1864: The Kinston hangings

2 comments February 15th, 2013 Headsman

Even the most casual student of the U.S. Civil War will know of Confederate Gen. George Pickett, namesake of Pickett’s Charge during the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg.

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.

Book CoverGeneral Pickett is far removed now from the high-water mark of the Confederacy, scrapping in eastern North Carolina, where loyalties in the Civil War are quite divided.

There, the federals had held the town of New Bern going on two long years. Pickett was detailed to mount an assault upon it, which failed, but netted him a number of Union prisoners.

Desertion plagued the Confederate army in general.

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.

Major-General Pickett,
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.

Pickett lived until 1875, selling insurance without legal molestation but also shadowed by the dark cloud of Kinston. After his death at age 50, his wife went on to rehabilitate Pickett’s reputation in the popular eye.

But not in every eye.

As late as the turn of the century, a veteran’s polemic was dedicated to excoriating not only Pickett, but Grant and the Union men who had declined to punish him.

We’ve only outlined the Kinston story in this post, but much more detailed narratives can be found at:

* 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.

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1862: Samuel Calhoun, antebellum serial killer

Add comment February 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Private Samuel H. Calhoun of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry was executed by the Union Army in Bardstown, Kentucky, for murdering a local farmer.

(Calhoun had previously killed the farmer’s pig, and the farmer had Calhoun arrested. So this was settling the score.)

“I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age,” he signed off in his published confession, dictated to Jonathan Harrington Green. “Adieu.”

If the confession is to be believed the farmer was just the last of maybe dozens of Calhoun’s victims, slain remorselessly everywhere from North Carolina to Mexico over the preceding years. But is this unverifiable

Read on for the full story in a post at Civil War Medicine guest-authored by one of our favorite crime-history bloggers, Robert Wilhelm of Murder by Gaslight.

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1865: Antone Richers, Galveston deserter

Add comment March 3rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1865, the Confederate forces defending Galveston, Texas shot Antone Richers for desertion.

With the U.S. Civil War into its mopping-up phase, the Texas port was bracing for the Union to land an irresistible force. Many soldiers inclined less to brace than to bow: with the handwriting on the wall for any fool to see, the grey army suffered an epidemic of judicious desertions.

Antone Richers was one of these. Just, maybe not so judicious.

Richers was retrieved from the drink when the stolen boat he was attempting to ride out to the Union blockade capsized, and the upright Confederate officer who pulled him out wouldn’t take a bribe to keep keep quiet about it.

Condemned “to be shot to death with musketry” for his trouble, Richers died this date in especially pitiable fashion. According to Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston, a newspaper report of the execution ran thus:

A sharp rattle of musketry, and the prisoner fell dead, several balls having passed through his breast … The saddest part of the story remains to be told. The friends of [the prisoner] had sent Rev. Father Ansteadt on the day before the execution, by hand car, to Houston, as bearer of documents addressed to General Walker, showing that [Richers] was not of sound mind, and setting forth other reasons why he ought to be respited. The telegraph line between [Galveston] and Houston broke down the evening before the execution, and remained down [until] fifteen minutes after the execution. No intelligence from General Walker could therefore reach [Galveston]. But as soon as the telegraph operated, a dispatch was received from General Walker, dated the night before, containing an order for the respite of Anton [Richers]. It was too late — the man was dead.

It was Galveston’s second and last military execution of the war.


Galveston’s Confederate monument, erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy: “Dignified Resignation”. (cc) image from Patrick Feller.

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1864: Martin Robinson, treacherous guide

1 comment March 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1864, a Union officer frustrated of a design to raid Richmond during the U.S. Civil War hanged a local African-American guide whom he thought had intentionally misled him like Susanin.

The account of an army chaplain attached to the 5th New York Cavalry explains:

The guide, a negro, had misled us during the night, and, to obviate the delay of retracing our steps. Col. Dahlgren, on the representations of the negro that an excellent ford was to be found at Dover Mills, concluded to cross at that point. After two hours’ halt we again moved on, and soon reached Dover Mills, but only to meet disappointment.


Dover Milles, Civil War era illustration

The negro had deceived us, no ford existed at this point nor any means of crossing the river. He then stated that the ford was three miles below: this was obviously false, as the river was evidently navigable to and above this place, as we saw a sloop going down the river.

… he came into our lines from Richmond … [and] was born and had always belonged in the immediate vicinity of Dover Mills, was very shrewd and intelligent, and it would seem impossible that he should not know that no ford existed in the neighborhood, where he had seen vessels daily passing. Col. Dahlgren had warned him that if detected acting in bad faith, or lying, we would surely hang him, and after we left Dover Mills, and had gone down the river so far as to render further prevarication unavailing, the colonel charged him with betraying us, destroying the whole design of the expedition, and hazarding the lives of every one engaged in it, — and told him that he should be hung in conformity with the terms of his service. The negro became greatly alarmed, stated confusedly that he was mistaken, thought we intended to cross the river in boats, and finally said that he had done wrong, was sorry, etc. The colonel ordered him to be hung, — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch dangling by the roadside.

