Sunday, July 5, 2009

Black Sheep Sunday: Execution of a Deserter in 1814

"The United States cantonment, now in ruins, was erected here during thelate war, on a commanding eminence 2 miles SSE. of Albany. It consisted of very extensive wooden barracks for soldiers, officers’ quarters, &c., &c., calculated for the accommodation in winter quarters of 5,000 men."
Historical collections of the state of New York..., by John Warner Barber, p383
I found several versions of this account in books and on a website, "History of Greenbush, New York". There are only slight changes between the versions. The events take place in 1814 during the War of 1812. The details may provide insight into the executions of other military men in U. S. genealogical history.

The writer is unidentified except to say that he was a Surgeon stationed at Greenbush Barracks 1812-1814. The Commander is identied only as "Col. L___". The executed deserter is completely unidentified. In spite of the vaugue attribution, the following supposed eye-witness account of the execution of a deserter from the Greenbush Barracks is vivid and may be difficult for some readers.

Click the images to enlarge them.

Here, the author is writing about the details of military discipline:

The Book of Peace, by George Cone Beckwith, American Peace Society
This last sentence is from another version of this account:

TRANSCRIPT [taken from the Historical Collections of the State of New York... account]:

"In 1814, I was stationed with a detachment of United States troops at Greenbush, in the state of New York. One morning several prisoners, confined in the provost guardhouse, were brought out to hear the sentence which a court-martial had annexed to their delinquencies read on parade. Their appearance indicated that their lot had already been sufficiently hard. Some wore marks of long confinement, and on all, the severity of the prison-house had enstamped its impression. They looked dejected at this public exposure, and anxious to learn their fate. I had never seen the face of any of them before, and only knew that a single one of them had been adjudged to death. Soon as their names were called and their sentences announced, I discerned by his agony and gestures the miserable man on whom that sentence was to fall; a man in the bloom of youth and the fulness of health and vigor.

"Prompted by feelings of sympathy, I called next morning to see him in prison. There, chained by the leg to the beam of the guard-house, he was reading the bible[sic - Bible], trying to prepare himself, as he said, for the fatal hour. I learned from him the circumstances of his case. He was the father of a family; having a wife and three young children, thirty or forty miles distant from the camp. His crime was desertion, of which he had been three times guilty. His only object in leaving the camp, in the last instance, was to visit his wife and children. Having seen that all was well with them, it was his intention to return. But whatever was his intention, he was a deserter, and as such taken and brought into the camp; manacled, and under the guard of his fellow-soldiers. The time between the sentence and its execution was brief; the authority in whom alone was vested the power of reprieve or pardon, distant. Thus he had no hope, and only requested the attendance of a minister of the gospel, and permission to see his wife and children. The first part of his request was granted, but whether he was permitted or not to see his family, I do not now remember.

"Dreading the hour of his execution, I resolved, if possible, to avoid being present at the scene. But the commander of the post, Col. L—, sent me an express order to attend, that agreeably to the usages of the army I might, in my official capacity of surgeon, see the sentence fully executed.  

"The poor fellow was taken from the guard-house to be escorted to the fatal spot. Before him was his coffin; a box of rough pine boards—borne on the shoulders of two men. The prisoner stood with his arms pinioned, between two clergymen; a white cotton gown, or windingsheet, reached to his feet. It was trimmed with black, and had attached to it over ihe place of the real heart, the black image of a heart; the mark at which the executioners were to aim. On his head was a cap of white, also trimmed with black. His countenance was blanched to the hue of his winding.sheet, and his frame trembled with agony. He seemed resolved, however, to suffer like a soldier. Behind him were a number of pris0ners, confined for various offences; next to them was a strong guard of soldiers, with fixed bayonets and loaded muskets. My station was in the rear of the whole. 

