After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality”vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodilycontested frontier march between the rival governments.
With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.
In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.
Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”
This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.
General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†
Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.
At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.
Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:
That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …
After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.
To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.
After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)
** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.
† Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.
According to some newspaper accounts deemed credible enough by almanacs and registers of the time, a British officer named Hamilton Ballendine was hanged by the Americans during the Siege of Charleston. The good colonel had thought he was approaching his own British sentries after a reconnoiter of Charleston’s defenses, and when hailed he provided this name.
His name, or his alias, or his password — whatever it was, it was not recognized by the sentries, who turned out in fact to be the colonial pickets. At that point, he was a spy caught red-handed, and these folks tended to get short shrift during the American Revolution.
This event has struck some observers as conspicuous by its absence from any of the numerous firsthand diarists’ accounts within the besieged city. The account in this footnote, recopied in its entirety below, appears to be the sum of the information on the matter. Judge accordingly, gentle reader.
In the Siege of Charlestown (Munsell), 68, we find the following: –
EXECUTION OF COLONEL HAMILTON BALLENDINE.
(From Dunlop’s Packet of April, 1780.)
WILLIAMSBURG IN VIRGINIA, APRIL 18.
On the 5th Ult. was hanged at Charlestown, South Carolina, Colonel Hamilton Ballendine, for drawing Draughts of the town and Fortifications. He was taken by a Picquet Guard, which General Lincoln sent out that Night to Stono, as he was making his Way to the enemy; and when he was hailed by the Guard his Answer was, ‘Colonel Hamilton Ballendine.’ The Guard told him that would not do, and carried him to the commander of the Picquet, upon which he pulled out of his pocket the Draughts. The Officer told him he was mistaken, and carried him to General Lincoln, who ordered him for Execution.” –New York Royal Gazette, April 16.
See, also, Moore’s Diary of the Revolution, vol. II, 260. The story is also incorporated in the text of the Annual Register for 1780 (London), vol. XXIII, 222, in which it is said that Ballendine suffered “the unpitied death of a traitor.” Both Simms (So. Ca. in the Revolutionary War, 177) and Draper (King’s Mountain and its Heroes, 22, note) call attention to the fact that the story is mentioned by none of the South Carolina historians, nor any of the Charlestown diarists or letter writers. Draper seems to doubt if there was any such person. In the So. Ca. and Am. Gen. Gazette, June 9, 1775, Hamilton Ballentine advertises a power of attorney to receive a legacy due and collect the assets of an estate. There was therefore doubtless such a person, but what became of him is not further known. His name is not on the list of those whose estates were confiscated (Statutes of So. Ca., vol. VI), where it probably would be found had the story been true. It is scarcely possible that such an event would have been overlooked by all the writers and diarists of the time, and not have been preserved by local tradition; and yet the particularity of the statement, and its acceptance by the Annual Register at the time, would suggest that there must have been some foundation for the statement.
Late this night in 1969, a platoon of seven Navy SEALs slipped into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.*
At their head was a 25-year-old lieutenant, the future United States Senator Bob Kerrey.
Thanh Phong was reportedly an official U.S. Army free fire zone. That meant that any Vietnamese civilians within it were presumptively enemies and could be slain at will — according to the U.S. Army, if not to any recognizable law of war.
In Thanh Phong, they were slain. Nearly every single person in the town.
Kerrey’s Raiders — the commando team’s comradely self-designation — were hunting a local National Liberation Front “general secretary” purported to be in Thanh Phong. By “hunting,” we mean they intended to murder him; given the nature and timing of the operation, it was presumably part of the brute-force assassination program Operation Speedy Express and/or its equally sinister CIA-run cousin, the Phoenix Program.
On this particular mission, Lt. Kerrey’s team first encountered an unexpected hut, not on their map. Fearing the people inhabiting it would blow their cover, they entered and killed the five inhabitants: quietly, intimately, at close quarters with their knives. It was an old man, a woman, and three young children. It’s a nasty business but it’s not what qualifies Thanh Phong as a potential execution … though it may explain the execution that followed.
After these unfortunate villagers were disposed of, the SEALs moved on towards the doomed hamlet. This same platoon had been to Thanh Phong two weeks before, and reported then that it held nothing but a few women. On February 25, they found much the same scene: no “general secretary.” Just 16 women and children.
Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.
Rather: What was the make-up of this group?
Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.
Rather: So you got all the people out of there.
Klann: We herded them together and in a group.
Rather: Were any of these people armed?
Klann: I don’t believe so.
Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?
Klann: I didn’t see any.
Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?
Klann: Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?
Rather: What did you do then?
Klann: We killed them.
Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?
