One hundred fifty years ago today, a now-long-forgotten deserter from the Union Army was shot in Washington, D.C. This sad event in the then-novel American Civil War received lavish coverage in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which we reproduce below.
THE EXECUTION OF JOHNSON.
ON page 828 we illustrate the military execution of Johnson, who was shot at Washington for desertion on 13th. The culprit’s crime is clearly described in the following extract from his confession:
I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy’s lines. The way I came to leave our army was this: I was on the outposts, and after dinner, when out watering my horse, I thought I would go to the first house on the Braddock road and get a drink of milk. When I rode up to the house I saw a man and a boy. I asked the man for some milk and he said he had none, and to my inquiry as to where I could get some, he said he did not know, except I should go some distance further on. I said I thought it would be dangerous to go far, and he remarked that none of the rebels had been seen in that vicinity for some time. It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting. I thought I could ride right up to the rebel pickets and inside the enemy’s line, go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information. I never had any idea of going over to the rebels, and as it is I would rather be hung on a tree than go and join the rebel army. I don’t see what under heaven put it into my head to go away. I acted from the impulse of the moment. When the man at the house said none of the enemy had been seen lately in that vicinity I asked where it was that the five rebels I had heard of had been seen some time ago, and he said it was at the round house on the left-hand side of the road. I asked him where the road led to. He said to Centreville, and so I went that way. Riding along on the Braddock road, some miles beyond our pickets, I suddenly came across Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey regiment, with his scouting party. I thought they were the rebels, but at first was so scared that I did not know what to say. However, I asked him who they were, and he said they were the enemy. Said I to him, “I’m all right, then.” “Why so?” said he. “Because we are all friends,” said I; “I am rebel too—I want to go down to New Orleans to see my mother.” Then he asked me how our pickets were stationed. I told him two of our companies which had been out went in that day toward the camps. He asked if I thought he could capture any of them, and I told him I did not think he could. He asked why, and I replied that there were a number of mounted riflemen around. The head scout asked me what kind of arms the Lincoln men received, and at the same time said, “Let me see your pistol.” I handed him my revolver. Colonel Taylor took it, and cocking it, said to me, “Dismount, or I will blow your brains out!” I was so much frightened I thought my brains had been blown out already. 1 dismounted, delivered up my belt and sabre, while at the same time they searched my pockets, but there was nothing in them except a piece of an old New York Ledger, I believe. Then he tied my hands behind me, and sent me back to camp in charge of three men, besides another who took my horse.
He was duly tried by court-martial and found guilty. The sentence having been approved, it was ordered that it be carried into effect on 13th. The following extracts from the Herald report complete the melancholy history:
The spot chosen for the impressive scene was a spacious field near the Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from the camp ground of the division. The troops fell into line, forming three sides of a square, in the order designated in the programme, precisely at three o’clock P.M.
In the mean time the funeral procession was formed at the quarters of Captain Boyd, Provost Marshal of the Alexandria division, near the head-quarters of General Franklin. Shortly after three o’clock it reached the fatal field.
The Provost Marshal, mounted and wearing a crimson scarf across his breast, led the mournful cortege. He was immediately followed by the buglers of the regiment, four abreast, dismounted. Then came the twelve men—one from each company in the regiment, selected by ballot—who constituted the firing party. The arms—Sharp’s breech-loading rifle—had been previously loaded under the direction of the Marshal. One was loaded with a blank cartridge, according to the usual custom, so that neither of the men could positively state that the shot from his rifle killed the unfortunate man. The coffin, which was of pine wood stained, and without any inscription, came next, in a one-horse wagon. Immediately behind followed the unfortunate man, in an open wagon. About five feet six inches in height, with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other, Johnson presented a most forlorn spectacle. He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves. He was supported by Father M’Atee, who was in constant conversation with him, while Farther Willett rode behind on horseback. The rear was brought up by Company C of the Lincoln Cavalry, forming the escort.
Arriving on the ground at half past three o’clock, the musicians and the escort took a position a little to the left, while the criminal descended from the wagon. The coffin was placed on the ground, and he took his place beside it. The firing party was marched up to within six paces of the prisoner, who stood between the clergymen. The final order of execution was then read to the condemned.
While the order was being read Johnson stood with his hat on, his head a little inclined to the left, and his eyes fixed in a steady gaze on the ground. Near the close of the reading one of his spiritual attendants whispered something in his ear. Johnson had expressed a desire to say a few final words before he should leave this world to appear before his Maker. He was conducted close to the firing party, and in an almost inaudible voice spoke as follows: “Boys,—I ask forgiveness from Almighty God and from my fellow-men for what I have done. I did not know what I was doing. May God forgive me, and may the Almighty keep all of you from all such sin!”
