Confederate Military Executions

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.   

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8 comments… add one
  • Marion Hoosier Sep 11, 2011 @ 17:38

    Dear Sir,
    My family has been told through the years that our Great-Great Grand father Last name Conley or some spelling like that was shot in front of a firing squad in the Civil War. He was La. and was stationed in Rapides Parish, La. He supposedly was from Glenmora, La.
    One story was he went home aboput 30 miles away because his wife was sick and came back.
    The most frequently told story by my great uncle was they were ordered by the Captian in charge to take an old womans chicken for food. He refused and hit the captian and was shot for insubordination. Is there anyway to document this. Trying to find some record of him.
    I have been told his name is William or Elija Conley…
    Any suggestions..
    Marion Hoosier

  • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2008 @ 6:30

    Robert, — First things first: Thanks for alerting me to your blog. It is a breadth of fresh air given that most Civil War blogs have little of interest to say. I do hope you keep it up.

    As for your comment I think you are absolutely right that a certain amount of skepticism needs to be exercised when perusing letters for meaning and motivation. I certainly have done so in all of my projects, especially the one on Confederate military executions. What struck me in the course of my research was the uniformity of their letters in describing the execution experience. Of course, not all reflected approval, but enough did at different times during the war which led to my own conclusions. I don’t believe, however, that we need to discount a soldier’s reflections concerning executions if he subsequently “skedaddled” or expressed other frustrations with the war effort. Indeed, both William Blair (_Virginia’s Private War_) and Aaron Sheehan-Dean (_Why Confederates Fought_) have demonstrated that Confederate loyalties competed with multiple commitments to family, state, etc. No doubt some of my subjects probably abandoned the cause toward the end of the war for one reason or another, but that does not necessarily discount their thoughts at the time in question. I do agree that we need to be very careful in comparing wartime and postwar sources. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    William, — Thanks so much for sharing the account. Looks like you have quite a collection of letters.

  • Robert Moore Feb 22, 2008 @ 22:57


    I wonder if, upon reviewing soldier comments about executions, we are actually limited in our ability to assess true feelings about the events. Certainly, some soldiers did see executions as necessary for the “maintenance of the army and ultimately independence.” However, after combing through some fascinating materials about Shenandoah Valley soldiers during preparation of my thesis, I am left to wonder about the differences between what soldiers felt and what they expressed. Of course, motivations for going to war have come under the microscope in recent years and, from this we have become conscious of the fact that some (perhaps many) found “courage” to enlist only through peer influence (which came in many forms – women, neighbors and the fear of the conscript hunter’s bayonet to name a few).

    To cite one example from my own research, I know of one Confederate from the Valley who was known for his outspoken enthusiasm for the “Cause.” Not only was he outspoken, but he was also a former student of Jedediah Hotchkiss. Despite outward expressions of undying loyalty for the “Southland,” he was found, less than a year after enlisting, on the “skedaddle,” going across lines with a Union soldier. It took a great deal to get him out of the mess and I’m sure that his affiliation with Hotchkiss helped a great deal. Nevertheless, despite what he kept saying in order to justify his case (and, I’m sure, to maintain his “honor”), veterans of the unit, over 40 years after the event, still remembered that he had “gone across the lines.” That being said, I think despite expressed emotion (as in the case of what was found in recounting executions), what a soldier found “acceptable” to state in a letter may still fall short of the mark of what he felt.

    I suppose I’m just left with some very heavy skepticism in the wake of my own research and findings.

    As always, I enjoy your blog! Best, Robert

  • william mccleary Feb 22, 2008 @ 19:12

    i found this mention of execusions in my g.g greatgrand fathers letters to his wifge during the battles near or around shelbyville tn. on june 24th 1863..i have aboout 27 letters i found in the last few years since my grandmother pasted away..i have been going tyhru the letters trancscribing them aas best i can. the writer was B S Lovelace Lt under Gen Braggs staff during the entire ware. lost a leg in 1864 ..i have been looking at all of the names adn times of his letters and they all corespond with events that happened durin g the war..although he did put his own twist on some events….he was die hard confederate…and served during the entire ward with the 51st vol from tenn..
    he he was the one that took time to gather all of the blankets from his regt.. after they were routed by gen bragg to retreat early in the am before dawn and across the river…he laid back with the supply wagons and had his men gather personal effects and blankets…..the tents were all left in the field by orders of gen bragg. and he had to flee with his wagons as teh union army descended upon them and followed tehm for 3 days…they travled at night and hid during the day and after 3 days reached the river..(not sure what one but he mentioned they crossed on a pontoon bridge built by the con feds…he then returned to his regt …it rained the entire 3 days and was cold he says in his letters…there are many other things mentioned in his letters..he was around when several generlas were either wounded or killed during battle..he mentions them in his letters to his young wife eliza…

    Wife I will tell you of a scene that I had to witness not long since, that was a right hard thing. There was a man shot to death with musketry for desertion out in a field close to one camp. He belongs to our Brigade 8th Tenn Regt., we were all marched out in line on a field, had to go whether we wanted to go or not to witness the scene. He was the first man that has been shot in our division. There is another one to be shot next Friday week, he belongs to the 16th Tenn. Regt. It is also in our brigade. They always have their shootings on Fridays.

    thanks and hope to talk to you again soon

  • Kevin Jan 21, 2008 @ 11:08

    Kenny, — Thanks so much for sharing. Your letter sounds all too familiar. In fact, most of the letters and diaries that I’ve collected include just the kind of content contained in yours. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much written on this subject specifically, but you will find accounts of executions and discussion in a broad range of histories, including battle accounts and unit histories. As for additional archival material I would recommend searching the Virginia Historical Society and Library of Virginia using the terms desertion and execution. In addition you can now find many Civil War newspapers online and they contain numerous accounts. Good luck

  • Kenny Jan 21, 2008 @ 10:58

    Here is a portion of an actual letter from my G-G-Grandfather, Jonathan D. St. Clair. It was written Jan. 24, 1864 in Orange County, Va at a camp near Sommersville Ford:

    Mary I must tell you what an awful thing we had to witness hear last Tuesday evening. There was a man drawed up and shot hear last Tuesday evening like that one was at Fredericksburg last spring. He was shot for desersion. Poor fellow he left a wife and children at home. I suppose we all had to go out in the field to see him shot but just as they made ready to shoot him I turned my head and did not see him fall over but I saw him kneel dow by the side of his coffin and the handkerchief tied over his eyes and then I saw him lying dead. O what an awful sight it was. But every one will have to give a strict account for the deeds done in the body and I think the men that pass such a sentence as that on a man will have to stand fit before a just God in the day of judgement and give an account for such deeds.

    Are there actual records of events like this and if so how can I access them?

  • Kevin Levin Jun 12, 2006 @ 21:51

    Vince, — That is a very good question. I am sorry to say that my answer will be incomplete and unsatisfactory. The regiment in which the men served were typically ordered to attend an execution. At times you would have had larger units ordered depending on how many were being executed. When I say “attracted” I mean to include both those ordered and those that attended out of their own volition. I came across a number of letters where the soldier references an execution in another regiment of the same brigade, but was not ordered to attend. I will have to look into this a bit more and thanks for pointing it out.

  • Vince Slaugh Jun 12, 2006 @ 21:11

    Could you please clarify what the word “attracted” in “attracted around fifteen thousand men” means? Were they voluntary spectators or was attendance mandatory? I would guess the latter, but the wording seems vague on a matter in which different meanings could reflect consequential differences–then again, maybe I’m looking at it from the wrong angle or you address it elsewhere.
    Always a pleasure reading,

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