Klann: We shot them all.
Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?
Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.
Rather: What was the order?
Klann: To kill them.
Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.
Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?
Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.
Rather: Do you remember him saying that?
Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.
Rather: And then what happened?
Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.
Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?
Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.
Rather: At roughly what range?
Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.
Rather: Then did the shooting stop?
Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.
Rather: Was it quiet?
Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.
Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?
Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.
Rather: What happened to that baby?
Klann: Shot like the rest of em.
Klann’s testimony of a summary execution comports with that of a Vietnamese woman who says she hid on the outskirts of the tiny village and witnessed the slaughter.
Bob Kerrey has a different version of these events. The reader is invited to peruse the evidence available and conclude as desired; for me, Kerrey’s version is not very persuasive especially given the witness testimony to the contrary and the known normalization of atrocities in Indochina.
Kerrey agrees with Klann that the entire village ended up slaughtered together in a heap; a complaint against this atrocity was officially filed with the Army by Vietnamese locals within days of the incident, so there’s not much scope to deny the outcome. But Kerrey claims this happened when the SEAL team received incoming fire as they approached the village, then started shooting back wildly in the dark. Only after the bullets stopped flying did they find the civilians 50 to 100 yards further on.
Improbably — but much more consistent with an intentional, close-range massacre — all these women and children chanced to be huddled together, and all of them were stone dead from the crossfire. Not a one of these people accidentally winged in the night was wounded but alive, says Kerrey.
Kerrey’s commentary in Vistica’s initial story and its follow-ups suggests the judicious politician he had by that time become. In 2001 he had just retired from the Senate and was an elder statesman in government; he was said to be weighing a 2004 presidential bid. (His actual next gig, not anticipated at the time the story broke, was the 9/11 Commission.)
In interviews with Vistica and subsequently, Kerrey waffled and qualified cagily — shifting from a flat denial, to a weird acknowledgment that “it’s possible a slight version of that happened.” He wouldn’t commit to asserting that there really was incoming fire. He moved the conversation wherever possible to the abiding torments of conscience and the slipperiness of memory and perspective, as if this could span the distance from “summary execution” to “accidentally killed in the crossfire.” He maintained that there were only men in the first hut — that hut, alone among the village — but that this was only an indirect recollection since he didn’t enter it or participate in the killings.
“Please understand,” Kerrey emailed to Vistica in 2000, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.” Desire is a striking word to select.
For all their plausible deniability, Kerrey’s remarks on this matter markedly lacked indignation at bearing such a monstrous charge. Kerrey’s great and unfeigned sense of personal guilt was oddly mirrored by his inability to own a specifically culpable act. The Senator expressly declined to deny Gerhard Klann’s “memory.” (Klann said Kerrey urged him not to talk about Thanh Phong.)
Kerrey won a Bronze Star for Thanh Phong. “The net result of his patrol,” according to a citation Kerrey has acknowledged is fanciful, “was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”
Seventeen days after Thanh Phong, Kerrey’s service career came to an end when a grenade exploded at his feet during another assassination mission. Kerrey earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for continuing to direct fire while crippled by wounds on that day; by accounts, he spent the several years following mired deep in depression.
“I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die,” he said of Thanh Phong in 2001. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”
It goes without saying that war crimes in Vietnam remain much too sensitive for the U.S. to grapple with formally. The story is out there now, but it’s been effectively reburied as far as the American public memory goes — another everyday horror in a horrible conflict. More information might oneday surface, but the matter will only be adjudicated between Gerhard Klann, Bob Kerrey, their comrades that night, and their Maker.
Not so in Vietnam where — with all due respect to the pangs that conscience can exact — the real victims lie.
A display of the sewer pipe where the three children killed at the first hut tried to hide, along with photographs and an explanatory placard describing the Thanh Phong massacre, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) images by Schwede66.
* The only other member of the team who has spoken publicly, Mike Ambrose, backs Klann’s version of the hut narrative, and (mostly) Kerrey’s version of the (non-)execution. As Vistica’s initial investigation was going public, Kerrey convened a meeting of the other Raiders, their first since Vietnam; the group issued a statement denying that they had committed an execution of prisoners.
Each black soldier resolved for himself the quandary caused by service against the insurrectos. Some, like Lieutenant David Gilmer, believed their unswerving dedication would ultimately improve the lot of all black people. Others simply reasserted their faith in America: “all the enemies of the U.S. government look alike … hence we go along with the killing, just as with other people.” But the Filipinos recognized the existence of the black soldier’s dilemma by advocating racial solidarity against white oppressors and by offering commissions to defectors.**
Here’s an example appeal the Philippine resistance made to black U.S. troopers (source):
It is without honor that you are spilling your costly blood. Your masters have thrown you into the most iniquitous fight with double purpose — to make you the instrument of their ambition and also your hard work will soon make the extinction of your race. Your friends, the Filipinos, give you this good warning. You must consider your situation and your history; and take charge that the blood of … Sam Hose [a recent lynch mob victim] proclaims vengeance.