He was then placed beside the coffin again. The troops were witnessing the whole of these proceedings with the intensest interest. Then the Marshal and the chaplains began to prepare the culprit for his death. He was too weak to stand. He sat down on the foot of the coffin. Captain Boyd then bandaged his eyes with a white handkerchief. A few minutes of painful suspense intervened while the Catholic clergymen were having their final interview with the unfortunate man. All being ready the Marshal waved his handkerchief as the signal, and the firing party discharged the volley. Johnson did not move, remaining in a sitting posture for several seconds after the rifles were discharged. Then he quivered a little, and fell over beside his coffin. He was still alive, however, and the four reserves were called to complete the work. It was found that two of the firing party, Germans, had not discharged their pieces, and they were immediately put in irons. Johnson was shot several times in the heart by the first volley. Each of the four shots fired by the reserves took effect in his head, and he died instantly. One penetrated his chin, another his left cheek, while two entered the brain just above the left eyebrow. He died at precisely a quarter to four o’clock.
The troops then all marched round, and each man looked on the bloody corpse of his late comrade, who had proved a traitor to his country.
These executions came in the aftermath of the Battle of Preston, with the Jacobite cause in full collapse. It was an affecting scene, the first of many among the Preston captives.
After [Major John Nairn] was shot, Captain Lockhart would not suffer any of the common soldiers to touch his friend’s body, but, with his own hands and the help of the other two gentlemen [about to be executed], laid Major Nairn in his coffin, and, with the greatest composure of mind, performed the last offices to his dear companion: After which, he was shot, and the other two performed the like to his body.
Then the others [John Shaftoe and John Erskine] were shot, and laid together, without a coffin, in a pit digged for that purpose. Which tragical scene being thus finished, Mr. Nairn and Mr. Lockhart were decently buried. (Source)
The “Captain Lockhart” named here was Philip Lockhart, brother to anti-unionist politician George Lockhart.* George Lockhart, years before, somehow ended up on the committee whose job it was to hammer out the terms on which that union would take place.
As a result, Lockhart’s memoirs record an inside look at the tawdry payoffs that roped Scottish elites into the union arrangement — beginning first of all with “the Equivalent”, a massive British inducement to Scottish lords who had lately gone comprehensively bust gambling on the dot-com scam of New World colonization, the Darien scheme.
the Equivalent was the mighty Bait; here was the Sum of 398,085 Pound Sterling to be remitted in Cash to Scotland (tho’ the Scots were to pay it and much more back again in a few Years, by engaging to bear a Share of the Burthens impos’d on England, and appropriated for Paymnt of England’s Debts.) … here was a swinging Bribe to buy off the Scots Members of Parliament from their Duty to their Country, as it accordingly prov’d: For to it we may chiefly ascribe, that so many of them agreed to this Union. The Hopes of recovering what they had expended on the African Company, and obtaining Payment of Debts and Arrears due to them by the Scots Government (it being articled in the Treaty, that it should be expended this Way) prevail’d upon many to overlook the general Interest of their Country.
This, however, was not the reason that Philip et al were first in line for punishment after Preston. Instead, they were in trouble because they were British officers who had deserted.
At least, that was the crown’s position. As a legal matter, it wasn’t quite that simple: the “deserters” weren’t on active duty, but rather, were half-pay officers.
This ambiguous category had been introduced as a sort of reserve system to keep idled officers available to the army, but developed into a general dumping-ground of incompetents, invalids, and retirees (half-pay could be used as an ad hoc pension) in an army still only semi-professionalized. Moreover, according to Margaret Sankey, the system
was thoroughly corrupt by 1715. Much of the half-pay list was made up of men who were unfit to be called back into active service, while many of the commissions had been sold to brokers for an immediate cash settlement … [some officers] saw half-pay as a well-deserved personal gift from Queen Anne for … service under Marlborough, and one that carried no obligations to the current monarch whatsoever ‘as no more than a gratuity and a reward for the hazards they had run and the fidelity they had shewn their late mistress.’
It was also a period of dynastic turnover: six different monarchs representing three different houses had ruled England/Great Britain in the preceding 30 years, each man or woman coming to the throne under contestable circumstances. Various gentlemen-officers had sworn various oaths to various entities and they in good faith did not necessarily consider those blanket oaths transferable to the new “British” state and to every Tom, Dick, and German elector who styled himself king of it.
