Category Archives: 1863

A Capital Mess of an Execution

The regiment had rejoined the Second Corps. They had advanced down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad across the Rappahannock River to Culpeper. Then they had turned south toward the Rapidan River. Friday, September 18th, the regiment was setting up a new camp new along Robinson Run, a tributary of the Rapidan.

Late in the day the entire division was ordered to fall in and march to a field on a hillside to witness the execution of two deserters. Their names were Edward Elliot (Co. I) and George Layton (Co. K, alias Charles Eastman), and they are only mentioned in the history of the Fourteenth Connecticut Infantry because they were executed.

Execution for Desertion

The scene was similar to the depicted above. The division formed in four ranks in an open square with a path between the inner two ranks and the outer two ranks. Two graves had already been dug in the hillside. A small procession came on the scene—a detail of sixteen riflemen commanded by an officer, a provost marshal, a horse-drawn wagon bearing the condemned pair, bound and sitting upon their coffins, a chaplain.

The provost read the charges against Elliot and Laton, the verdicts of the courts-martial, and the pronounced sentences. The prisoners were marched between the assembled ranks of the division while a band played somber music. The circuit completed, Elliot and Layton were ordered to sit atop their coffins that were now next to their open graves. The provost read the charges and the sentences a second time. The chaplain prayed for the souls of the two men. Then the officer of the guard proceeded as ordered.

Elliot and Layton were blindfolded. The sixteen riflemen had carefully loaded and primed their weapons. In two squads of eight they faced the two deserters, brought their rifles up to their shoulders and took careful aim. A moment later, the command: “Fire!”

Only three of the sixteen rifles discharged. One of the condemned men was seriously wounded. He fell backward into his coffin, but he was not fatally struck, and struggled to get out of the wooden box. The other man was not hit at all, or only slightly so. He wriggled around trying to free his hands while the soldiers who had misfired replaced their firing caps. The unhurt man succeeded in removing his blindfold just in time to see one of the soldiers walk up to him and level his rifle point-blank at his head.

The soldier pulled the trigger. Just the snap of the primer cap was heard. One after another the soldiers approached the prisoner and each time only the cap went off. Finally, the officer in charge took out his revolver and ended each man’s misery.

The dreadful manner in which Elliot and Layton were put to death, may have actually served to save many lives. The cartridges (bullet and power in a paper casing) used that day were from a new shipment that had been distributed to the Second Corps, and the power was found to be useless. Had they gone into battle with those cartridges, the results would have been grim indeed.

Fiction Connection:  In writing of this terrible incident In my novel An Eye for Glory, I made one of few departures from the historical record. In my fictional account the members of the firing squad and my character, Michael Palmer, recently promoted to sergeant, was in command of the squad. Michael saw this ghastly event as one more sign that God had turned against him.

Out of Control

After his acquittal on the bogus court-martial charge, Captain Samuel Fiske served as an inspector-general for the army. One of the regiments he inspected in the course of his duties was his own, the Fourteenth Connecticut, which was now encamped at Elk Run.

Immediately upon his arrival, Fiske was told, “Only ten gone since last roll call.” Fiske wrote: Three thousand dollars worth of New England’s purchased heroes had vanished within the two hours previous to my arrival; $18,000 worth in the three days previous. Sixty out of two hundred and ten in one regiment, and the ratio increasing constantly. One of them boasted that he had already made $1800 in the substitute business. Several others had sold themselves twice. Another who had gambled away the most of the $300 that constituted his prize, in order to get himself in funds again (temporarily till the next sale), stole $75 which one of our good boys had just had paid him, on the night he left.

Three hundred passed our headquarters last night—all substitutes—at least one-third of them scoundrels who had been engaged in the New York riots, and found it convenient to retire a little while into the country, took the $300 to pay their expenses.

Some of them won’t go back. Two were killed and several wounded on their way here from the station, seeking to break guard. We can, probably, by letting the enemy go unwatched, and turning our whole attention to these northern friends, be able to catch some of them as they are deserting, and by shooting save ourselves from any further trouble from those individuals.

Fiske’s words would prove prophetic. Next week’s post will deal with one of the most tragic events in the history of the Fourteenth Connecticut: the execution of two men for desertion.

 

Dunn Browne Court-Martialed

Courts-martial were a constant occurrence during the Civil War. Officers were frequently called away from their units to sit in judgment on various cases. During the late summer of 1863, Major Ellis spent some weeks in Washington on court-martial duty, and Captain Samuel Fiske had also sat on several cases, some of them involving minute, frivolous matters. Fiske (a.k.a. Dunn Browne) wrote to his Springfield Republican readers, “if you infer from these remarks that there is any great resemblance between a court of justice and a court-martial you will have a very erroneous notion.”

Captain Samuel W. Fiske

Captain Samuel W. Fiske

Indeed, in August 1863, while Fiske was still serving in Colonel Carroll’s Brigade (as he was at Gettysburg), an officer (not Carroll) filed a charge against Fiske. Suddenly a defendant, Captain Fiske reported on this new experience.

