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Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood
December 20, 1861


Military Reminiscences of the Civil War
by Jacob Dolson Cox
Volume I (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1900), pp. 149-152

...The work of the military courts gave me one very unpleasant duty to perform, which, happily, was of rare occurrence and never again fell to my lot except on a single occasion in North Carolina near the close of the war. A soldier of the First Kentucky Volunteers was condemned to death for desertion, mutiny, and a murderous assault upon another soldier. The circumstances were a little peculiar, and gave rise to fears that his regiment might resist the execution. I have already mentioned the affair of Captain Gibbs, who had shot down a mutinous man of the Second Kentucky at Gauley Bridge in the summer, and who had been acquitted by a court-martial. The camp is very like a city in which popular impressions and rumors have quick circulation and large influence. The two Kentucky regiments were so closely related as to be almost one, and were subject to the same influences. A bitter feeling toward Captain Gibbs prevailed in them both, and camp demagogues busied themselves in trying to make mischief by commenting on the fact that the officer was acquitted whilst the private was condemned. There was not a particle of justice in this, for the one had simply suppressed a mutiny, whereas the other was inciting one. But it is not necessary for complaints to be just among those who are very imperfectly informed in regard to the facts, and very unpleasant reports were received as to the condition of things in the regiment to which the condemned man belonged.

It is the military custom, in executions by shooting, to select the firing party from the regiment to which the condemned man belongs. To have changed the rule would have looked like timidity, and I determined that it must not be done, but resolved upon an order of procedure which would provide, as far as possible, against the chances of interference. On such occasions the troops are usually paraded upon three sides of a hollow square, without arms, the place of execution being in the middle of the open side, where the prisoner kneels upon his coffin. The place chosen was in the meadows on the lower side of the Elk River, opposite Charleston, a short distance from the regimental camp. The camps of two other regiments at the post were half a mile from the place of execution. These regiments were, therefore, marched to the field with their arms. That to which the prisoner belonged was marched without arms to its position as the centre of the parade, and the others were formed on their right and left at right angles, thus forming the three sides of the enclosure. The arms of these last regiments were stacked immediately behind them where they could be seized in a moment, but the parade was formed without muskets. Captain Gibbs was on duty as commissary at my headquarters, and his appearance with the staff would have been unpleasant to himself as well as a possible cause of excitement in the Kentucky regiment. To solve the difficulty without making a significant exception, I ordered only the personal staff and the adjutant-general with the chief surgeon to accompany me, leaving out the administrative officers of both quartermaster's and commissary's departments.

When the parade was formed, I took my place with my staff at the right of the line, and, as upon a review, rode slowly down the whole line, on the inside of the square. In going along the front of the First Kentucky, I took especial pains to meet the eyes of the men as they were turned to me in passing, desirous of impressing them with my own feeling that it was a solemn but inevitable duty. Immediately after we returned to our places, the music of the dead-march was heard, and an ambulance was seen approaching from the camp, escorted by the provost-marshal and the execution party with the music. The solemn strains, the slow funereal step of the soldiers, the closed ambulance, the statue-like stillness of the paraded troops made an impression deeper and more awful than a battle scene, because the excitement was hushed and repressed. The ambulance stopped, the man was helped out at the back, and led by the provost-marshal to his place upon the coffin, where he was blindfolded. The firing party silently took its place. The muskets were cocked and aimed, while the noise of the retiring ambulance covered the sound. The provost-marshal, with a merciful deception, told the prisoner he must wait a moment and he would return to him before the final order, but stepping quickly out of the range of the muskets, he gave the signal with his handkerchief, and the man fell dead at the volley, which sounded like a single discharge. The detail of soldiers for the firing had been carefully instructed that steadiness and accuracy made the most merciful way of doing their unwelcome duty. The surgeon made his official inspection of the body, which was placed in the coffin and removed in the ambulance. The drums and fifes broke the spell with quick marching music, the regiments took their arms, sharp words of command rattled along the lines, which broke by platoons into column and moved rapidly off the field.

I confess it was a relief to have the painful task ended, and especially to have it ended in the most perfect order and discipline. The moral effect was very great, for our men were so intelligent that they fully appreciated the judicial character of the act, and the imposing solemnity of the parade and execution made the impression all the more profound. As it was accompanied and followed by a searching test of the capacity and character of their officers, of which they daily saw the effects in the retirement of some from the service and in the increased industry and studious devotion to duty of all, it gave a new tone to the whole command. I spared no effort to make the feeling pervade every regiemtn and company, that the cause of the country, their own success and honor, and even their own personal safety depended upon their entering the next campaign with such improved discipline and instruction as should make them always uperior to an equal number of the enemy. Leaves of absence and furloughs were limited as closely as possible, and I set the example of remaining without interruption on duty, though there were many reasons why a visit home was very desirable. My wife made me a visit at Charleston in mid-winter, and this naturally brought me into more frequent social relations to the people, and led me to observe more closely their attitude to the government and its cause...


Gallipolis Journal
January 16, 1862

DESERTER SHOT ON KANAWHA.—

Richard Gatewood, of the 1st Kentucky Regiment, was shot for desertion, near Charleston, Dec. 20th, in presence of the 1st and 2d Ky., 12th Ohio, and Pfau’s Cavalry. A correspondent of the Cincinnati Times says:

THE PROCESSION AND THE EXECUTION.

The regiment was called out this morning on dress parade, and the hour of execution read—three o’clock, P.M., Friday inst. At a few minutes before the time, the Twelfth Ohio Regiment, quartered above Charleston, marched to this camp, followed by Gen. Cox and staff and the First Ohio Cavalry. The brigade formed three sides of a hollow square. At a few minutes after three, the ambulance with the prisoner and his advisor arrived on the ground, and drove to a spot in the square, where, surrounded by a strong guard of fifty men, the prisoner alighted.

After placing the coffin and prisoner in the proper position, a squad of six men, with the muskets previously loaded—three blank and three ball cartridges—marched at a “trail,” and then stacked arms. The unfortunate man was blindfolded, and his arms pinioned, previous to his leaving the ambulance. Being led to his coffin, he knelt and joined Mr. Wright in prayer. After leave-taking with his friends and former officers, he knelt on the coffin, and Capt. Spencer, Provost Marshal of Charleston made a signal, and six men marched to the stack of arms, and each took their guns, and, as he raised his hand, they capped them; at another signal, the waving of a handkerchief, the six guns were leveled at his breast. In that assembly, you could have heard a whisper, so still were the men; a second signal, poor Dick fell, pierced by three balls all close to his heart. He died without a struggle.

THE VICTIM

When he was placed in his coffin the entire brigade marched past the corpse, and had a last look at one who had been but a short time before, one of the gayest of their comrades. The deceased was a native of Louisville, Ky., and had wealthy and respectable connections there. His mother is the only parent now living. He was a young man, 21 or 22 years of age, full of life and mischief, but not vicious, unless under the influence of liquor. I heard him say, when in life, that his father started him in his business by buying him a bar on one the lower river packets. With such a start, who can wonder at the ending.


Timeline of West Virginia: Civil War and Statehood: December 1861

West Virginia Archives and History