Military Executions in the Confederacy

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I’ve been collecting information and sketching ideas on the topic of civilian morale in Virginia in 1864. I want to approach this question from as many perspectives as possible. There is no simple answer. I recently went back to review earlier research on Confederate military executions, which I believe provides some information relevant to understanding morale on the home front. While any conclusions are speculative, I found that both soldiers and civilians continued to support the practice of military executions throughout the war as a way to maintain the integrity of the army and as a form of nationalism. Here is a sample of execution accounts in Southern newspapers and a brief account of how the subject was used in a theatre production in Atlanta in 1862.

Though it is almost impossible to gauge the reaction of civilians to the army’s practice of executing transgressors, clearly many did know of the practice since numerous newspapers included accounts of executions, some of them being quite graphic. Confederate Captain J. R. Rhodes’ execution in September 1863 was covered by both the Richmond Examiner and the Augusta Daily Chronicle & Sentinel from Georgia. The primary goal of the inclusion of such accounts in newspapers was to deter civilians from tempting soldiers from the ranks with the threat of death. “What a sad warning to the living! Will any profit by it?” The Chronicle answered its own question by noting simply that, “Some may; others will not.” The Examiner took a different approach to sharing the dangers of desertion with its readers by including a more graphic account of Rhodes’ execution:

Attention! The command startles every one. The doomed man sinks down upon his coffin and fixes his eyes upon the twelve bright tubes that are leveled at his breast, but drops his head the next moment. Fire! - a dash, a report – and as the white smoke is slowly lifted by the breeze a mangled, lifeless form is seen lying beside the coffin, and the long lines of soldiers shrink back from the sight.”

The Richmond Daily Dispatch offered its readers a detailed account of a mass execution that took place on September 5, 1863. The condemned were ten men from the Third North Carolina Infantry of Brigadier General George H. Steuart’s brigade accused of desertion and murder. The account took readers from the placement of the stakes in the ground, the arrival of the condemned and their final moments. Though the witnesses were veterans of the “blood and carnage of twenty battlefields . . . they beheld with uncontrollable emotion the solemn preparation for the execution of the condemned, and seemed to be penetrated with the solemnity of the religious services which were being carried on.” The final moments of the accused were particularly poignant. As the firing party was being deployed, “the prisoners broke out into loud and frequent appeals to the Almighty to have mercy on their souls and pardon their sins.” The account ends with the “corpses of ten men hung in the horrible relaxation of death to the stakes where they were pinioned.” The Lynchburg Virginian also offered to its readers a detailed account of the March 1864 execution of privates G.W. Burnside, G. Whitt, and Jacob Winnery – all served in the 36th Virginia Regiment. Perhaps out of consideration for the families of the three condemned men, the writer made it a point to note their conduct during those final moments. According the observer, “Throughout the whole affair the three bore themselves very bravely; few men have ever met death with more calmness and resignation.”

Accounts that provided such detail sent a clear message to a number of parties, including men in the ranks, loved ones back home, and those enlisted men who had already deserted. Some newspapers chose to forego lengthy accounts and instead simply provided readers with lists of those sentenced to be executed. On May 5, 1864, the Augusta Daily Constitutionalist provided its readers with a list of twenty names from men serving in units from all over the Confederacy who were scheduled to be executed “within the next ten days.” For those already executed, the newspaper included basic information as it did in the case of Private Henry Jerome who served in the 17th South Carolina Regiment and was found to be “twice guilty [of] deserting his colors.” The newspaper described him as a “man of mature years, short in stature, quiet demeanor” and its readers were left knowing that Jerome was survived by a wife and three children. In addition to first-hand accounts of executions, most newspapers included notices from individual units for those absent without leave; monetary rewards were often given for a successful capture or information leading to the return of a soldier. The Richmond Daily Dispatch for August 22, 1862 listed notices from the First Maryland Regiment, W. Gordon McCabe’s battery, 34th North Carolina Regiment, Thomas Artillery, and the 48th and 58th Virginia Regiments.

Editorials also provide insight into popular perceptions of the necessity and justification for executions. The Richmond Daily Dispatch contained one such editorial in the wake of an execution that took place in August 1862. The newspaper urged its readers to see desertion as a “crime” and executions as the only remedy, “unless we have determined to abandon the cause altogether.” The editorial goes on to criticize the “clemency” of the Executive and its “disastrous effect” on unit cohesion. What is most telling about this particular analysis of the necessity of executions is that the paper asks its readers to identify with the broader cause of Confederate independence and the virtues of sacrifice. Many surely sympathized with individual stories of soldiers deserting for the sake of family; however, the author reminded its readers that, “All have been called to the service of the country at enormous sacrifice.” According to the logic of the editor, “What would be an excuse for one man would be an excuse for all.” The lengthy discourse closed with an appeal to President Jefferson Davis to issue a proclamation offering a pardon to those who would voluntarily return, but not to interfere with the death penalty once that time had passed.

A military execution was also the subject of a play, which ran in the city of Atlanta in 1862. The playwright, known only as “The Lady of Atlanta”, used an execution to appeal to her fellow citizens not to take economic advantage of families with loved ones in the army. The three-act play, The Soldier’s Wife, tells the story of the Lee family. Act one opens with Mr. Lee about to leave for the army with the encouragement of his wife, who urges him to do his duty to his country. She assures him that the family will manage while he is away. Following his departure, Mrs. Lee finds it difficult to secure work due to illness and lack of available jobs. The local official in charge of financial relief, Mr. Thompson, gives her no assistance and instead pockets the money for himself. Meanwhile, on guard duty at the front, Mr. Lee expresses concern about his family. He has not received a letter from his wife for months, and fears that she is either dead or too impoverished to afford the price of postage. He resolves to desert and return home. Before he arrives home, however, his family is evicted for non-payment of rent and end up wandering through the snow covered woods where they all die of exposure. Soon after Mr. Lee discovers them and expresses his grief. He is then arrested for desertion.

The final act begins with Mr. Lee in prison waiting to be hanged for desertion. Before he is, however, he learns that the community has heard of his plight and vows never again will a family be neglected. Even Mr. Thompson has a change of heart and swears never to betray members of his own community in times of trouble. The play ends with an epilogue, in the form of a poem that begs the audience to remember and be generous to the families of those who are off fighting for their country. Mr. Lee waits for the moment of his execution while all his thoughts are of his lost family. He prays that God will forgive him as the officer arrives with two of Lee’s friends, Mr. Reid and the Lee’s good neighbor, Pat.

The overall message of this play is remarkable not simply for its explicit meaning, but for what it does not address. Not once does a character question whether Mr. Lee should be executed for deserting the army out of concern for his family. Instead, Mr. Lee emerges as a tragic figure whose death was unnecessary but for the selfish behavior of others. The Soldier’s Wife presents its viewers with a moral outlook that places the individual within a broader context of responsibility for families who struggled due to the absence of loved ones in the military. Desertions and executions could be prevented through the aid of others, but the punishment remained a necessity and morally justified none the less.

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