Recently, I’ve been working through several volumes of published letters from North Carolina Confederate soldiers. One thing I have noticed in these letters home are the numerous references to fellow soldiers being executed. The practice seemed to weigh heavily on those who had to witness such scenes.
Article 20 of the Articles of War states that “All officers and soldiers who have received pay, or have been duly enlisted in the service of the United States, and shall be convicted of having deserted the same, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as, by sentence of a court-martial, shall be inflicted.” This article was amended in 1930, the amendment reading that “No officer or soldier in the army of the United States shall be subject to the punishment of death, for desertion in time of peace.”
And along those same lines, Article 23 reads that “Any officer or soldier who shall be convicted of having advised or persuaded any other officer or soldier to desert the service of the United States, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be inflicted upon him by the sentence of a court-martial.”
The Confederate laws read the same, just substituting Confederate States for United States.
According to research done by Jack Bunch, in his two books on the Confederate military justice system, there were 215 soldiers executed (shot) and 35 hanged. Of that number, 99 North Carolinians were shot, and 22 were hanged. These numbers, due to the paucity of the records, are low.
These men were executed for a variety of reasons, with desertion ranking above all other causes. Among other causes are murder and robbery (Riley Cage, 16th NCST); cowardice (Green W. Ford, 37th NCT); and advising desertion (John M. Harrison, 44th NCT).
The largest number of men from a single regiment appears to be 14 men from the 8th Battalion, North Carolina Partisan Rangers, which became the 66th North Carolina Troops. These men were executed by Mag. Gen. George Pickett in February 1864 in the Kinston area. There were 22 men total executed, all former Confederate soldiers who had joined the Union army and then were captured. You can learn more by visiting this great web site.
The next largest group would be 12 men from the 58th North Carolina Troops, executed for desertion in May 1864, just north of Dalton, Ga. The 3rd North Carolina State Troops falls next, with eight men executed during the war. The 18th North Carolina lost six men, the 26th, 37th and 38th Regiments lost four apiece.
Lt. Burwell T. Cotton of the 34th North Carolina Troops left this description in a letter home, written on October 3, 1863, while stationed near Orange Court House, Virginia: “To day I witnessed a very sad scene although it is getting to be very common here. It was a man shot for desertion. There were three condemned to be shot to day but two were deferred until Tuesday as there was a reprieve sent up for them and did not get back. Two were shot last Saturday one of them was a member of our company viz John A. Thomas. He deserted sometime in August last and was arrested before he got home and brought back and court martialed. The sentence was death. It looks very barbarous to see men shot in that way but it is necessary to maintain the discipline of an army. the one what was shot to day was not killed dead the first fire. Consequently he was shot twice. You can not imagine how cruel it looks to see a man shot. Twelve men shot at him about ten steps. Only one ball hit him in the side. He fell over on his face [and] was examined by the Surgeon who pronounced him not dead. Two men then were ordered out with loaded muskets who shot him dead.”
Sad times for sure….