oct. 12, 1945)
But a more immediate precedent was at stake: the many imminent war crimes trials including the Nuremberg proceedings. Many of those would never get off the ground if a “superior orders” plea could work for someone as high-ranking as a general — or if the first war crimes trial out of the gate resulted in an acquittal.
A son of one of Dostler’s defense team makes a hotly-stated case for the general here; some factual errors (e.g., the “Roosevelt administration”) detract from the piece, but his recollection of the backstage machinations as related by his father are fascinating if true.
Video of Dostler’s execution is available, in its original silent cut.
* A description of the attempted operation, with helpful maps, is here (pdf). Coincidental — but perhaps informative for the Third Reich’s decision-making apparatus — was the fact that the La Spezia saboteurs were captured on March 24, 1944, the very same date as a reprisal mass execution in Rome for a partisan attack the day before that had claimed 33 Germans.
** Here (pdf) is a review of the current legal terrain around the “uniform” issue, significantly shaped by World War II. Executive summary: commanders should give awfully wide latitude to hostiles wearing less-than-standard uniform unless said hostiles are clearly using their wardrobe as a ploy to get the drop on your guys.
† Actually, the text of the Commando order directed that enemy “commandos” should without quarter “be exterminated to the last man, either in combat or in pursuit” (a “no quarter” order being illegal itself, but not relevant here); but, that those who somehow managed to be captured should be handed over to the SS. German officers seem to have understood, probably accurately, that the high command simply wanted them dead and wasn’t fussy about distinguishing the circumstances. Dostler’s guys (per the Oct. 13, 1945 London Times) contended that Hitler’s citation in the Führerbefehl of Allied atrocities made the German policy in reality a Geneva Convention-legal reprisal order.
‡ A German officer down the chain of command, Alexander zu Dohna-Schlobitten, actually refused to sign the execution order for the Americans because — yes — the order violated the Geneva Conventions. The Wehrmacht sacked him, but did not prosecute him, for his scruples.
At 9:30 a.m. this day, as the American army raised the Stars & Stripes over Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War, it simultaneously carried out a mass hanging of 30 Irish deserters who had gone over to Santa Anna — the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, or the San Patricios.
Irish had been migrating to the United States en masse even well before the Great Famine got rolling in 1845.
And for those of that great migration wave who wound up in the service fighting the Mexican-American War, there was a hint of deja vu — an Anglo and Protestant imperial power seizing land from a “black”* and Catholic neighbor?
Some of the Irish decided they were fighting for the bad guys, and switched sides.**
These were the plurality (though not necessarily the majority) of the couple hundred soldiers who comprised the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. German immigrants and other nationalities, along with American-born deserters (desertion during the Mexican-American War seems to have been rife), made up the balance.
Knowing full well the fate that would await them upon capture, the San Patricios were renowned for their ferocity in battle; at the hopeless Battle of Churubusco, they reputedly forced down a white flag that Mexican comrades were trying to hoist on three separate occasions.
Eventually, the ammunition ran out, and with it, the San Patricios’ luck.
Within days, courts-martial began handing out death sentences to almost the whole of the surviving unit. U.S. General Winfield Scott subsequently reduced a number of sentences, and those who had deserted before the war couldn’t legally be executed … but even the “lucky” ones suffered faint-inducing scourgings and branding on the cheeks with the letter “D”.
And 50 men more were still bound for the gallows.
Twenty hung in the days prior to this at two separate sites, but the Yanks’ piece de resistance was an orchestrated scene on the second day of the Battle of Chapultepec.
On September 13, 1847, at dawn, Harney ordered the thirty remaining prisoners to be brought forward. They stood on wagons with nooses placed around their necks. This included one man who had lost both legs and was unable to walk to his own execution. The site of these executions was within viewing distance of the site where the final battle — the outcome of which could not have been in doubt — was to be fought. There the sentenced soldiers watched until finally, at 9:30, the US victors raised the American flag atop Chapultepec Castle.† At that point the order was given, the wagons were pulled away and the men were all hanged.
It must be remembered that the San Patricios had been standing, bound hand and foot, each with his head in a noose, for nearly four hours in the burning Mexican sun. When Harney finally gave the order for the hangings to proceed, such was the relief that their sufferings were finally at an end that “some of the men actually cheered as the nooses tightened and the wagons pulled away.”
