Both the Union and Confederate armies were plagued by desertions in the Civil War. One estimate on the Union side placed the number of deserters at over 200,000. Men deserted for various reasons; some couldn’t handle the horrors of the battlefield, some simply wanted to go home due to family hardships there or because they were homesick. As the war went on and volunteers were harder to find, states would offer financial incentives, called “bounties” to get men to join. Some who accepted the payments would desert as soon as they got the payment. These “bounty jumpers” as they were known, would sometimes enlist in another location and get paid another bounty, only to keep the cycle going and desert again. The most despised deserters were those who deserted to the enemy.
Punishments for desertion varied widely, from fines to imprisonment and all the way up to execution. On the Union side, it was the most common offense for execution. Out of 267 total Union soldier executions, 141 were for desertion.
When a deserter was found guilty in a court martial with a penalty of death, the execution procedure was designed to send a message to other soldiers contemplating desertion, especially for those thinking of changing sides in the conflict. Typically, the execution of deserters was by firing squad. The entire Union force–brigade, division, or corps– at that location was ordered into formation to witness the event.
Lieutenant Elbridge Copp, Regimental Adjutant of the 3rd New Hampshire Infantry witnessed the execution of a deserter from his regiment. In the fall of 1863, the 3rd New Hampshire was on duty at Morris Island near Charleston, South Carolina as part of the Union 10th Corps. Private John Kendall of the regiment’s Company C had enlisted in October 1863 as a paid substitute for another man, a legal though controversial practice at the time. Kendall, a native of New Brunswick, Canada, didn’t stick around long before attempting his escape. As Lt. Copp noted, “In our department, the deserters necessarily went over to the enemy, there being no avenue north except by out steamships”. On November 28th, Kendall deserted but was captured. He was found guilty in a court martial and sentenced to death.
On December 17th, the sentence was carried out. Copp later recalled the event:
The ceremony of an execution for desertion is always in the presence of all troops within the command and in a manner to give the most profound impression. The whole army was ordered out to witness this execution, some eight to ten thousand troops in line along the beach, extending for a mile or more. Colonel Randlett of our regiment of our regiment, was at the time provo-martial and the execution was under his direction, with Lieutenant David Wadsworth in command of the guard and firing party. The prisoner was taken from the guard house, handcuffed with hands behind him, and shackled, put into an open army wagon, and made to sit upon his coffin and there to ride along the whole front of the line. In front was a drum corps with muffled drums, playing the dead march. A platoon of soldiers with arms reversed immediately in front of the wagon, and in the rear, another platoon of soldiers with arms reversed. This was the usual formation for military funerals.
In marching past our regiment Kendall recognizing some of the men of his company, cried out to them, in reckless bravado; his shouts were received in grim silence. Having passed the whole length of the line the march was then retraced to the center and front, and down the broad beach to the water’s edge. The Army was then massed in three sides of a hollow square; the coffin then placed at the opening of the square next to the water; the prisoner’s coat and cap removed, then blindfolded and made to kneel upon his coffin, facing inward, he keeping up the same indifference to his fate to the last.
A detail of twelve men had been made for the firing party; nine of the rifles had been loaded with ball cartridge and three with blank cartridges, no man of the twelve knowing to a certainty that his rifle was one of the nine by which the life of the man would be taken.
Practically the whole army upon Morris Island is massed for the ceremony, in spectacular array. General Terry in command of the forces for this occasion, and his staff, all in full resplendent dress uniforms, mounted upon their horses, which also are in resplendent trappings, and in the rear of that part of the line facing the opening of the hollow square, and the waters of the harbor. Generals of the brigades with their staffs, presenting a like appearance, are in the rear of their brigades. Colonels of regiments with their field and staff officers in their places, in the rear of their several regiments. I was in my place mounted, in rear of the right of my regiment and quite near the prisoner. Company commanders and their lieutenants in the rear of their companies. The men in line in full dress uniforms are standing at parade rest. The colors of each regiment, the Stars and Stripes, and the standard of the state of each regiment, held by their color bearers, are floating slowly and solemnly in the breeze. The only sound is that of the surf upon the beach and the boom of the siege guns at long intervals. The firing party has moved up to their place twenty paces in front of the condemned soldier, Now all is in readiness; in the silence of death and with bated breath 10,000 troops are looking upon the scene. The orders to the firing party are given by signals–Lieutenant Wadsworth raises his sword; the arms of the men come to a “ready”–another signal of the sword and the rifles are brought to aim; the sword of the Lieutenant then descends, quickly followed by the sharp report of the rifles, the man pitches forward over his coffin in instant death.
The whole army was then marched past the body where it lay upon the beach as it fell, and back to their several camps.
Hardtack & Coffee or The Unwritten Story of Army Life by John D. Billings
The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union by Bell Irvin Wiley
Men of Granite: New Hampshire’s Soldiers in the Civil War by Duane E. Shaffer
The Third New Hampshire and All About It by Daniel Eldridge
Reminiscences of the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by Elbridge J. Copp