In honor of the 90th anniversary year of the war’s end back in 2008, the National Archives produced a podcast series titled “Voices of the Armistice”. The episode “Court Martial” dramatizes Knight’s face via readings of archive records, and can be found here.
Irish lance corporal Peter Sands was shot as a deserter one hundred years ago today at Fleurbaix, near Armentières.
Sands, a nine-year veteran age 26 or 27, left the Royal Irish Rifles with another soldier on a home leave pass in February 1915 and returned to his family in Belfast.
Sands had a pass for four days. Instead, he stayed for five months — openly living with his wife, and wearing his military uniform, until some unknown busybody turned him in as a deserter that July.
He would tell his court-martial that he had lost his travel documents to return to the horrible front, and had been blown off when he visited a Belfast barracks to see about a replacement. He did not aim to desert, he insisted; “Had I intended to desert I would have worn plain clothes, but up to that time I was arrested I always wore uniform.” It is not so hard to reach Corporal Sands, psychologically — a man perhaps indulging a lethal opiate of denial. Suppose his “desertion” began with a good-faith mishap and thereafter did not last for five months, but just for one day more … day upon day.
He had no pass, so what was he to do next? He stayed in Belfast with his wife and daughter wearing his service duds while he contemplated that question. (Who can say whether he contemplated it in bemusement or terror.) He stayed every day in March, and it became every day in April, and every day in May and June, too. Nobody came for him on any of those days.
Had his war ended, then? Had he somehow slipped the toils of the machine back to a domestic idyll?
Maybe he truly had … but for that anonymous snitch.
Even if it had to be reminded of its prodigal corporal’s absence, His Majesty’s royal meatgrinder expected a little more hustle from its meat than one barracks call in five months: while Sands was at home, his mates had gone out of the trenches in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (11,000+ British casualties), and the disastrous* Battle of Aubers Ridge (another 11,000+).
His commanding officer “consider[ed] this a bad case of desertion and I recommend that the sentence be carried out.” And it was.
Sands was buried at a nearby churchyard, but his resting-place was lost during the war. He has a marker at Cabaret-Rouge Military Cemetery at Souchez.
On this date in 1807, the British navy hanged Jenkin Ratford from the yardarm of the HMS Halifax off the coast of Maryland — an incident destined to become a rallying cry for the United States in the ill-fated War of 1812.
The U.S. at this moment was an upstart young country and naturally enough chafed at the lordly interpositions of her recent mother country. Great Britain had the navy, however, so the Americans could chafe all they liked. In the words of the tune that had emerged in the 18th century with Britain’s globe-straddling sea power
The Britons who got to do the grunt work of wave-ruling might disagree.
Seaman in the Royal Navy, and that huge navy needed many seamen, was a harrowingly brutal position often filled by press gangs empowered to grab anyone not able to produce immediate evidence of exemption and have them by next morning swabbing the nearest frigate on a ration of wormy hardtack. Desertion was correspondingly popular and more radical resorts not unheard-of; the mutiny on the Bounty had occurred in 1789; two other mutinies much more alarmingly proximate to Old Blighty took place in 1797.
Britain’s willingness to extend impressment to stopping American ships and seizing crew members who couldn’t produce American identity papers made a great affront to the young Republic — an insulting reminder of its third-rate* place among the nations. Years before while American colonists were kicking redcoat ass in the Revolution, they had dreamt among other things of correcting America’s aggravating dependence on the British fleet. “No country on the globe is so happily situated, or so internally capable of raising a fleet as America. Tar, timber, iron, and cordage are her natural produce,” wrote Thomas Paine in Common Sense. “Ship building is America’s greatest pride, and in which she will, in time, excel the whole world.”
Congress got a start on that project with a 1794 naval act creating the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. The USS Constitution is the most famous of these; one of her five sisters, the Chesapeake, will figure in the action of this date’s post.
In 1806, two French ships, the Cybelle and the Patriot, struggled into Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay for repairs after being crippled by a storm at sea — stalked by British ships that blockaded the mouth of the Chesapeake to trap them there.
The proximity of American soil proved an irresistible inducement for at least four sailors on the British ships to desert. Three of them — William Ware, Daniel Martin and John Strachan — were American victims of British impressment. The fourth, our man Jenkins Ratford, was a Limey. They then enlisted in the American Navy.
