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Sentenced And Shot

Sentenced And Shot image
Parent Issue
Day
9
Month
April
Year
1880
Copyright
Public Domain
OCR Text

Wbeuthe war closed, I was " in at the death ; " otherwise I should not have this story to teil. A braggart could have fired the first gao - none but a bero the last ; and while the first batile was lo.it by recruits, the last was won by veterans. It was siruply brave and generous to fall in the first charge - but it was puroly noble and heroic to die in the last. The first fresh rush of patriolic blood from the heart to the head could have easily carried the recruit up to tbe cannou's uiouih ; but it was quite another thing that carried him through a four years' charge, to die as the enemy sounded (he final retreat. Life beeomes very dear when you have fought voor way froin Huil Kun to Petersburg- from Beltuout to Mobile. To be shot by a rebel at Alexamlria, Virginia, in 1861, is not at all like being shot by your friends at Alezandria. Louisiana, in 1865. I returned froin Shreveport to New Orleans after the mrreuder ol Kirby Smith's army - all that was left of it - just in time to be ordered hy isheridan to report to Custer for duty with the second cavalry divi.-ion of the Military Department ot lüö Gulf. The orders were to rendezvous at Alexandria, Ixtuisiana, aud after due prepiratioD to march across tbe country into Texas lor the purpo.se of re-establiahing the authority of the Government - to follow up victory with occupation. Among the regiment- ordered to report to the Geueral there was the ill-f'ated Second Cavalry. It had suffored somewhat from indifferent field officers, but more from that bad fortune which overtook so many western regiments in tbe shape of garrison duty in small squada or squadrons, so scattered as to make each a sort of independent oommand, which in the end resuited in a loss of discipline and the ruin of those bonds of sympathy that bound most regiments firmly ogeiher. To lead such a regiment into a hotly-contested fight would be a blessing, and would effeetually sefrat rest all suoh trouble ; Dut their fighting had been altogether of the guerrilla kind, and there was no regimental pride of oharacter, simply secause there had been no regimental deed of valor. Two colonels had resigned- one to aocept promotion, and the other to return bome - and a lieu tenant colooel had f'ailed to succeed to tbeir spread eagles ; and the maority of the regiment would have rejoioed il', in his wrathful dtsappointment he had thrown away his silver leaves and goue home, too. But he never dreamed of it. Whether justly or unjustly, he was despis. d jy hig command ; and only held his place jy sheer force of will, baoked by the autborïties above liitn. Such was the condition of the regiment when it reported for duty. Tired out with the long service, weary with an uncomfortable journey by river trom Memphis, swelering under a gulf-coast sun, under orders o go farther and farther fromhome when the war was over, and tbe one desire above ill others was to te mustered out and reeased frora a service that became irksome and baleful when a prospect of crushing the enemy no longer existed - all these, added to the djsaffection amoog the officers, -endered tbe situation truly deplorable. In act, the men of the whole división were ii iv or less discontented, and would have een troubletome under any circumstances hat kept them in the service; but to be thoroughly organized and subjected to the discipline necesHary to the maintenance of good order, and to be forced to treat with conbideration the very people whose counry they had acquired a clironic habit of levastating- and that, too, by a man whom _hey called a "yellow-haired circus rider rom the Shenandoah " - this t-eenied to thcm to be almost beyond the limit of huujan endurance. The coniruand had hardly pitched their tent and kindled their camp-firea before the spirit of reckless disregard of authority began to inanilest itself. The men hated the coaimandiug General and staff "on principie," without regard to what they did. "No eastern man oan put on style over us!" " Bright buttons and spurs don't mako a soldier ! " " It's too late to teaoh us Army of the Potomao notions." " The war i.s over; why don't they send um home, instead of sending the up-s(art Major General, wil li hi.s first mustache, to lord it over u.