HEAD QUARTERS, FALLS OF NIAGARA
OCTOBER 28TH 1814.
At a General Court Martial, held at Stamford, on the 25th instant, and continued by adjournment to the 28th of the same month, Private John McMillan, of the 2nd regiment of Lincoln Militia, was arraigned on the following charges, viz.: —
1st. For having deserted to the Enemy, with his Arms and Accoutrements, when on Duty, on or about the 6th of Octoer, 1813.
2nd. For having been taken bearing Arms in the Service of the Enemy on or about the 17th of September last.
And “The Court, after duly considering the Evidence for the Prosecution and on behalf of the Prisoner, were clearly of the opinion that he is guilty of both charges, and therefore Sentence him to suffer Death, at such place and time as His Honor the President may be pleased to direct.”
His Honor the President approves the finding and Sentence of the Court, and directs that the same be carried into Execution at Bridgewater [Niagara Falls] on Monday morning next, the 31st instant, at 11 o’clock
There are so many excellent resources already for enthusiasts of this adventure that a generalist site such as this one can scarcely hope to contribute. Much of the commentary through the years has gravitated towards asserting (by implication at least) the ought between the allegedly oversensitive first mate Fletcher Christian and his allegedly tyrannous captain William Bligh.
Their confrontation is too well mythologized to require commentary here. We only wish to note that this workplace confrontation occurred in furtherance of a mission whose purpose was the application of the lash to other laborers than the Bounty‘s Able Seamen.
Lord Byron fictionalized Bligh’s and other mariners’ accounts to render “The Island”, a poem surprisingly sympathetic (given Byron’s radical proclivities) to the officers mutinied upon. In it, he renders the Eden-like plenty of Otaheiti
The gentle island, and the genial soil,
The friendly hearts, the feasts without a toil,
The courteous manners but from nature caught,
The wealth unhoarded, and the love unbought;
Could these have charms for rudest sea-boys, driven
Before the mast by every wind of heaven?
The Bread-tree, which, without the ploughshare, yields
The unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields,
And bakes its unadulterated loaves
Without a furnace in unpurchased groves,
And flings off famine from its fertile breast,
A priceless market for the gathering guest …
Those fertile-breasted breadtrees were the object of Bligh’s voyage: they were to be acquired, potted, and sailed onward to the Caribbean where they’d be transplanted in hopes of providing a cornucopia … of profits to sugar plantations whose slaves’ hands an “unreaped harvest of unfurrowed fields” would free for an added margin in the export economy.*
The Bounty bartered for and potted up over 1,000 specimens during a protracted five-week layover Tahiti, a literal Bounty that the crew would prove to prefer to the floating despotism under Capt. Bligh.
Those mutineers turned the breadfruit-ship ’round and settled themselves back on Tahiti or on Pitcairn Island,* burning the Bounty in hopes of simply disappearing from imperial Britain’s circuits of maritime accumulation*.
Cast adrift in the Pacific, Bligh somehow guided the 7-meter open launch 6,700 kilometers to Timor, losing only one of his 18 loyal passengers along the way — a feat of seamanship Bligh himself told all about in a first-person account. From the East Indies, Bligh caught a ride back to England and reported the insurrection to the Admiralty in March 1790, more than two years after his ill-starred voyage had set sail from Spithead.
So in 1791, a 24-gun ship called Pandora set out carrying a box of evils for the mutineers. The latter had, in this time, found the comforts of the South Pacific at least somewhat less congenial now that they proposed to make themselves permanent residents and moreover anticipated native deference to their race despite having opted themselves out of the authority that underwrote said privilege. Fletcher Christian himself is thought to be among the mutineers who died in conflicts with the natives.†
Still, the Pandora found 14 of the Bounty‘s former crew to round up and return for British judgment. (The Pitcairn settlement escaped notice altogether; it was only chanced upon by an American ship in 1808 by which time nobody had any interest in persecuting the last remaining mutineer.)
The three featured today were, perhaps surprisingly, the only ones to pass through all the filters from detention to execution, filters that one might have thought would winnow only fleetingly in the case of such an impudent rebellion.
To begin with, the Pandora ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef on its return voyage. Only at the last moment did a boatswain unlock the cell where the prisoners were being held — and only 10 of the 14 managed to escape being swallowed up by the seas.
