I am in the process of planning my summer in hopes that I will be able to finish the Crater manuscript by September. Before I get started I hope this week to finish an article that I started a few years ago which analyzes accounts of Confederate military executions over the course of the war. I examine individual soldiers’ accounts, newspaper accounts, and even the script of a play which appeared in Atlanta. I argue that while Confederates were saddened by the loss of comrades they maintained a hardened stance on the importance of such practices. The majority of accounts that I’ve collected suggest that these men approved of executions as a way to maintain the integrity of the army and the viability of the nation. Though it is difficult to quantify, Confederates continued to support the practice of executions even late in the war. The manuscript has already received comments from a number of historians Here are the first few paragraphs. Feel free to send me references to Confederate executions that you’ve come across in your own reading.
In his 1912 memoir War Stories, Berrien M. Zettler devoted a section to describing in detail the December 9, 1861 execution of two men who served in the Louisiana "Tiger Rifles." The two soldiers had "overpowered" an officer and threatened to kill him, "and for this they had been court-martialed and condemned to be shot." According to Zettler, the execution attracted around fifteen thousand men; so many crowded into the site of the execution that "the sentinel threatened repeatedly to put his bayonet into those of us in front if we did not stand back." The prisoners finally came into sight on a wagon, which also contained their coffins. Zettler and the rest of the crowd formed three sides of a hollow square. The open side of the square contained two posts measuring about two feet above the ground and were located approximately 30 feet apart. The prisoner’s hands were tied behind them before being attached to the posts. Finally, they were blindfolded. A detail of twelve men was marched in front of the prisoners. Zettler remembered "that only six of the guns in each platoon had balls in them, the other being loaded with blank cartridges." The officer in charge raised his hand signaling the detail to lower their weapons "to the position of aim." The orders were given silently by these movements, so that the prisoners would not know the exact moment when they would be killed." Even after sixty years, Zettler still recalled the event as a "very sad sight and one that deeply impressed me."
Zettler’s description and reaction to the execution of two fellow Confederates courses through the letters, diaries, and memoirs of Civil War soldiers. For many of these soldiers the sight of public executions was more horrific than the carnage witnessed on the battlefields. Surprisingly, historians have not provided anything close to a systematic analysis of how Civil War soldiers responded to the execution of comrades and friends. The absence of such an analysis is difficult to explain considering the extent to which Civil War historians have gone to account for the lives of common soldiers throughout the conflict. Historians have offered accounts of Civil War soldiers’ ideological convictions, the role of unit cohesion, and the influence of loved ones back home as factors to understanding what motivated so many to remain in the ranks even after years of bloody fighting. The daily minutiae of camp life has been recovered, and the hard realities of marching and battle have also been described in detail and broken down into coherent chapters as if the soldiers themselves experienced the war in this way….
This essay surveys the spectrum of reactions to executions from Confederate soldiers throughout the war. A study focused specifically on the variety of experiences associated with executions will tell us much about how individuals came to terms with a war that was at its core an emotionally wrenching experience. More importantly, an analysis of executions sheds light on the extent to which soldiers in the ranks identified with a Confederate nation. The evidence in this essay demonstrates that although soldiers in the ranks were saddened by the sight of the execution of their comrades they overwhelmingly supported the practice as necessary for the maintenance of the army and ultimately independence. The sharp contrast between soldiers’ strong emotional reactions to executions and their more reflective assessment of its necessity suggests that sacrifice and identification with the army and nation was paramount even late in the war.