Back in December of 1773, a year before our action, American patriots had escalated the colonies’ running tax dispute with the mother country by dumping 45 tons of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor.
Over the ensuing twelvemonth, London and the colonies escalated unpleasantries to the point where King George III remarked that “The die is now cast. The colonies must either submit or triumph.”
The immediate British response to the Boston Tea Party, and the reason that William Ferguson and His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot made their obnoxious camp on Boston Common, was that Parliament responded to the Tea Party with a series of punitive enactments directed at the colonies in general and Boston in particular: the Coercive Acts. (Or “Intolerable Acts”, as called by the colonists.)
Gage’s first order of business was to garrison truculent Boston (already occupied since 1768) with enough soldiery to enforce Parliament’s will. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1774, British troops arriving from elsewhere in the colonies — or from Canada (as with the 10th) — or mustered in Great Britain — poured into Boston. By the end of 1774, eleven regiments made camp on the Common. “Boston,” Gage wrote to the Secretary of War, “will keep quiet as long as the troops are there.”
But to dominate Boston was not to bring the colonies to heel.
General Gage soon realized that he had a tricky assignment: even while implementing laws designed specifically to antagonize Massachusetts, he simultaneously had to try to pre-empt the gestating American Revolution. Egregiously underestimating the vigor of colonial resistance and the resources required to quell it, London brushed off Gage’s entreaties for thousands of additional troops while counterproductively pressuring him to take more confrontational action against disloyal colonists.
Gage’s attempt to reconcile all these contradictory demands was to use his regiments in Boston in a series of targeted sorties into the Massachusetts countryside, in an effort to deprive colonial militias (and, now, a rebel shadow government that held sway outside of Boston) of the arms they would need in the event of open rebellion. Gage hoped he could pick off tactical objectives one by one, and ideally do so without firing any shots that might further inflame a tense situation. Some of his own subalterns sneeringly nicknamed him the “Old Woman” for insufficient bellicosity.
Gage’s plan was probably always doomed to failure. Massachusetts militiamen had already demonstrated a considerable propensity to redcoat inflammation; some one of these expeditions was bound sooner or later to send musket balls flying.
In April of 1775, that’s exactly what happened: a column of British soldiers, some from the 10th Regiment, marched out to seize a militia arms depot in the town of Concord. About sunrise of April 19, 1775 that column entered the village of Lexington on the approach to Concord and there exchanged with a colonial militia the first shots of the American Revolution.
The only British casualty of the “shot heard round the world” was a minor leg wound suffered by a private of the 10th named Johnson. (The subsequent Battle of Concord was a different story.)
Present for Lexington and Concord and presumably also in attendance at William Ferguson’s execution by musketry was yet another brother Tenther: Ensign Jeremy Lister. Lister’s diary of events is one of our firsthand accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
HEAD QUARTERS, FALLS OF NIAGARA
OCTOBER 28TH 1814.
At a General Court Martial, held at Stamford, on the 25th instant, and continued by adjournment to the 28th of the same month, Private John McMillan, of the 2nd regiment of Lincoln Militia, was arraigned on the following charges, viz.: —
1st. For having deserted to the Enemy, with his Arms and Accoutrements, when on Duty, on or about the 6th of Octoer, 1813.
2nd. For having been taken bearing Arms in the Service of the Enemy on or about the 17th of September last.
And “The Court, after duly considering the Evidence for the Prosecution and on behalf of the Prisoner, were clearly of the opinion that he is guilty of both charges, and therefore Sentence him to suffer Death, at such place and time as His Honor the President may be pleased to direct.”
His Honor the President approves the finding and Sentence of the Court, and directs that the same be carried into Execution at Bridgewater [Niagara Falls] on Monday morning next, the 31st instant, at 11 o’clock
As a Communist himself — Laiho had been imprisoned in the 1930s for his labor agitation — Laiho inclined better to the cause of the other side, and fled to the woodlands near Turku where he gathered intelligence to pass to the Soviets and aided other war deserters. He spent the best part of two years winding towards his date with a military police firing detail after being arrested in December 1942.
While Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944, a trio of Soviet paratroopers caught behind Finnish lines were shot as spies on September 3, 1944. Those three men are the last ever put to death in Finland.
Laiho doesn’t technically have the distinction of being the last in all of Finnish history, but he’s the one remembered as the milestone moreso than the Russian paratroopers. Laiho is the last one of the Finns’ own, the last who emerges as an individual with a fate that speaks to the fate of his countrymen in those times. “Through Olavi Laiho, we empathize with the with the story of the first half of the 20th century,” this dissertation put it.