These neither-fish-nor-fowl soldiers, then, presented a delicate jurisprudential question. No less a personage than the Lord High Chancellor suggested back in Privy Council that, since half-pay officers would not be eligible to sit on a court-martial jury, they must likewise not be eligible to be court-martialed.
The plurality of the government, and certainly the military, saw it otherwise.
Nevertheless, all concerned were constrained not to be entirely indiscriminate. Of six men prosecuted, the one who was able to prove that he had “thrown up” his half-pay commission walked altogether: he’d been in rebellion, but he hadn’t deserted to do it. Another defendant, who threw himself on the court’s mercy rather than trying to parse a half-reason why half-pay licensed his revolt, received that mercy. (It didn’t hurt that that one was also the child of a (loyal) duke.)
The rest of the lot was abandoned to its fate, leading the correspondent who recorded the particulars of their execution concluded to conclude,
this is a swatch of the usage people may expect that fall into some men’s clutches, from whom all good Christians and true Scotsmen should fervently pray, that God, out of his infinite goodness and mercy, would deliver every honest man!
This teenager rashly joined up at the outbreak of hostilities, fudging his age up by two years to qualify. It’s more than likely that he, and his real age, were known to the recruiters who signed him up. (He wasn’t the only child soldier in that war.)
A few months on into this less-noble-than-advertised perdition, with friends and comrades becoming burger meat all around him at the dreadful Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge,* the kid panicked and ran.
The sentence of death was often pronounced by courts-martial and not unfrequently carried out, a deserter convicted for the third time rarely escaping with his life. Many a man was shot in Hyde Park during the twenty years of peace, and no opportunity was lost to enhance the terror of the penalty, the firing party sometimes consisting solely of fellow-deserters, who were spared in consideration of the warning given by the ghastly body which their own bullets had pierced
Fortescue’s notes on this passage draw attention to the following account in the May 7, 1720 Weekly Journal.
On Thursday Morning the four Men, sentenced by a Court-Martial for Desertion, were brought hand-cuff’d to the Tilt-Yard Guard, from whence they marched with the Grenadiers at the Head of the Detachment to Hyde-Park; at the Place of Execution they were met by the Chaplain of the second Regiment of Guards, who prayed with them for a while; then three of the Prisoners, having before received the King’s Pardon, were restored to the Regiment, and ordered immediately to load their Pieces, and fire at their Comrade, which they obey’d; the Man was observed to give a little Spring after the Discharge of their Pieces, and a Corporal, who was kept, as usual, in Reserve, shot him through the Head; the other three Shot were lodged in his Breast. This is the third Time of his deserting.
If one proceeds from the premise of the British brass that the main problem with its military ineffectiveness was the men in the field, there was something in the cruelly “progressive” about the order: luckless enlisted fellows from the lower classes were smoking last cigarettes by the bushel, but gentry-stock officers were more liable to get the kid-gloves treatment .
Haig was taking the kid gloves off.
“A soldier’s tale cut in stone to melt all hearts,” said Winston Churchill of this pathbreaking novel thought to be based on Edwin Dyett. The first novel about executed World War I deserters, it is thought to have influenced later portrayals of such executions and the sub-heroic literary context for the Great War.
Within two months of that order, our man Dyett was up against the stake at St. Firmin, France — perhaps the most famous shooting among the officer corps.
Perhaps presuming upon the traditional leniency extended to the better classes, Dyett had little inkling of his fate during the weeks after his arrest. He’d been collared during the aforementioned Somme campaign for “deserting” for two days when he’d taken umbrage at being directed to the front by an inferior officer and instead returned to headquarters for orders.
As late as Christmas Eve, he was still keeping his parents in the dark, certain that the misunderstanding was not enough to even “cause a sitting.”
That sitting, however, occurred forthwith on Boxing Day, with only a half-hour for the defense to prepare. That defense was less than robust, and the court clearly disinclined to a sympathetic reading of the circumstances.
Dyett had only just turned 21, but clemency appeals around youth and the confusion of the situation would cut no ice. “”If a private behaved as he did,” wrote the officer charged to review it, “it is highly likely he would be shot.”
Lt. Dyett had only a single evening from hearing the bad news to prepare himself for what must have seemed to him a shocking turn of events. This time, he posted a different sort of missive to the home front.