Great Britain’s demands for their return met with steady refusal on the American side. Knowing that the deserters had been posted to the Chesapeake, which was then outfitting for deployment to the Mediterranean, British ships in the vicinity of the North American coast were ordered to stop the Chesapeake on sight to recover the absconders.
This the HMS Leopard did do on June 22, 1807, and with a singular lack of subtlety: the Leopard battered the Chesapeake with broadsides. Shocked and unprepared, the Americans couldn’t even fire back before striking colors and yielding to a humiliating British search that hauled off Ware, Martin, Strachan and Ratford.
The HMS Leopard (easily recognizable since it’s the only ship firing!) vs. the USS Chesapeake.
While these unfortunates were sailed off to Halifax, Nova Scotia** for their trial, outrage spread on American shores — immediately advised of the incident since the Chesapeake† had had to limp directly back to Norfolk, Va., for repairs. Outrage at the British, but also outrage at the captain who failed to so much as resist the attack (he was court-martialed, and suspended from command for five years), and outrage for the national honor. Some, more vengeful than sensible, wanted immmediate hostilities with Great Britain. “Never since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity,” U.S President Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend, the French emigre Dupont de Nemours.‡
Ratford, the only actual British citizen among the shanghaied sailormen, was the only one executed. The Americans “merely” got prison sentences.
At the political level, President Jefferson had a thorny problem. The British could in no way be induced to meet the American demand to end impressment, for simultaneous with the scandal Napoleon was finalizing victories that would knock Britain’s continental allies out of an altogether more urgent war. No derogation of security interests could be entertained, and so for America, no diplomatic satisfaction could be forthcoming.
Instead of war, Jefferson responded by convincing Congress to enact an embargo on trade with Europe. It proved to be a counterproductive policy that damaged the U.S. far more than the European export markets it had intended to punish.
The U.S. and U.K. would come to blows soon enough, and if the War of 1812 was hardly fought because of the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, that incident was certainly among the contributing grievances.
Injuries more directly attributable were not hard to come by, however. When James Barron, the suspended former commander of the Chesapeake, sought reinstatement to the navy, early American naval hero Stephen Decatur opposed him with vehemence sufficient to induce Barron to challenge Decatur to a duel. Decatur was slain in the fight, shockingly pinching out one of America’s leading military figures at the age of 41.
The Chesapeake herself fared little better. The ship was captured by the British in the ill-fated War of 1812, and recommissioned into the hated Royal Navy. Sold off for scrap in 1819, its timbers were repurposed for a long-lived (and now historic) Hampshire watermill — the Chesapeake Mill.
In view of the coming draft the Government has found it necessary to hang a man.
The victim selected was a poor man, with a wife and children living in Perkiomen township, Montgomery county. He was a small farmer, with six acres, and engaged occasionally in the manufacture of tobacco and cigars. He lived in a Democratic county and township, where trouble was possible as to the draft, and certain at the election.
He was a man of good character, and ordinarily of gentle disposition. His dying words were: “I commend my wife and little ones to the charity of the world, and I ask pardon of those I may have injured and hope they will forgive me and pray for my soul.”
He was a brave man, had proved it on the battle-field, and as the press report says he told his counsel, “he faced the last music like a soldier.”
Such, in brief, was William H. Howe, of Montgomery county, who, on Friday last, was hanged at Fort Mifflin, where, one of the “loyal” newspapers of this city remarks, “the proceedings were conducted most harmoniously.”
Fort Mifflin as it appeared in 1870. William Howe was the only prisoner ever known to have been executed there.
But this is not all: the Government, in selecting this victim and making this example, was determined to show the Democrats of Montgomery county, that no antecedent merits or services could soften its heart or mitigate its doom of vengeance.
Howe was one of those unfortunate men who, excited by prevalent enthusiasm, and imagining that the authorities would protect their soldiers, enlisted two years ago in a Pennsylvania volunteer regiment. He entered the service in August, 1862, just before Antietam — when Pope‘s army was defeated, and Washington was threatened, and Mr. Lincoln frightened out of his wits.
Howe was one of those of whom Mr. Seward wrote to Mr. Dayton: “Our new levies are coming in in great numbers and in high spirits.” He went through the whole campaign at Fredericksburg, being
one of the five men who came off the field with the colors of his regiment! He exchanged his musket for an Enfield rifle, and again went upon the field with our skirmishers, and remained there all night till next day. He escaped by swimming the Rappahannock river.
Such were his merits, who was ignominiously hanged last Friday.
