Monday, December 12, 2011

The 13 December 1861 Execution of Pvt. William Henry Johnson at Fairfax Seminary

On December 13, 1861, the first execution of a deserter in the Army of the Potomac was carried out in a field just outside Alexandria near the Fairfax Seminary, now known as the Virginia Theological Seminary.  The drumhead court-martial and execution of Private William H. Johnson, of the First New York Cavalry ("Lincoln Cavalry"), received widespread press coverage and served as a stern warning to the potential, though relatively rare, fate that awaited deserters.

The Execution of the Deserter William Johnson in General Franklin's Division Army of the Potomac, as depicted in Harper's Weekly (New York Public Library)

 While desertion plagued both armies throughout the war, the actual number of executions for this crime were relatively low.  The total number of such executions on both sides during the war is estimated at about 500.   President Lincoln, knowing that the public would not tolerate large numbers of executions, showed leniency in pardoning many condemned deserters.   Only 147 Union deserters are known to have been executed during the war.  The first in the Army of the Potomac was Pvt. William H. Johnson.
William H. Johnson enlisted as a private in Company D. of the New York First Cavalry in New York City on August 25, 1861 at the age of 23.  Although a native of New Orleans, Johnson had been living for a number of years in New York where he was employed as a clerk when war broke out.   Once the regiment reached Washington, Johnson displayed an aversion to military obedience and was absent from camp several times without a pass.  A regimental historian recalled in 1902 that Johnson "was a peculiar man whose actions at different times had proved him unreliable."

On the evening of December 4, 1861, Pvt. Johnson was on picket duty near Benton's Tavern,  located on the south side of the intersection of the Little River and Columbia turnpikes, approximately seven miles west of Alexandria.  After dinner, Johnson mounted his horse and started down Braddock Road towards Centreville, ostensibly to water his horse, but with the real intention of making it to the rebel lines.  After riding several miles, he encountered a group of horsemen whom he presumed to be rebels.  He identified himself to them as a Union deserter and offered to provide them the locations of his regiment's pickets.  Unfortunately for Johnson, he had actually ran into a returning reconnaissance patrol from the 1rst New Jersey Cavalry.  A Colonel Taylor promptly placed Johnson under arrest and delivered him to the Provost Marshal.

An arrow shows the location of Benton's Tavern during the Civil War on the south side of the intersection of Little River and Colombia turnpikes, about 7 miles west of Alexandria.  While on duty December 4, 1861 in this area, Pvt. William H. Johnson deserted his post and was heading towards rebel lines.

A general court martial was convened at the camp of Franklin's Division,  located near Fairfax Seminary.  In his defense, Johnson claimed that he had "not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started in the direction of the enemy's lines."  He added that his desertion was motivated by a desire to  visit his mother in New Orleans, spend a few weeks in the South and then return to his regiment, "perhaps with some valuable information."  The Court was not buying this and believed Johnson had long contemplated desertion.  Johnson was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad.

Major-General George B. McClellan approved  the sentence on December 11th, noting in his special orders that "for simple desertion, the penalty is death; for desertion coupled with such treachery, there can be no mercy."  The published order was  read to troops throughout the Army of the Potomac in order to make a strong and lasting impression.

The December 13, 1861 execution of William H. Johnson for desertion as depicted in Frank Leslie's  Illustrated Newspaper, January 4, 1861.
 Franklin's entire division, numbering approximately 10,000 men, was ordered to watch the execution, which was held on a wide plain just north of the Fairfax Seminary on the afternoon of December 13th.  Lieutenant Colonel Robert McAllister of the First New Jersey volunteers wrote home to his wife describing his mixed emotions regarding witnessing the execution:

"I feel sad this evening from the fact that an order has come down for us, and the whole Division ... to turn out tomorrow afternoon to witness the execution of a poor soldier.  He has been condemned to be shot ... no doubt the sentence is all proper and right.  But I do not wish to be a witness at his execution.... I feel for him, yes, and pray for him... Gladly would I be far away from these sad and solemn scenes which we are ordered to witness."

Johnson's request to make a final statement was granted and in a low voice, he stated, " "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 all such sin!"

The eight-man firing squad "fired when Johnson fell on his coffin, but life not being extinct, the other four in reserve fired with the required effect," according to a newspaper account of the execution.  The New York Times thought the sentence fitting and necessary to deter similar acts:

 "The effect of this execution will probably be salutary in enforcing a stricter discipline.  The leniency heretofore shown by the commanding General to men convicted of military offences, of which the penalty is death, has not been appreciated, and the instances of sleeping on post and desertion have not diminished, and the aggravated circumstances connected with JOHNSON'S case demanded that an example be made of him, or else allow the troops to suppose that immunity had been given to desertion." (Click here for the NYT December 14, 1861 article on the execution)

The execution of Pvt. William H. Johnson as illustrated in The London Illustrated News, January 4, 1862.  The firing squad stood about six paces in front of the condemned. (Courtesy "The Civil War in America from the Illustrated London News": A Joint Project by Sandra J. Still, Emily E. Katt, Collection Management, and the Beck Center of Emory University.)
The only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War was Edward Donald Slovik  during World War II.


Beach, William Harrison.  The First New York (Lincoln) Cavalry From April 19, 1861-July 7, 1865.  Lincoln Cavalry Association, 1902.
Harper's Weekly, December 28, 1861. (available online)
Registers of the 1st, 2d, 3d and 4th Regiments of Cavalry, N.Y. Vols., in War of the Rebellion, Albany:  James By Lyon, State Printer, 1894.
Robertson, James I.  The Civil War Letters of General Robert McAllister 
The Soldier in our Civil War:  A Pictorial History of the Conflict, 1861-65.  New York:  Stanley Bradley Publishing Company, 1893.

The New York Times, December 14, 1861. 


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