One hundred fifty years ago today, Barney Gibbons was executed by musketry by the Civil War Union army in St. Louis, Missouri.
Gibbons was among the many soldiers in that chaotic war who in the time before identity cards and omnipresent databases deserted the respective armies at their convenience. Whatever the fulminations of the right-thinking against such behavior, only a slight risk of capture and exemplary punishment attended such an act.
Gibbons’ own slip into the statistically improbable might be the slightest imaginable risk of them all.
The New York native was enlisted in the Seventh Infantry Regiment when it was sent at the outset of hostilities to the New Mexico theater of the war; there he slipped away from the march one day and re-enlisted in the Confederate army, serving against his former comrades in several battles — notably Glorieta Pass.
Then Gibbons deserted the Confederate army as well, turned up as a teamster in New Orleans, and eventually made his way to St. Louis.
And that was that, or at least it often would have been. By 1864, who could bother to search out an obscure private fallen off the march three years before?
One summer’s day in 1864, however, a former 7th Infantry sergeant named Richard Day chanced to pass Barney Gibbons on the street and somehow recognized him. “He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking,” Day would later insist at the court-martial. “Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.”
Now, despite the certitude of our verbiage so far, the fact of the matter is that “Gibbons” denied all this all the way to the stake — and there were no better forensics on offer than Day’s personal recollection. That was pretty much state of the art, even if we now know that eyewitnesses are highly error-prone.
We pick up Gibbons’s horrifying last moments (following Catholic baptism) via the New York Times correspondent, as reprinted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer on August 23, 1864:
Although there is not at the post of St. Louis an officer who ever witnessed an execution, the preliminaries were conducted in a skillful, orderly and decent manner. — All the troops of the post were in attendance, and a hollow square having been formed with one side open toward the embankment of the for, the condemned man was placed beside a post, with a seat attached, his common pine coffin lying on the ground beside him. After making a brief statement, in which he denied having deserted, but said that he straggled and was overtaken by the rebels, he pronounced his sentence most unjust …
He was seated, and his arms tied behind the post, a white cap was drawn over his face, and six musketeers drawn up within fifteen feet of his breast. The command was given:
“Fire” and two bullets entered the abdomen. And now succeeded a few seconds in which transpired a scene which shook the stoutest heart, and made every human creature present shudder. From beneath the ghastly cap came a wail of agony which pierced every ear, and as the utterance “Oh! oh! too low,” escaped from the lips of the quivering form writhing in the throes of a horrible death, every one seemed paralyzed with horror. With a quick motion the officer of the squad waved the six muskets aside and four others took their place. “Make ready.” “Aim” — but mercifully before the third command was given, the four pieces were discharged, three leaden messengers of death entering the sternum, and a mighty convulsive shudder ended the being of the poor deserter. What an eternity of woe in those intervening few seconds! What a crowding of events from infancy, hallowed by a mother’s love and prayers to the dreadful details of the present scene! Yet, all passed before the mind’s eye of the dying man, and the wonderful palimpsest of his brain touched by the consciousness of instant death, gave him to see in a second all that had been for years forgotten, ere he entered upon the unknown.
The error in firing arose from the fact, discovered too late for remedy, that the sights of the muskets were set for long range.
There’s a noticeable discrepancy here in that the execution order (the first document) references, and names, two people sentenced to die — but the ensuing garrison orders consistently refer to “the prisoner” in the singular. I have not been able to clarify this discrepancy, and it’s worth noting that the Espy file of historic U.S. executions — which is incomplete, but nevertheless pretty complete — does not note an execution on or around this date. It’s possible that either or both of the men were pardoned; there had been an amnesty proclaimed in June for (successful) deserters who were still on the lam, and although that wouldn’t have directly covered these cases, it might have signaled a corresponding leniency liable to extend within the courts-martial system.
Headquarters 3d Military District,
N. Y., July 7th, 1814.
Capt. Moses Swett or officer commanding troops on Governor’s Island.
Sir :–The general court martial which convened on Governor’s Island on the 23d ult., of which Col. D. Brearly,* of the 15th Inft. is president, having sentenced John Reid and Roger Wilson, privates in the corps of artillery, to be shot to death — By power in me vested you are hereby directed to have the sentence carried into execution on the day and at the hour prescribed in the general order of the 3d inst., for which this shall be your warrant. I am, sir, your obedient servant,
The troops on Governor’s Island will parade tomorrow morning at 11:30 o’clock on the Grand Parade, for the purpose of witnessing the execution of the prisoner [singular — sic?] sentenced by a general order of the 3d inst. to be shot to death.
