By the 1630s, Russia had her shit back together under the first Romanov tsar, and when the Polish king died in 1632 saw an opportunity to return stripe for stripe on its opportunistic neighbor.
This was the Smolensk War, so named because the recapture of that city was its primary objective. Shein, the respected elder military statesman who had lost Smolensk to a Polish siege twenty-odd years before, was just the man to lead the campaign.
The span of time tested by the 1632-1633 Russian siege was not merely that measured by the larder of Smolensk’s vastly outnumbered garrison — but that of Poland-Lithuania’s unwieldy succession process. Although the successor king was self-evident, the span required for his actual election left a six-month interregnum: nothing compared to the Time of Troubles, but perhaps enough for a frontier reversal.
But as it happened, Shein could not force Smolensk’s capitulation in 1633 and by the latter half of that year a superior Polish army was arriving. By October of 1633, a year after the Russians had begun hostilities, not only was the siege of Smolensk broken, but the Russian camp itself was encircled by the Poles. Having no prospect of a relief force such had just delivered his enemies, Shein could not hold out for even a single Friedman Unit and soon surrendered. He received liberal terms: the Russians had to abandon their artillery, but Shein’s army returned to Moscow unharmed, with its standards.
The Surrender of the Russian Garrison of Smolensk before Vladislaus IV Vasa of Poland, by an unknown Polish artist (c. 1634)
Having seen their jolly war of choice come to such a humilitating pass, the Moscow boyars received their defeated commander in a rage. A tribunal vengefully condemned Shein, his second-in-command Artemii Vasilevich Izmailov, and Izmailov’s son Vasili, to death for treason and incompetence in command.
In even the most slightly longer term, the debacle proved to be only a minor strategic setback. Poland was unable to follow up its victory with any inroads on Russian soil. That June, the two belligerents came to a peace restoring the status quo ante bellum — and they managed to pass a whole generation before they fought again.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“You may break my neck, but you won’t break the seal of manhood.”
-Thomas R. Dawson, convicted of desertion and rape, hanging, Virginia.
Executed April 25, 1864
An Englishman who had served in the Crimean War, Dawson was already the recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Cross of Honor. [but see this post’s comments -ed.] He had been serving in Company H, Twentieth Massachusetts Infantry, when he was convicted. “He was an excellent soldier,” according to the infantry record, “intelligent and obedient.” On the gallows, a misjudgment of rope length caused Dawson to hit the ground standing when he fell through the trapdoor.
Panicking, the executioner grabbed the end of the rope “and jerked the prisoner upwards until death slowly came.”
Her freight was approximately 150 passengers, among them Sir Thomas Gates, who had been appointed as the new governor of Jamestown, Virginia. The ship was caught in a hurricane and wrecked near the Bermuda Islands in July of 1609. All aboard survived the wreck, and they took up temporary settlement on the islands. Neither natives nor other Europeans had settled there, possibly due to the difficult weather conditions.
The castaways determined that they could rebuild and continue to Jamestown using many of the salvaged supplies and parts of the wrecked Sea Venture; Gates and the colonists began building while they waited to hear back from the rest of their fleet — six other ships which had sailed on to Virginia.
But no word came, and soon enough a dispute between Somers and Gates over who held command split the survivors into factions. Somers and his crew of mostly sailors relocated to a nearby island and began work on a smaller ship.
Throughout the winter months, both factions worked to build amid growing discord.
In March of 1610, both vessels were nearing completion, forcing the dissident factions to either go along with the colonization plan or try one more time to break free.
Henry Paine, hardly more than a footnote in the more spectacular tale of the shipwreck, survival, and remarkable eventual landing at Jamestown, was apprehended for stealing supplies to be used for a mutinous group that hoped to relocate to another island and remain there. He assaulted the commanding officer and said some very naughty things about the governor, which would prove to be his doom (particularly since Gates’ own toughness had come into question after prior pardons for both mutiny and murder).