Our correspondent terms this the case of the “Faithless Negro”, but posterity has the luxury of a less paranoiac reading than indulged by a troupe of hotheaded commandos deep in enemy territory all a-panic as their expedition implodes. The James River was just plain swollen with winter rains. Bad luck all around.

A Goochland County marker marks the spot of the botched crossing and subsequent execution.

But we’re really just getting started. Stay tuned for some serious blowback from this bootless military debacle.

The full story of the raid is a tangled and contested affair, but it’s well worth perusing in detail. To sum up:

This expedition’s leader, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, abandoned the effort and in the attempt to fall back, rode into a Confederate ambush the next day. He died in the fusillade, while his men were captured.

The body of this late Col. Dahlgren, on whose authority our misfortunate guide was put to death, was found by the Confederates to bear some startling papers* … indicating that the intent of his ill-starred expedition was not merely to liberate starving northern prisoners, but that “once in the City it must be destroyed & Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”

Within days, the story was abroad and Richmond newspapers floridly outraged at this proposed breach of chivalrous warfare.

Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee was able to quash public demands for the Dahlgren party’s summary execution, the documents may indeed have marked a turning point in the war’s conduct, a public announcement of total warfare sufficient for the South to “inaugurate a system of bloody retaliations.”** If so, it was a well-timed license: the Confederacy was in the process of being steamrolled and would soon require recourse to more desperate strategems.

After Dahlgren, argues Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln, “there was an increase in Confederate clandestine activity designed to encourage the antiwar faction in the North to organize and revolt” — even including a mirror-image Confederate cavalry raid on Washington D.C. with an eye towards capturing Lincoln.

There are, in fact, some historians who postulate that it was “bloody retaliation” for Dahlgren’s attempt on the Confederate president that ultimately led southern agents to initiate the late-war plots against Abraham Lincoln’s person — resulting ultimately in Lincoln’s assassination:

Ulric Dahlgren, and [his] probable patron [U.S. Secretary of War] Edwin Stanton set out to engineer the death of the Confederacy’s president; the legacy spawned out of the utter failure of their effort may have included the death of their own president.

That is some blowback.

Books exploring the alleged link between the Dahlgren Papers and the Lincoln assassination

* It must be said that the Dahlgren papers have been continually contested as frauds from the moment they were known, though many historians do indeed consider them legitimate. We are in no position to contribute to that debate, and for the purposes of this post’s narration the question is immaterial: the papers, forged or not, certainly existed, were widely publicized, and genuinely angered many southerners.

** These words are the demand of the March 8, 1864 Richmond Dispatch.

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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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1865: John Yates Beall, well-connected Confederate

8 comments February 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Confederate John Yates Beall was hanged at Governors Island, New York, as a spy and saboteur.

This Virginian was knocked out of regular service through injuries early in the Civil War, but proceeded to a privateering career harassing Union shipping.

The pinpricks inflicted by Beall’s couple of ships was hardly calamitous for the North, but what he lacked in resources he made up in persistence.

Captured and exchanged midway through the war, he returned to his swashbuckling ways. But sneaking into New York from Canada in a bid to free rebel prisoners, Beall was caught again trying to derail trains — and secretly condemned by a military tribunal.

When the news of his impending execution got out, six Senators and 85 other members of Congress* appealed for leniency.

Despite Lincoln’s reputation for clemency, he did not grant it in this case.

“For days before the execution,” it was said, “the President closed the doors of the executive palace against all suppliants, male or female, and his ears against all appeals, whether with the tongue of men or angels in behalf of the unfortunate prisoner. From the first Mr. Lincoln had responded to all applications for his interposition — ‘Gen. Dix may dispose of the case as he pleases — I will not interfere.’ Gen. Dix on his part replied, ‘All now rests with the President — as far as my action rests there is not a gleam of hope.’ Thus they stood as the pillars of the gallows, on which Beall’s fate was suspended and between them he died.” (Source)

Here’s the capture-trial-and-execution portions of a homemade documentary on Beall (also check the preceding parts 1, 2, and 3)

There’s a strange tradition that the hanged man was a personal friend of John Wilkes Booth, and that the actor’s assassination of Honest Abe seven weeks after Beall’s hanging was partly motivated by personal revenge.

* One of Beall’s clemency supporters was future assassinated U.S. President James Garfield.

