The Execution of William Henry Johnson
Pvt. William Henry Johnson
The execution of William Henry Johnson, a private in Company D, 1st New York (Lincoln) Cavalry on the 13th of December, 1861 for the crime of desertion constituted a melancholy page of the history of the army in Virginia. Of this crime, the unfortunate culprit said: “I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy’s lines. The way I came to leave our army was this: I was on the outposts, and after dinner, when watering my horse, thought I would go to the first house on the Braddock road and get a drink of milk. When I rode up to the house I saw a man and a boy. I asked the man for some milk, and he said he had none; and to my inquiry as to where I could get some, he said he did not know except I should go some distance further on. I said I thought it would be dangerous to go far, and he remarked that none of the rebels had been seen in that vicinity for some time. It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting. I thought I could ride right up to the rebel pickets and inside the enemy’s line, go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information. I never had any idea of going over to the rebels, and as it is I would rather be hung on a tree than go and join the rebel army. I don’t see what under heaven put it into my head to go away. I acted upon the impulse of the moment. When the man at the house said none of the enemy had been seen lately in that vicinity, I asked where it was that the five rebels I heard of had been seen some time ago, and he said it was at the round house on the left hand side of the road. I asked him where the road led to; he said to Centreville, and so I went that way. Riding along the Braddock road, some miles beyond our pickets, I suddenly came across Colonel Taylor, of the Third New Jersey Cavalry, with his scouting party. I thought they were rebels, but at first was so scared that I did not know what to say. However, I asked him who they were, and he said they were the enemy. Said I to him “I’m all right then?”
“Why so?” said he.
“Because we’re all friends” said I; “I am rebel too – I want to go down to New Orleans to see my mother.”
Then he asked me how our pickets were stationed. I told him two of our companies which had been out went in that day toward the camps. He asked if I thought he could capture any of them, and I told him I did not think he could. He asked me why, and I replied that there were a number of mounted riflemen around. The head scout asked me what kind of arms the Lincoln men received, and at that same time said ‘Let me see your pistol.’
I handed him my revolver, Col. Taylor took it, and cocking it, said to me: “Dismount, or I will blow your brains out.”
I was so much frightened I thought my brains had been blown out already. I dismounted, delivered up my belt and saber, while at the same time they searched my pockets, but there was nothing in them except a piece of old New York Ledger, I believe. Then they tied my hands before me and sent me back to camp in charge of three men, besides another who took my horse.”
Johnson was duly tried by court-martial and found guilty. The place chosen for his execution was a spacious field near Fairfax Seminary. The Provost Marshal, mounted and wearing a crimson scarf across his breast, led the mournful cortege. He was immediately followed by the buglers of the regiment, four abreast, dismounted. Then came the twelve men, one from each company of the regiment, selected by ballot, who constituted the firing party. The arms, Sharp’s breechloading rifles, had been previously loaded under direction of the Marshal. One was loaded with a blank cartridge, according to the usual custom, so that neither of the men could positively state that the shot from his rifle killed the unfortunate man. The coffin, which was of pine wood, stained, without any inscription, came next, in a one horse wagon. Immediately behind was the doomed man, in an open wagon. About five feet six inches in height, with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other, Johnson indeed presented a forlorn appearance.
He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves. He was supported by Father McAfee, who was in constant conversation with him, while Father Willett rode behind on horseback. The rear was brought up by Company C, of the Lincoln Cavalry, forming the escort.
Arriving on the ground at half-past three o’clock, the musicians and the escort took a position a little to the left, while the criminal descended the wagon. The coffin was placed on the ground, and he took his position beside it. The firing party was marched up to within six paces of the prisoner, who stood between the clergymen. The final order of execution was then read to the condemned.
While the order was being read, Johnson stood with his hat on, his head a little inclined to the left, and his eyes fixed in a steady gaze on the ground. Near the close of the reading one of his spiritual attendants whispered something in his ear. Johnson had expressed a desire to say a few final words before he should leave this world to appear before his Maker. He was conducted close to the firing party, and in an almost audible voice, spoke as follows:
“Boys, I ask forgiveness from Almighty God and from my fellow men for what I have done. I did not know what I was doing. May God forgive me, and may the Almighty keep all of you from such sin.”
He was then placed beside the coffin
again. The troops were witnessing the whole of these proceedings with the
intensest interest. Then the Marshal and chaplains began to prepare the culprit
for death. He was too weak to stand. He sat down on the foot of the coffin.
Capt. Boyd then bandaged his eyes with a white handkerchief. A few minutes of
painful suspense intervened while the Catholic clergymen were having their final
interview with the unfortunate man. All being ready, the Marshal waved his
handkerchief as the signal, and the firing party discharged the volley. Johnson
did not move, remaining in a sitting posture for several seconds after the
rifles were discharged. Then he quivered a little and fell over beside the
coffin. He was still alive, however, and the four reserves were called to
complete the work. It was found that two of the firing party, Germans, had not
discharged their pieces, and they were immediately put in irons. Johnson was
shot several times in the heart by the first volley. Each of the four shots
fired by the reserves took effect in his head and he died instantly. One
penetrated his chin, another his left cheek, and two entered the brain just
above the left eyebrow. The troops then all marched round, and each man looked
at the bloody corpse of his misguided comrade.
|Execution of Pvt. William Henry Johnson for desertion and contacting the enemy, December 13, 1861.|