After remaining in arrest some days, and after appearing with my witnesses at times and places appointed to find the trial postponed, at last one rainy evening, when I had about concluded the whole thing an “ignis-fatuus” (a delusion) destined to elude forever my eager grasp, I caught it sure enough in the judge advocate’s little tent. Five tired officers had been gotten together and the case came on, while my witnesses, in rubber overcoats, stood outside in the rain till they were wanted. The charge and its specification, “neglect of duty in not preventing the straggling of such division of the army on such a march of five days,” was duly read, and the accused entered his plea of “not guilty.”

Then the single witness for the United States (who was the one who preferred the charges) gives in his evidence that he did not see the defendant using any efforts to prevent straggling during the whole march of five days, although he had himself issued him the most stringent orders to that effect, and the case for the prosecution closed.

Then the witnesses for the defendant, two of whom, however, had ingloriously “skedaddled” back to their quarters out of the rain, testified that the probable reason why the prosecutor had not seen efforts on the part of the accused to keep the men in their places, was that he was himself not there to see, none of them having seen him along the column in more than one instance during the five days; also, that the straggling of the command was comparatively small, and caused by the excessive and needlessly rapid marching, the exhausted soldiers falling out in spite of their efforts to keep up. Then a few words from the defendant, interrupted by the yawnings of the court, and the case was closed, the trial over.

But when a few more days had rolled away, a big document came down from headquarters, informing your humble correspondent that the honorable court had found nothing against him, unless it were an acquittal, and so ordered his release from arrest. So endeth this episode of his career.

A Real Character

As an author of fiction, I’m always in need of colorful, true-to-life characters. One of the characters  we meet briefly in An Eye for Glory is the new recruit Caesar Ferretti. I based Caesar on two real new recruits who joined the Fourteenth Connecticut during August, 1863, Antonio Capellini and Joshua Tripp.

According to Charles D. Page, Antonio was “a small man of dark complexion and baboon face, all overgrown with hair. No one could converse with him or find out where he was born. He could be taught but one duty of a soldier and that was that of drawing his rations. He was most careless of Uncle Sam’s property and when on the march he always straggled and would throw away his gun, bayonet, knapsack, haversack and canteen. It was a common thing to see him brought back with his few remaining effects crowded into an old grain bag slung over his shoulder.”

Page wrote of Tripp: “Unlike his scriptural namesake, who led the children of Israel into the land of promise, Joshua was not designed by nature to assist in leading the Army of the Potomac into the promised land of victory. In fact this second Joshua’s intellect was so infinitesimal that he could hardly tell the muzzle of his gun from the breech and many remember the ludicrous attempts to teach him how to shoulder his gun. Few will forget his being mounted upon a barrel at the quarters of the Brigade Guard and the frequent trips of the major to attempt to teach him this first requisite of a soldier’s service. This, however. was useless and was only terminated when the head of the barrel gave way and poor Tripp passed temporarily out of sight.”

Such was the quality of some of the new members of the valiant Fourteenth Regiment. Here’s how Michael Palmer, who had been recently promoted to sergeant, described my composite character, Caesar Ferretti, in a letter to his wife. “He’s an Italian bricklayer about thirty years of age from Bridgeport. He’s short of stature with dark brown, almost black, wiry hair, a full, equally dark moustache, deep brown eyes, and a scruffy unkempt beard,… Although he speaks little English, Caesar made it clear he thought the army would be more enjoyable than masonry, but that was before he had been many days with us… Regular and repeated discipline has failed to produce any lasting positive effect—Caesar simply accepts his fate with a sheepish grin and a shrug of the shoulders. I can only conclude the cause is futile…. I can only hope when the fighting resumes, that Private Ferretti will cause no harm to himself or any others of the regiment who happen to be close by.”

 

An Orphan’s War – Part 1

Substitute conscript William E. Mott arrived at Cedar Run on August 11th, 1863. He was not extraordinary in any way. Mott was of average appearance—five-five, fair complexion, brown hair—and his service with in Company F, Fourteenth Connecticut would be unexceptional. Nonetheless, his story is a most compelling one, and it will require at least three posts to tell. Mott described how he became a soldier to the U. S. Pension Office in a series of letters written nearly fifty years after his enlistment.

“Dear Sir In regard about my certificate of my Berth, it will be Doubtfull if I can find eny statment ove my Bearth when I was Bornd ore where I was Bornd at but I think I herd my Mother say that I was in N.Y. city have sent on to see if it was on the Regster The first I remembr living was Wickford R.I. soon after we moved to Fairhaven Mass Mother died there when I was 8 years old and soon after Father died, the six children scattered two Brothers and one Sister I have not seen sence then tryed find them when I come out of the army but could not so you can see how I am fix and I think you will find houndreds of Soulders will be in the same fix.

“As I wer in R.I. State Reform School at Proverdence city R.I. James M. Talcot Superendent of the School at that time 1863 had A friend N. H. Luomes (Rev. Nathaniel H. Lewis) was Drafted A Hartford conn and they hird me to go as A subtuttet for him at $5.00 A month for three years, after I come out the army I was hired to work in the shoe shop at the school.

