1863: Not Nathaniel Pruitt, reprieved deserter

Add comment June 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date 150 years ago, according to Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, a middle-aged man was all set to be shot for deserting the Army of Tennessee, and the much-resented command of Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a well-documented incident, a soldier received a reprieve as a result of a dramatic incident. Forty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Pruitt of the Nineteenth Tennessee was found guilty of desertion and on June 10, 1863, was taken to a field beside his regimental camp, his coffin placed beside an open grave. A minister cut a lock of hair to give to Pruitt’s wife. The firing squad was positioned and ordered to take aim, but just then an officer came galloping up with a special order to suspend the sentence. The prisoner began crying. “I was truly glad [of the reprieve], but must say some of the boys were disappointed,” a Mississippi diarist noted. Incredibly, the very next day, Pruitt again deserted and was never heard from again.

One takes the author’s point here about Pruitt’s risk-seeking second flight, but even so it might not really be all that “incredible” that one would desert the company of armed men who had recently shown open disappointment about being prevented from shooting one dead.

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1864: Private Samuel Jones, in retaliation for Private Daniel Bright

Add comment January 13th, 2016 Headsman

The New York Times of January 23, 1864

Gen. Getty:

DEAR SIR: We, the subscribers, request to say that there was found this morning a dead man, and still hanging, in our neighborhood, as the inclosed scrip which was found pinned to his back, will show you by whom it was done. We have made a suitable box and buried him near the place he was found hung. Should his friends wish to get his body, they can get it by applying to any of the subscribers. We trust that you will not attach any blame to any of the citizens of this neighborhood, as we were entirely ignorant of any of the circumstances until we found the body. From all we can learn, he was brought across the Chowan River to this place, and as soon as the men who had him in charge hung him, they went back.

It was signed by ten people of Pasquotank County, North Carolina.

The note they enclosed, retrieved from the hanging body, read:

NOTICE

Here hangs Private Samuel Jones, of Company B, Fifth Ohio regiment, by order of Maj.-Gen. Pickett, in retaliation for Private Daniel Bright, of Company L, Sixty-second Georgia regiment, hung Dec. 18, 1863, by order of Brig.-Gen. Wild.

Bright, a member of the newly-formed 66th North Carolina guerrillas, had been hanged as a spy. Jones had been obtained by casting lots among Union prisoners of war held at the Confederate capital of Richmond, in response to Pickett’s demand for some Yankee to execute tit for tat. (Pickett’s proclivity for retaliatory executions would soon require him to quit the country at the end of the Civil War.)

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1864: James Utz, St. Louis spy

2 comments December 26th, 2015 Headsman

Confederate agent James Morgan Utz had a blue Christmas indeed in 1864, awaiting his December 26 execution for espionage.

The Missourian had been captured traveling with a small band out of St. Louis disguised in Union uniforms and carrying supplies and ciphered messages for the invading Confederate army of General (and former governor) Sterling Price.

The federals handled Utz as a spy and a military court sentenced him to hang — a sentence that had already been carried out by the time President Lincoln’s grant of executed clemency arrived.

Tuesday morning last I was horrified at the announcement by a friend that Jas. Utz, Paul’s companion and leader in their attempt to go South, had been executed, being hung on Monday, the day after Christmas, in the jail yard.

It plunged me in a stupor or excitement from which my mind was not free for the entire day. The sentence barely issued and the punishment instantly carried out! The hurry, the suddenness was most revolting. No time given for taking leave of family, friends! No time for appealing for mercy or for a reprieve. No time allowed for composing himself for death!

Diary of a family member of Paul Fusz, one of Utz’s secret party. (Fusz, only 17 when captured, was pardoned after serving six months at hard labor.)

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1862: Ten Confederate hostages in the Palmyra Massacre

Add comment October 18th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Union Gen. John McNeil had ten Confederate soldiers shot in what history has recorded as the Palmyra Massacre.

The Slave Power’s northern salient, Missouri was surrounded to the east, north, and west by free soil — which made it an antebellum flashpoint since the days of the Missouri Compromise.*

In the 1850s, the Missouri conflict spilled into neighboring Kansas as the enemy sides of the slavery question fought to determine whether Kansas would enter the Union as slave state or free. The Missouri borderlands of Bleeding Kansas was where the radical abolitionist martyr John Brown made his name, commanding free state militia in a guerrilla war that presaged the coming clash of North and South.

