The Executions of the two William Henry Johnsons


Execution of William Henry Johnson Harper's Weekly
Execution of William Henry Johnson Harper’s Weekly

The first Union soldier to be sentenced to death was a 22 year old Vermonter named William Scott.  Proving no good deed goes unpunished, he volunteered to stand guard in place of a sick friend.  Assigned to Chain Bridge, Scott fell asleep at his post.  He was caught.  Confederates were close by at Bailey’s Crossroads and Falls Church in September of 1861, so this was deemed a serious matter.  Scott would be made an example of and was sentenced to be shot, the sentence being confirmed by McClellan himself.

There was a public outcry against this execution – clearly Scott was a decent fellow who was guilty of nothing more than exhaustion, as this was the second consecutive night he had stood guard after a full day of working construction at Fort Marcy.  The New York Times protested.  Almost two hundred of the officers and men of his regiment signed a petition begging clemency.  Finally, Scott’s regimental chaplain interceded directly with Lincoln, who issued a presidential pardon.   Lincoln drove his carriage at midnight to regimental headquarters to personally convey the pardon rather than trust the young man’s life to the telegraph.

Nonetheless, the pardon was delivered somewhat cruelly.  At the appointed hour, Scott was made to stand before his firing squad in a hollow square of his comrades – only then was the pardon read aloud.  The assembled troops cheered the president and the country heaved a sigh of relief – Lincoln was no dummy when it came to public relations.  Such was the genesis of the “merciful Lincoln myth”.  The reprieve was short-lived.  Scott died in combat seven months later near Yorktown, sharing a grave with a soldier from the first American Revolution before being reinterred in the national cemetery there.  For more, see: http://www.vermontcivilwar.org/units/3/sentinel.php.

Trooper William Henry Johnson did not receive a presidential pardon, becoming the first of 147 Union soldiers to be executed during the Civil War.  Originally a native of New Orleans, Johnson had enlisted in the New York 1st Cavalry.  December 4th of 1861 found him on picket duty at the crossroads of the Little River and Columbia Turnpikes near Annandale.  According to Johnson, his desertion was not premeditated.  He rode out Braddock Road looking for a cup of fresh milk and, finding none, kept getting further and further away from his regiment as he went from farmhouse to farmhouse.  Then it occurred to him that he could visit his mother in New Orleans if he just kept going.  He claimed he had every intention of returning to the army after a few weeks, perhaps even with some valuable intelligence, and so rode toward the Confederate forts at Centreville.

Johnson had the misfortune of meeting a patrol of Colonel Taylor’s 3rd New Jersey cavalry.  Uniforms not being standardized early in the War, Johnson asked Taylor which side he was on.  A suspicious Taylor fibbed and stated they were Confederates.  Johnson confided he was a rebel too and was headed to New Orleans to see his mother.  Taylor then interrogated Johnson on the disposition of the Yankee pickets.  Johnson responded with pertinent information and was immediately disarmed and placed under arrest.

Johnson was tried and convicted at the headquarters of Franklin’s Division, camped on either side of Braddock Road at Episcopal High School and Minnie Howard School.  McClellan approved the sentence, noting “for simple desertion, the penalty is death; for desertion coupled with such treachery, there can be no mercy.”  On December 13th Franklin’s entire division of 10,000 men formed on the level plain just north of the Fairfax Seminary to witness the execution.  The firing party was made up of twelve men, one selected by lot from each regiment of the division.   As was customary, Johnson was allowed a short speech regretting his offense and admonishing his fellows to avoid error.  An unsteady Johnson then sat on his coffin, blindfolded.  A Catholic priest comforted him as he awaited his end.  Then the firing party of eight stepped to within six paces of the condemned and waited for a mounted officer to drop a handkerchief.  Six Sharps rifles cracked.  Johnson shivered for a few seconds, falling over next to his coffin.  Despite several shots to the chest, he was not dead – two of the soldiers had not fired and were immediately arrested.  The reserve party of four stepped forward and finished Johnson with four shots to the head – in the chin, cheek and two in the forehead.  The entire division was marched past to witness close-up the penalty for desertion.   The original story from Harper’s Weekly can be found here: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1861/december/execution-deserter.htm

A second William Henry Johnson was executed near Petersburg on June 20th, 1864.  He had deserted the 23rd Colored Infantry and, according to Harpers Weekly, “had attempted to commit an outrage on a white woman at Cold Harbor.”  A gallows was constructed within view of the Confederate lines.  The Confederates interpreted this as the hanging of one of their own.  They opened fire on the execution party with artillery.   Sergeant Polley of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry was torn to pieces by a shell just as the condemned man dropped.  Apparently the execution was a success insofar as Johnson is claimed to have died instantly, notwithstanding the short drop illustrated in the photos.  The troops convened to witness the execution were forced to shelter behind a hill while the hangman proceeded under fire.  The Federals sent out a flag of truce to explain that they were hanging a colored soldier for an outrage against a white woman.  Perceptions corrected, the Confederates promised to hold their fire.  Apparently they did,   as two different photographers were allowed to set up and photograph the scene, which depicts soldiers in the open under the shade of a nearby apple tree.  For more, see: http://blog.encyclopediavirginia.org/2011/06/20/this-day-a-morning-execution-edition/.

Lest this last incident be construed as purely racist, one should keep in mind that the army was an equal opportunity disciplinarian.  Thus a white soldier was hung on the ramparts of Fort Ellsworth for the rape of a free black woman, with all of the troops camped in Alexandria ordered to assemble on the opposite slope to bear witness.

The only soldier executed since the Civil War was Eddie Slovik, shot for desertion in 1945.  More recently, Fort Hood gunman Major Nidal Hasan was sentenced to death by a military jury for murdering 13 fellow soldiers, plus an unborn child, and wounding 30. One doubts the William Henry Johnsons will welcome him.

~ Written by: Doug Coleman

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