Paine replied with a settled and bitter violence and in such unreverent terms as I should offend the modest ear too much to express it in his own phrase; but the contents were how that the governor had no authority of that quality to justify upon anyone (how mean so ever in the colony) an action of that nature, and therefore let the governor (said he) kiss, etc. Which words, being with the omitted additions brought the next day unto every common and public discourse, at length they were delivered over to the governor, who, examining well the fact (the transgression so much the more exemplary and odious as being in a dangerous time, in a confederate, and the success of the same wishedly listened after, with a doubtful conceit what might be the issue of so notorious a boldness and impudency), calling the said Paine before him and the whole company, where (being soon convinced both by the witness of the commander and many which were upon the watch with him) our governor, who had now the eyes of the whole colony fixed upon him, condemned him to be instantly hanged. And the ladder being ready, after he had made many confessions, he earnestly desired, being a gentleman, that he might be shot to death, and toward the evening he had his desire, the sun and his life setting together.
Aside from his being a gentleman (and thereby given having his preferred method of execution), little has been written about Paine. But the several Virginia Charters issued by this time gave the governor of a colony broad authority to convict, punish, and execute criminals in this manner.
Paine’s execution seemed to put a stop to most rumblings of mutiny; Somers and Gates set aside their differences and the two ships, Deliverance and Patience, were soon completed. The marooned men and women set sail again on May 10, 1610 and successfully made their way to Jamestown.
Two of those lost on Bermuda in the interim were the wife and infant daughter of John Rolfe, who would later go on to famously marry Pocahontas.
Three men did successfully desert the company and remain behind on Bermuda: Robert Waters, Edward Chard, and Christopher Carter. When the British returned to claim and settle Bermuda properly in 1612, they were all seized, imprisoned, and shipped back to England. Captain Somers returned to the islands later in 1610 hoping to collect supplies for Virginia, but he became ill on the journey and died in Bermuda (which was for a time later referred to as The Somers Isles).
The story of the Sea Venture is often cited as a possible inspiration for William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was written around the same time period and includes a similar storyline of a shipwreck and disputed leadership … but has a lot more magic in it.
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.
If present-day electoral politics strike you as disreputable, take comfort in the knowledge that the Republic has survived its share of low-down, brass-knuckle campaigns in the past. The presidential election of 1828 might have been the very dirtiest.
This race pitted incumbent John Quincy Adams, the silver-spoon New Englander and son of Federalist founding father John Adams, against Andrew Jackson, the uncouth self-made westerner of Scotch peasant stock. Jackson was [in]famous for his duels, and his willingness to push the envelope on acceptable use of the military forces he commanded. Some foes saw him as an American Napoleon; some supporters, likewise.
One of the juiciest gobs of slung mud in that 1828 campaign involved Jackson’s actions as a Major General during the War of 1812, and specifically right around the Battle of New Orleans.
Karl Rove would have approved of this tactical attack on the strength of a candidate, for it was to this service that Jackson owed his national repute. De Tocqueville, who considered Jackson “a man of violent temper and very moderate talents,” said that he “was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans.”*
At any rate, back in 1815, when army regulars were engaged on the east coast (or in the quixotic attempt to invade Canada), battle in the south and west pitted shaky American militia against British-allied Indian tribes in dirty, bloody ethnic cleansing.
Immediately prior to New Orleans, Jackson, west Tennessee’s biggest landowner and therefore its militia commander, took his forces south to Alabama, combined them with other militia, and routed the Creek, ending the Creek War subplot to the War of 1812. ‘Twas this conquest gave Jackson his “Old Hickory” nickname for controlling the Muscogee Creeks of Hickory Ground.
Cool beans for A.J., but not everyone on his team was equally excited.
After the Creek surrendered at the newly-raised Fort Jackson — vanity, vanity, all is vanity! — a number of soldiers stationed there with the 1st Regiment West Tennessee Militia started agitating to pack up and leave, even with the British navy still lurking. Come September, some even went so far as to demonstratively tramp out of Fort Jackson, vowing to return to hearth and home.
These were not enlisted soldiers of a standing army, so they did not necessarily conceive themselves bound to fight the British in Louisiana or the Creeks in Alabama: rights and obligations and loyalties were still being sorted out in the young Republic. These deserters had, however, been mustered that June for an announced six-month term, and September was only three months later. Moreover, these weren’t the only rumblings of desertion in Jackson’s ambit, and since he was potentially facing the prospect of defending the whole Gulf Coast against the world’s preeminent military power using nothing but a motley collection of farmers, Indian allies, pirates, and what-have-you, Old Hickory was not inclined to countenance anything that could erode his forces’ tenuous unity. Like George Washington before him, Jackson shot some malcontents today to pre-empt trouble tomorrow.
