Civil War Chaplains and Executioners

John E. Carey

Civil War diaries and letters from the front reveal a common thread about chaplains: the soldiers almost universally admired and respected the good chaplains and treated others with distain. Chaplains had many roles to fill and their duties either endeared them to the men or caused misunderstandings or unhappiness.

Civil War chaplains served in dozens of roles both traditional and unusual. Typically, and rightly, we think of chaplains holding services, preaching to the soldiers, listening, and leading the men in church songs. But chaplains worked every day; not just on Sunday. War diaries tell us that the chaplains performed many non-traditional functions such as mailman, pay collector (sending soldiers’ pay home to their relatives), correspondent (writing letters for the wounded or illiterate and to families after deaths occurred). Some chaplains became scouts, provisioners and diplomats. Almost universally, chaplains assisted doctors in the hospitals in any number of ways. Following a Court Martial, it was often the chaplain who made that last lonely walk with the condemned man on his way to meet his maker.

Summoned by military order and sometimes in writing, the chaplain would find himself face-to-face with some wretch who had been convicted of desertion, rape or some other grievous offense. This religious duty of extending God’s graces to even the most questionable of characters meant that the priest or chaplain gained a keen insight into the depths of human nature. He became, in effect, a good judge of character.

When the chaplain encountered the “executioner,” that is, the officer who convened the Court Martial or commanded the unit involved, the chaplain’s judge of character and reputation came into harsh conflict with the rigors of military discipline.

On April 24, 1864, Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade made efforts to set aside a conviction and execution of one Private Dawson. His requests moved up the chain of command without resolution. Finally, Father Corby sent this telegram to President Abraham Lincoln: “His Excellency; A. Lincoln; President of the United States — General Meade has not the official proceedings relative to the court martial of L. Dawson who is under sentence of death to take place the 25th instant therefore….Please say what might be done.”

We can only speculate as records are incomplete but it appears that Father Corby may have previously discussed the Dawson case with President Lincoln.

Corby had put Lincoln on the spot. Lincoln had been widely known in the army as a man of reason and leniency. By 1864, military leaders considered this a severe negative influence on good order and discipline. Grant had discussed the issue himself with the president, encouraging the commander in chief to stay out of the Court Martial appeal process.

On April 25, General Meade sent this telegram to the President: “I duly received your note by Mr. Corby & after examining the case of Dawson could find nothing to justify my recommending a mitigation….Unless you intervene he will be executed.”

Dawson was executed.

Even though Corby had come into conflict with General Meade, Meade understood and respected the role of the chaplain and kept him involved with the execution process.

On July 12, 1864, Father Corby was summoned to assist a convicted man with this memorandum:

“Rev’d Sir: There are two men to be executed on the 15th inst., one of whom, especially, is very anxious to secure the services of a priest. If you will be pleased to attend him, the provost-marshal at headquarters will be instructed to furnish you all the facilities necessary to discharge the functions of your sacred office.”

“By order of Maj-Gen. Meade”

Father Corby rode off immediately to fulfill his ordered “sacred office” and upon meeting the convicted immediately sensed innocence. “He was not a low, depraved person by any means, but in time of temptation he had fallen.” Father Corby went to work ministering to the condemned man.

Military justice, more often than not, dominated any attempts to set aside a conviction. Father Corby was bound to see this execution to the end. “There were, perhaps, ten thousand men present. A strong guard conducted the prisoner to the scaffold, and I rode beside him until we reached the spot…. I attended to the two men and escorted them up the scaffold. Without very much ceremony the ropes were adjusted about their necks, and, while both continued to pray for God’s mercy, a silent signal was given and both dropped dangling at the end of the ropes – dead!”

General Meade was not inclined toward leniency.

Father Constantine L. Egan, who had served with the 9th Massachusetts until the muster-out of the regiment in June of 1864, and then was attached to the Headquarters of the 5th Army Corps, recounted a very similar summons to minister to a convicted man in April, 1865. “We have a prisoner under sentence of death for desertion; the time appointed for his execution is Friday. He desires the attention of a clergyman of your denomination…”

Egan set about to have the execution put aside. He convinced Major General S. H. Crawford of the Third Division, Fifth Army Corps, to send him to General Meade with a letter of introduction and a military escort. “The carriage was made ready with seventeen troopers, and Gen Crawford, handing me the letter, we started on our journey.”

Father Egan ultimately had a hearing with General Meade but he was not as successful in his mission as he had hoped. Egan wrote, “The principle point of my argument representing the prisoner as a reckless half-fool, non compos mentis. The general remarked that that fellow was no fool, for he broke away from the guard three times.”

Ever the tough nut on military discipline, Meade only partially relented to Egan’s argument. “Well, Father,” Egan recalls Meade as saying, “I will suspend his execution for tomorrow, but you will have to get the doctors to substantiate your claim that the prisoner is non compos mentis.”

Thus Egan the advocate bought at least a little time to gather more information in the hope of saving a man’s life.