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1845: Lavinia Burnett and Crawford Burnett

Add comment November 8th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1845, husband-and-wife murderers Crawford and Lavinia Burnett (nee Sharp) danced a gallows jig built for two in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The duo contrived with their son, John, to rob and murder a nearby recluse, Jonathan Selby, for the money he was thought to be hoarding.

The family the slays together, pays together.

Alas for mom, dad, and big brother, 15-year-old daughter Minerva shopped them.

John-boy was still on the lam at this time — he’d be caught soon, and hanged December 26 — but Lavinia and Crawford hanged together before a large crowd in the vicinity of the present-day Fayetteville National Cemetery.

It was the first recorded execution of a woman in Arkansas history, and would be the only such until the year 2000.

Among the ranks of the Burnetts’ illustrious if unsuccessful defense team was Isaac Murphy, who would go on to become a notable pro-Union pol during the Civil War (with a murky part in an infamous massacre of Confederate sympathizers), and subsequently became governor of the state during Reconstruction.

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1865: Champ Ferguson, Confederate guerrilla

6 comments October 20th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Champ Ferguson was controversially hanged at Nashville for the “murders” he committed as a Confederate guerrilla.

There seems to be some slight difference of opinion (and do click that link) over Champ‘s role in the War Between the States.

Had the Confederate cause prevailed, he probably would have been a hero. Since history is written by the winners … here he is instead.

For reasons that lie in the uncertain junction between personal enmity and sectional loyalty, the war’s start saw Ferguson terrorizing Union supporters in the Kentucky-Tennessee borderlands, operating primarily around Sparta, Tenn.

These were not only state borders, but borders between the rival federal and Confederate territories. Civil War borders, obviously, were hazy and violently contested affairs: Kentucky was northern-controlled but claimed by both sides (it had rival governments); Tennessee seceded only after Fort Sumter.

Loyalties within Kentucky and Tennessee were divided as well. Ferguson’s own brother died fighting for the Union, and his cousin was killed by Ferguson’s own men. But the main battles were fought far away, leaving the conflict to play out locally.

In many cases … guerrillas identifying with the Confederacy operated well outside Confederate lines and Confederate control, leading to a certain ambiguity in official attitudes, since they did have their uses.

Guerrilla activity was … a feature of those up-country or back-country areas of states like North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, in which there were significant internal divisions in terms of sympathy for Confederacy or Union … guerrilla conflict was the only direct face of war experienced by many in Tennessee and Kentucky, since the movements of the main armies remained distant from them throughout. Unionist guerrillas, for example, controlled many of the counties of eastern Tennessee, while Confederate guerrillas disputed Union control of western Kentucky and middle Tennessee. One of the ironies of the situation in the Appalachians, the Cumberlands and the Ozarks was that, while these areas of rugged terrain were favoured by Confederate guerrillas, they were also the very areas within the Confederacy which most Union sympathisers inhabited

-Ian Beckett, Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies

That was Ferguson — a “legendary Confederate partisan and guerrilla” or little better than a bandit, depending on your point of view. Either way, he was feared by area Unionists and renowned for killing prisoners. Stories of his savagery — severing heads and the like — made the rounds. Ferguson would argue (and did) that he did nothing his enemies weren’t also doing. (The New York Times printed a lengthy account (.pdf) of Ferguson’s versions of the many killings he was accused of — disputing some, frankly acknowledging many.)

That brings us back to winners and losers.

Ferguson, of course, got the losers’ treatment after the war; while vendettas against rank and file Confederate officers were not on the agenda, Ferguson’s irregular status and unbecoming reputation set him up for a war crimes trial. All attempts to claim wartime protections were rejected.

The Times account of his hanging this day — witnessed by his wife and 16-year-old daughter; their alleged rape is sometimes given as the reason for Ferguson’s campaign — is picturesque. (.pdf)

He stood composedly on the drop some twenty minutes, while the charges, specifications and sentence were read by Col. Shafter. He nodded recognition to several persons in the crowd, and shifted his position in an impatient manner while the sentence was being read. To some specifications he inclined his head in assent. To others he shook his head. That about Elam Huddleston caused him to say, “I can tell it better than that.” When the speaker read, “To all of which the prisoner pleads not guilty,” he said, “I don’t now.”


An 1865 Harper’s illustration of the hanging. See the way the troops surround the scaffold? There’s a bit of folklore that the military did that in order to fake the hanging and cut him down still alive.

Along with Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Confederate prison Andersonville, Ferguson was the only Confederate executed for Civil War “war crimes.”

Arguably somewhat neglected as a Civil War figure, Ferguson still has a few books detailing his life. An interview with the a author of the newly-published Cumberland Blood: Champ Ferguson’s Civil War is here.

A few books about Champ Ferguson

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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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