The 96th Pennsylvania’s witnessed its first bloodshed at the military execution of a deserter

On the dreary morning of Friday, December 13, 1861, the enlisted men of the 96th Pennsylvania were rousted to the center of their encampment. Once collected, they marched out of camp and to a field where the other regiments in their brigade awaited. Each regiment was lined up to observe the proceedings.

Before them, Private William Johnson of the 1st New York Cavalry sat atop a box in a wagon with bound hands. Today was to be his last day on Earth. The wagon, with accompanying band in tow, passed before each regiment. Members of the band played the “Dead March.”

Private Clement Potts observed the man as he traveled to his imminent demise in front of a firing squad. “I see him, but [he] did not look as if he was to be shot.”

“The Deserter – Johnson,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

The wagon wheeled into the center of the formation, a hollow square with one side open. At center lay a simple pine coffin. His crimes were read out.. He was guilty of the crime of desertion and attempting to join the enemy.  Death was the sentence.

The following are the descriptions of the day’s proceedings from men of the 96th Pennsylvania.

Corporal Henry Keiser, Company G:

At 2:30 p.m. we left camp and marched about one mile to where the execution was to take place.  Our regiment, the 5th Maine, and the 27th New York (part of our brigade) and several regiments I don’t know were formed on the west.  The 16th New York of our brigade, the New York —, and two other regiments formed on the north.  The 95th Pennsylvania  and three New York regiments formed on the south.  The cavalry and artillery formed on the east, leaving a space open in the center of the east line to permit the balls to pass, which should miss the mark (as the executioners were to fire in that direction) in this way forming a hollow square. 

We were all facing in toward the center of the square.  At three o’clock the escort with prisoner on a wagon (sitting on his coffin) made their appearance at the east side of the square.  They took him around the square, between the two lines of troops, the band playing a dead march all the time. 

When they had gone around the square they took the prisoner very near the center of the square.  He shook hands with the executioners, after which the minister offered a prayer.  The prisoner was then blindfolded and made to sit down on his coffin. 

The executioners (12 in number) then made ready, took aim, and as the signal was given by Col. Boyer (by the raising of a white handkerchief) nine of the executioners fired.  He sat on the coffin about four seconds after they had fired, and then fell backward over it.  He raised one leg several times when an officer gave him another shot. 

It was twenty minutes after four o’clock when he was executed. 

They left him lie as he fell (on his back) and the troops were all marched by him so as to have a good view.  I seen one hole in his forehead above the left eye, one in the mouth and four in his breast.  We then went back to the camp…” 

“Examining the Body,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Private Clement Potts, Company A:

After all he was seated on his coffin and a white bandage tied around his eyes[.] After they fired he set on his coffin I suppose three seconds before he fell[.] After he fell they fired at him the second time[.] We where [sic] marched around to see him[.]

It was the most horrible sight I ever seen[.] It was the first time that I ever seen a man shot and hope the last[.] I did not think that their [sic] were such hard hearted men to shoot another in cold blood[.] Before he was shot he bid all the men good bye that were going to shoot him[.] I would rather be shot myself than to shoot another man[.]

Several ball right in his heart and several in his skull right above his left eye[.] It was a dreadful sight to look at as we passed around him[.] 

The officers of the unit viewed the execution with as much horror as the enlisted men, however, they also noted that it seemed to have improved the discipline of the men.

Adjutant M. Edgar Richards wrote to his father that, “The execution has had a good effect on the men, and the example is not thrown away on the rest. They see that they are soldiers in earnest and consequently they improve in their duties, and pay more strict attention to orders and instructions.”

Discipline in the men of the 96th Pennsylvania will be a topic covered in further depth over the coming months, but the impact that this demonstration had on the men seemed immediate.

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