The troops will form three sides of a square, the artillery will form the right and left flank, the Infantry the rear; the execution parties, consisting of a sergeant and twelve privates, will parade at 11:30 o’clock and placed under the command of Lieut. Forbes, Provost Marshal; the guards of the advanced posts will have their sentries at their respective posts, and will repair to the parade at 11:30, those under charge of the Provost Marshal will join the execution party, for the purpose of escorting the prisoner to the place of execution.
The execution parties, in divisions preceded by the music with the Provost Marshal at their head, will march in front of the prisoner, the music playing the dead march; the guards formed in divisions will march in rear of the prisoner.
The procession will enter the square from the rear, face ten paces from the coffin placed in the center, upon which the prisoner kneels by a signal from the Provost Marshal. The music ceases, the warrant and sentence of death is read, the signal to fire is then given to the execution parties. By order of
The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses.
We’re not sure how well these eight got paid off in life … only that they collected their last check in lead.
Nathaniel Chester, age unknown, a member of the Corp of Artillery.
Benjamin Harris, 38, a private in the 44th Regiment. Born in Virginia and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he enlisted on March 26, 1814 and deserted on July 1.
John Jones, 33, a private in the 2nd Rifle Regiment. He’d enlisted for a five-year stint on July 25, 1814 in Farquier, Virginia. The date he deserted has not been recorded.
Jacob King, 20, a private in the 1st U.S. Artillery. He was born in Pennsylvania and enlisted on March 28, 1814 for five years. He deserted on July 12.
James McBride, 21, a native of Virginia. Records about his military service are unclear: some reports are that he enlisted on April 20, 1813, and other accounts give the date as July 22, 1814. It’s possible he deserted twice; this was a common practice, as noted above.
William Myers, 19, a private from Georgia. He enlisted on March 27, 1814; it’s unknown when he deserted.
Drury Puckett, 36, a member of the 2nd Infantry. (Almost certainly the son and namesake of this Drury Puckett.) Like Harris and McBride, he was from Virginia and he had enlisted there for five years on September 24, 1814. The record says he deserted on December 31, but this is surely in error, because by then he had already been sentenced to die.
John Young, age unknown, from Winchester, Virginia. He enlisted on October 3, 1814 and deserted after a mere five days.
General (and future President) Andrew Jackson affirmed their sentences on January 28, pardoning five others at the same time. This was twenty days after Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans, the final major conflict in the war. This day’s event was the largest mass execution in Tennessee history.
On November 7, 1918, mere days before the end of World War I, British privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson were shot for desertion and cowardice. Jackson, of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Harris, of the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, were the last British soldiers shot for military offenses in the First World War.
Jackson had been conscripted into the military in July 1916 and sent to France in November. He first ran into trouble in April 1917, when he went AWOL for 28 hours and was sentenced to two years in prison. In most cases the sentence would have been suspended, but for some reason that didn’t happen with Jackson and he spent sixteen months behind bars before he was released and returned to his battalion in August 1918.
A little over a month later, on September 29, he disappeared from his battalion transport lines near Flesquières, where he’d been sick and waiting to be sent to the field ambulance.
Arrested on October 3, Jackson got sent back to the to the 24th Battalion, which was then at Noyelles, 3,000 yards from the front lines. By mid-afternoon he had dropped out of sight again, but was arrested by the military police the next day at Douellens. On October 8, Jackson’s NCO found his arms and equipment in a shelter not far from where he’d gone missing.
Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on three charges:
Going AWOL on September 29
Deserting on October 4
“Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on October 4
When asked to explain himself before the tribunal, Jackson said, “I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving. I wanted to get away from everything … I have been looked down on by everyone and that is the cause of my being here today.” He added that both his parents had died in insane asylums and he himself suffered from “mental problems caused by worries.”
The FGCM would have none of it and sentenced Jackson to death. He was shot at St. Python in northern France at 6:10 a.m. He was 32 years old.
Nineteen minutes later and 25 kilometers away, at Locquignol, Private Louis Harris faced the firing squad.