-. ! These werc such speeches as one could hear at al most any hour of the day or evening, when wandering through the camp ; and they were delivered with such emphasis and ill-suppresied bitteruess that the etTect was ezccediDgly ugly. Immediately the men, singly and in squads, began to go on extern poraneous raidsthrough theadjoining country,robbing and plundering ndiscriniinately in every direction. They seemed to have no idea that a oonquered and subdued people could possibly have ar.y rights that the conquerors were bound to respect. But such ezpeditions could not 1! permitted ; indeed the General was under orders to treat the people kindly and considerately, and he obeyed orders with the same punotiliouaness with which he ezacted obedience from his com mand. Therefure, the most rigorouü and ixplicit orders were issued against "jay ïawking " of every kind, and the offenders were severely punished. But the oidinary unishoicnts were found to be otterly indequate. The guard-house, polioe-duty, xtra duty, etc, had lost their terrors ; and unishments had to be devised that would each a daas of men and offensen unprovidd for in the " regilatious. " The sturm, which had been brewing to maDV months in the ranks of the second avalry, suddenly burstupon it. A paper, emandingthe resignation of the lieutenant oionel, bad been largcly sigped by offioers nd men, and presented to Kim. Th is was the flint that struck out fire. In half an hour the officers wliose naraes appeared on that fatal list were deprived of their swords, and the catastrophe was no longer to be ayoided. Blootf was in the eyes of the soldiers, aud nooe n the cheeksoftbeoffiuers - vengeanee was in the hearts of the men, and fear in the souls of the commanders. There was a quick roll of the drum- a few explosive orders - a sudden rush - a sort of dizzy whirl; the lieutenant colonel narrowly escaped, and.by aquick movement of the guard, a sergeant and several men, wtaoso names were on the paper, were arrested and lodged in the house. A doublé force was posted to prevent the rescue of the prisoners- and the iinmediate danger was over. Afler the storm the calm. The anxiety of somo men to get into trouble is only exceeded y their soliuitude to get out of it. It happeued so with the-e. The violent and headiong ha.te of the action was eclipsed only by the reaction. To the swordless officer-i musing iu their separate tents, and thü iuiprisoued soldiers dicussini; the affair between their bars, tbtstecame, iu duetime, reprntanee and regret. Through the clemency of the man whom they sought to destroy, there was at last ufibrdüd, on certain conditions, the opportunity to erase thuir names from that black musier-roll, and secure rtstoration to duiy. Some quickly, others reluctantly, but final ly al! availed ihcmselvps of the absolution, except oni - ihe sergeant, the leader, the prime mover and champion of the affair. He sourned forgiveness; it implied an acknowledginentof guili. Hewould stand by tlie deed ; whatevet the law called it, ho held it just resistanca to tyranny. He had sought no uian's life. He had feit: "We cannot live together; therefore, do thou go thy way, and 1 will mine; " aud he ha'í simply said so. If tbat were a crime, he eould not help it. No matter if a thousand uien were cowards, he had not the blood of a poltroon in his veins. He should never nromise- touch his haf, and bowing low, beg to have his name blotted out of that tipt tlii soul revolted at it. He would live and die by that solenin protest against the authority oí' a douiineuring coward and iiioouifieteut comiuandrtr. tío the law took him and tried him before a general court-iuaitial, found him guilty, and seDtenced hiiu "to be shot to death." The Oeneral approved the finding ai:d sentenee ot' the court, and the day and hour ot the execution were fixed in an order that was read, on a certaia evening at parade, to each regiment of the divir-ion. And with the word of tbat ordera cluud teil on the whole co ui ui and. The law was inexorable, and the court had no alternativo. Bain guilty, this the puuishment prescribed, without that saving clause whieh puts the offender at the mercy of the court - " or such other punishuient as the oourt m.iy (Kreet." But did he deserve death 'f Not a man in all the eotnmand believed it. The men knew it was the letrer of thf law that was slaying him ; but how to invoke its spirit, and whether the spitit t-ould iinve him if it would, sorely puzzled them. They were satisfied that he shuuld be puninhed, but by something less severe