On November 21, 1814, Jackson ordered the six deserters/mutineers to court-martial. The next day, he departed to New Orleans where he would cover himself with glory.
After winning that battle, Jackson adjudicated a message from the Alabama court-martial, announcing six men condemned who had not been recommended for leniency.
As is well-known, the War of 1812 had officially been settled by treaty for weeks at this point, but it took approximately f.o.r.e.v.e.r for word to get around in these pre-telegraph days. Jackson didn’t know the war was over: he did know that British ships were still lurking around in the Gulf. (They also didn’t know the war was over.)
So Jackson behaved just as if he had a going conflict on his hands and sent back confirmation of the sentences. His six mutineers were shot kneeling on their coffins before 1,500 troops in Mobile, Ala. on February 21, 1815. Only after that did everybody (British included) find out that there wasn’t anything left to fight for.
But when Andrew Jackson eventually ran for U.S. President in 1828, the poor militiamen were exhumed (only metaphorically!) to traduce the general, whose reputation already ran to the bloodthirsty. This was a country where a great many of the men casting ballots would be, actually or potentially, subject to militia duty: the prospect of a frontier Queeg actually executing militia was calculated to impair Jackson’s famous appeal to the common man and raise the specter of the president as a potential strongman.
Propaganda pamphlets circulated this execution story widely that year, the swiftboating of the 19th century.
Their inevitable inclusion of six coffin-shaped blocks to symbolize the dead men this date eventually gave to anti-Jackson broadsides the name “Coffin Handbills” — a term that eventually extended to the entire genre of political libels. This linguistic relic is surely due for a bicentennial resurrection.
Sordid campaigning over Jackson’s questionable military freelancing was somewhat ironic in 1828, since Jackson also had that reputation from his extra-legal Florida incursions, after the War of 1812. Those adventures rankled many within the Monroe administration, but were stoutly defended by Monroe’s Secretary of State — none other than John Quincy Adams. (Adams’s own signature graces the 1819 treaty with Spain which ceded Florida; it was largely secured by Jackson’s depredations.)
Irony or no, the attacks had to be dealt with.
Jackson’s partisans responded with equal vigor. For instance, newspapers (the excerpt below comes from the May 1, 1828 Maryland Gazette) carried a lengthy vindication penned by a Jackson partisan and fellow-Tennessean then sitting his first term in Congress … but destined in time to follow Jackson to the White House.**
I had supposed it scarcely possible that any candid, intelligent man, could for a moment doubt the correctness of General Jackson’s conduct, in relation to this subject … No man has ever been more misrepresented and slandered by his political adversaries than Gen. Jackson, and upon no subject more than that in relation to the execution of the ‘six militia men.’ …
The corps to which the ‘six militiamen’ belonged, was stationed at Fort Jackson. Between the 10th and 20th of September 1814, before the period even of three months, much less six months, had expired, an alarming mutiny, such as was seldom ever witnessed in any army, took place in the camp, of which these ‘six militia men’ were the ringleaders. Harris who seems to have been the principal, several days before the mutiny broke out, carried about a subscription paper thro’ the camp, obtaining the signatures of all who would agree to go home. In defiance of their officers commanding the post, they on the 19th of September 1814, violently and tumultuously assembled together, to the number of near two hundred, broke open the public stores, took out provisions, demolished the bake house, shot down breves, and in the face of authority, left the camp on the next morning ‘at the end of revielle beat;’ yelling and firing scattering guns as they departed, proclaiming to all who would, to follow them.
Th proceedings of the court martial were forwarded to General Jackson then at New Orleans, for his approval. The six ringleaders were not recommended to mercy by the court martial. No palliating circumstances existed in their case, known to him. He knew they had been tried by a court martial composed of their fellow citizens and neighbours at home. The news of peace had not then arrived. The enemy’s forces were still in our waters and on our border. When an attack might be made was unknown, and the militia under General Winchester‘s command at Mobile, were ‘threatening to mutiny.’ … General Jackson saw that the salvation of the country was still in jeopardy, if subordination was not preserved in the army. He approved the sentence, and these six unfortunate, tho’ guilty men, were executed. This approval of the sentence of the court martial was made at New Orleans on the 22d of January, 1815. The first intimation which the General had of the news of peace even by rumour, was received on the 18th or 19th of February, 1815 … Col. G.C. Russell, who commanded on the day the sentence of the court martial was carried into execution, states in a letter of the 29th of July, 1827, that ‘we had no knowledge of a treaty of peace having been signed at Ghent, till more than a month after the approval of the sentence, and fifteen or twenty days after its execution.’ The official news of peace did not reach General Jackson until the 18th of March, 1815, and on the 19th of the same month, the British commander received the official intelligence from his government. It was not until after this period that the British forces left their position on that border of the union.