Dearest Mother Mine, I hope by now you will have had the news. Dearest, I am leaving you now because He has willed it. My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and dad. Please excuse any mistakes, but if it were not for the kind support of the Rev. W.C. — who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself. I should like you to write to him, as he has been my friend. I am leaving all my effects to you, dearest; will you give a little — half the sum you have of mine? Give dear Dad my love and wish him luck. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all. Give — my love. She will, I expect, understand – and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl. So now dearest Mother, I must close. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore. Amen.
Dad didn’t take it with the stiff upper lip; after a futile campaign to clear the boy, he renounced his citizenship and emigrated to America.
On this date in 1916, 19-year-old Durham Private William Nelson was shot for desertion by the British military.
The Pity of It
by Thomas Hardy
I walked in loamy Wessex lanes, afar
From rail-track and from highway, and I heard
In field and farmstead many an ancient word
Of local lineage like “Thu bist,” “Er war,”
“Ich woll,” “Er sholl,” and by-talk similar,
Nigh as they speak who in this month’s moon gird
At England’s very loins, thereunto spurred
By gangs whose glory threats and slaughters are.
Then seemed a Heart crying: “Whosoever they be
At root and bottom of this, who flung this flame
Between folk kin tongued even as are we,
“Sinister, ugly, lurid, be their fame;
May their familiars grow to shun their name,
And their brood perish everlastingly.”
According to the archive capture of the lamentably defunct Shot at Dawn site — which campaigned (successfully) for clearing the names of World War I soldiers who had been executed for military failings like desertion or cowardice — Nelson gave a pitiable account of his situation. It was less the horror of trench warfare and mustard gas than desperation on his own home front that undid Nelson’s “nerves”.
“I have had a lot of trouble at home, and my nerves are badly upset. My father is a prisoner in Germany and is losing his eyesight there through bad treatment. My mother died while I was still in England, leaving my sister aged 13 and my brother aged 10. I am the only one left. I had to leave them in charge of a neighbour. I had no intention of deserting. I did not realise what I was doing when I left the camp. When I did so I went and gave myself up. When I went to the store my object was to get a night’s sleep and then go and surrender in the morning. I thought it was too late to do so that night. I did not know when the battalion was coming out of the trenches.”
by Thomas Hardy
If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”
Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
–Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.
That 13-year-old sister whom Nelson worried over long suffered her brother’s senseless death. In 2004, that woman’s daughter (Billy Nelson’s niece), Nora High, told the Guardian:
Every Armistice Day, my mother shed buckets of tears. We’ve got Billy’s Bible, I got that when mother died. She used to lay that out on a piece of blue satin cloth, and she would cry. She always said: ‘I won’t cry any more because that only upsets Billy. He doesn’t want me to cry. Everything’s fine for him now.’
In Time of “The Breaking of Nations”*
by Thomas Hardy
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War’s annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.
I saw a site today that made me feel mity Bad I saw a man shot for deserting there was twenty fore Guns shot at him thay shot him all to pease … he went home and thay Brote him Back and then he went home again and so they shot him for that Martha it was one site that I did hate to see it But I could not helpe my self I had to do Jest as thay sed for me to doo.
As Wiley points out, our letter-writer Private Warrick was himself planning to do just that.
Bragg’s little salutary bloodbath evidently had its effect, because he didn’t go AWOL. Wiley quotes Warrick, now in a more Joe Friday mode than when he had promised to “come home Eny how”, writing his parents in 1864,
I would be glad to see you all now but I recon that I have bin home my last time till this war closes.
At 9:30 a.m. this day, as the American army raised the Stars & Stripes over Chapultepec Castle during the Mexican-American War, it simultaneously carried out a mass hanging of 30 Irish deserters who had gone over to Santa Anna — the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, or the San Patricios.
Irish had been migrating to the United States en masse even well before the Great Famine got rolling in 1845.
And for those of that great migration wave who wound up in the service fighting the Mexican-American War, there was a hint of deja vu — an Anglo and Protestant imperial power seizing land from a “black”* and Catholic neighbor?
Some of the Irish decided they were fighting for the bad guys, and switched sides.**
These were the plurality (though not necessarily the majority) of the couple hundred soldiers who comprised the Saint Patrick’s Battalion. German immigrants and other nationalities, along with American-born deserters (desertion during the Mexican-American War seems to have been rife), made up the balance.
Knowing full well the fate that would await them upon capture, the San Patricios were renowned for their ferocity in battle; at the hopeless Battle of Churubusco, they reputedly forced down a white flag that Mexican comrades were trying to hoist on three separate occasions.