By the time we lay our scene in 1862, John Brown has exited courtesy of Virginia’s gallows, and the dragon’s teeth sown in Missouri and Kansas and everywhere else had sprung to horrible life. Missouri’s own civil war pitted neighbor against neighbor throughout the state in a bushwhacking conflict that extended locally for many years after Appomattox.**

The nastiness of the years to come is aptly suggested by this date’s events.

Like neighboring Kentucky, Missouri was a border state with a Union government, albeit one contested by a rival Confederate government. From the standpoint of the North, all Confederate activity there was behind its lines and the perpetrators therefore potentially subject to treatment (up to and including execution) as spies, saboteurs, and the like.†

Joseph Chrisman Porter, a Confederate officer, was one such possible client of this here site, tapped as he was for recruiting and raiding operations in northeast Missouri. His Union adversary Gen. John McNeil saw Porter as basically a terrorist. In August of 1862, Porter’s aide Frisby McCullough fell into McNeil’s hands: the Union general had McCullough shot.

On September 12, Porter raided the town of Palmyra, where McNeil held a number of Confederate prisoners. In the course of the raid, he kidnapped Andrew Allsman, a 60-year-old Palmyra resident. “It was said of him that he was able to inform the military authorities of certain movements of the enemy, and that he gave definitive information as to the homes and whereabouts of many men of Confederate leanings,” in the words of this pro-Confederate 1902 pamphlet on the incident. “Naturally, this placed him in disfavor with the Southern sympathizers and those who were fighting in that cause.”

What happened next — though it was not known to the Union at the time — was that Allsman was shot. The pamphlet just cited attempts to obfuscate this event into the fog of war and not really Porter’s fault. The bare fact is that his raiders had gone out of their way to seize an aged non-combatant and then summarily executed him.

Not knowing Allsman’s fate, McNeil responded with an ultimatum to his opposite number.

Palmyra, Mo., Oct. 8, 1862.

To Joseph C. Porter.

Sir: — Andrew Allsman, an aged citizen of Palmyra and a non-combatant, having been carried away from his home by a band of persons unlawfully arraigned against the peace and good order of the State of Missouri, and which band was under your control, this is to notify you that, unless Andrew Allsman is returned unharmed to his family within ten days from date, ten men, who have belonged to your band, and unlawfully sworn by you to carry arms against the government of the United States, and who are now in custody, will be shot as a meet reward for their crimes, amongst which is the illegal restraining of said Allsman of his liberty, and if not returned, of presumptively aiding in his murder. Your prompt attention to this will save much suffering.

Yours, etc.,

W.R. Strachan
Provost Marshal General Northeast District of Missouri
By order of Brigadier General commanding McNeil’s column

The Confederates, of course, could not produce Allsman.

So, on the evening of Oct. 17, five rebel prisoners in the Palmyra stockade plus five more held in Hannibal were informed that they would be shot the next afternoon, in ruthless enforcement of the threat.

The men who died this date in 1862 by a volley of musketry at the Palmyra fairgrounds were:

  • Captain Thomas Sidenor
  • William T. Baker
  • Thomas Humston
  • Morgan Bixler
  • John McPheeters
  • Hiram Smith
  • Herbert Hudson
  • John Wade
  • Marion Lair
  • Eleazer Lake

Their names adorn the base of a monument erected in Palmyra in 1907 commemorating the so-called “Palmyra Massacre”. The state of Missouri as a digital archive of original documents relating to the affair available here.

* Missouri was where the slave Dred Scott lived; his owner taking him to the neighboring free state of Illinois and thence points north occasioned the notorious Supreme Court case that bears his name.

** Frank and Jesse James were Confederate partisans for William Quantrill in the Missouri war; they segued directly into their more celebrated career in outlawry right after the war ended — robbing banks whilst settling scores with pro-Union men for the rest of the 1860s, before branching out to other points on the frontier.

† The Union might obviously have chosen to treat the entire Confederacy as a treasonable enterprise rather than a legitimate enemy belligerent. As a historical matter, it did not take this perspective.