Like the chaplains, the doctors were under military commanders and the medics of the Civil War had virtually no knowledge of the concepts later known as “battle fatigue” and “post traumatic stress disorder.” Egan would have to witness an execution.

Military chaplains who served in combat throughout history faced daily tests of their courage and faith. The Civil War chaplains were no different. No test could have been tougher than taking that last walk with a condemned man when the chaplain believed in his heart that the accused was innocent.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page and The Washington Times.

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Civil War Hangings

By Mike Parker, The Kinston Free Press

(Oct. 11, 2004) — In the wee hours of Feb. 2, 1864, Confederate forces captured 53 men who had deserted the Stars and Bars and currently wore the uniform of those serving the Stars and Stripes. These men comprised nearly the entire roster of Company F of the Second North Carolina Volunteer Union Infantry.Within four months of capture, nearly all were dead. Many became victims of diseases after they were sent to southern prisoner of war camps.

Some were branded with a “D” for “deserter” on their hips.

However, 22 of these men were publicly hanged in Kinston.

The story of these hangings, once the stuff of local legend, entered this summer into the arena of international study thanks to the efforts of Dr. Donald Collins, a retired history professor from East Carolina University.

His account of these ill-fated men appeared in the June issue of the CHAB News. CHAB stands for the Confederate Historical Association of Belgium.

The publication is a popular Civil War magazine, similar to the Civil War Times Illustrated published in the United States.

“During the past two years, interest in the story of the Kinston hangings has expanded nationally and internationally,” Collins said. “Northerners visiting the South are often dumbfounded by the interest of Southerners in the Civil War.

“They would be more surprised at the intense interest our war has generated throughout the world.”

Germans, Austrians, Australians, Frenchmen, Belgians and other Europeans hold round-table discussions, and European re-enactor groups, fighting as both Federals and Confederates, recreate the battles of Chancellorsville, Cold Harbor and Antietam, Collins explained. The First North Carolina Cavalry has a German branch that has ridden into action for the past 12 years.

Even the Internet offers evidence of the interest people world-wide have in the American Civil War. One website’s greeting reads, “Willkommen auf des Homepages des Union and Confederate Reenactors International,” while another says, “Bienvenue sur le site du Club Confedere et Federal de France.”

Dr. Collins’ article in CHAB News, titled “General George Pickett and the Mass Execution of Deserters in Civil War Kinston, North Carolina,” is just the latest chapter in the story of this professor’s personal quest.

“I became interested in this topic many years ago while doing genealogical research on my great-grandfather, Richard Louis ‘R.L.’ Collins, who was the husband of Elsy Becton of Lenoir County. R.L. Collins owned a tailor shop next to the Pollock Hotel across from the court house before the Civil War,” Collins said.

“He lost his shop at the beginning of the war when he refused to make a Confederate flag. He even refused to sell the material to make Confederate flags.”

Collins said when he learned that his great-grandfather’s death occurred around the time of the Kinston hangings, he suspected that his Union-sympathizing ancestor was possibly one of those who ended up at the end of a rope. R.L. Collins was 31 at the time of his death.

As the professor meticulously examined documents from that historical period, he pieced together the story of the captured deserters and the Kinston hangings. Major General George Pickett was in command of Confederate forces in the Kinston and Goldsboro areas at the time of the hangings.

“I never did find out how my great-grandfather died, but being a historian, I decided to write the most detailed story of the hangings possible,” Collins explained. “After I completed the article, it took years to get it into print.”

Since the story’s first appearance in print, Collins has published an expanded version of the article in The Human Tradition in the Civil War and Reconstruction, published by Scholarly Resources, Inc.

In Jan. 2003, Collins told the story of the Kinston hangings to the Pickett Society in Richmond, Va., at the annual commemoration of Pickett’s birthday.

Professor Collins has no kind words for Gerard A. Patterson’s book, “Justice or Atrocity: General George E. Pickett and the Kinston, N.C. Hangings.”

“I have great disdain for Patterson’s book for two reasons. First, he took a subject too short for book-length treatment and padded it with Pickett’s love story,” Collins said.

“Even worse, he padded the text with statements that are just outright wrong. He makes mistakes page after page. The courts-martial did not take place at the courthouse but at Pickett’s headquarters, first in Kinston and then in Goldsboro. His claims to know the location of the hangings is incorrect because no one knows with certainty just where the hangings took place.”

Dr. Donald Collins is a retired history professor from East Carolina University. At the time of this article he was in the final stages of completed his latest book. “The Death and Resurrection of Jefferson Davis,” scheduled for release in May 2005.
*********************

Account of Civil War Executions
By Rev. Francis Springer 

On the 29th wit. A.J. Copeland, James H. Rowden, John Norwood and William Carey suffered the extreme penalty of the law for murder and the violation of the civilized rules of warfare. These men were tried by a military commission and found guilty of the above names crimes.

