1861: Christopher Haun, potter and incendiarist

1 comment December 11th, 2012 Headsman

Christopher Alexander (“Alex”) Haun was perhaps the finest potter in antebellum Tennessee. He never had the chance to become the finest in post-bellum Tennessee because he was hanged in Knoxville this date in 1861 as an incendiarist.

While Tennessee seceded with the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War, East Tennessee was a Union stronghold. This was the native soil of pro-Union “War Democrat” (and future U.S. President) Andrew Johnson.

Soon after the war began, Unionist east Tennesseans started slipping over the border to northern-controlled Kentucky, where they hatched a plot to burn railroad bridges throughout East Tennessee.

Hand of Bridge

Besides being good fun, the conspiracy promised an effectual blow against the Confederacy inasmuch as the East Tennessee & Virginia and East Tennessee & Georgia lines constituted the South’s most reliable rail and telegraph link between its capital at Richmond, Va., and the Deep South. This plan’s author, Rev. William Carter, went to Washington and had his scheme personally approved by President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Gen. George McClellan.

The rest of the plan called for the Union army to invade East Tennessee on the heels of the bridge-burnings and occupy the area. Just a few months before, McClellan’s troops had similarly occupied the pro-Union western mountains of secessionist Virginia, which is why there’s a state of West Virginia today.

But there’s no state of East Tennessee, is there?

The bridge-burning conspiracy would go down as one of the great, failed guerrilla operations of the war.

Burning Your Bridges

With authorization straight from the top, the conspirators got going. A Captain David Fry** was tasked with targeting the Lick Creek bridge, located in northeastern Tennessee† near the settlement of Pottertown, so named for the ceramics craftsmen attracted to the area’s excellent clay.

After dark fell on Nov. 8, 1861, the local Union sympathizers recruited to the plot — Christopher Haun among them — gathered at the house of a local landowner, Jacob Harmon, Jr. There they took a dramatic lantern-lit oath on the Union flag, each to “do what was ordered of him that night and to never disclose what he had done.”

Then a party of some 40 to 60 mounted raiders stole out for the Lick Creek bridge two miles distant.

Around 2 a.m., they overpowered the small Confederate sentry detail assigned to Lick Creek, and forced the sentries to watch as they fired the bridge. That same night, several other parties elsewhere along the line all the way down to Alabama also burned, or tried to burn railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines.

These “deep-laid schemes … by an organization of Lincolnite traitors” (as the Knoxville Register accounted matters) brought a predictably furious Confederate response — and the audacious saboteurs would discover only after the fact that the planned East Tennessee invasion had been aborted by William T. Sherman without alerting his pyrotechnic fifth-column allies.

A Bridge Too Far

Within three days of the “treason,” East Tennessee had been clapped under martial law. A number of bridge-burners were also arrested (although many others escaped), and here the Lick Creek men would pay dearly for their recklessly humane decision to release their captured sentries. (pdf) As a result, several of them were captured in the days following their attack.

Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin had a ruthless order for East Tennessee’s military authorities.

I now proceed to give you the desired instruction in relation to the prisoners of war taken by you among the traitors of East Tennessee.

First. All such as can be identified in having been engaged in bridge-burning are to be tried summarily by drum-head court-martial, and, if found guilty, executed on the spot by hanging. It would be well to leave their bodies hanging in the vicinity of the burned bridges. [emphasis added]

Second. All such as have not been so engaged are to be treated as prisoners of war, and sent with an armed guard to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, there to be kept imprisoned at the depot selected by the Government for prisoners of war.

Two men, William Hinshaw (often called “Hensie” in the period’s reports) and Henry Fry, were condemned by such a tribunal on Nov. 30 and immediately hanged — their bodies left exposed at the Greeneville Station for a day or more, until the stench became overpowering.

Haun was condemned on Dec. 10.‡ Confederate Brigadier General William H. Carroll telegraphed Benjamin for Jefferson Davis‘s confirmation of sentence.

The court-martial has sentenced A.C. Haun [sic], bridgeburner, to be hung. Sentence approved. Ordered To be executed at 12 o’clock tomorrow. Requires the approval of the President. Please telegraph.

Benjamin replied within hours, telling Carroll to make with the noosing.

Execute the sentence of your court-martial on the bridge-burners. The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and convict.


Haun takes leave of his pregnant wife and four children before execution. Illustration from this 1862 propaganda volume by the Unionist publisher of the Knoxville Whig.

Six days after Haun hanged at Knoxville, the landowner who hosted the conspirators, Jacob Harmon, also went to the gallows, along with his son Henry. It seems someone in the incendiary party had carelessly dropped the name “Harmon” in conversation while the bridge sentries were in custody within earshot.

