Posts filed under 'Desertion'

1812: John Rickey but not Benjamin Jackson

Add comment December 11th, 2015 Headsman

The New York Evening Post published this item excerpted from the Philadelphia Democratic Press on Thursday, December 17, 1812.

On Friday, a large concourse of people assembled at Fort Mifflin, to witness the execution of John Rickey and Benjamin Jackson, soldiers of the 16th Regt. U.S. Infantry, sentenced to be shot for desertion, the former having deserted three times, the latter once.

They were conducted to the fatal spot at 1 o’clock, attended by about 600 soldiers of the 2d Artillery and 16th infantry. Rickey’s sentence having been carried into effect, Jackson was pardoned by the commanding officer.

We trust the execution of Rickey, and the exercise of mercy to Jackson, will operate as a warning to the deserters in and about this city. It is stated upon good authority, that every reasonable indulgence will be extended to such deserters as may deliver themselves up voluntarily, but those who are taken cannot expect to be shielded from the penalty of the law.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Last Minute Reprieve,Military Crimes,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1918: Private Harry James Knight, deserter

Add comment October 6th, 2015 Headsman

“Owing to the state of my nerves, I find that I cannot carry on as I should. I’ve tried my best all through but four years has been a little too much.”

-British Private Harry James Knight of the The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment 1st Battalion — shot as a deserter on October 6, 1918, five weeks before the armistice.

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.

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1915: Peter Sands, home leave

Add comment September 15th, 2015 Headsman

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.

* The report of the Times from Aubers Ridge — headlined “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France” — precipitated the “Shell Crisis of 1915″.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,History,Ireland,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1807: Jenkin Ratford, Chesapeake-Leopard affair casualty

Add comment August 31st, 2015 Headsman

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

Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves
Britons never will be slaves.

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.


(cc) image by David King.

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.

* See what I did there.

** Halifax the city is where they were tried; the HMS Halifax, which was Ratford’s ship prior to desertion, is where Ratford was executed. It’s Halifaxes all the way down.

Thanks to this incident, the very name “USS Chesapeake” became so blackened in American naval history that it has barely been touched for any vessel since.

‡ Father of the DuPont who founded the DuPont chemical company and made that family perpetual American plutocrats down to the present day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,At Sea,Canada,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA

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1864: William Howe, deserter

3 comments August 26th, 2015 Headsman

From the Philadelphia Daily Age, Aug. 30, 1864.


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?”

The Fishing Creek Confederacy details Civil War draft resistance in a different Democratic region of Pennsylvania.

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,Hanged,History,Military Crimes,Pennsylvania,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1918: Private David Stevenson, repeat deserter

Add comment July 13th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this dayJuly 18 in 1918, in Bully-Grenay in war-torn France, Private David Stevenson* of the Lowland Field Artillery was shot by the British Army for desertion and insubordination. “His record,” notes Cathryn Corns and John Hughes-Wilson in their book Blindfold and Alone: British Military Executions in the Great War, “is one of the longest amongst all surviving records of courts martial.”

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.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,England,Execution,France,Guest Writers,Military Crimes,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1864: Thomas Dawson, manhood sealed

1 comment April 25th, 2015 Robert Elder

(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.”

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1815: Six militiamen, Andrew Jackson’s electoral dirty laundry

Add comment February 21st, 2015 Headsman

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.

-James K. Polk

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.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Language,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1813: W. Clements, War of 1812 deserter

Add comment February 18th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for discovering the original June 1813 broadsheet we reprint here.)

LINES

COMPOSED ON THE EXECUTION OF

W. CLEMENT’S: [maddening sic]

Who was SHOT for Desertion, on Fort Independence, Feb. 18
having been four times Pardoned, but having last Deserted his Post, was condemned to die.

The thoughts of death to every mind,
Most sad reflection’s [sic] brings;
But when man’s life is seek’d for crimes,
Then conscience gives its stings.

No cheering hope attends the soul,
Which with black guilt is stain’d;
The waves of trouble o’er it roll,
And seldom peace is gain’d,

Alas! that man should treasure woe,
And bring upon his head,
The curse of heaven, the curse of man.
To strike his comforts dead.

Ah! how the bosom of a wife,
Must throb with anxious care,
When once the object of her love,
Is caught in guilt’s dire snare.

His children raise their little hands,
Compassion to implore;
But oh! the father whom they love
Shall never see them more.

Condemn’d for crimes his life to pay,
The fatal hour draws nigh;
Stern justice heard no widow’s moans,
Nor heeds the orphan’s cry.

His comrads [sic] silent stand around,
And heave the mournful sigh,
Their bosoms heave with mingled grief,
No eye from tears is dry.

And now the solemn dirge begins,
They march towards the spot
Where he receives his crimes reward,
And meets his dreadful lot.

For him, perhaps a mother sighs,
And hopes relief to come;
He’ll never bless her longing eyes,
But hear the muffled drum.

And now the holy man of God,
To Heaven addresses prayer
And bids the poor unhappy man,
For his sad doom prepare.

And now the solemn drum rebounds.
His last funereal hymn,
Again the trumpet slowly sounds,
Each eye with grief is dim.

Advancing to the fatal spot,
Still sadder flows the strain;
Ah! now the dreaded scene is o’er,
The corps returns again.

See, see him welt’ring in his blood,
His spirit now has fled,
His life has paid the fatal debt,
He’s number’d with the dead.