In April here, in company with twenty or more accomplices, they murdered eight Federal soldiers of the 1st Ark. Cav., who were herding horses near Fayetteville, Ark. They approached our men dressed in the uniform of U.S. soldiers, and pretending to belong to the 14th Kans. Cav., completely throwing them off their guard. That point gained, they suddenly and without a moment’s warning fired upon them, and killing eight out of ten.

A Union citizen, named John Brown, was also killed by the miscreants at his own house about the same time.

When the sentence of death was first read to the culprits, they first seemed to be indifferent, one of them remarking with an air of bravado, “Well, all right.” As the time of their execution drew near, however, they began somewhat to realize their awful situation, and requested the services of a spiritual adviser, and Rev. Francis Springer assumed that duty.

During the ministrations of several weeks of this reverend gentleman, they showed symptoms of considerable contrition, thought at first they seemed to be aware of scarce any consciousness of the awfulness of their crimes, which they had committed. They began to feel that they had been in their previous career the enemies of God and man, and confessed that they had been “pretty bad boys.” So callous and hardened were they at first that what they had done, they considered as first rate, too.

The condemned were all very young men, their average age not exceeding nineteen years.

Carey, the youngest, was a most desperate case, and gave his spiritual adviser a partial history of his wicked career. He is said to have killed twenty-one men. . They had all been once in the confederate army, but at the time of their capture were levying war upon their own hook, that so had become outlaws.

Early in the morning of their last day on earth the prisoners were visited by the chaplain, and impressive religious [illegible] were held. Soon after the close of this interview the irons were taken off the culprits. They were then brought forth from the prison and placed in the custody of the guard detailed for the occasion. In a few moments more they were in the wagons each one seated on his coffin. Chaplain Springer was with two of the condemned in the first wagon, and Chaplains Wilson and McAfee with the other two in the second wagon.

The solemn procession was then formed, the Provost Marshal of the District, Capt. C.O. Judson, 6th Kans. Cav., with his staff, taking the lead. Then came the music and the firing party, consisting of 64 men of the 13th Kans. Inft., the two wagons with the culprits and chaplains, and lastly the guard. A large number of citizens and soldiers lined the streets through which the procession moved.

The unfortunate but guilty man evidently tried to be firm and composed on the march, except Norwood, who repeatedly gave signs of grief by weeping and inaudible prayer. The expression of their countenances, in spite of endeavors to be self-possessed, was that of sadness and despair.

On reaching the place of execution south of town and just outside of the rifle pits, the prisoners were arraigned in a line, each one by the side of his coffin. Three sides of a hollow square of infantry had previous been formed to keep the multitude of the spectators at a proper distance, leaving the side next to the prisoners open.

The Judge Advocate of the District, Lieut. Whicher, then read to them the charges and findings of the military commission, after which the condemned kneeled down with the chaplains, and Rev. Mr. Springer offered a short and appropriate prayer. At the conclusion of it, the officers and others about the condemned shook hands with them and, bidding them a final farewell, retired except the Judge Advocate who remained til their eyes were bandaged and hands tied. By this time all of the unfortunate men showed signs of intense mental distress. Carey and Copeland prayed audibly and with great force. Norwood started a hymn, and was still singing in a low voice when the death volley sent his soul into eternity. Carey, on shaking hands with the Judge Advocate, remarked, “Judge, I hope to meet you in Heaven.” At length, as the preparations were completed, and in another moment or two forty-eight muskets were pointed at the culprits. One moment more and at the simultaneous discharge of the forty-eight guns, four lifeless bodies lay stretched on the ground.

The whole terrible scene, from beginning to end, was conducted with the propriety due to a transaction so awful but to the detail entrusted with the fatal shooting a special word is due. The entire detail, consisting of sixty-four men of the 13th Kans. Inf., was commanded by Capt. Frankhouse. Forty-eight were in line about twenty-five feet from the doomed men. One half of the guns were charged with ball and the other half with blank cartridges. The remaining sixteen men were held as a reserve in case of failure in the first discharge, but the volley of forty-eight guns was simultaneous and complete. Death ensued almost instantaneously — no lingering agony remained to torture the doomed and distress the beholders. The most painful reflection awakened by the sad ceremony was that selfish, faithless, and traitorous citizens should have stirred up a strife that precipitates into the vortex of crime, ignominy and ruin so many of the young men of our once peaceful, prosperous and happy country.


This account of the execution of four bushwhackers originally was published in the Aug. 6, 1864 edition of the Fort Smith New Era. Although the name of its author was not given in the New Era, the Rev. Francis Springer wrote the account under the name Thrifton, according to The Preacher’s Tale: The Civil War Journal of Rev. Francis Springer, Chaplain, U.S. Army of the Frontier, by Francis Springer; ed. William Furry. A copy of the account in Springer’s hand signed “Thrifton” was with his journal. Letters from each of the condemned men to their families, three of which also were written in his hand, were found among his papers. Presumably, Springer took dictation from them. For another version of the execution from Springer and text of the letters, prefer to The Preacher’s Tale.

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