and irrevocable than death. With what cru.shing weight the thought came to their hearts that a good Holdier, a true patriot, was to be shot for a technicality, at the end of a long war through which he had faithfully served I How they talked about that lonesome, weary wife, and her eager and expectantchildren, away at the Nui th. watching with bated breath the opening of the mail that was so soon, if not to-day, to bring her the news of the final discharge of the second cavalry ! Who oould hold a pen to write tliis other news in its 8tead? Who could send home to her the picture of her own sweet face, with the curl of baby's hair on the glass, as he had worn it next his heart po many years, through all danger by flood and field, and write the words : ''This, with his undying love, he bade me sent you- his last requeBt?" Did ever the reluctant days drag a man tü such hopele.-s, bottomless doom ? It' only he had fallón od some tiercé battle field, madly striking for his country ! If only he had been hlain on the picket line, piloting the grand old army to viotory I If he could have died in the hospital, slowly wasted away by the incurable wounds ot diseasesl If' only in any way his blood uiihr. have been rockoned as a part of the w:.e paid fur liberty and free governtnent. But no - none of these. The very record of bis devotion to his country' cause, and of hisfaithful yearsof untiring service, was to be blotted out. His memory was to be blackened forever, and his name to become a legacy of shanie to his chüdren ; and yet they knew he was conscious of do crime ! Was it possible to save him in any way? Could he be pardoned, or his sentence be couimuted? Yes, but only one man could do it - the General. Wburfhedoit? Only dne man in all the command could aak it and hope to be heard - the LieutenantColonel. Would he do it? The days of respite passed rapidly, and the anxiety and sympatriy for tbe dooined man constantly incrca-ed in a cumulative ratio. At last the indispensable man arrived at división headquarters with a '. Fetition for Pardon," and asked the stafF to sign it. Every valid reason that could be fouod was urged.aud he went away with all our names. He fared the same at the brigade headquarters j and by the time he reached theeomrnanders of regiments, who all signed it, the report had rejoiced the heartn of' every tent-quad in the whole división. They knew it would be ranied - the General could not avoid it ; he" wouldn't dare to sboot him in the face of that list of iiaincs. There was a threat of vengeanne lurking in every expreesion of joy. "If-," If-." Armed with the petilion the Lieutenant(Jolunel went to the General, and, gathering up all the eloijuence of all the arguments, laid the case before him. He would "consider the matter," and the Colonel was dismissed. , A day paed by without an answcr. Another, and still no reply. The third - some anxiety was manifested. The fourth - the solicitude increased. On the lililí day the old fear seized them. The sixth- not a word spoken - to-uiorrow, "between the hours of ten and twelve o'clock ." They lay in squads, scattered through the camps, talking until late into the uight, not carpg to bleep, and the reveillee seemed to break in upon their lir-i nap. The morning wore away in the midst of its usual duties. Seven o'clock - breakfast. There was the u.sual hum throughout the camps, the neighing of the horses, and the voioes of the uien calling back and forth as they struggled in, each to his own mess. Once more as they drank their cofiee and ate their hard bread aud bacon, grumblingly denounoing the shoricotnings of the commitwaridt, they wondered if it were yet possible for the General to speak. Eight o'clock - sick cali. The orderlies reported their latest candidates, the surgeons prescribed, tbe hospital stewards provided for them ; and the sick men, lying on their oots in anguish, turned to inquire of their new neighbors if the word had yet been spoken. Nine o'clock--guarduoounting. The first Sergeaots bastily suinmoned their "details," and reported to tbe Adjutants on the parade-grounds. The ccremony over, the corporal proceedcd to post the "first relief; " and eaoh man as he resigned his charge and "feil in" at the rear, asked eagerly for the news. Nioe-and -a-half o'clock-tlie bugle sounded "boots and spurs." There were no more questions. From the mere forcé of habit the men obeyed the summons; and by ten o'elock the whole división was in motion. Silently, sullenly, the