It was very small numbers actually induced by such messages to go so far as desertion. Leave hearth and home behind forever to fight a guerrilla resistance on the far side of the world against an overwhelming empire liable to kill you on sight? That’s a difficult sell.
But there were some buyers. Some 29 known African-American deserters are known, according to E. San Juan, Jr., most famously David Fagen, an enlisted man in the U.S. Army commissioned a captain in the Filipino resistance. And others not prepared to go all the way over nonetheless understood the appeal. One African-American soldier wrote to a Filipino friend lamenting the sight of white Americans “establish[ing] their diabolical race hatred in all its home rancor in Manila … the future of the Filipino, I fear, is that of the Negro in the South.”
When the letter was found, its author, Sgt. Major John W. Galloway, was demonstratively busted to private and dishonorably discharged.
“One ever feels his twoness,” W.E.B. DuBois mused of the black American experience at about this time in The Souls of Black Folk. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”
Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry on Luzon Island.
Edmond† Dubose and Lewis Russell, whose firsthand voice we do not have, must have felt those unreconciled strivings, too. These two enlisted men slipped out of the 9th Cavalry‡ in August 1901 while that regiment was conducting anti-insurgency operations in Albay, and were next seen fighting with those same insurgents.
Captured, they were among approximately 20 U.S. soldiers death-sentenced for desertion.
General Adna Chaffee, a veteran of the U.S. Indian Wars and latterly fresh from crushing China’s Boxer Rebellion, approved the hangings — as did the U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt later announced that future desertion cases would not be capitally punished, so Dubose and Russell were the only two executed for that crime during the U.S. war against Philippine independence.)
* Army and Navy Journal, XXXVII (Nov. 11, 1899)
** Michael C. Robinson and Frank N. Schubert, “David Fagen, An Afro-American Rebel in the Philippines, 1899-1901,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Feb., 1975)
On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.
(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)
“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”
If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable
On this date in 1778, Patrick McMullen was hanged on the Philadelphia commons for deserting, repeatedly, the Continental Army.
This poor fellow had started off (promisingly enough for the colonies) by deserting the British.
Such documentation as remains easily accessible isn’t very detailed about his pre-war background; the British had recently passed a Recruiting Act authorizing press gangs to shanghai Scotsmen into the royal army, but that measure was only 99 days old at this time. There were also many Scots-Irish who had already immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony or thereabouts.
This Irishman, however, enlisted pre-1775 in the British 38th Regiment of Foot, deserted, presumably served in a Continental Army unit at some point thereafter, and then by 1778 was back in British colors for the Battle of Monmouth, after which he deserted once again. Maybe he even changed teams four times, instead of twice.
“A good number of men switched sides, some several times, during the war,” said Don Hagist of the fascinating British Soldiers, American Revolution blog. “For many of them it did not impugn their reputations as soldiers; for example, many British prisoners of war escaped from captivity, joined in the American army as a means to get close to the front lines, then deserted again to rejoin the British army.
“At least, that is the story they’d give when brought to trial. Even when acquitted, sometimes these same men deserted yet again. When McMullen returned to the British army, he may have given the popular story that he was kidnapped by Bostonians and carried away from the garrison. This happened to a number of British soldiers in 1774 and early 1775; some turned up years later and gave their stories in court.”
Philadelphia’s Revolutionary military governor at this time was Benedict Arnold — still two years from his infamous betrayal, but even now finding himself stressed by the revolutionary extremism of his charges. Never a fire-eater himself, Arnold personally wrote to the Continental Congress with his own pitch for showing McMullen a bit of brotherly love, vouchsafing the view that our deserter’s culpability was “is in his [Arnold's] opinion insufficient” to warrant execution.
A Congressional committee respectfully disagreed, judging McMullen “a person of a most atrocious character” and directed that the hanging proceed.
On this date in 1945, American troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Upper Bavaria — and then proceeded to summarily execute a number of its SS personnel.
The “Dachau massacre” involves several distinct incidents of wantonly killing defenseless POWs by American troops, who may have been set on edge by warnings of potential fake-surrender gambits, and then evidently went right off the rails with discovery of emaciated dead bodies around the place. In particular, a stranded transport that had been sent from Buchenwald, christened the “death train”, greeted the liberators with a 40-car phantasmagoria of horror.