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1865: Not Lambdin P. Milligan, ex parte man

Add comment May 19th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1865 was the originally scheduled hanging of Indiana pro-slavery gadfly Lambdin P. Milligan — a sentence respited two days prior by President Andrew Johnson, and then subsequently commuted, for which reason Milligan survived to attach his surname to a landmark Supreme Court decision the following year.

During the Civil War, the state of Kentucky was a borderlands claimed by, and viciously fought over, by both North and South. “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1861.

Kentucky’s northern neighbor, the Union breadbasket Indiana, had little fighting and no hint of Confederate power — but it was a hotbed of so-called “Copperheads”, northern Democrats who opposed Lincoln’s willingness to prosecute the civil war. So fraught was the Hoosier political situation that in 1862, Indiana’s Republican governor refused to call the Democrat-dominated legislature for fear that it might vote a secession bill or attempt to withdraw Indiana from the war.

The inevitable existence of northern domestic opposition to the war came joined at the hip to impossible statecraft conundrums. Just how much wartime dissent and/or resistance could be countenanced — as a legal matter, and a practical one? President Lincoln would not have received an A+ from the American Civil Liberties Union; he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the Union and resorted to military tribunals and martial law in some places.

Our man Milligan was one of these Copperhead Indiana Democrats born to test Washington’s elasticity. He was an exponent of the Knights of the Golden Circle,* a pro-slavery secret society whose name denoted their aspiration to the antebellum filibusters‘ dream of a human-bondage empire to ring the Caribbean basin.

An attorney,** Milligan briefly became the toast of Democrats nationwide (whatever was left of the nation) for his robust defense of Clement Vallandigham when the former Congressman was prosecuted under the anti-Copperhead General Order 38.

At this point, Milligan was very well-known in what was then called the Northwest, and he was a major political player in Indiana — a pivotal state in the 1864 election.

But according to federal spies who tailed him in 1863-64, his interests in governance ran to more illicit grants of state power. Milligan was arrested in October 1864 as a principal in what was dubbed the “Northwestern Conspiracy”: a plot to mobilize the antiwar factions in that part of the country. This was no mere matter of pamphleteering; the “visionary and desperate” scheme aimed to prolong the hopes of the now-fading South by instigating an armed uprising in the Northwest that would relieve Union pressure on Dixie and perhaps turn the tide of the war.

Milligan was among several of the conspirators swept up in arrests in the following weeks, then tried by military tribunal for treason and sedition. It’s hard to argue that the plot was anything but.

But why a military court? This is the question in Milligan’s great legacy to posterity, the Supreme Court ruling Ex Parte Milligan.†

Milligan himself was not a soldier, and had not been in a war zone. He was a civilian, and Indiana’s regular civilian courts had never ceased to function. The question at stake in Milligan’s appeal to the Supreme Court was whether there was any legitimate recourse to a military tribunal under such conditions — well behind the lines, as it were.

On the morning of March 5, 1866, 34-year-old Republican U.S. Representative James Garfield — the future president whose assassin would command contentious caselaw all his own — strode into the U.S. Supreme Court to eloquently argue Milligan’s side.

“Such a doctrine,” Garfield intoned of the civilian courts’ being intentionally bypassed on national security grounds, “is too monstrous to be tolerated for a moment; and I trust and believe that … it will receive its just and final condemnation. Your decision will mark an era in American history. the just and final settlement of this great question will take a high place among the great achievements which have immortalized this decade. It will establish forever this truth, of inestimable value to us and to mankind, that a republic can wield the vast enginery of war without breaking down the safeguards of liberty; can suppress insurrection, and put down rebellion, however formidable, without destroying the bulwarks of law; can, by the might of its armed millions, preserve and defend both nationality and liberty … if the protection of the law shall, by your decision, be extended over every acre of our peaceful territory, you will have rendered the great decision of the century.

The high court found for Milligan unanimously, establishing as a constitutional bedrock Garfield’s proffered principle that civilian courts must try civilians wherever those courts are open, and ordered Milligan’s release. Although re-indicted by a civilian grand jury, Milligan was not re-prosecuted; he resumed his law practice and died near Fort Wayne, Indiana on December 21, 1899.

* Also known as the Sons of Liberty, a callback to revolutionary patriots.

** Milligan studied law in Ohio, his native soil; his class of nine also included Edwin M. Stanton — Lincoln’s War Secretary during the events of this post. Milligan himself reflected that “I should have probably been hung” but for his fortuitous ancient friendship with Stanton.

