1863: John P. Wood, of the Army of the Potomac

1 comment June 12th, 2013 Headsman

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 The guard was then withdrawn, and the Provost Marshall, Lieutenant Rogers, took the prisoner to the coffin, upon which he was seated, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, his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.

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

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1861: William Johnson, impulse deserter

Add comment December 13th, 2011 Headsman

One hundred fifty years ago today, a now-long-forgotten deserter from the Union Army was shot in Washington, D.C. This sad event in the then-novel American Civil War received lavish coverage in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, which we reproduce below.

THE EXECUTION OF JOHNSON.

ON page 828 we illustrate the military execution of Johnson, who was shot at Washington for desertion on 13th. The culprit’s crime is clearly described in the following extract from his confession:


Contemporary illustration from Harper’s Weekly.

I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy’s lines. The way I came to leave our army was this: I was on the outposts, and after dinner, when out watering my horse, I thought I would go to the first house on the Braddock road and get a drink of milk. When I rode up to the house I saw a man and a boy. I asked the man for some milk and he said he had none, and to my inquiry as to where I could get some, he said he did not know, except I should go some distance further on. I said I thought it would be dangerous to go far, and he remarked that none of the rebels had been seen in that vicinity for some time. It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting. I thought I could ride right up to the rebel pickets and inside the enemy’s line, go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information. I never had any idea of going over to the rebels, and as it is I would rather be hung on a tree than go and join the rebel army. I don’t see what under heaven put it into my head to go away. I acted from the impulse of the moment. When the man at the house said none of the enemy had been seen lately in that vicinity I asked where it was that the five rebels I had heard of had been seen some time ago, and he said it was at the round house on the left-hand side of the road. I asked him where the road led to. He said to Centreville, and so I went that way. Riding along on the Braddock road, some miles beyond our pickets, I suddenly came across Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey regiment, with his scouting party. I thought they were the rebels, but at first was so scared that I did not know what to say. However, I asked him who they were, and he said they were the enemy. Said I to him, “I’m all right, then.” “Why so?” said he. “Because we are all friends,” said I; “I am rebel too—I want to go down to New Orleans to see my mother.” Then he asked me how our pickets were stationed. I told him two of our companies which had been out went in that day toward the camps. He asked if I thought he could capture any of them, and I told him I did not think he could. He asked why, and I replied that there were a number of mounted riflemen around. The head scout asked me what kind of arms the Lincoln men received, and at the same time said, “Let me see your pistol.” I handed him my revolver. Colonel Taylor took it, and cocking it, said to me, “Dismount, or I will blow your brains out!” I was so much frightened I thought my brains had been blown out already. 1 dismounted, delivered up my belt and sabre, while at the same time they searched my pockets, but there was nothing in them except a piece of an old New York Ledger, I believe. Then he tied my hands behind me, and sent me back to camp in charge of three men, besides another who took my horse.

He was duly tried by court-martial and found guilty. The sentence having been approved, it was ordered that it be carried into effect on 13th. The following extracts from the Herald report complete the melancholy history:

The spot chosen for the impressive scene was a spacious field near the Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from the camp ground of the division. The troops fell into line, forming three sides of a square, in the order designated in the programme, precisely at three o’clock P.M.

In the mean time the funeral procession was formed at the quarters of Captain Boyd, Provost Marshal of the Alexandria division, near the head-quarters of General Franklin. Shortly after three o’clock it reached the fatal field.

The Provost Marshal, mounted and wearing a crimson scarf across his breast, led the mournful cortege. He was immediately followed by the buglers of the regiment, four abreast, dismounted. Then came the twelve men—one from each company in the regiment, selected by ballot—who constituted the firing party. The arms—Sharp’s breech-loading rifle—had been previously loaded under the direction of the Marshal. One was loaded with a blank cartridge, according to the usual custom, so that neither of the men could positively state that the shot from his rifle killed the unfortunate man. The coffin, which was of pine wood stained, and without any inscription, came next, in a one-horse wagon. Immediately behind followed the unfortunate man, in an open wagon. About five feet six inches in height, with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other, Johnson presented a most forlorn spectacle. He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves. He was supported by Father M’Atee, who was in constant conversation with him, while Farther Willett rode behind on horseback. The rear was brought up by Company C of the Lincoln Cavalry, forming the escort.