Harris had volunteered for the Army in 1915, but was discharged as unfit. He got conscripted in 1916, however, and was sent to France in July, where he served as part of a Lewis gun team. On September 2, in the middle of an attack at Rocquigny, while there was “no firing and practically no opposition,” Harris ditched his kit and his comrades and vanished. He was arrested the next day and faced an FGCM for desertion and cowardice.
Harris — surprisingly … was not defended at his trial and made no attempt to cross-examine any of the witnesses, nor did he make a statement in his own defence. It would appear that the 23-year-old soldier either did not understand the seriousness of his position, or was resigned to his fate.
He was found not guilty of cowardice, but guilty of desertion, and his bad record (which included repeated charges of insubordination) was held against him. His CO wrote, “Pte. Harris L. has not got a good record in this Battalion. His fighting value is NIL.” The Brigade Commander agreed, summing up his case thusly:
I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:
Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
He is worthless as a soldier.
During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
His example is a disgraceful one.
Harris’s execution was, as previously stated, the last. Four days later on November 11, the war ended and all death sentences for military offenses were commuted to penal servitude. In 1929 the death penalty was abolished for desertion and other military crimes.
This dispatch to the New York Herald was published on June 16, 1863.
Mr. W. Young’s Letter.
Near Beallton Station, Va., June 14, 1863.
THE DESERTER J.P. WOOD.
John P. Wood, of Company F, Nineteenth Indiana, who had deserted once or twice before, again deserted on the 28th of May, and was subsequently arrsted at Aquia Creek, tried by court martial, and sentenced to be shot on Friday last.
Wood was about nineteen years old, quite intelligent, and when arrested was dressed in rebel uniform and represented himself as belonging to the Nineteenth Tennessee.
He alleged that he deserted because he had come to the conclusion that the war was not right, and he could not therefore go into action. He admitted that when he volunteered his views were somewhat different, and that he enlisted because he did not wish to see the Union dissolved.
He regarded his sentence as just, and expressed the belief that his execution for desertion would be of more service to the army than he could render it in any other manner.
THE EXECUTION, AND THE EFFECT UPON THE ARMY.
As this is the first instance of an execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac, it created considerable sensation.
The sentence was executed upon the prisoner on Friday, near Berea church. About two P.M., near Berea church, the corps was halted. The First brigade was ordered out, with the balance of the division to which the prisoner belonged, the First brigade in advance.
Two ambulances, in the first of which was seated the prisoner, and the other containing his coffin, at the head of the division, advanced about half a mile, when the division was drawn up, occupying three sides of an oblong parallelogram. On the fourth side were placed the coffin, the criminal and the guard. The men were selected to do the firing, and received their muskets from the guard properly loaded.
HIS LAST MOMENTS.
A clergyman —- was with the prisoner, who displayed no emotion. General Wadsworth then went to the men who were to perform the duty of execution, and spoke to them in regard to the disagreeable nature of the duty to be performed — the shooting of a comrade — and urged them, as a matter of humanity, to take good aim.
The General then returned to the right, Colonel Morrow to the left. The guard was then withdrawn, and the Provost Marshall, Lieutenant Rogers, took the prisoner to the coffin, upon which he was seated, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, his knees tied together and his breast bared.
All having retired, except the executions and the Provost Marshal, the order to take aim was given. Before the order to fire was given two pieces were discharged, but without effect.
At the order to fire, the remainder of the men — ten in number — fired. The prisoner fell backward, and the Provost Marshal went up to him. He struggled for an instant, and then all was over.
An additional detail from the Pioneer corps were called up and began to dig the grave, and the division marched off in perfect order, much impressed by the solemn scene which they had witnessed.
On this date in 1945, five days after the Germans had surrendered to the Allies in World War II, two deserting sailors were shot at Amsterdam.
Dorfer (top) and Beck.
The strangest thing: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck were deserters of the Wehrmacht’s Kriegsmarine … and they were shot by a court-martial conducted by the Wehrmacht itself.
This surprising and shameful story is told in full by Chris Madsen in “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945,” a 1993 Canadian Military History journal article available online in pdf form.
Basically, a pocket of fortified German resistance remained hunkered down in the Netherlands as the war approached its close. That force of 150,000 surrendered to a much smaller number of Canadians on May 5 on terms that maintained German responsibility for administering its armed forces and the civilian areas under its control — a highly anomalous situation in an occupied country as the Third Reich winked out of existence altogether.