troops moved away from camp, down the main road ; and, one brigade after another, regiment by regiment, were formed in hollow-square around a large vacant sugar-field adjoining the town. The General and staff passed through the line, moved forward to the center of the square, and, being drawn up in line, awaited the appearance of the solemn cnrtegc ölowly down the road froiu the guardhouse it canie, entered the square, and uiarched along the inward-faciiiji linen of troopp, entirely around the open space- the guard, the firing party with anus re-versed, the wagons drawn ly four large horses, wi'h tbeir sad factd driver si-atod above ; and in the wagon, with tbeir arais pinioned behind them, each on nis own cuffin, facing the rear, rode two men, and took their last leave of their comiades. This sccond man was a private (rom the Fourth Oavalry, and was tried and coovicted by the same ooart an the Sergeant, for dcseriion - the third or fourth offenxe. He had been a vagabond and criminal before ho became a soldier ; and never having been a patriot, he was a deserter fri m the first, and wbh paying the just penalty of his orimes, without eveo the piiy and commiteration of hi.s own me-siuates. l'he ranshi&e; the c!oud:ess sky; the songs of birds ; the graceful swaying of the long feetoona of Spani-ih iuoss in the near woeds; the shallow, murky river hastening away to the gulf ; the dreary old tumbled down village, behind its dilapidated luvee, the long haired, swartliy, illclad remnantsof the late Confedérate arniy gathered at the Street corners; the distrustful, inipoveri;-hed citizens moviiig about disconsolately ; the (lebris of two armies scattered in every direction ; the outlying, devai-tatcd sugar-plantaiioiis cov ered with camps, and this one the sceno of an imposing military execution ; theie were the obvious details of a never-to-be forgotten picture. Down into the hearta of five thousand men it sank- photographed by the indelible and impalpable chomicals of the mini], there to reuiain forever. They feit the wheels of the monstrous hear.-e tugging at all their heart-stringí, as if they 8trove to chain them with their sympathies, and forever bo)d them back from the end of that sorrowful journey. At last the procession reached the place of entering, filed out into the field, and ¦ halted a short distance in front of the General and staff. The men were assisted down from the wagon and soated upon their eoffins at the fiot of their graves. Kight men, with pallid face.i haked in lino a few paces before them, and exchanged their carbines for others specially loaded for the occasion by the Provost .Uarshal, who had charge of all the arrangement, líe had loaded seven of them with ball, but the eighth witb a blank cartridge - leaving the men in merciful uncertainty, allowing each to think that perhaps his was the harmless shot. There was no more delay. Everything was done quickly, and with the utmost precisión. The Provost Marshal read his warrant for the execution, drew the fatal caps over the eyes of the prisoners, stopped back a little, and, in the midst of the most awful silence, commanded : "Attention !-Ready ! ' ' The click of those eight looks was terrible. The victims stirred a little, as it were jnvoluntarily. The air seemed stifling. The calm, monotonous regularity of the commands was excruciating. The apparently heartless and business-like rnanner of' the Marshal was maddening. Instantly he slipped to the side of the Sergeant, and, slightly pulling his hleeve, led him a few steps aside ; then, before the action could be fully realized, commanded : "Aim.'-Firef Thoro wan ¦ cr.--Iiii;g blaSt - a cloud of' smoke - a dull, heavy "thud" as the soldier feil back dead on his coffin. and the .Sergeant feil limp and motionless ioto the arms of the Marehal, who Rtooped down upon one knoe to set him on the other, and, puiling off tbe black cap, nursed him hack to life and consciousnei-s. There wan a murmur of grateful npplause along the whole line. The General had not been intiiuidnted, and yet had granted the prayer of his men. He had [lunished the Sergeant severely, and yet been mercit'ul to thein both ; he had spared the life of one, though tenteneed, and leept a knowledge of it Irom the other, though üho. We didn't know then that the teoond oavalry went out to the exeoution with loaded carbines and forty rounda in their cartridge bozes ; it we had, we might not nave feit quite at ease - but it would