Arriving on the ground at half past three o’clock, the musicians and the escort took a position a little to the left, while the criminal descended from the wagon. The coffin was placed on the ground, and he took his place beside it. The firing party was marched up to within six paces of the prisoner, who stood between the clergymen. The final order of execution was then read to the condemned.

While the order was being read Johnson stood with his hat on, his head a little inclined to the left, and his eyes fixed in a steady gaze on the ground. Near the close of the reading one of his spiritual attendants whispered something in his ear. Johnson had expressed a desire to say a few final words before he should leave this world to appear before his Maker. He was conducted close to the firing party, and in an almost inaudible voice spoke as follows: “Boys,—I ask forgiveness from Almighty God and from my fellow-men for what I have done. I did not know what I was doing. May God forgive me, and may the Almighty keep all of you from all such sin!”

He was then placed beside the coffin again. The troops were witnessing the whole of these proceedings with the intensest interest. Then the Marshal and the chaplains began to prepare the culprit for his death. He was too weak to stand. He sat down on the foot of the coffin. Captain Boyd then bandaged his eyes with a white handkerchief. A few minutes of painful suspense intervened while the Catholic clergymen were having their final interview with the unfortunate man. All being ready the Marshal waved his handkerchief as the signal, and the firing party discharged the volley. Johnson did not move, remaining in a sitting posture for several seconds after the rifles were discharged. Then he quivered a little, and fell over beside his coffin. He was still alive, however, and the four reserves were called to complete the work. It was found that two of the firing party, Germans, had not discharged their pieces, and they were immediately put in irons. Johnson was shot several times in the heart by the first volley. Each of the four shots fired by the reserves took effect in his head, and he died instantly. One penetrated his chin, another his left cheek, while two entered the brain just above the left eyebrow. He died at precisely a quarter to four o’clock.

The troops then all marched round, and each man looked on the bloody corpse of his late comrade, who had proved a traitor to his country.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Desertion,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Shot,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions,Washington DC

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1861: Not William Scott, the Sleeping Sentinel

3 comments September 9th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1861, Vermont private William Scott of the new-formed Army of the Potomac, then fortifying Washington D.C. for the unfolding Civil War in the aftermath of Bull Run, was led out for execution for having fallen asleep at his post.

The so-called Sleeping Sentinel took a sick comrade’s watch even though he himself was bushed, and … well, you know the rest.

Condemned for a dereliction of duty which “may endanger the safety of a command, or even of the whole army” (the words of the army’s commander Gen. McClellan), Scott still attracted widespread sympathy due to the obviously sympathetic nature of his situation. He was a youth new to war, with an exemplary military record outside of his forty winks.

“The American people,” reckoned the New York Times, “are quite unprepared to hear of a measure of such fearful and unwarned rigor as that which was awarded private SCOTT.”

Appeals went straight to the White House, which was conveniently located in the Army of the Potomac’s back yard, and freshman president Abraham Lincoln magnanimously spared the lad.

Still, wanting to use the case to impress military discipline upon the rabble of corn-fed conscripts, that clemency was delivered with a terrifyingly dramatic flourish. Scott was left to contemplate his last hours on the earth, and, Dostoyevsky-like, marched out to the stake ostensibly to face the firing squad. Only then did he and his fellow-soldiers hear the commutation order.*

This exhilarating climax did not long stay the hand of the Reaper, as it transpired.

Scott died in battle the following spring. In death he lives on, as befits the habitues of these pages: fellow Vermonter Lucius E. Chittenden, who was serving in the U.S. Treasury when all this sleeping sentinel stuff went down, commemorated William Scott for posterity in a subsequent entry to the merciful-Lincoln mythology, a postwar volume titled Lincoln and the Sleeping Sentinel.

The story was also made into a 1914 silent film, which sadly doesn’t seem to be available online: but never fear, this syrupy poem will amply represent our Sentinel’s contribution to the canon.

But God is love – and finite minds can faintly comprehend
How gentle Mercy, in His rule, may with stern Justice blend;
And this poor soldier, seized and bound, found none to justify,
While war’s inexorable law decreed that he must die.

‘Twas night. In a secluded room, with measured tread and slow,
A statesman of commanding mien paced gravely to and fro.
Oppressed, he pondered on a land by civil discord rent;
On brothers armed in deadly strife: it was the President!