† Court precedents with names like Furman v. Georgia are most familiar to us, signifying two disputing parties; by contrast, the phrase ex parte (by/for the party) theoretically indicates a decision issued on behalf of the named party, without need of any opposing party’s intervention. (Ex parte Quirin is another notable death penalty case using this terminology.)

While the ex parte locution was once a common one for habeas corpus appeals, such cases were in practice almost invariably contested by some organ of the state — as Milligan’s was.

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1864: Four Confederate soldiers, under Burbridge’s Order 59

1 comment November 5th, 2014 Headsman

The Martyrs Monument of Midway, Ky., honors four Confederates publicly executed by the Union one hundred fifty years ago today.

A brutally contested frontier zone between North and South, Kentucky at this point was under martial law, governed by General Stephen Burbridge — but nearly anarchic on the ground in some areas.

In an effort to quell the activities of Confederate guerrillas-slash-outlaws, Burbridge issued a still-notorious directive called Order 59: Citing the “rapid increase in this district of lawless bands of armed men,” the order threatened to expel Southern sympathizers and seize their property. Moreover, it warned: “Whenever an unarmed Union citizen is murdered, four guerrillas will be selected from the prison and publicly shot to death at the most convenient place near the scene of the outrages.”

The outrages in question for this occasion were raids on Midway horse farms* (allegedly led by “Sue Mundy”) that, on November 1, resulted in a shootout fatal to one Adam Harper Jr.

Agreeably to Order 59, Burbridge had four of his prisoners — men with no specific connection to Harper’s death — shot on the town’s commons, forcing the local populace to attend the scene.

Rest
Soldiers
Rest
Thy
Warfare
Oe’r [sic?]

M. Jackson
J. Jackson
C. Rigsner
N. Adams

Shot by order of
Genl. Burbridge
Nov. 5 1864
In retaliation

Our Confederate Dead

Burbridge would be dismissed, and his Order 59 revoked, early the next year. “Thank God and President Lincoln,” was the reaction of the Louisville Journal.

Three other similar monuments in Kentucky (in Eminence, Jeffersontown, and St. Joseph) honor other soldiers executed under Burbridge’s retaliation policy.

* Midway knows from horses.

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1864: Barney Gibbons, chance recognition

Add comment August 13th, 2014 Headsman

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:

“Make ready.”

“Aim.”

“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.

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1865: Amy Spain, liberation anticipation

1 comment March 10th, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1865, just weeks before the final collapse of the Confederacy, a slave named Amy was hanged on a sycamore tree before the courthouse of Darlingon, S.C., for anticipating her liberty a little too exuberantly.

Mopping up after his march to the sea, Union Gen. William T. Sherman proceeded to South Carolina. After occuping the capital, Columbia, Sherman’s army made a northerly progression towards North Carolina.

In early March, Union Cavalry appeared in Darlington. Our 17-year-old principal, the domestic of a local lawyer named A.C. Spain,* exulted at this arrival.

“Bless the Lord, the Yankees have come!” Harper’s Weekly** would later report her to have exclaimed.

The long night of darkness which had bound her in slavery was about to break away. It was impossible to repress the exuberance of her feelings; and although powerless to aid the advancing deliverers of her caste, or to injure her oppressors, the simple expression of satisfaction at the event sealed her doom.

But the Union men were not long for the town. It was just a scout party; constrained by strategic objectives, and hindered by swollen early-spring rivers, the main body of Union forces passed Darlington by.

Anticipating an occupation that was not about to occur, Amy recklessly declared herself free and took some of the Spain household’s possessions — the fruit of her own involuntary labor. Whatever her exact actions in those days, they were frightfully punished — over the objection of A.C. Spain himself, who reportedly served as her advocate at the rebel military trial that condemned her.


This illustration of Amy Spain’s execution appeared with the Harper’s Weekly article quoted above.

Her persecutors will pass away and be forgotten, but Amy Spain’s name is now hallowed among the Africans, who, emancipated and free, dare, with the starry folds of the flag of the free floating over them, speak her name with holy reverence.

-Harper’s Weekly

* Spain was also a Confederate commissioner to Arkansas at the start of the Civil War, in which capacity he successfully urged Arkansas into the rebel camp.

