1814: Four of five deserters, in Buffalo

2 comments June 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1814, an American army in Buffalo, N.Y., shaken by desertions lined up five absconding soldiers for execution.

The memoirs of one Jarvis Hanks, a drummer, recalled the singular scene that ensued.

In this alternative history of the war of 1812, the sergeant commanding the firing party and the soldier not executed make their way down the continent as an odd couple and fight in the Battle of New Orleans.

During the time we remained at Buffalo, five men were sentenced to be publicly shot for the offence of desertion. They were dressed in white robes with white caps upon their heads, and a red target fastened over the heart. The army was drawn up into a hollow square to witness the example that was about to be made of their comrades who had proved recreant to the regulations of the service. Five graves were dug in a row, five coffins placed near them, also in a line, with distance between coffins and graves to enable the criminals to kneel between them. About twelve men were assigned to the execution of each offender. Their guns were loaded by officers, and they were not permitted to examine them afterwards until they had fired.

All things being in readiness, the chaplain made a prayer, the caps were pulled down over the eyes of the poor culprits, and the word of command given: “Ready! Aim! Fire!” They all fell! Some into their graves, some over their coffins. One struggled faintly and the commanding officer ordered a sergeant to approach and end his misery. He obeyed by putting the muzzle of his piece within a yard of his head, and discharging it. This quieted him perfectly!

At this time one of the condemned slowly arose from his recumbent position to his knees and was assisted to his feet. His first remark was, “By God, I thought I was dead”. In consequence of his youth and the peculiar circumstances of his case, he had been reprieved, but the fact was not communicated to him until this moment. He had anticipated execution with his comrades, and when the report of the guns took place, he fell with them, though not a ball touched him. The platoon assigned to him had guns given to them which were not charged, or at least had nothing but powder in them.

Even Dostoyevsky didn’t get to the point where the mock executioners actually “fired”.

These executions took place during the Niagara campaign in the latter stages of the war — the Americans’ last push in their unsuccessful bid to conquer Canada.

* This execution, which obviously has a folklorish quality, has somewhat slippery particulars. The not-necessarily-dependable dating of the Espy file (pdf) places it on this date, as does The Rivers of War, which squares with the quoted soldier’s account of timing and the known troop movements. Hanks’ writings (and that of two other War of 1812 soldiers) is published in Soldiers of 1814: American Enlisted Men’s Memoirs of the Niagara Campaign. (Review.)

Espy names the executed soldiers as John Black, Mahlon Christie, George Orcote, and Isaac Kent.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Military Crimes,Mock Executions,New York,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,USA,Wartime Executions

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1862: Asa Lewis, Confederate deserter

4 comments December 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1862, a 19-year-old Confederate infantryman became the tragic victim at Murfreesboro, Tenn., of his army’s need to shore up military discipline.

Kentuckian Asa Lewis was shot for desertion, for having returned home after his enlistment expired in order to help his family plant the season’s crops.

“French leave”,* it’s sometimes called — an illicit but temporary and often unpunished absence from the unit.

According to Mark Weitz’s More Damning Than Slaughter: Desertion in the Confederate Army, it was a pervasive phenomenon — as were more permanent desertions which menaced the small Confederate army, fighting amid the soldiers’ own farms, whose languishing from the conscription of able-bodied men presented a constant temptation to depart.**

[The South’s] white population combined with its preferred form of agriculture to create a potential pool of men who could hardly be called disposable … To find the Southern soldier one must go down the food chain into that vast sea of men referred to as yeomen and poor whites. These men and their sons would form the backbone of the Southern army, an army of farmers, men whose lives were as governed by the seasons as the lives of their fathers and grandfathers before them. These men could not be spared in the same way as their Northern counterparts without affecting the quality of their families’ lives — and often those families’ very survival.

Under less urgent circumstances, Lewis would be the poster child for the guy who would sort of deserve to slide for the odd spell of French leave.

He’d fought with distinction, earning decorations and promotions, and his mother and sisters were reportedly starving without his help. He was only being kept in the army after his term of engagement by the 19th-century equivalent of a stop-loss policy.

But Lewis had the bad fortune to go AWOL — it seems he did intend to return — right when the urgency of the army-wide desertion situation was becoming apparent to Confederate brass … and while serving under the general who Weitz says took it most seriously.

Gen. Braxton Bragg had issued an amnesty earlier that fall to clear the decks, and then declared pitiless treatment of desertion going forward.

Bragg understood something that his superiors, peers, and colleagues did not: the Confederacy had an army of farmers … Bragg knew that these men were fighting at home, that they would [sic] were being drawn back there, and that he had to take immediate steps to close off the avenues of departure.

Bragg tightened the screws on soldiers who straggled on the march (a common strategy to slink away), on grunts seeking medical furloughs (already establishing themselves as a halfway house towards a discharge), and on Confederate prisoners obtained by exchange for Union POWs (who were no longer paroled back home, but kept with the army).

Asa Lewis was hardly the only man shot under the policy. But construing mere French leave as capitally punishable “desertion” gave the general a chance to put the fear of a Confederate firing squad into other potential stragglers and malingerers — and the Kentuckian campaign to obtain clemency for the poor kid probably only helped Bragg’s purpose.

The next day’s Rebel Banner (cited in this free Google books offering) ran this item:

[A]midst a drenching rain-storm, Asa Lewis, member of Captain Page’s company, Sixth Kentucky regiment, was shot by a file of men. He was executed upon a charge of desertion, which was fully proven against him. The scene was one of great impressiveness and solemnity. The several regiments of Hanson’s brigade were drawn up in a hollow square, while Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, with their staffs, were present to witness the execution. The prisoner was conveyed from jail to the brigade drill-ground on an open wagon, under the escort of a file of ten men, commanded by Major Morse and Lieut. George B. Brumley. Lewis’s hands were tied behind him, a few words were said to him by Generals Brekinridge and Hanson, and word fire was given, and all was over. The unfortunate man conducted himself with great coolness and composure. He was said to have been a brave soldier, and distinguished himself at the battle of Shiloh.

Official journos may have been approving — Weitz says a contemporary newspaper report approvingly claimed that “when Bragg saw his army melting away from desertion he began shooting every man convicted by a court-martial, and that as a result his army had become ‘well disciplined'” — but less charitable interpretations of Bragg would hew more to the line that the man was simply being a petty, vindictive tyrant.

The aforementioned execution witness Breckinridge, for instance, was a Kentuckian himself and hated Bragg’s guts. (A week later, Bragg would waste 10,000 Confederate lives at the Battle of Stones River, and the rift became irreparable.)

* The French call it “English leave”.

** Other able-bodied farm laborers in the South, of course, were better inclined to back the Union.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Shot,Soldiers,Tennessee,USA,Wartime Executions

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