The effect which the execution of these men produced in the army was most salutary. Not a whisper was afterwards heard of the mutiny which had threatened General Winchester’s command. Subordination was restored, and all the troops in the service were willing, and did without a murmur perform their duty. Mutiny and desertion were no longer heard of in that part of the military service.
it is impossible to conceive how censure can attach to General Jackson. At the time he approved the sentence of the six ringleaders, he pardoned all those who had been recommended to mercy by the court martial that tried them. At the time of the execution all acquiesced in its justice. Every officer in the army responded to the importance of the example, for the good of the service. At that time the whole country was satisfied. Not a whisper of censure was heard against the commanding General, or any member of the court martial in reference to it.
Polk, indeed, advised his friend Jackson closely during the latter’s 1828 campaign, and specifically counseled an active campaign to rebut the “six militiamen” attacks.
Polk’s energetic response and others like it must have worked well enough: Jackson crushed John Quincy Adams as handily as he had once done the Creeks, and wound up with his hatchet face on the American $20 bill.
* The De Tocqueville quote in the text is the part germane to this post, but it disdainfully goes on to pronounce New Orleans “a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare. Now the people who are thus carried away by the illusions of glory are unquestionably the most cold and calculating, the most unmilitary, if I may so speak, and the most prosaic of all the nations of the earth.” Sniff.
** And to follow Jackson’s policy of dubious southerly land-grabs.
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.”
On this date in 1757, Catholic priest Andreas Faulhaber was hanged at the order of Frederick the Great to defend the seal of the confessional.
Frederick had been appointed by the Heavenly Father, and a cruel earthly one, to a task far too monumental to tarry with theology: lifting the Kingdom of Prussia from the morass of German principalities and into the ranks of Europe’s great powers. Frederick was nominally a Protestant, as was the bulk of his domain, and der Alte Fritz once remarked that this profession pleasingly liberated his sovereignty from papal interference; his real doctrine was nothing but pragmatism.
Accordingly, the great enlightened absolutist sponsored Jesuit educators where schools were needed and Jewish merchants where trade was needed.
Disgusted at Frederick’s aggressive war on Austria, Voltaire scribbled to a friend,
I’ve seen his good intentions dropped
At the first trumpet blast.
They are nothing more than kings;
And live their lives with bloody things,
They take or rape a few provinces
To suit their ambitious ends
I give up, say goodbye princes
I want no one now but friends.
But Voltaire did not in fact break with his royal admirer and correspondent over Silesia.
Frederick christened his new reign in 1740-42 by ripping the wealthy* province of Silesia away from the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs were Prussia’s Catholic rivals for preeminence in central Europe and Silesia too was heavily Catholic, so Frederick extended over that province as liberal a grant of religious toleration as he might.
But the attachments of men for the kings of their forefathers are not always so easily displaced, and neither are those of kings for the most lucrative soil of their patrimony. Austria made two subsequent attempts to retrieve Silesia; together with Frederick’s initial invasion, these are the Silesian Wars.
The last of the three was itself just one theater of the gigantic Seven Years’ War. The conflict between Prussia and Austria over Silesia, and the complex continental diplomatic entanglements** each power effected in its pursuit, were among the root causes of that entire globe-spanning conflict.
But in view of Frederick the Great’s strained situation prior to this providential deliverance, some of his Silesian subjects made free to prefer their prospective Catholic/Austrian allegiance to that of their recent conqueror.
Desertions among Silesian conscripts, some of them even escaping to Austrian lines, called down the dark side of the religious toleration policy. Frederick let people pray as they liked so that he could rule as he liked; here, when he suspected the Silesian Catholic clergy of countenancing wartime disloyalty among their flock, those religious scruples had overstepped their proper sphere.
And so at last we come to our day’s execution.