The ensuing court-martial acquitted outright four of those remaining ten — men whom Bligh himself described as innocent loyalists who had been forced to remain with the mutineers.
The Admiralty court-martial had a job to fix the six other sailors in their right spots along the spectrum from “enthusiastic mutineer” to “passive participant” to “had to go along with events outside of their control.” It took a good deal of testimony from Bligh’s loyalists about who was armed, who gave a sharp word, and so forth, during the critical moments of Fletcher Christian’s coup. (Legal proceedings in the Bounty case are collected in their entirety here, part of a rich trove of primary sources related to the incident.)
In the end, all six whom Bligh did not vouch for got the same sentence — death — but the court endorsed several for royal mercy. The three who eventually hanged on October 29, 1792 were:
Able Seaman Thomas Burkitt or Burkett. Multiple witnesses made him an armed and active member of the mutiny from its very first stroke, assisting Fletcher Christian’s nighttime seizure of the sleeping captain.
Able Seaman John Millward. He too was placed among the armed mutineers by witnesses; in fact, prior to the mutiny, he had attempted with two other crewmates to abscond from the Bounty and spent three weeks hiding out in Tahiti before recaptured.
Able Seaman Thomas Ellison. Just 16 or 17 years old at the time of the mutiny, Ellison was made to hand over his watch at the helm to a mutineer. His efforts at court to portray himself as loyal to Bligh and only unwillingly swept up in events were contradicted by one of the men set adrift with the ex-captain, but have been favorably received by many later interlocutors. The Charles Nordhoff-James Hall novelization Mutiny on the Bounty presents Ellison as an innocent.
Three others condemned with this trio at the same court-martial who might have shared their execution date were spared that fate.
Able Seaman William Muspratt copped a stay and eventually a commutation of sentence based on having been prevented from calling his desired witnesses. He returned to active duty at sea.
James Morrison, notable for having built a schooner on Tahiti with which he attempted unsuccessfully to sail for the East Indies, was recommended for mercy by the court which condemned him. While incarcerated, Morrison wrote a journal giving his account of the mutiny; he too returned to active service as a gunner.
Midshipman Peter Heywood, the only officer charged was, like Morrison, pardoned at the court’s recommendation. He put in many years of respectable service at sea, eventually retiring with the rank of post-captain. Anticipating his being tongue-tied when the pardon was announced to him, he had a note ready-written to hand the angel of his deliverance: “when the sentence of the law was passed upon me, I received it, I trust, as became a man; and if it had been carried into execution, I should have met my fate, I hope, in a manner becoming a Christian … I receive with gratitude my Sovereign’s mercy; for which my future life shall be faithfully devoted to his service.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1792)
* This breadfruit scheme was the brainchild of Joseph Banks, an empire-minded botanist who was also a leading advocate of diverting the convict labor formerly exported to America to Australia instead.
After all the mutiny business had been sorted out, Bligh commanded a second, do-over voyage to dump breadtrees on Jamaica. Slaves’ distaste for the delicacy caused the voyage’s immediate objectives to fail; however, the imported fruit would eventually become a Jamaican culinary staple.
** Descendants of the Bounty mutineers and native women still inhabit Pitcairn to this day. It’s the smallest self-governing national jurisdiction in the world.
† The last mutineer on Pitcairn gave vague and contradictory accounts of Christian’s death. It was long rumored that he might actually have escaped Pitcairn and secretly returned to England: if so, he was never exposed.
One hundred years ago today, during the Battle of the Marne, seven French soldiers were shot without trial for retreating. Most of the resources about this Gallic tragedy are in French, and so are most of the links in today’s post.
All were enlistees of France’s 327th Infantry Regiment. On the night of September 6, German shelling panicked their sister 270th Regiment into a disorderly retreat away from the front lines. That rout ran right into the 327th, behind them, and panicked that regiment too.
Further in the army’s rear, by the hubbub awoke from his farmhouse bivouac division commander Gen. Rene Boutegourd. Boutegard had a simple solution, and ordered seven of the soldiers caught away from their posts to be executed the next morning by way of example. While the war’s later years would feature notoriously unfair courts-martial with predetermined sentences, Gen. Boutegourd didn’t even see the need to pay that much tribute to procedural regularity in this case.