Eventually, the ammunition ran out, and with it, the San Patricios’ luck.
Within days, courts-martial began handing out death sentences to almost the whole of the surviving unit. U.S. General Winfield Scott subsequently reduced a number of sentences, and those who had deserted before the war couldn’t legally be executed … but even the “lucky” ones suffered faint-inducing scourgings and branding on the cheeks with the letter “D”.
And 50 men more were still bound for the gallows.
Twenty hung in the days prior to this at two separate sites, but the Yanks’ piece de resistance was an orchestrated scene on the second day of the Battle of Chapultepec.
On September 13, 1847, at dawn, Harney ordered the thirty remaining prisoners to be brought forward. They stood on wagons with nooses placed around their necks. This included one man who had lost both legs and was unable to walk to his own execution. The site of these executions was within viewing distance of the site where the final battle — the outcome of which could not have been in doubt — was to be fought. There the sentenced soldiers watched until finally, at 9:30, the US victors raised the American flag atop Chapultepec Castle.† At that point the order was given, the wagons were pulled away and the men were all hanged.
It must be remembered that the San Patricios had been standing, bound hand and foot, each with his head in a noose, for nearly four hours in the burning Mexican sun. When Harney finally gave the order for the hangings to proceed, such was the relief that their sufferings were finally at an end that “some of the men actually cheered as the nooses tightened and the wagons pulled away.”
The cruelty of the punishments led a Mexican paper to spit,
these are the men that call us barbarians and tell us that they have come to civilize us … May they be damned by all Christians, as they are by God.
They brand with hot irons the faces of the Irish deserters and then hang them from the gallows. The Saint Patrick Irish Battalion arrived with the invaders, but fought alongside the invaded.
From the north to Molino del Rey, the Irish made theirs the fate, ill fate, of the Mexicans. Many died defending the Churubusco monastery without ammunition. The prisoners, their faces burned, rock to and fro on the gallows. -Eduardo Galeano, Masks and Faces
* The “blackness” of the Irish and the process of their “becoming white” later in the 19th and 20th centuries is one of the more illustrative and well-documented case studies of race and racism as social rather than biological constructs.
** They weren’t alone in this opinion. Many hundreds of miles from the fighting, Henry David Thoreau famously landed in jail for tax resistance in 1846 largely because of his disgust with the war. From Civil Disobedience:
The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.
† The capture of Chapultepec Castle, forgotten north of the Rio Grande, is still commemorated in Mexico for the heroism of six teenage cadets who died in its defense. The last of their number, Juan Escutia, leapt from the castle walls wrapped in the Mexican standard to prevent its capture.
General de Maud’huy had just been roused from sleep on the straw of a shed and was standing in the street when a little group of unmistakable purport came round the corner. Twelve soldiers and an NCO, a firing party, a couple of gendarmes, and between them an unarmed soldier. My heart sank and a feeling of horror overcame me. General de Maud’huy gave a look, then held up his hand so that the party halted, and with his characteristic quick step went up to the doomed man.
He asked what he had been condemned for. It was for abandoning his post. The General then began to talk to the man. Quite simply, he explained discipline to him. Abandoning your post was letting down your pals, more it was letting down your country that looked to you to defend her. He spoke of the necessity of example, how some could do their duty without prompting but others, less strong, had to know and understand the supreme cost of failure. He told the condemned man that his crime was not venial, not low, and that he must die as an example, so that others should not fail. Surprisingly, the wretch agreed, nodding his head. He saw a glimmer of something, redemption in his own eyes, a real hope, though he knew he was about to die. Maud’huy went on, carrying the man with him to comprehension that any sacrifice was worthwhile while it helped France ever so little. What did anything matter if he knew this? Finally, de Maud’huy held out his hand: ‘Yours also is a way of dying for France,’ he said.
The procession started again, but now the victim was a willing one. The sound of a volley in the distance announced that all was over. The general wiped the beads of perspiration from his brow, and for the first time perhaps his hand trembled as he lit his pipe.
On January 31, 1945, Private Edward Donald “Eddie” Slovik became a curious outlier of World War II: he was executed by firing squad by the U.S. Army for desertion. He is the only person to have been so punished for that crime since the Civil War.
Pvt Slovik was, by all accounts, quiet and helpful, by no means a coward, and more than willing to aid in the effort of World War II, traits which would have put him among a large class of that war’s veterans. Unfortunately, he was also immobilized by shelling. Equally unfortunately, he knew it, and he decided to do something about it.