Now, a word as to his delinquencies. We again quote the loyal reports:
At the time he left the regiment he was suffering from inflammation of the bowels, and the regimental hospital being burned down, and having neither surgeons nor medicines, he, with some twenty others, determined to look out for themselves for treatment and reported themselves to the hospitals at Washington. Afterwards he and Augustus Beiting, a member of his company, returned to their homes.
For some two months afterwards Howe was confined to his bed.
This, we presume, was called “desertion.”
Two poor fellows, wasted by the most agonizing of diseases, with no hospital roof to cover them, and, mark this! gentle reader, who hear of champagne dinners and tableaux in our suburban hospitals, “having neither surgeons nor medicines,” wander back to their homes, and lay their wearied limbs and throbbing temples on the humble bed in Perkiomen. This was the initiate crime, though not the one for which he died. Let us see what that was, for we have no wish to do injustice to the executioners. We do not at all agree with the Press, which says “that having once given the facts, a further statement is superfluous.”
The scene of the crime was his home in Montgomery county.
That county has a Perkiomen township, and a Chiltern township, not many miles apart. Little over a year ago, in the latter township, a poor but most respectable white man, Mrs. Butler’s gardener, walking quietly on a public road, was shot down like a dog by a negro soldier, and died in agony.
For this dark deed of blood, the penalty was a mild conviction for manslaughter, — which it as much resembled as it did arson or burglary, — a sentence for a few years, and, if we mistake not, a pardon.
The negro ruffian, unlike poor Howe, had never done a deed of valor, or probably fired a musket till he pulled the trigger at the wayfarer on the Chiltern lanes. He was one of the League pets — a Chestnut street darling, and had a claim on the sympathy and mercy of those who judge always gently a negro’s fault.
Not so William H. Howe, the white Perkiomen soldier.
His deed of wrong was this: About midnight of the 21st June, 1863, he was awakened from a deep sleep — till then the sleep of innocence — by an alarm supposed to be given by the companion who had accompanied him home, that the Provost Marshal was coming to arrest him.
The first impulse was incredulity. The next, to try to escape. The last, resistance.
The words Provost Marshal, associated in a soldier’s mind with thoughts of severity, and cruelty, and sternness, have an awful sound by day or night. Those who think all Provost Marshals resemble the effeminate fribbles who superintend the draft in our streets, can form no idea of the real spectre.
Howe seized his musket, probably the one he brought in triumph from the bloody field of Fredericksburg, and fired it in the darkness, killing the enrolling officer.
The negro’s deliberate homicide is manslaughter. The white man’s rash or passionate misadventure is capital murder.
“I never,” said Howe on the scaffold, “sought the life of the man I killed. I never wished it, and I feel God will pardon me for taking it as I did.”
This, then, is the deed for which this poor fellow was condemned and died — and for which, in view of the draft, no mercy was found in the hearts of Joseph Holt and Abraham Lincoln.
Of the trial by some unknown, irresponsible military court, of which the prisoner’s prosecutor was the President, we do not care to speak. We think of it as history does of the judges who, a hundred years ago, sent to his bloody grave, according to the forms of martial law, a gallant English sailor, whom the hard-hearted monarch of that day refused to pardon, but executed “to encourage the others.” It is a sad record altogether.
And then the feeble attempt at a habeas corpus in the Federal Court, and the citation of Wolfe Tone‘s case, with its suggestive hint at suicide! The whole thing seems like a hideous mockery.
The Judge’s idea that Howe, like Tone, had waived the writ by appearing before the court martial, seems a little odd, but we do not presume to criticise judicial action, and we are very sure the Judge must have been reluctant to deny relief to a Montgomery county man, one of his former constituents. The writ, however, was refused, and last Friday, the white man was hanged, and the enrolling officer was avenged.
Howe died like a brave man. He parted with his wife and three little children with deep emotion, and then his work was done.
He was taken in an ambulance by a back way from the Penitentiary, now, it seems, used as a military prison, to the river and thence in a boat to Fort Mifflin.
“Neither guard nor prisoner,” says the North American, “uttered one word during the run down to the Fort.” There was quite a crowd to welcome him.
“The steamer Don Juan,” says the Press, “was chartered for the purpose and took down the members of the Press club.”