“We had seen men in battle blown apart, burnt to death, and die many different ways, but we were never prepared for this. Several of the dead lay there with their eyes open, a picture I will never get out of my mind. It seems they were looking at us and saying, ‘What took you so long?’” -Private John Lee
“It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clinch our fists. I couldn’t even talk.” -Lt. William Cowling
These stunned, outraged soldiers, some of them still teenagers, would soon have a bunch of disarmed German troops from the camp under their power. Uh-oh.
As the dry but shocking (and also marked “Secret”: nobody ever faced a court-martial for the incident*) U.S. Army investigation remarked, “The sight of these numerous victims would naturally produce strong mental reaction on the part of both officers and men. Such circumstances are extenuating, but are the only extenuating facts found.” (Read the entire report in this forum thread.)
The behaviors these facts propose to extenuate may also produce a strong mental reaction.
A Lt. William Walsh took the surrender of four SS men near one of these train cars, then forced his prisoners inside the car and shot them on the spot.
About seven Germans taken prisoner at the camp’s Tower B were lined up a few steps away from the tower preparatory to marching them elsewhere, when for sketchy reasons one of their American guards started shooting, and then others followed suit.
And the most notorious of the incidents, about 50 captured SS men were segregated from other POWs — again, by Lt. Walsh — and lined up in the camp coalyard by the wall of the hospital. There they were machine-gunned, resulting in 17 deaths before a superior officer interceded.
Another 25 to 50 guards were killed by prisoners themselves, many with the implicit blessing of American infantrymen who stood by and watched, and or the explicit blessing of Americans’ weapons on loan from sympathetic troopers.
The irony in all this was that most of the camp’s regular guards had already fled the place. The SS men whom outraged Americans were shooting down in the Dachau charnel house were Waffen-SS who had been transferred from the eastern front just days before and whose specific purpose in the camp was to surrender it to the western Allies. They probably considered this assignment far away from the vengeful Red Army a very lucky break.
It wasn’t so lucky: this is the mischance of war. But they didn’t have anything to do with Dachau’s horrors, and their deaths in a unthinking bloodlust disgraced only their executioners.
“German soldiers after their surrender as prisoners of war to American troops were summarily shot and killed by such troops.”
-Conclusion of the Army Inspector General’s report
* Court-martial charges were filed, but quashed. The whole affair remained unknown to the public until the 1980s.
Clarke‘s last remarks were a protest against Kentucky’s military government. Having captured Clarke just three days before, it refused him prisoner-of-war status; regarding him rather as a franc-tireur, it gave him a pro forma secret trial even while throwing up the gallows for the preordained hanging.
This border region between North and South had seen bitter guerrilla war. As one indicator: the Northern effort in the Bluegrass State to suppress Confederate irregulars had been led by a general who earned the nickname “Butcher of Kentucky” for his ruthless exertions.
Stubbornly eluding those exertions (the Butcher was gone by March 1865) was Clarke, an elfin captain of 20 years with a band of cavalry raiders (in)famous for its hit-and run raids on Union men and supplies. (And on one infamous occasion, 30 African-American cattle-drivers.)
It was during this time that stories began circulating of a daring female commando, a “she-devil in pantaloons,” and the picturesque character — perfectly calibrated to twist the Butcher’s tail — seized popular imagination and moved newspapers.
While the honor is disputed by another Kentucky irregular hanged later in 1865, this “Sue Mundy” (or Munday) character soon came to be identified with the androgynous, just-old-enough-for-his-riding-license Clarke.
The Louisville Journal fantastically embroidered the Mundy legend and its alleged connection to Clarke — editorializing, for instance, that Clarke cross-dressed for amusement and advantage and could pull off his female alter ego thanks to his
“fair [complexion], long dark hair, which touched his shoulders, and a beautifully shaped mouth” (Mar. 16, 1865)
“medium female statue, small feet and hands, face beardless and quite handsome, voice soft and feminine — all together making a counterfeit so perfect that even John Morgan, on a certain occasion, mistook him for a female.” (Jan. 14, 1865)
A captured Clarke would eventually complain that “he was not guilty for one-tenth of the outrages that he had been charged with and that the Louisville Journal had done him a great injustice.” Maybe he’d never heard that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
The publicity this afternoon, of course, was of the very worst variety, albeit not exactly inimical to the celebrity racket.
“The fall was not more than three feet, and did not break his neck; he choked to death. We have seen a great many persons hung, but never before did we witness such hard struggles and convulsions. It was feared for a time that he would break the lashings. His sufferings, however, were of short duration. Thus ended the career of the notorious Sue Mundy.”
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.C. 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.