Saturday, December 1, 2007

ON THIS DAY: Wednesday, Dec. 4, 1861

Death by Firing Squad

In the course of the Civil War, 267 Federal soldiers—6 of them Ohioans—will be executed by a firing squad of their fellow soldiers. Desertion, mutiny, and murder are the typical offenses, but the ultimate penalty is not applied evenly or consistently.

In late 1861, Brig. Gen. Jacob Dolson Cox (pictured above), commander of a brigade stationed in the Kanawha region of western Virginia, has been given “one very unpleasant duty to perform.”

Two Kentucky regiments attached to Cox’s brigade actually are composed mostly of Ohio stevedores and deckhands, a rough-and-tumble lot and hard to discipline. A military court has found a member of the 1st Kentucky guilty of desertion, mutiny, and deadly assault on another soldier.

Ugly rumors and angry mutterings began to fly among the Kentuckians and Cox has worried about maintaining order. He has planned the execution carefully. At military executions, troops were usually arranged as three sides of a hollow square, with the prisoner positioned on the fourth side. Cox arranges to have two regiments, neither of which was the prisoner’s, form the right and left sides of the square. They stack their weapons immediately behind themselves where they can be quickly seized. The prisoner’s own regiment—the 1st Kentucky—is formed between the other two, but without weapons.

Before the order to fire is given, Cox rides his horse along the inside of the square, taking special pains to meet the eyes of each man. Then an ambulance arrives and the condemned man steps out of it, to be led to his own coffin, where he iss seated, arms bound, and blindfolded. The firing squad takes its place, and on command, fires carefully and accurately. The prisoner falls over, the surgeon pronounces him dead, and the body is placed in the coffin and removed as drums and fifes played marching music.

Cox breathes a sigh of relief as the soldiers break into a column and quietly move off the field. “The moral effect was very great,” Cox will decide after the ordeal is over.

>>> In St. Louis, General Halleck orders the arrest of several men charged with giving aid and comfort to the Confederates.

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