The woes of thirty millions filled his burdened heart with grief;
Embattled hosts, on land and sea, acknowledged him their chief;
And yet, amid the din of war, he heard the plaintive cry
Of that poor soldier, as he lay in prison, doomed to die!

‘Twas morning. On a tented field, and through the heated haze,
Flashed back, from lines of burnished arms, the sun’s effulgent blaze;
While, from a somber prison house, seen slowly to emerge,
A sad procession, o’er the sward, moved to a muffled dirge.

And in the midst, with faltering step, and pale and anxious face,
In manacles, between two guards, a soldier had his place.
A youth, led out to die; and yet it was not death, but shame,
That smote his gallant heart with dread, and shook his manly frame!

Still on, before the marshalled ranks, the train pursued its way,
Up to the designated spot, whereon a coffin lay-
His coffin! And, with reeling brain, despairing, desolate-
He took his station by its side, abandoned to his fate!

Then came across his wavering sight strange pictures in the air:
He saw his distant mountain home; he saw his parents there;
He saw them bowed with hopeless grief, through fast declining years;
He saw a nameless grave; and then, the vision closed-in tears!

Yet once again. In double file, advancing, then, he saw
Twelve comrades, sternly set apart to execute the law-
But saw no more; his senses swam-deep darkness settled round-
And, shuddering, he awaited now the fatal volley’s sound!

Then suddenly was heard the sounds of steeds and wheels approach,
And, rolling through a cloud of dust, appeared a stately coach.
On, past the guards, and through the field, its rapid course was bent,
Till, halting, ‘mid the lines was seen the nation’s President!**

He came to save that stricken soul, now waking from despair;
And from a thousand voices rose a shout which rent the air!
The pardoned soldier understood the tones of jubilee,
And, bounding from his fetters, blessed the hand that made him free!

A few letters from Scott’s own hand are preserved here. A (defunct) mini-blog exploring the case in detail can be perused here.

* There was actually American precedent for this sort of stagey non-execution in a case from the War of 1812.

** Obviously, Lincoln did not actually bring his presidential person to the execution grounds to issue this pardon in the flesh: in fact, the presiding officer on-site simply read out the pardon: “the President of the United States has expressed a wish that as this is the first condemnation to death in this army for this crime, mercy may be extended to the criminal.”

Part of the Themed Set: Americana.

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

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1864: William Johnson, a bad example

9 comments June 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the Union army in the American Civil War hanged a black deserter outside Petersburg, Va., for — in the delicate words of the army dispatch — “an attempt to outrage the person of a young lady at the New-Kent Court-house.”

The Union army was just taking up position for the coming monthslong siege of the Confederate capital, Richmond. Johnson, who confessed to deserting another unit, offered savvy blue commanders a win-hearts-and-minds opportunity: a public reassurance that the Old Dominion’s dim view of Negro outrages upon young ladies would be honored by its soon-to-be occupiers.

Not bad in theory. The execution left something to be desired.

The field of public relations being very much in its infancy, the upshot of this salutary demonstration seems not to have been conveyed to its target audience; so, when a defending Confederate battery caught sight of the gallows being thrown up in brazen view of its own lines, it jumped to the not-unreasonable conclusion that the Yanks were about to make an example of a southern spy. Rebel guns promptly made the Union detachment their “target audience.” An artillery shot struck one Sgt. Maj. G. F. Polley (or Polly) and “tore him all to pieces” before

[a] flag of truce was sent out to inform the enemy that a negro was to be hung who had insulted a white woman the day before; they stopped firing. We then marched back and saw the negro hung.

The return on investment for the souls of Johnson and the misfortunate NCO was altogether unsatisfactory:

The incident was cleverly turned to advantage by the Confederates, who had been losing hundreds of Negro laborers by desertion. The Rebels marched Negroes past the spot, pointing out to them the perils of fleeing their lines, saying that the Yankees hanged all ‘Contrabands.’ For weeks nocturnal escapes of Negroes ceased on that front. (Source)

It wasn’t a total loss, however. The Library of Congress ended up with some striking archival photos.

(There’s a better touch-up of this last photograph of Johnson’s body being cut down here.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Confederates,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mature Content,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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