(Several others only narrowly avoided execution, or lynching, for the conspiracy. Given hundreds of other arrests of even merely suspect East Tennesseans and the very nasty feelings engendered by the Unionists’ attempt, it’s something of a wonder that only five were executed.)

Water Under the Bridge

Today, the Harmons are buried at Pottertown Harmon Historic Cemetery in rural Green County, Tenn., where a hexagonal monument commemorates all five executees (with an extra panel for summary text). There’s an annual ceremony there to commemorate the East Tennessee bridge burners.

Or, pay your respects any time by using the cemetery as the trailhead for the Civil War Bridge Burners’ Bike Ride (pdf). You’ll find the spot just off Bridge Burners Blvd.


View Larger Map

All the hanged incendiarists were posthumously enrolled in Company F of the 2nd Tennessee by Congress in 1862, a gesture of appreciation which also conferred on their heirs the right to survivors’ benefits.

In addition to the resources linked here, see Donahue Bible’s “Shattered like earthen vessels,” Civil War Times, Dec. 1997.

* Later to become the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railway, and then the Southern Railway, and then a big band hit.

**The intrepid Captain Fry would escape immediate capture, gather a few hundred Unionists as a guerrilla band, and eventually get caught, sent to Georgia, and condemned to death as a spy. Fry escaped by breaking out on the eve of his Oct. 15 hanging, in the company of some of the men arrested for the Great Locomotive Chase. He rejoined Union forces, was captured again, and survived the war, finally dying in 1872 … when he was hit by a train.

† The other bridges successfully torched by the conspiracy included two over the Chickamauga in southeastern Tennessee, and the theme of Civil War bridge-burning in that sector can’t help but suggest Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. (The other details are nothing alike, so Bierce’s story clearly isn’t about this incident.)

‡ The railroad bridge at Lick Creek was back in action by this time.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Tennessee,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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1865: Henry Wirz, for detainee abuse

1 comment November 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Henry Wirz was hanged in Washington, D.C. for running a notorious Confederate prison camp.

A Swiss-born doctor (“Henrich” was the real handle) whom time and tide found practicing in Louisiana at the onset of the Civil War, Wirz apparently got into the prison-guarding ranks when a war injury left him unfit for the front lines.

But it was front-line fitness in the northern army that would set the scene for his controversial hanging.

The North’s advantage in men and materiel shaped Union strategy as the war progressed, and it eventually caused the Union to halt prisoner exchanges. Exchanging casualty for casualty was a winning strategy on the battlefield, so why return to your enemy a man for a man? Besides,

[Grant] said that I would agree with him that by the exchange of prisoners we get no men fit to go into our army, and every soldier we gave the Confederates went immediately into theirs, so that the exchange was virtually so much aid to them and none to us.

Benjamin Butler (we’ve met him before)

As designed, then, the South began piling up more and more POWs to maintain with its ever-straitened resources late in the war. And if exchange was out, that really only left one form of “release”.


Andersonville Prison survivor John L. Ransom’s view of the prison, from the Library of Congress.

Andersonville — officially, Camp Sumter, located near the tiny Georgia town of Andersonville — was only established in 1864, but acquired considerable notoriety in northern propaganda for the year and change that Wirz ran it. The prisoners didn’t enjoy it much, either.

Wuld that I was an artist & had the material to paint this camp & all its horors or the tounge of some eloquent Statesman and had the privleage of expresing my mind to our hon. rulers at Washington, I should gloery to describe this hell on earth where it takes 7 of its ocupiants to make a shadow.

Union prisoner diary, July 1864. Note the prisoner’s anger at Washington — whose refusal to exchange naturally infuriated its stranded POWs

Out of some 45,000 prisoners held at Andersonville during its existence (not all at one time), nearly 13,000 succumbed to disease and malnutrition.* After the war, photos of wasted survivors inflamed (northern) public opinion, already tetchy over Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walt Whitman wrote of Andersonville,

There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven but this is not among them. It steeps its perpetrators in blackest, escapeless, endless damnation.

Damnation is up to higher powers, of course, but the North wanted somebody to answer for Andersonville on this mortal coil. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson overruled mooted charges against Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his Secretary of War James Seddon, leaving — in that great American tradition — Heinrich Wirz holding the bag.**

Shatner sighting!

The trial had an undeniable aspect of victor’s justice.† Even at the gallows, the Union guards chanted, “Wirz, remember Andersonville!” as the condemned man was readied for the noose, and then dropped. The hanging failed to break the man’s neck, and he strangled as the chant continued.