The Battle of the Marne was still ongoing, and the situation in the field, pre-trench warfare, was fluid. Shoot them out of hand and be done with it! Then, the rest of the division will understand the consequences of unauthorized retreat.
Barbieux, Caffiaux, Clement, Delsarte, Dufour, Hubert, and Watrelot were stupefied to learn that they suddenly had mere hours left to live.
According to a postwar newspaper article — printed in 1922, when the bizarre case came to public attention and led to a posthumous pardon — they immediately began pleading for their lives. “Put us in the first wave of the next attack, but I beg you not to subject us to French balls,” Delsarte cried.
In those opening weeks of what was supposed to be a short war, with men’s minds still half at home in the pleasurable prewar idyll, the cruel frequency of the execution pour l’exemple had not yet set its stamp on things. The first such instance had occurred only the week before.
Maybe the men detailed to kill the “deserters” were equally stunned: it is hard to put down the results of the shootings merely to the uncertainties of technology or the hardiness of flesh and bone.
Palmyr Clement survived the fusillade and only died two agonizing days later from his firing squad injuries. This is a bizarre outcome even for those occasional cases where a fellow survives the scaffold. Implicit in such a fate is that there was no coup de grace administered after the volley. Is this oversight intentional — even an expression of distaste for the justice of the sentence soldiers had been tasked with visiting on their comrades?
And could distaste extend so far as an intentional or an indifferent failure of marksmanship by the firing details?
Such doubtful speculation can point to Francois Waterlot, who did Clement one better: he survived the execution full stop (dropping to the ground with the volley even though he was actually uninjured) and returned to the ranks, dying in battle on June 10, 1915. This uncommon feat earned him the nickname “le fusillé vivant”, “the shot alive” (somewhat literally) or “the living corpse” (more to the sense of it). That sobriquet is the title of a French book about Waterlot.
France executed about 600 of her own soldiers during World War I, the second-most (to Italy) of all belligerents in that conflagration. There is a great deal about this particular execution on this French page.
As a Communist himself — Laiho had been imprisoned in the 1930s for his labor agitation — Laiho inclined better to the cause of the other side, and fled to the woodlands near Turku where he gathered intelligence to pass to the Soviets and aided other war deserters. He spent the best part of two years winding towards his date with a military police firing detail after being arrested in December 1942.
While Laiho doesn’t technically have the distinction of being the last in all of Finnish history, he’s the one remembered as the milestone moreso than the Russian paratroopers that followed his fate the next day. Laiho is the last one of the Finns’ own, the last who emerges as an individual with a fate that speaks to the fate of his countrymen in those times. “Through Olavi Laiho, we empathize with the with the story of the first half of the 20th century,” this dissertation put it.
While Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944, a trio of Soviet paratroopers caught behind Finnish lines were shot as spies on September 3, 1944. Those three men are the last ever put to death in Finland.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.
Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.
The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.
Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.
And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?
One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”
Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.
We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:
Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …
He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:
“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.
The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.
There’s a good chance that you experience an unpleasant degree of performance pressure from time to time in your environs, whatever they might be. Lord knows even the executioner is notimmune to it.
But it’s doubtful very many are under the sort of professional pressure that Swedish general Charles Emil Lewenhaupt succumbed to on this date in 1743, when he was beheaded for command incompetence thanks to his country’s defeat in the 1741-1743 Russo-Swedish War.
An aggressive political faction of “Young Turks” — er, Young Swedes — known as the Hats had kicked the country’s cautious former president to the curb and aimed to restore the great power status Sweden had coughed up to Russia decades prior. In Sweden, their engagement with Russia would become known as the Hats’ War.
Lewenhaupt himself was elevated to command of Sweden’s Finland forces — for Finland was Swedish territory at this point, although it had been brutally occupied by Russia from 1714 to 1721 and only returned when Sweden ceded its Baltic possessions to Peter the Great — over a general who opposed the adventurous scheme. Ironically, the whole thing would ultimately redound to the benefit of Peter the Great’s daughter.