” In regard about my age from the school at Proverdence city R.I. I know I wer older than they clame I am. As I wer Perfect stranger to the Judge and court at New Port R.I. I clamed I was pass 18 years old at that time 1861 but the Judge thort I was not so old, so he must have put my age down lest so to get me in the school as I wer not known at New Port R.I. as I had jest come from New Bedford Mass, my mother dided when I was 8 years old as I had no home or eny one to look after me they sent me to the school.

“When I Listed 1863 I was pass 19 going on 20 when I Listed at Hartford I am not sure Whether I gived my age or the Officer From the school as the Officer come up with me to take me back to the school if I did not pass I did not have eny thing to say as I wer pushed in to tak another man place N. H. Loumes (Lewis) A Preacher as he was drafted. As there was no fight in him I was taken out R I in Conn. I cant see how it was don. I never got A dollar when Listed but was to $5 a munt when I come home but if I had got killed as soon as I got to the front I suppose he would never had to pay eny thing I think I was put in the army cheep dont you think so cant you find out my age by my Army Discriptive List I suppose I will have to stand in the school age as I cant do eny thing better co F 14 conn co D 2 conn H.A. W E Mott.”

Note: The above is from background material included in The Diary of a Dead Man, 1862-1864, the unedited diary and letters of Private Ira Pettit, compiled by J. P. Ray. Mott was instrumental in preserving Pettit’s diary for Pettit’s parents.

Cedar Run

On August 1st, 1863, after marching over 400 miles and fighting the Battle of Gettysburg since leaving Falmouth on June 14th, the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut, found themselves at Bristow, Virginia, on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. This weakened regiment was now less than a hundred strong. They were detached from the Second Corps, along with their comrades of the Twelfth New Jersey, for a period of rest and rebuilding.

From Bristow they marched a few miles southeast to Cedar Run. Although I haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact location of this encampment, I believe it was near the village of Brentsville between Bristow Road (Route 619) and Aden Road (Route 646). Even today there are many open fields for drilling troops, plenty of water for drinking, washing, and cooking, and woodlands for firewood and shade from the summer sun.

The two regiments would remain encamped at Cedar Run until August 18th. It was during these peaceful days that the first replacement recruits began arrive. As Charles Page related in his History of the Fourteenth Regiment, on August 6th, “Captain Davis, who had been detailed to go to Connecticut for recruits, returned to camp with forty-two out of one hundred and seventeen with which he started, the rest having deserted along the way, most of them when the boat arrived in New York.”

While some of the new men went on to become first-rate soldiers, most were what Page called “not only conscripts, but nondescripts.” They represented fifteen to twenty different nationalities, many different walks of life, and of course possessed varying degrees of basic virtues. The “old soldiers” viewed each new recruit with suspicion, and sometimes with open contempt, until the new man proved himself trustworthy.

As I remarked in my post “Filling the Ranks,” desertion on the way to the front could be a profitable enterprise for the repeat bounty-jumper. The army would react to counter these mass desertions with armed escorts from the home state to the front. There would also be an increase in executions for desertion, and as we will see, there would be tragic consequences for the men of the Fourteenth Connecticut.

Blackberry Fields Forever

My last post regarding the Fourteenth Connecticut in particular and the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac in general was “Agony of Victory” on July 19. The Second Corps was in the vicinity of Williamsport, Maryland. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had just crossed the Potomac and was withdrawing southward toward the Shenandoah Valley.

Instead of pursuing the retreating Rebels, the Second Corps marched down the north bank of the Potomac River. The men of the Fourteenth Connecticut passed through the site of their first trial by fire, the Antietam battlefield, and then went on to Harper’s Ferry. Unlike their first visit to Harpers Ferry following that battle, they did not tarry long, but proceeded on toward the Loudon Valley, where it was blackberry season. Captain Samuel Fiske provided this narration in a letter dated July 20, 1863:

Dear Republican: You ought to have seen our corps move into the huge blackberry field, or rather succession of them, last eve­ning after their hot midday march. The habit of military disci­pline prevailing kept the men in the ranks till they were regularly dismissed, though every tread crushed out the blood of scores, and Uncle Sam’s stiff brogans were soaked in (dewberry) gore.

But when the orders “Stack arms!” “Rest!” had been given, in an instant, in a nothing of time, in the hundredth part of the “twinkling of a bedpost,” the whole battle array was melted away; the glittering lines of stacked arms were all that was left upright in the field, the backs only were visible of a half dozen thousand tired soldiers, who are not wont to turn their backs on the enemy; and as the manna which came from heaven to the Israelites in the wilderness, when the dew rose in the morning, so disappeared this gracious provision of heaven’s bounty for our weary boys, and they rose (not very soon) refreshed from their luscious banquet.

There were enough and to spare. Fields and hills all around us are black with them—more millions…than our army of abolitionists can put out of the way in a week. But we are doing our best; heaped bowls and plates of blackberries for tea and for breakfast; a few black­berries as we went to bed, a few on waking this morning to take the cobwebs out of our mouth and throat (how much better than fiery whisky for that purpose), and now a few more to start on just as we are leaving. It has been a blackberrying on the grand­est scale I have attended for a long time.