Southern efforts to reshape the story of Andersonville began in the lifetimes of Wirz’s contemporaries; this fulsome volume supporting the charges answered Jefferson Davis in terms that sound strikingly contemporary:

So long as Southern leaders continue to distort history (and rekindle embers in order to make the opportunity for distorting it), so long will there rise up defenders of the truth of history … To deny the horrors of Andersonville is to deny there was a rebellion. Both are historic facts placed beyond the realm of doubt.

But of course, it does not require denying the horrors of Andersonville to notice the circumstances — the privation of the entire South late in the war — and to wonder that Wirz and Wirz alone was held to account. Plenty of people think he got a bum rap.


Daughters of the Confederacy monument to Wirz. (cc) image from divemasterking2000.


Pro-Wirz marker in Andersonville, Ga. (Click for easier-on-the-eyes version, reading in part, “Had he been an angel from heaven, he could not have changed the pitiful tale of privation and hunger unless he had possessed the power to repeat the miracle of the loaves and fishes”). (cc) image from Mark D L.

Recommended for general reading: the UMKC Famous Trials page on this case, several of whose pages have been linked in this entry. A number of nineteenth-century texts by (or citing) Andersonville survivors are available from Google books, including:

Since this is a controversy of the Civil War — and one that can be engaged without having to get into that whole slavery thing — there have been thousands of published pages written about it, with many more sure to come in future years.

A few books about Henry Wirz and Andersonville

As an interesting aside, Civil War POW camps including Andersonville (but not only Andersonville) gave us the term “deadline,” which had a more startlingly literal definition in the 1860s — a perimeter beyond which prisoners would be shot on sight, which policy could make a handy stand-in for walls. Gratuitously killing an insane prisoner who crossed Camp Sumter’s “dead line” was one of the atrocities laid to Wirz, who we take it would not have been at home to the word’s decreasingly urgent appropriation in the wider culture.

* Wirz’s defense showed, to no avail, that the prisoners and the guards received the same rations, with similarly deleterious effects among both, and that the commandant was on record pleading with his superiors for more.

** Wirz’s attorney claimed that his man was offered (and refused to take) a last-minute pardon on November 9 in exchange for implicating Jefferson Davis.

† Wirz and borderlands guerrilla Champ Ferguson were the only Confederates executed for their “war crimes”. There was at least one other prison guard who faced similar charges of prisoner maltreatment, John Henry Gee; Gee was acquitted and released in 1866. (For more on the latter, see “A Little-known Case from the American Civil War: The War Crimes Trial of Major General John H. Gee” by Guénaël Mettraux in the Journal of International Criminal Justice, 2010.)

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Hanged,History,Language,Milestones,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Separatists,Soldiers,U.S. Federal,USA,War Crimes,Washington DC,Wrongful Executions

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1865: Four for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination

July 7th, 2008 Headsman

On a sweltering July 7, 1865, a mere 12 weeks after Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater, four of his assassin’s accomplices were hanged in the courtyard of the District of Columbia’s Washington Arsenal — present-day Fort McNair, and specifically its tennis courts.

Booth, on the far left, playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar opposite his brothers. He had Brutus’ example in mind, as he wrote in his diary while on the run: “with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.”

The exact nature of the conspiracy against the man who had seen the North to victory in the Civil War has been debated ever since actor John Wilkes Booth lodged a ball from his one-shot Derringer behind Honest Abe’s ear. But it was a conspiracy — an astoundingly bold one.

Simultaneous with Booth’s successful attack upon Lincoln, there was an unsuccessful attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward; it would emerge in the investigation that another man had been detailed to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson, but got drunk and chickened out. The apparent upshot: with the President and Vice President dead, new national elections would be required to replace the Senator who would become acting president — and with the Secretary of State dead too, there’d be nobody to implement them. Booth was trying to paralyze the North with its own constitutional machinery in some desperate hope of reviving the defeated South.

Ten Against D.C.

Hundreds were detained in the stunning assassination’s immediate aftermath, but ten would ultimately be the federals’ targets. A massive manhunt pursued Booth through southern Maryland and into Virginia, where he was killed in a shootout. John Surratt, who had conspired with Booth in an earlier plot to kidnap the president — that failed plot had been reconfigured into the assassination — escaped from the country.

The other eight were rounded up and stashed at the Arsenal to face a military tribunal. It was a highly controversial arrangement: the war had entered a gray area — Robert E. Lee’s surrender just days before the murder had effectively ended the war, but when the trial opened in May Confederate President Jefferson Davis was still at large, and the last Southern general wouldn’t lay down his arms until late June. The District of Columbia was still technically under martial law … so would it do to use a military court?