Canadians and Germans, according to Madsen, enjoyed a collegial relationship as the Canadians gradually took German forces into custody … or received German forces who helpfully marched themselves into custody. But even under guard, these “imprisoned” Germans still retained significant autonomy and a German command structure that Canadians were loath to interfere with — an arrangement so expedient that it severely tested the bounds of propriety. So invested were the Canadians in maintaining their opposite numbers’ unit cohesion* that they handed some deserters (and plenty of men were deserting the German army) back over to the nominal prisoners!
Rainer Beck had been deserted for the best part of a year: the son of a Social Democratic father and a Jewish mother, he’d ditched harbor defense the previous September and had been laying low with his sister in Amsterdam. Bruno Dorfer was a more recent deserter. They naturally assumed that with the Canadian takeover, they’d be good to go: they turned themselves in to Canadian soldiers with an eye towards regularizing their status.
They were in for quite a surprise, as Madsen relates:
Major Oliver Mace, acting commanding officer of the Canadian regiment, ordered Major J. Dennis Pierce, the company commander in charge of the former factory [where the German prisoners were being held], to place the two deserters inside the compound because “they were certainly Germans and we had no other place to put them.” …
At 1005 hours on 13 May 1945, Pierce informed 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade of the intended German course of action: “German Marine deserters being tried this morning. German Commander intends [to] shoot them.” The German camp leadership established a Standgericht or a court martial within the camp … [and] brought Dorfer and Beck before three officers, a team of military lawyers “whom Pierce himself had ‘put in the bag’ in the streets of Amsterdam earlier in the week.” [Fregattenkapitan Alexander] Stein regarded the proceedings as a show trial for his authority. At the insistence of the German naval commander, the entire camp population witnessed the event. A parade state, taken earlier that morning, counted 1,817 German marines inside the camp. The two accused, represented by a German military lawyer, underwent rigorous cross-examination before this large staring crowd … Oberleutnantnginieur Frank Trmal, a young German officer present at the fifteen-minute trial, remembered Beck’s defense:
For some reason Beck, who was older, decided to defend himself and told the court that we (the Germans) all knew several weeks ago the war was all over for us and that it was a matter of time before we surrendered. He told the captain and the court that any further fighting by us against the Canadians would be senseless bloodshed. With this the captain jumped to his feet in a rage, screaming at Beck that he was calling all of us, his comrades, and his officers, murderers. It is something that I will never forget.
After the inevitable-yet-incredible conviction, Stein appealed to his Canadian guards for a bit of comradely assistance in carrying out the court-martial’s order.
The Seaforth Highlanders obligingly delivered up eight captured German rifles with ammunition, plus a heavy truck to help their “prisoners” execute their deserters. A Canadian military cable testifies in its clipped and plaintive language to the egregious moral vacuum afflicting the chummy occupation: “German marines in Amsterdam have picked up some of their own deserters. They have been tried by military law and sentenced to be shot. May they do this.”
The answer was determined not by any senior Canadian officer, but by the German high commander who had surrendered the Dutch pocket the week before, Johannes Blaskowitz. It was on his approval that Dorfer and Beck were shot against an air raid shelter wall at 1740, not eight hours after their bizarre public trial.
When the story surfaced publicly in 1966 as a result of Der Spiegel investigations, Stein was unrepentant. “Beck would never have been a credit to Germany anyway,” he told the Globe and Mail (Oct. 28, 1966). “Deserters only turn into criminals in civil life too.”
This execution is dramatized in the 1969 Italian-Yugoslav film Dio è con noi (The Fifth Day of Peace, also released as Gott mit Uns and The Firing Squad).
it is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!
But it was for what Pickett did on this date in 1864 — much less well-recalled today but to the 1864 New York Times correspondent exemplifying “the madness of rebel leaders” — that he had to flee to Canada after the war, for fear of being prosecuted for committing a war crime.
North Carolina men in particular had a reputation (of arguable veracity) for absenting themselves; and, as the state as a whole was the most reluctant (and last) seceder, no small number of those deserters were ducking out for ideological reasons. Plenty of onetime Confederate conscripts who conceived greater loyalty to the Union than to their state shed gray uniforms for blue.
Licking his wounds from the New Bern sortie down the road at Kinston, Pickett recognized a couple of his prisoners as his own former soldiers. They had a testy exchange with the beaten general, and Pickett had them up for a summary court martial in a flash. On February 5, Joe Haskett and David Jones were hanged for desertion.
There followed an interesting exchange between the rival commanders.
Intending to forestall any tit-for-tat killings of POWs, the Union general warned Pickett to treat them humanely.
Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, Confederate Army:
General: I have the honor to include a list of 53 soldiers of the U. S. Government who are supposed to have fallen into your hands on your late hasty retreat from before New Berne. They are the loyal and true North Carolinians and duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry. I ask for them the same treatment in all respects as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant, JOHN J PECK
Pickett must not have appreciated having his martial prowess busted on by his opposite number, because he returned a sarcastic reply promising to use Peck’s list to identify deserters. (In a subsequent letter, he threatened to meet retaliations with 10-for-1 hangings. Pickett showed an “imperious and vaunting temper” in the postwar judgment of Attorney General Holt. Or more directly put, he comes off as an asshole.)
GENERAL: Your communication of the 13th instant is at hand. I have the honor to state in my reply that you have made a slight mistake in regard to numbers, 325 having “fallen into your(our) hands in your (our) late hasty retreat from before New Berne,” instead of the list of 53 with which you have so kindly furnished me, and which will enable me to bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts. I herewith return you the names of those who have been tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion from the Confederate service and taken with arms in hand, “duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry, U S Army.” They have been duly executed according to law and the custom of war.
Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors, many of these men pleading in extenuation that they have been forced into the ranks of the Federal Government.
Extending to you my thanks for your opportune list,
I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. E. PICKETT
He did it, too.
The Confederate chaplain John Paris recounted for his side’s press the scene, a baker’s dozen of men on a large platform, heads sacked, an unknown cross-eyed executioner waiting to strip the bodies of their clothes as payment. Most were local boys, dying shockingly under the eyes of their own family and acquaintances. Reportedly, a number of shaken Confederate soldiers deserted to New Bern after witnessing the scene.
The thirteen marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear were not. On the scaffold they were all arranged in one row. At a given signal, the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling. But it was as truly the deserters doom. Many of them said I never expected to come to such a end as this. But yet were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom. The names of these misguided men were, John I Brock, Wm. Haddock, Jesse Summerlin, A I Brittain, Wm. Jones, Lewis Freeman, Calvin Huffman, Stephen Jones, Joseph Brock, Lewis Taylor, Charles Cuthrell, W. C. Daughtry and John Freeman.
The knell of vengeance has sounded. … deserters in North Carolina must now open their eyes, from the mountain to the seaboard. Desertion has become in our army a desperate disease, and desperate cases require desperate remedies. Let fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and wives, exhort their friends at all times to be faithful to their country under all circumstances.
In all, 22 alleged deserters hanged over the course of February in this affair, the 13 executed together on February 15 obviously accounting for the lion’s share. The incident is the likely inspiration for the novella published later in 1864 by a Confederate North Carolina cavalryman: The Deserter’s Daughter; most certainly, Kinston made the rounds in the North to great indignation.
And an event so notorious was bound to draw attention with the end of the war: even in 1864, the New York Times had editorialized demanding “instant and relentless retaliation … there could be no such thing as acquiescence or empty protest. Even if the Government could bring itself to this abject mood, the public indignation would not tolerate it.” Officers who had been stationed at New Bern did not neglect to keep this sentiment alive in the chain of command, pushing for punitive action to avenge their former comrades.
In the end, there would be none.
Playing it safe, Pickett skipped out for Canada (and even changed his appearance) in 1865 as a board appointed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opined that he and other parties to the hangings were “guilty of crimes too heinous to be excused by the United States government … there should be a military commission immediately appointed for [their] trial … to inflict upon [them] their just punishment.” That was especially so as it emerged that some of the hanged had “deserted” from stuff like bridge guards and state militias — not (in the view of prosecution-minded Unionists) the Confederate army proper.
But as the investigations continued into 1866, they zeroed in on Pickett as their specific target. And, they ran out of steam — or into a stone wall.
In 1866, Pickett appealed from exile to Ulysses S. Grant, who just so happened to be an old West Point chum of Pickett’s.* “Certain evil disposed persons,” Pickett wrote, “are attempting to re-open the troubles of the past.” With the Supreme Court’s Ex parte Milligan ruling, the prospect of a military tribunal evaporated.
Grant had the case shelved, even against Congressional appeals, until everybody just gave up and dropped it. “I do not see how good, either to the friends of the deceased, or by fixing an example for the future, can be secured by his trial now,” Grant said once of his old associate. Plus ça change.
* In fairness to U.S. Grant, we are bound to report his stated reason for opposing any prosecution of Pickett: it would violate the grant of clemency he himself had made to secure General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.