In The Civil War
The Sentence Carried Out
by Robert Niepert
This is part two of the two part series of Crimes and Punishments in the Civil War. If you missed the first part, check the back issues section of this website and you will find part one in the previous issue of The News Magazine.
The Firing Squad.......In 1863, executions reached their highest point. As you can imagine, the easiest most convenient way to carry out the death penalty was by firing squad. The drawings above and below show the typical arrangement of the Regiment when a criminal was to be executed in that manner.
Diagram of an execution by firing squad. Refer to the drawing above. The Regiment formed up in a three sided rectangle made up of four ranks with an aisle way between them. Position "F" - Guards marched the condemned man between the assembled ranks of the Regiment while the band played Pleyel's Hymn or the Dead March. They would walk the entire length of the three sided rectangle following the path marked by the arrows in this drawing. Position "A" - Reserve firing squad (weapons loaded and ready). Position "B" - Firing squad (weapons loaded and ready). Position "X" - Prisoner stands or is seated on the coffin. Position "C" - Coffin. Position "D" - Grave. Position "E" - Twelve guards (six per side).
John D. Billings was a member of Sickles Third Corps attached to General Birney's First Division while they were at Fairfax Station. He witnessed an execution by firing squad of a soldier who had deserted several times and additionally was suspected of giving information to the Confederates. A vivid account of another execution was written by Charles E. Bingham on August 9, 1863. He wrote:
"The day before yesterday the execution of a man took place out in front of our camp it seems as though he had enlisted some three times getting a big bounty each time and then desert again I stood and watched the execution of him the division that he belonged to was marched out the band playing a lively tune all the while until they formed a hollow square then came the officer on horse back then came the pallbearers four in number carrying his coffin the one that I spoke of in one of my other letters close to them was the chaplain and the criminal keeping the step as firm as if he was going out on parade.Hangings.......Hanging was usually reserved for the most serious or heinous of crimes and for treason. Traitors were usually hung. Death by the firing squad was considered too honorable a death for a traitor. Notice in the photo at left the crude gallows. The gallows that most people think of when death by hanging is talked about were often not available so many times the sentence was carried out with the help of "the old oak tree". John D. Billings witnessed two different hangings and wrote about them. Keep in mind as you read this account of what happened that these were Federal soldiers.
"In the autumn of 1864 - near Fort Welch, I think it was - I saw three military criminals hanged at the same moment, from the same gallows, for this (desertion and enlistment to the enemy's side) crime against the government. They were members of the Sixth Corps. The condemned men were all foreigners, and rode to the gallows in an ambulance attended by a chaplain. The ambulance was well guarded in front, in rear, and on the flanks. The gallows also was strongly guarded. If I recollect aright, the troops were not ordered out to witness the spectacle. Nevertheless, thousands of them from adjoining camps lined the route, and standing around the gallows, saw the prisoners meet their fate, No loyal heart gave them any sympathy.
After the war in 1870, the Adjutant-General's report accounted for one hundred and twenty-one soldiers executed from 1861-1865 (including firing squads and hangings) thus proving that very few men who committed crimes worthy of the death penalty actually received it.
What To Do......The problem with punishments was much more complex than deciding what to do with the soldier who was charged with a crime. Believe it or not, the manpower needed to carry out the punishment was as big a problem as what to do with the soldier. If a man was put into confinement, at least one other soldier was needed to watch him. If a court martial was called for, three to five officers must be taken from their duties to handle the proceedings, evidence had to be submitted and witnesses called. Most commanders tried make their punishments ingenious, but not a waste of time and manpower to perform.
Bucked And Gagged.......Having a soldier bucked and gagged was one of the most common physical type punishments used by both the North and South in the Civil War. This same way of restraining and bringing pain to the person being punished had been in use before the War Between The States and was commonly used on soldiers and prisoners of war all the way through WW I, II, Korea and the Vietnam Wars.