Military Tribunal

So the government asked itself: government, would you rather have looser evidentiary rules and a lower bar of conviction than you would have in civil court? The government duly produced for the government an opinion that the military characteristic of the assassination — that is, to help whatever southern war effort still obtained — licensed the government to use the military courts.

That didn’t sit well with everyone. One former Attorney General griped:

If the offenders are done to death by that tribunal, however truly guilty, they will pass for martyrs with half the world.

Indeed, a year later, the Supreme Court’s landmark ex parte Milligan ruling would forbid the use of military courts where civilian courts are open — which they were in Washington, D.C.

That, of course, was too late to help Booth’s comrades. It would be a military trial, with a majority vote needed for conviction and no right of appeal but to the president for the most infamous crime of the Republic. Everyone had a pretty good idea what the results would be.

A cartoon depicting the defendants as Gallow's (sic) Birds.

Rogues’ Gallery

Two of the four today were doomed from the outset under any juridical arrangement imaginable: Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Paine or Lewis Payne) had made the attempt on Secretary of State Seward; David Herold had guided him there with the getaway horse, and later escaped along with Booth. They were in way past their eyeballs. George Atzerodt, the schmo who couldn’t rise to the occasion of popping Andrew Johnson, looks a bit more peripheral from the distance of a century and a half, but in the weeks following the assassination he was much too close to the action to have any hope. All received death sentences.

Two others — Michael O’Laughlen and Samuel Arnold — had been involved in Booth’s earlier scheme to kidnap the president, but didn’t seem to have much to do with the murder. Still another two — Ned Spangler and Dr. Samuel Mudd* — were lesser participants. They all received long prison sentences for their pains, and the three of them still surviving were pardoned by Andrew Johnson as he left the presidency in 1869.

That left Mary Surratt, mother of the fugitive John and the only woman in the dock, the focus of attention and controversy. The 42-year-old widow owned a downtown boardinghouse, plus a tavern of sufficient importance at a Prince George’s County, Maryland, crossroads, that its community was called Surrattsville.**

The conspirators met frequently in her lodgings; Surratt maintained her innocence beyond that, but evidence and witness testimony began to pile up heavily against her … especially when Seward assailant Lewis Powell wandered into her place looking for refuge right while the police were questioning her. Booth and Herold turned out to have made a pit stop at her Surrattsville tavern to pick up a package of guns that Mary had prepared for them.

Though Surratt’s avowal of ignorance was not widely believed, a gesture of presidential mercy was anticipated — many thought (and think) she went on trial as a virtual hostage for her absconded son, who declined to take the bait. Strangely, five members of the nine-judge panel who condemned Mary Surratt turned around and asked President Johnson for clemency. Johnson claimed never to have seen the memo, but his mind seemed pretty made up — when Surratt won a habeas corpus stay on the morning of her scheduled hanging, he promptly “specially-suspended” the writ specifically to hang her:

I, Andrew Johnson, President of the United States do hereby declare that the writ of habeas corpus had been heretofore suspended in such cases as this; and I do hereby specially-suspend this writ, and direct that you proceed to execute the order heretofore given upon the judgment of the Military Commission.

Harsh treatment, and possibly well-deserved, for the first woman executed by the U.S. government. Even so, it does seem a curious thing when all is said and done that the mother of “the nest that hatched the egg” was worth a special suspension of the Great Writ, and even the stagehand who just held Booth’s horse for him caught six years, but old Jeff Davis — who apart from having figureheaded a treasonous four-year insurrection was implicated for giving Booth’s kidnapping plot official Confederate sanction — got to retire to write his memoirs.

Fine pages on the Lincoln assassination are here, here and here. There are also contemporary newspaper accounts posted online as filed for The Boston Post and The New York Herald.

The Surratt houses, by the way, are still standing. The Maryland tavern is kept as the Surratt House Museum by the Surratt Society. The downtown boarding house is a Chinese restaurant … marked with a plaque remembering more momentous doings than bubble tea.

The Chinatown restaurant where Mary Surratt had her boarding house ...

... as marked by plaque ...

... and how it looked back then.

* The panel voted 5-4 to hang Mudd, a Maryland doctor who not only set the leg Booth broke when he leaped onto the stage after shooting Lincoln, but then misdirected Booth’s pursuers. However, the rules for the trial said a two-thirds majority was required for execution.

** They changed the name after the unpleasantness. Today, it’s Clinton, Maryland.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Infamous,Maryland,Milestones,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Power,Scandal,Separatists,Treason,U.S. Federal,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Washington DC,Women

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