“The gallows,” kindly loaned by the Inspectors of the County Prison, says the same paper, “was the one on which the Scupinskis, Arthur Spring and Maddocks were hanged.” In other words, the brave Fredericksburg soldier — the Perkiomen volunteer — was ostentatiously disgraced by being put on a level in this respect with mean, mercenary murderers — and Howe died without a murmur or complaint, keeping his word that “he would face the music like a soldier.” And thus the hideous narrative concludes: “The body was taken down and placed in charge of Mr. Black, the Government undertaker, who had it embalmed yesterday afternoon and sent to Howe’s widow.”
And it will be carried to his home — and the embalmer, proud of his skill, will take off the coffin lid, and the widow and the three little children will look at the swollen and blackened features of him they loved so well, and they will think of the pride with which he used to tell, and the interest with which they used to listen to the tale of his rescuing the regimental flag at Fredericksburg — and the neighbors will come and look, and in many a lacerated and agonized heart the question will be asked, “why was there no mercy for him?”
To us the whole thing seems simply horrible; and badly as we think of it, doubly atrocious will have been the deed, if the reason given for this execution be the true one. The Press, which may certainly be considered the organ of the Administration here, thus accounts for the severity in this case:
The deceased exhibited great bravery at the first battle of Fredericksburg, and after several color bearers had been shot down, he seized the standard and bore it through the heat of the contest. These were noble traits, which he is yet entitled to. It is very evident that he did not intend to kill Mr. Bartlett, but society at that time, in that part of Pennsylvania, was tainted with Copperheadism, and it may be well supposed that the draft resisting, dark lantern conspirators had the effect to instil in the mind of Howe some of the poison for which their victim was hung instead of themselves.
According to this, this brave soldier was hanged because he lived in a Democratic region. The negro of the Chiltern Hills was spared because Government bankers, and Abolition lecturers and shoddy contractors there do congregate, and the township gives a Republican majority.
The patience of the people of Pennsylvania really seems inexhaustible; and all we can hope to do is to help to make up the awful record of atrocity for the long deferred, but inevitable day of retribution.
Private Stevenson enlisted on August 17, 1915 and began misbehaving almost immediately. His disciplinary record can be summarized as follows:
September 1, 1915: AWOL, six days
September 13: AWOL, one day
September 18: AWOL, four days
September 30: AWOL, five days
October 5: AWOL, one day
October 7: AWOL, one day
October 11: AWOL, seven days
October 20: Malingering
January 15, 1916: AWOL, twenty-eight days
March 17: Drunk and disorderly
April 2: Drunk and disorderly
April 24: Escaping from a hospital
May 14: AWOL, nine days
May 28: Creating a disturbance, damaging public property
May 30: Noncompliance with an order
May 31: Creating a disturbance, damaging public property
June 7: AWOL, two days
June 14: AWOL, three days
July 15: AWOL, eighteen days
August 19: AWOL, seventy-four (!) days
November 18: AWOL, one day
November 21: Insolence to an NCO
December 1: AWOL, seven days
December 18: AWOL, eighteen days
In 1917, Pte. Stevenson was shipped out to France. Somehow he managed to maintain a clean record for several months, but soon he was back to his old habits again:
August 18, 1917: Lying to an NCO and hestitating to obey an order
August 27: Losing a folding saw by neglect
October 22: Desertion; tried by the Field General Court Martial (FGCM) and sentenced to five years in prison
December 20: Drunk in camp, entering a guard tent without permission, resisting escort.
March 8, 1918: AWOL, fifty-two days.
Apprehended on April 29, Stevenson was locked up at Army headquarters and was admitted to the No. 55 Casualty Clearing Station on May 5. He was supposed to get cleaned up and then returned to headquarters the next day, but instead he flew the coop. He later claimed he had just gone out for a walk and then got afraid he’d get into trouble if he went back, so he just “loitered about” until he was arrested three days later.
At his court martial, David Stevenson pleaded for mercy, saying, “If I could get another transfer to another regiment, I could prove myself a soldier.”
But by then the Army had had quite enough of him. His brigade commander wrote, “To my mind there are no redeeming points in this case.” General Henry Horne, 1st Baron Horne, agreed.
The authors of Blindfold and Alone note that Stevenson’s case left puzzling questions: “With his bad record, Stevenson must have known he was heading for a death sentence, and yet persisted with the behavior which would inevitably lead to his execution.” Why?
Lt. Gen. Sir Aylmer Gould Hunter-Weston summed up his superiors’ take on it nicely when he said Stevenson’s conduct could “only be explained by his obvious and habitual tendency to avoid all authority.”
* Not to be confused with the present-day British historian of the First World War also named David Stevenson.
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.