Slovik and a friend, Pvt John F. Tankey, first separated from their detachment under artillery fire in late August 1944, shortly after being shipped to France. The pair hooked up with a Canadian unit and spent six weeks pitching in. Having recused themselves from the hard shelling others were experiencing on the front line, they opted to rejoin their regular U.S. unit: Slovik and Tankey sent a letter to their commanding officer explaining their absence and returned on Oct. 7.
But the front lines were not a place for Pvt Slovik.
After his assignment to the rifle unit, which would face imminent danger during shelling, Slovik asked to be placed in the rear guard, indicating he was too scared to remain in front. His request was refused. He then reportedly asked whether leaving the unit again would be considered desertion, was told it would be, and opted for the seemingly safer route of, well, deserting. One day later, Slovik was back at a U.S. camp, this time turning himself in to the camp cook. He had drafted a letter explaining his actions and indicating that he knowingly deserted, permanently recording his guilt on paper.
It’s not clear whether Pvt Slovik was acting on principles or out of an understanding of the U.S. military judicial system. He was by no means the only soldier without affinity for the conditions of war, particularly on the allied side. During the war, thousands of soldiers were tried and convicted in military courts for desertion, but up to then, all had received only time in the brig. What is clear is that Slovik was repeatedly offered opportunities to return to the line, and he equally repeatedly refused.
The case was adjudicated on Nov 11 by nine staff officers of the 28th Division, none of whom had yet been in battle. One of those judges, Benedict B. Kimmelman, wrote a stark and intriguing account of his role in the story of Pvt Slovik, capturing the scene thusly:
Five witnesses were heard. The cross-examinations were perfunctory. The defense made no closing argument. The court recessed for ten minutes, resumed, and retired almost immediately afterward. Three ballots were taken in closed court, the verdicts unanimously guilty on all counts. In open court once more, the president announced the verdict and the sentence: to be dishonorably discharged, to forfeit all pay and allowances due, and to be shot to death with musketry. The trial had begun at 10:00 A.M.; it was over at 11:40 A.M.
As with all court martial cases, Slovik’s was sent to a judge advocate for review. His criminal record, including everything from destruction of property to public intoxication to embezzlement, did not endear him to the reviewer. More importantly, though, the advocate felt Slovik could be made an example:
He has directly challenged the authority of the government, and future discipline depends upon a resolute reply to this challenge. If the death penalty is ever to be imposed for desertion, it should be imposed in this case, not as a punitive measure nor as retribution, but to maintain that discipline upon which alone an army can succeed against the enemy.
Strangely, Pvt Slovik was the only person who would be exemplified this way.
Though the military tried 21,000 desertion cases and passed down 49 death sentences for desertion during the war, it carried out only Slovik’s. And in the war’s final battles, with Germany collapsing, his execution seemed like a surreal throwback. As Kimmelman notes, hundreds if not thousands of soldiers were strictly guilty of dereliction of duty and desertion in the waning days of 1944.
They’re not shooting me for deserting the United Stated Army — thousands of guys have done that. They’re shooting me for bread I stole when I was 12 years old. (Source)
Three weeks after his conviction and three weeks before the Battle of the Bulge, Slovik’s execution order was confirmed by the 28th Division’s commander, Major General Norman “Dutch” Cota. Cota was disturbed by Slovik’s forthrightness in confessing to the desertion, and, as a front line commander who had sustained severe casualty rates in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, had no sympathy for the crime.
After an appeal to the deaf ears of Dwight Eisenhower shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, Slovik was out of options. He was taken to the courtyard of an estate near the village of Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and shot by 11 Army marksmen* at 10 a.m. By 10:04, as they were reloading, he was declared dead. His body was interred at a French cemetery, and after decades of lobbying the U.S. government, his remains were returned to Michigan in 1987.
Because he was dishonorably discharged, Slovik was not entitled to a pension, and his wife, Antoinette, stopped receiving payments. Curiously, though the Army managed to communicate this to her, they omitted the bit about the execution. She found out in 1953 from William Bradford Huie.
Huie was a journalist who took immediate interest in Slovik’s story, popularizing it with his book The Execution of Private Slovik, which was released in 1954. Twenty years later, the book and title were requisitioned for a well-received TV movie starring Martin Sheen and funded by Frank Sinatra.
* The firing squad included 12 marksmen, but one was given a blank. Despite their skill, the 11 remaining shooters did not manage to kill him instantaneously.