One young man caught attempting to desert Frederick’s army was captured and interrogated by his commanders. He allowed that he had undertaken the sacrament of confession before escaping, and expressed to the priest his intention to abandon the army.
The priest, Father Andreas Faulhaber, was arrested on this basis, but between his calm defense of himself and the deserter’s shifting, unreliable story, the military court found little basis to proceed. The impression one gets is that the contemplated desertion was not the main thrust of the confession and that Father Faulhaber accordingly discouraged the sin in passing but didn’t bother to dwell on the point.
The impression is difficult to substantiate because the padre rigorously kept the seal of the confessional — another imposition demanded by faith that secular authorities who had armies to field preferred not to honor.
But evidently looking to serve notice that the monarch’s religious indifference could not be used to abrogate subjects’ responsibility to the state, Frederick himself ordered Faulhaber’s sudden execution for the morning of December 30.
The unfortunate priest only discovered his impending fate moments before it was enacted, but still refused under the makeshift gallows to give up anything incriminating about his parishioner. “Hang up the Jesuit Faulhaber, but let him not have a confessor,” read the order, according to this decidedly Catholic account, which adds that Faulhaber was not actually a Jesuit at all, and the word only added to invoke the going 18th century prejudice against that order.
Prussia won this war, too. It kept Silesia in Prussian hands, and then German hands, for two centuries. The bulk of Silesia was transferred to Poland after World War II.
** For the Seven Years’ War, Austria made common cause with its traditional foe, France: one consequence of this arrangement was the betrothal of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the future French king Louis XVI.
Back in December of 1773, a year before our action, American patriots had escalated the colonies’ running tax dispute with the mother country by dumping 45 tons of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.
Over the ensuing twelvemonth, London and the colonies escalated unpleasantries to the point where King George III remarked that “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”
The immediate British response to the Boston Tea Party, and the reason that William Ferguson and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot made their obnoxious camp on Boston Common, was that Parliament responded to the Tea Party with a series of punitive enactments directed at the colonies in general and Boston in particular: the Coercive Acts. (Or “Intolerable Acts”, as called by the colonists.)
Gage’s first order of business was to garrison truculent Boston (already occupied since 1768) with enough soldiery to enforce Parliament’s will. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1774, British troops arriving from elsewhere in the colonies — or from Canada (as with the 10th) — or mustered in Great Britain — poured into Boston. By the end of 1774, eleven regiments made camp on the Common. “Boston,” Gage wrote to the Secretary of War, “will keep quiet as long as the troops are there.”
But to dominate Boston was not to bring the colonies to heel.
General Gage soon realized that he had a tricky assignment: even while implementing laws designed specifically to antagonize Massachusetts, he simultaneously had to try to pre-empt the gestating American Revolution. Egregiously underestimating the vigor of colonial resistance and the resources required to quell it, London brushed off Gage’s entreaties for thousands of additional troops while counterproductively pressuring him to take more confrontational action against disloyal colonists.
Gage’s attempt to reconcile all these contradictory demands was to use his regiments in Boston in a series of targeted sorties into the Massachusetts countryside, in an effort to deprive colonial militias (and, now, a rebel shadow government that held sway outside of Boston) of the arms they would need in the event of open rebellion. Gage hoped he could pick off tactical objectives one by one, and ideally do so without firing any shots that might further inflame a tense situation. Some of his own subalterns sneeringly nicknamed him the “Old Woman” for insufficient bellicosity.
Gage’s plan was probably always doomed to failure. Massachusetts militiamen had already demonstrated a considerable propensity to redcoat inflammation; some one of these expeditions was bound sooner or later to send musket balls flying.
In April of 1775, that’s exactly what happened: a column of British soldiers, some from the 10th Regiment, marched out to seize a militia arms depot in the town of Concord. About sunrise of April 19, 1775 that column entered the village of Lexington on the approach to Concord and there exchanged with a colonial militia the first shots of the American Revolution.
The only British casualty of the “shot heard round the world” was a minor leg wound suffered by a private of the 10th named Johnson. (The subsequent Battle of Concord was a different story.)
Present for Lexington and Concord and presumably also in attendance at William Ferguson’s execution by musketry was yet another brother Tenther: Ensign Jeremy Lister. Lister’s diary of events is one of our firsthand accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
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.