A New Jersey soldier described how this punishment was inflicted:
"A bayonet or piece of wood was placed in his mouth and a string tied behind his ears kept it in position," then the man was "seated on the ground with his knees drawn up to his body. A piece of wood is run through his legs, and placing his arms under the stick on each side of his knees, his hands art then tied in front, and he is as secure as a trapped rat."Drummed Out.........Other than death by a firing squad, dishonorable discharge was perhaps the least desirable way to leave the service. In the 1860's a man's honor meant much more than it seems to today. The disgrace of being "drummed out" would follow a man for the rest of his life and he could find no peace no matter where he went. Those who were drummed out suffered the indignity of having their head shaved, their uniform stripped of its buttons and insignia and paraded in front of their comrades who showered the exile with verbal insults and profanity. All this was done as the band played the "Rouge's March". The men were not allowed to touch the person being dishonorably discharged when he left but in more than one case after the war had ended, a drummed out man was found dead after receiving a beating from his former comrades. In the photo above this Union soldier's (he was from Massachusetts) head has been shaved and he is wearing a sign detailing his crime as he is drummed out of camp. His sign says that he is charged with stealing money from a wounded friend. Notice that the thief's guards are carrying their muskets in the reversed arms mode.
Strapped To A Stick.........The criminal would have, as the troops called it, a stick (which was actually a medium weight log approximately seven feet long) placed behind his head and across his shoulders. His hands were tied at the wrist to the "stick" and he was made to walk around the camp in this predicament for several hours.
Hanging By The Thumbs.........This was a minor punishment. The man charged was suspended by his thumbs with arms at full length from a horizontal pole. The pole was placed just high enough to make the trooper stand on his toes.
The Sweat-box.......The prisoner was made to stand in a box a little smaller than a coffin. The lid or door was placed tightly in place and the box taken out into the sun. After all day in the sun, the criminal was more than happy to conform to the military way of life.
The Spare Wheel.........The artillery had a unique way to punish their trouble makers. They would lash the guilty party to the extra wheel carried on the rear of a caisson. This punishment was referred to as being "on the spare wheel". With the man's hands tied at the wrist and his legs tied at the ankles he was stretched out as far as possible across the wheel and left in the sun usually in the center of camp. This punishment doesn't sound too bad at first, but the soldier in addition to being in an uncomfortable position had to put up with the insults of his fellow artillerymen.
Serving Time.......The most common punishment was to serve time in the guardhouse. Every camp had a guardhouse and it could be anything from a log structure with bars on the windows and doors to a open area marked by ropes. Armed soldiers would be posted when men were to be confined in the guardhouse. As the war dragged on and conditions worsened in camp, many men looked upon a sentence to serve time in the guardhouse as a welcome respite from duty. Soldiers could be sentenced to the guardhouse for anything from being late to roll call to drunkenness or crimes against civilians or other soldiers. The sentence could consist of several hours to several months confinement.
Barrel Punishments.........The common wooden barrel was
to ship everything from gunpowder to food and
The Wooden Horse........The wooden horse pictured at the left could
be as simple as a horizontal log supported by four legs or as elaborate
as an somewhat accurate wooden sculpture of the real thing. The
important aspects of this type punishment were that the horizontal log
be narrow at its top, the misbehaving soldier's feet were not to be
to touch the ground and it was to be placed in full view of the
The person on the horse was under armed guard the entire time of his
The platform punishment is basically the same as the wooden
A platform was set approximately ten feet off the ground and the
was made to stand atop it in a public area.
Ball And Chain......A sentence to wear a ball and chain was normally melded out to criminals who committed relatively minor crimes. The ball was a thirty pound cannon ball with three feet of heavy chain attached to it and it was secured to the ankle of the criminal. Once sentenced to wear the ball and chain, it was seldom removed before the time expired. Some men serving time in military prisons were additionally burdened with a ball and chain as they did their time. There are accounts of soldiers on the march who were required to carry their ball and chain with them.
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