Learn, then, ye who for Freedom fight,
To stand firm by your post,
To vindicate your country’s Right,
Nor let your fame be lost.

O! let poor CLEMENT’S [sic] awful fate,
A warning be to all,
Remember he who duty slights,
Will meet a dreadful fall.

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1865: Henry Regley and Charles King, General Sheridan’s deserters

Add comment January 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, two Union soldiers were shot as spies at Winchester, Virginia.

Union General Philip Sheridan and his famed Napoleon complex* were wintering in Winchester, Va. where he had recently clinched northern control of the Shenandoah Valley, and put its fertile farmlands to the torch to cripple the rebel army.

Sheridan, who had in the course of that campaign made his lasting fame by rallying his troops after an initially devastating Confederate surprise attack, was highly concerned at the prospect of rebel spies and infiltrators.

Our two poor fellows, Henry Regley and Charles King, were actually nothing of the sort — just bounty jumpers who donned the blue uniform to collect a cash reward for joining up, and then deserted at the first opportunity. Given the state’s primitive tools in the 1860s for monitoring individual citizens or verifying identity, many bounty jumpers simply repeated the enlistment-desertion cycle several times.

Being shot as a deserter was one of the occupational hazards — a small one, but a real one. But being shot as a spy? Well, General Sheridan was on the lookout.

These deserters on their way out of camp happened to bump into a patrol of “Confederates”: actually a Union detail Sheridan had uniformed like the enemy for sneaky reconnaissance. What ensued next was your basic comedy of mistaken identity … with a double execution at the end.

The following is a newspaper dispatch filed a few day later by one of their fellow soldiers writing under the pen name “Manatom” for the Newark Daily Advertiser; it comes from New Jersey Butterfly Boys in the Civil War: The Hussars of the Union Army

Henry Recli [sic] of Co. L and Christian A. Gross, alias Charles King of the same Company, a German by birth, left the regiment while at the present camp. A party of scouts led by Major [Young] of Gen. Sheridan’s staff, at their head, dressed in rebel uniforms met these men up the valley, a number of miles outside the picket lines. As they conversed with them, the deserters supposing them to be genuine rebels, gave them the contraband information, and stated that they had been trying to desert for some time. They assented to a proposal to exchange clothing, and then were arrested.

I am informed by Chaplain John L. Frazee, whose trying duty it was to be with the condemned during their last hours, that both persisted in their innocence to the last. When told by the Provost Marshall Lee, that they were to die at noon, they said they knew that the night before, when they were in Winchester, at which place Gross, who had always signed his name as Charles King, wrote a letter to friends in Philadelphia, signed Christian A. Gross, in which he expressed his doubts of the carrying out of the sentence. The chaplain believes this idea deceived them until the last moment, although they yielded a sort of mechanical compliance with the solemn services held with them in private, and kneeled in prayer before being taken from prison.


Private Friederich Jaeckel’s drawing in his diary of the two deserters, again via New Jersey Butterfly Boys. Though that book’s caption places this on January 6, 1864, context suggests this must in fact be our 1865 incident; there is no indication I can find of an executed pair in the army dating to exactly one year before.

The details of the execution of this kind are terribly formal and impressive. Fully three thousand cavalrymen were drawn upon three sides of a square upon a gentle slope a little way from headquarters. Each regimental and brigade staff was with its organization and centrally stationed was Gen. Custer and his staff and body guard. When the Division was arranged, Provost Marshall Lee gave orders that the condemned should be brought forth, and thoroughly unused as I was to seeing death in that shape, the memories clustering about that slow moving group, seem as if burned in my brain.

The Provost Marshall, preceded by the band, with a small body guard, led — then the firing party, made up of twelve picked men from our own regiment. A large open wagon, drawn by four white horses, came next — in which there were two coffins, upon each of which sat a doomed man riding backwards, with feet ironed and hands tied behind. Each had a long white scarf about the head. Besides these rode the Chaplain and a proper guard dismounted closed the rear.

The fine brigade band, which had marched in silence until near the Division, when the first side of the square was reached, began playing a Dead March, and thus did this little group march slowly around inside the whole army, and at last halt at an open grave — dug in the center.

The men were now lifted from the wagon, the Coffins duly placed, and the men seated as before facing the whole Division. Marshall Lee then, from his horse, read the order and warrant … brief religious services were held, the Chaplain reading a portion of the burial service, and offering prayer for the condemned. Neither had anything to say, and the Chaplain retired a few paces. The faces of the men were then covered, and the firing party quickly drawn up in line with pieces previously carefully loaded and placed in their hands. One of the twelve had, by a merciful regulation in the Articles of War, a blank cartridge, and each comrade had the hope that he should send no fatal ball.

More rapidly than I can trace this account was the preparation done. Ten paces off stood the line — each man sternly appreciative of his fearful duty.

“Attention” Ready! Aim! Fire! The report was almost as if one carbine had responded. Two bodies fallen backwards and dead were all that remained of Recli and Gross. The surgeon in a few moments pronounced life extinct; and the scene closed by marching the whole body of troops past their Coffins, lying as they fell — this most solemn warning one can imagine to the soldier — to be faithful to himself, his oath and his Country. MANATOM

* Abraham Lincoln’s hilarious description of the 1.65-meter (5′ 5″) “Little Phil”: “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”


General Sheridan

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Desertion,Espionage,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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