In 1741 as the War of Austrian Succession consumed the rest of Europe, Lewenhaupt was placed in charge of the opening gambit, an invasion of Karelia. Russia’s autocraticEmpress Anna had just died in 1740, leaving her niece Anna Leopoldovna in charge as regent for the the infant Ivan VI. The idea from the Swedish side was to pair the invasion (with a short line to St. Petersburg, then the capital) with an internal coup against the shaky monarch; further to that latter end, Swedish diplomats* maneuvered behind the scenes to position Peter the Great’s popular daughter Elizaveta to seize power, whereupon she would cede back to Sweden (either out of gratitude or by compulsion of the arriving Swedish armies) the Baltic lands recently torn from Stockholm’s hands.
The entire project was a fiasco for Sweden.
Sweden’s Hats-dominated Riksdag declared war on Russia in July of 1741, but the joint land and naval attack that was supposed to ensue completely failed to materialize: the Swedish fleet had been ravaged by an epidemic while awaiting the action, and the Swedish army massing at Villmanstrand had not yet finished assembling. So having thrown down the gauntlet, the Swedes just stood flat-footed, and it was the Russians who launched the invasion by routing the army at Villmanstrand. Our Gen. Lewenhaupt only arrived at that army two weeks after the battle.
Things went pear-shaped from that point for Sweden, but back in St. Petersburg the invasion’s prospective beneficiary was doing just fine.
Elizaveta had cagily accepted the aid of her French and Swedish “benefactors” but without committing any reciprocal promise to paper. Far from being a catspaw of foreign interests, this daughter of Russia’s conquering tsar was a popular figure in her own right, especially with the elite Preobrazhensky Regiment; on the evening of November 24, 1741, Elizaveta displayed herself at the regimental barracks dramatically clad in a breastplate and wielding a silver cross, summoning her supporters to mount a coup that the guards themselves had long sought. It was achieved (by Elizaveta’s own insistence) without bloodshed** that very night.
Duly installed, Elizaveta simply continued prosecuting a war that was going quite nicely for her side thank you very much, eventually forcing Sweden to conclude the war with a treaty ceding yet more territory to Russia.
The tribulations of this embarrassing (and costly) war led for Sweden to an internal rebellion — but the Hats were able to crush it and hold onto power by farming out blame for their failed war of choice onto the generals in the field. In 1743, Gen. Lewenhaupt and Gen. Henrik Magnus von Buddenbrock were sentenced to death for command negligence. Buddenrock was executed on schedule on July 27, but Lewenhaupt managed to escape — briefly. He was recaptured aboard a ship fleeing for Gdansk and beheaded on August 4.
Needless to say the great classical tradition of “with your shield or on it” did not extend to the Hats’ civilian leadership. These fellows maintained their hold in the Riksdag long enough to fling Sweden into yet another costly war of choice with Prussia in 1757, where they got their ass kicked again by Frederick the Great.
* Joined by French diplomats, whose interest in Elizaveta’s takeover was to abort Russia’s alliance with Austria and England in the continental war. The Hats had aligned Sweden with France; the latter helpfully supplied the cash Elizaveta needed as the intrigue unfolded over 1741.
** Never the violent type, Elizaveta is especially notable in these pages for her pledge never to approve a death warrant under her reign. Russia would not see another execution until 1764, under Catherine the Great.
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular -- sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of
The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.
We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.
Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.
General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.
On November 7, 1918, mere days before the end of World War I, British privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson were shot for desertion and cowardice. Jackson, of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Harris, of the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, were the last British soldiers shot for military offenses in the First World War.
Jackson had been conscripted into the military in July 1916 and sent to France in November. He first ran into trouble in April 1917, when he went AWOL for 28 hours and was sentenced to two years in prison. In most cases the sentence would have been suspended, but for some reason that didn’t happen with Jackson and he spent sixteen months behind bars before he was released and returned to his battalion in August 1918.
A little over a month later, on September 29, he disappeared from his battalion transport lines near Flesquières, where he’d been sick and waiting to be sent to the field ambulance.
Arrested on October 3, Jackson got sent back to the to the 24th Battalion, which was then at Noyelles, 3,000 yards from the front lines. By mid-afternoon he had dropped out of sight again, but was arrested by the military police the next day at Douellens. On October 8, Jackson’s NCO found his arms and equipment in a shelter not far from where he’d gone missing.
Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on three charges:
Going AWOL on September 29
Deserting on October 4
“Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on October 4
When asked to explain himself before the tribunal, Jackson said, “I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving. I wanted to get away from everything … I have been looked down on by everyone and that is the cause of my being here today.” He added that both his parents had died in insane asylums and he himself suffered from “mental problems caused by worries.”
The FGCM would have none of it and sentenced Jackson to death. He was shot at St. Python in northern France at 6:10 a.m. He was 32 years old.
Nineteen minutes later and 25 kilometers away, at Locquignol, Private Louis Harris faced the firing squad.
Harris had volunteered for the Army in 1915, but was discharged as unfit. He got conscripted in 1916, however, and was sent to France in July, where he served as part of a Lewis gun team. On September 2, in the middle of an attack at Rocquigny, while there was “no firing and practically no opposition,” Harris ditched his kit and his comrades and vanished. He was arrested the next day and faced an FGCM for desertion and cowardice.
Harris — surprisingly … was not defended at his trial and made no attempt to cross-examine any of the witnesses, nor did he make a statement in his own defence. It would appear that the 23-year-old soldier either did not understand the seriousness of his position, or was resigned to his fate.
He was found not guilty of cowardice, but guilty of desertion, and his bad record (which included repeated charges of insubordination) was held against him. His CO wrote, “Pte. Harris L. has not got a good record in this Battalion. His fighting value is NIL.” The Brigade Commander agreed, summing up his case thusly:
I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:
Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
He is worthless as a soldier.
During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
His example is a disgraceful one.
Harris’s execution was, as previously stated, the last. Four days later on November 11, the war ended and all death sentences for military offenses were commuted to penal servitude. In 1929 the death penalty was abolished for desertion and other military crimes.
This dispatch to the New York Herald was published on June 16, 1863.
Mr. W. Young’s Letter.
Near Beallton Station, Va., June 14, 1863.
THE DESERTER J.P. WOOD.
John P. Wood, of Company F, Nineteenth Indiana, who had deserted once or twice before, again deserted on the 28th of May, and was subsequently arrsted at Aquia Creek, tried by court martial, and sentenced to be shot on Friday last.
Wood was about nineteen years old, quite intelligent, and when arrested was dressed in rebel uniform and represented himself as belonging to the Nineteenth Tennessee.
He alleged that he deserted because he had come to the conclusion that the war was not right, and he could not therefore go into action. He admitted that when he volunteered his views were somewhat different, and that he enlisted because he did not wish to see the Union dissolved.
He regarded his sentence as just, and expressed the belief that his execution for desertion would be of more service to the army than he could render it in any other manner.
THE EXECUTION, AND THE EFFECT UPON THE ARMY.
As this is the first instance of an execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac, it created considerable sensation.
The sentence was executed upon the prisoner on Friday, near Berea church. About two P.M., near Berea church, the corps was halted. The First brigade was ordered out, with the balance of the division to which the prisoner belonged, the First brigade in advance.
Two ambulances, in the first of which was seated the prisoner, and the other containing his coffin, at the head of the division, advanced about half a mile, when the division was drawn up, occupying three sides of an oblong parallelogram. On the fourth side were placed the coffin, the criminal and the guard. The men were selected to do the firing, and received their muskets from the guard properly loaded.
HIS LAST MOMENTS.
A clergyman —- was with the prisoner, who displayed no emotion. General Wadsworth then went to the men who were to perform the duty of execution, and spoke to them in regard to the disagreeable nature of the duty to be performed — the shooting of a comrade — and urged them, as a matter of humanity, to take good aim.
The General then returned to the right, Colonel Morrow to the left. The guard was then withdrawn, and the Provost Marshall, Lieutenant Rogers, took the prisoner to the coffin, upon which he was seated, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, his knees tied together and his breast bared.
All having retired, except the executions and the Provost Marshal, the order to take aim was given. Before the order to fire was given two pieces were discharged, but without effect.
At the order to fire, the remainder of the men — ten in number — fired. The prisoner fell backward, and the Provost Marshal went up to him. He struggled for an instant, and then all was over.
An additional detail from the Pioneer corps were called up and began to dig the grave, and the division marched off in perfect order, much impressed by the solemn scene which they had witnessed.