** Septemer 30, 1865.

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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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1863: William Francis Corbin and Thomas Jefferson McGraw

Add comment May 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1863, two men were shot* on the beach at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, site of a Civil War prison. Their crime: recruiting for the Confederate army behind Union lines.

After a short-lived attempt to maintain a posture of “armed neutrality” vis-a-vis the Civil War combatants, Kentucky became the uncertain and bloodily contested frontier march between the rival governments.

With the 1862 invasions of Kentucky by armies North and South, sides had to be chosen. Corbin enlisted with some local militia mates in the Confederate army; after wintering in Virginia, he was dispatched back to his native Campbell County, Ky. — now under Union control — to beat the bushes for more Confederate enlistees. With him was another Campbell County native son now serving in the Southern army, Jefferson McGraw.

In April 1863, a Union patrol out hunting Confederate guerrillas accidentally caught wind of the recruiters’ activities and followed McGraw to the Rouse’s Mill safe house where he was to rendezvous with the waiting Corbin.

Several days after the recruiters’ capture, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside issued General Order 38, threatening the death penalty for “all persons found within our lines who commit acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country.” This order explicitly compassed “Secret recruiting officers within our lines.”


Not to be confused with Order 66.

This book has a chapter about the Corbin-McGraw case.

General Order 38 was viewed as targeting “Copperheads” and other anti-war northern agitators — and it almost immediately resulted in the arrest of Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham** — but it was the less august Corbin and McGraw who paid the heavier penalty.†

Again, General Order 38 postdated Corbin and McGraw’s arrest. They had expected, and perhaps were even directly assured by their captors, to be treated as regular prisoners of war. On the other hand, Order 38 aside, these men were undoubtedly working covertly behind Union lines, and risked harsher treatment on that basis alone.

At any rate, the two were condemned to die by a military commission in Cincinnati for violating Order 38 by recruiting behind Union lines. Neither Gen. Burnside nor Abraham Lincoln himself — who were both besieged by petitions for clemency — would consent to spare them.

Corbin, who was a church elder in his home environs, led a prayer service for guards and inmates alike at the prison chapel on the morning of his execution. Writing 34 years later, a witness recalled the moment:

That scene, and the words which fell from his lips on that occasion, are indelibly stamped on my memory …

After reading and prayer by Captain Corbin, he said, in part, speaking of himself, that “life was just as sweet to him as any man, but if necessary for him to die in order to vindicate the law of the country, he was ready to die, he did not fear death; he had done nothing he was ashamed of; he had acted on his own convictions and was not sorry for what he had done; he was fighting for a principle, which in the sight of God and man, and in the view of death which awaited him, he believed was right, and feeling this he had nothing to fear in the future.” He closed his talk by expressing his faith in the promises of Christ and his religion.

To see this man, standing in the presence of an audience composed of officers, privates, and prisoners of all grades, chained to and bearing his ball, and bearing it alone, presenting the religion of Christ to others while exemplifying it himself, was a scene which would melt the strongest heart, and when he took his seat every heart in that audience was softened and every eye bathed in tears.

After Corbin and McGraw were shot, two Union prisoners of war in Confederate custody were selected by lot for a retaliatory execution. With some diplomatic maneuvering (and a Union threat to retaliate for the retaliation by executing Robert E. Lee’s captured son), they managed to avoid that fate. (One of these men almost executed in retaliation, Henry Washington Sawyer, went on after the war to build the still-extant Chalfonte Hotel in his hometown of Cape May, N.J.)

There is a weathered but still-visible monument to Thomas J. McGraw erected in 1914 by the Daughters of the Confederacy at the Flagg Springs Baptist Church cemetery where his remains were interred. (Corbin’s remains are at a family cemetery in Carthage.)

* Corbin and McGraw were set up for execution seated on the edges of their own coffins, so that the force of the firing detail’s barrage would knock them conveniently back in. That’s efficiency.

** General Order 38 also resulted in the arrest of an Indiana legislator named Alexander Douglas. Douglas beat these charges thanks to the energetic defense mounted at the tribunal by his neighbor, attorney Lambdin P. Milligan … and the fame thereby falling to the latter man would eventually help to fix his own name into the jurisprudential firmament as the subject of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Ex parte Milligan. For more background, see this pdf.

Nobody else was ever executed under General Order 38.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Kentucky,Ohio,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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