"Our procession thus formed, and with much feeling and in low voices on the part of the officers, we moved forward with slow and measured steps to the tune of the death march, (Roslin Castle,) played with muffled drums and mourning fifes. The scene was solemn beyond the powers of description. A man in the vigor of life walking to his grave; to the tune of his own death-march, clothed in his burial robes, surrounded by friends assembled to perform the last sad offices of affection, and to weep over him in the last sad hour: no, not by these, but by soldiers with bristling bayonets and loaded muskets, urged by stern command to do the violence of death to a fellow-soldier; as he surveys the niultitude, he beholds no look of tenderness, no tear of sensibility; he hears no plaint of grief; all, all is stern as the iron rigor of the law which decrees his death. 

"....Amid reflections like these, we arrived at the place of execution, a large open field, in whose centre a heap of earth, freshly thrown up, marked the spot of the deserter’s grave. On this field the whole force then at the cantonment, amounting to many hundred men, was drawn up in the form of a hollow square, with the side beyond the grave vacant. The executioners, eight in number, had been drawn by lot. No soldier would volunteer for such a duty. Their muskets had been charged by the officer of the day; seven of them with ball, the eighth with powder alone. Thus prepared they were placed together, and each executioner takes his choice. Thus each may believe that he has the blank cartridge, and therefore has no hand in the death of his brother soldier; striking indications of the nature of the service. 

"The coffin was placed parallel with the grave, and about two feet distant. In the intervening space the prisoner was directed to stand. He desired permission to say a word to his fellow-soldiers; and thus standing between his coffin and his grave, warned them against desertion, continuing to speak until the officer on duty, with his watch in his hand, announced to him in a low voice, ‘Two o’clock, your last moment is at hand; you must kneel upon your coffin.’ This done, the officer drew down the white cap, so as to cover the eyes and most of the face of the prisoner—still continuing to speak in a hurried, loud and agitated voice. The kneeling was the signal for the executioners to advance. They had before, to avoid being distinguished by the prisoner, stood intermingled with the soldiers who formed the line. They now came forward, marching abreast, and took their stand a little to the left, about two rods distant from their living mark. The officer raised his sword. At this signal, the executioners took aim. He then gave a blow on a drum which was at hand; the executioners all fired at the same instant. The miserable man, with a horrid scream, leaped from the earth, and fell between his coffin and his grave. The sergeant of the guard, a moment after, shot him through the head with a musket reserved for this purpose in case the executioners failed to produce instant death. The sergeant, from motives of humanity, held the muzzle of his musket near the head; so near that the cap took fire; and there the body lay upon the face; the head emitting the mingled fumes of burning cotton and burning hair. O war, dreadful even in thy tenderness; horrible even in thy compassion!

"I was desired to perform my part of the ceremony; and placing my hand where just before the pulse beat full, and the life flowed warm, and finding no symptom of either, I affirmed, he is dead. The line then marched by the body, as it lay upon the earth, the head still smoking; that every man might behold for himself the fate of a deserter. 

"Thus far, all had been dreadful indeed, but solemn, as it became the sending of a spirit to its dread account; but now the scene changes. The whole band struck up, and with uncommon animation, our national air (Yankee Doodle,) and to its lively measures we were hurried back to our parade ground. Having been dismissed, the commander of the post sent an invitation to all the officers to meet at his quarters, whither we repaired, and were treated to a glass of gin and water. Thus this melancholy tragedy ended in what seemed little better than a farce; a fair specimen, the former of the dread severity—the latter of the moral sensibilities which prevail in the camp."


  1. What a sad tale. That poor boy who just wanted to go see his family and be sure they were all right. Today we can know instantly what is going on, through the Web and e-mail and cell phones. In those days, it took days or weeks for information to flow from one point to another. We have no notion of what it was like. True, desertion is an extremely serious matter, but I think this was more a case of UA (Unauthorized Absence, used to be called AWOL) than of desertion, and that the authority who condemned this lad had no compassion. I speak as a former member of the U.S. military (Coast Guard).

  2. If this was indeed a real account, no wonder the author wanted to remain anonymous. His feeling in the matter are no secret.

  3. Wrong book attribution corrected. Dang!