The cruelty of the punishments led a Mexican paper to spit,
these are the men that call us barbarians and tell us that they have come to civilize us … May they be damned by all Christians, as they are by God.
They brand with hot irons the faces of the Irish deserters and then hang them from the gallows. The Saint Patrick Irish Battalion arrived with the invaders, but fought alongside the invaded.
From the north to Molino del Rey, the Irish made theirs the fate, ill fate, of the Mexicans. Many died defending the Churubusco monastery without ammunition. The prisoners, their faces burned, rock to and fro on the gallows. -Eduardo Galeano, Masks and Faces
* The “blackness” of the Irish and the process of their “becoming white” later in the 19th and 20th centuries is one of the more illustrative and well-documented case studies of race and racism as social rather than biological constructs.
** They weren’t alone in this opinion. Many hundreds of miles from the fighting, Henry David Thoreau famously landed in jail for tax resistance in 1846 largely because of his disgust with the war. From Civil Disobedience:
The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.
† The capture of Chapultepec Castle, forgotten north of the Rio Grande, is still commemorated in Mexico for the heroism of six teenage cadets who died in its defense. The last of their number, Juan Escutia, leapt from the castle walls wrapped in the Mexican standard to prevent its capture.
But Honest Abe had one last order of business to attend to before his carriage called him away to destiny: the pardon of a convicted Confederate spy due to be shot in St. Louis two days hence. Lincoln’s handwritten clemency for George Vaughn was the last official act of his presidency.
Lincoln in Story (“The Life of the Martyr-President told in Authenticated Anecdotes,” a light 1901 volume for popular consumption) relates:
Before the war Vaughn, with his wife and children, lived in Canton, Mo. He was a friend of Martin E. Green, a brother of United States Senator James S. Green, both strong pro-slavery men. At the opening of the war Martin E. Green recruited a regiment and received a colonel’s commission from the Confederate Government. George Vaughn enlisted under Green’s command and fought through the war.
After a period of fighting, Green and Vaughn crossed into Mississippi from Tennessee, camping at Tupelo, Miss. Not having heard from his family, Green was anxious to hear from his old home, so he delegated Vaughn to go on the mission of delivering letters to his wife.
Vaughn had almost completed his trip, having reached La Grange, six miles south of Canton, when he was captured by a squad of Federal troops.
They searched his person, and, finding letters and papers concealed about him, he was tried as a spy and sentenced to be shot. John B. Henderson, Senator from Missouri, finally succeeded in getting an order from the President for a retrial, but the verdict remained as hitherto. Again Henderson appealed to Lincoln, who granted a third trial, with the same result.
Henderson was not disconcerted, and again went to Lincoln. It was on the afternoon of April 14, 1865 — a melancholy date — that the Senator called at the White House. He called the attention of Lincoln to the fact that the war was practically closed, and said: “Mr. Lincoln, this pardon should be granted in the interest of peace and conciliation.”
This story gravitates naturally to the clemency of “the Great Heart” (as, for instance, D.W. Griffith called Lincoln). Far be it from us to say otherwise, but this is also self-evidently a story of the unusual prerogatives of the well-connected: not just any accused spy could get two trial do-overs and then a pardon free and clear ordered straight from the White House.
Mr. Lincoln replied: “Senator, I agree with you. Go to Stanton and tell him this man must be released.”
Vaughn had but two days to live, and Henderson hastened to make one more stand. After supper he went to the White House. The President was in his office, dressed to go to Ford’s Theatre, when the Senator entered and told of the meeting he had had with Stanton.
Lincoln turned to his desk and wrote a few lines on an official sheet of paper. As he handed it to Senator Henderson he remarked: “I think that will have precedence over Stanton.”
It was an order for an unconditional release and pardon — the last official paper ever signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Update: The excellent tale of a different soldier pardoned on this same date has recently been debunked by the National Archives in an academic scandal: in January 2011, researcher Thomas Lowry confessed to altering the pardon order for one Patrick Murphy from the true (and much less dramatic) date of April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865.
Vaughn was actually pardoned just before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater; Murphy (totally unconnected to Vaughn) was pardoned 365 days prior.