A deserter’s fate, Part I: Even the Confederates didn’t want him

 

Maine soldiers stationed in northeastern Florida during the Civil War might have seen this signal tower erected to maintain communications with Union warships moored nearby. The 9th Maine Infantry Regiment was one unit that served in this section of Florida for part of the war. (Library of Congress)

Maine soldiers stationed in northeastern Florida during the Civil War might have seen this signal tower erected to maintain communications with Union warships moored nearby. The 9th Maine Infantry Regiment was one unit that served in this section of Florida for part of the war. (Library of Congress)

Bad boy Albert H. Lunt could do no good, so 12 Union soldiers shot him dead at Hilton Head on Monday, Dec. 1, 1862.

And in case they missed, another dozen armed soldiers waited to use Lunt for target practice.

Assigned to Co. I, 9th Maine Infantry Regiment, Lunt seemed destined to pay for a life of crime, according to Henry J. Wisner, a New York Times special reporter who interviewed Lunt about 18 hours before his death. His early years suggested a depraved delinquent destined for an early doom.

Born in Hampden “of respectable parents,” Lunt “early betrayed a waywardness which led him into every species of childish vice,” Wisner claimed. After a circus performed in Hampden when Lunt was 13, he literally “abandoned his house” to join the circus and become a “castinet-player in a band of Ethiopian Minstrels.”

Enticed to a wayward lifestyle, in his late teens Lunt stole a horse. Maine justice convicted and jailed him; “he was released from confinement just after” the Civil War began in spring 1861, Wisner wrote.

Army regulations prevented a felon from enlisting, but Lunt joined the 9th Maine anyways under the pseudonym “William W. Lunt.” Even a blue uniform could not conceal Lunt’s depravity — or so Wisner believed.

“More than six feet in height, and of a proportionately large frame, sinewy and compact, he seemed the very perfection of physical conformation,” Wisner described Lunt, “but there could be no mistaking the impress which sensuality had left upon his face.”

At “scarcely 22 years of age,” Lunt looked like a crook.

The 9th Maine Infantry helped occupy Atlantic coastal forts in Florida in spring 1862. On Sunday, April 6, Lunt left the regiment’s lines “near the railroad bridge called Lofton, on the railroad running from Fernandina [Beach] to Baldwin, Fla.” without authorization, the criminal indictment against him specified.

During his subsequent interview with Wisner, Lunt claimed “that he had been sent three miles beyond our lines by one of our officers, on an improper errand connected with a woman (Mrs. Ellen Manning) whose existence was made known to them (some 9th Maine soldiers) on the previous day while they were scouting.”

Lunt confronted Manning in her house and “did forcibly take from her” $268, according to the official indictment, which charged Lunt with “highway robbery.” While no records reveal why Manning had so much money, she complained to federal authorities, as Lunt evidently learned.

The next day he “did desert from the United States army” and flee to “the enemy’s lines without arms and accoutrements,” according to the indictment charging him with desertion.

A 1st Florida Cavalry Regiment (Confederate) patrol swiftly captured Lunt, who convinced its officers that he wanted to join their unit. To prove his value, he betrayed seven comrades from Co. I, then “doing picket duty at the railroad bridge which spans the creek separating Amelia Island from the mainland,” reported Lt. Col. Horatio Bisbee Jr. of the 9th Maine.

Lunt’s company commander, Capt. S.D. Baker, deployed Orderly Sgt. Richard Webster, Corp. James W. Bowman, and Privates C. Wesley Adams, Ansel Chase, John E. Kent, Alonzo B. Merrill, and Isaac Whitney to guard “Judge O’Neal’s place,” according to Bisbee. Without telling his superiors about the assignment, Baker left his men “to protect the wife of one Mr. Heath, whom I held in arrest” and whose wife “was living at O’Neal’s house,“ Bisbee reported.

Located about 2½ miles from the railroad bridge, the house stood far beyond Union lines. Baker failed to inform his superior officers about the picket post, which he established “as an act of kindness and sympathy for Mrs. Heath,” Bisbee noted.

Lunt told his captors where to find Webster and his men; on Thursday, April 10, Confederate cavalrymen attacked the O’Neal house, killed Chase, and captured the other six men. Later that day Baker dispatched two soldiers to recall the picket post; the Maine soldiers found “the dead body of 1 man, that from appearances had been shot that day, and the remainder of the party taken prisoners,” Bisbee reported.

So Alfred Lunt joined the Confederate army, but even the enemy troops noticed his reprobate behavior; about April 20, Col. William G.M. Davis of the 1st Florida Cavalry “returned him (Lunt) to our lines, with the request” that Confederate deserters “might be treated in a similar manner,” Wisner noted.

With Col. Alfred Terry of the 7th Connecticut Infantry presiding, a Union court-martial convened at St. Augustine, Fla., heard the indictments, sifted through the evidence, and convicted Lunt of both charges. He was not charged for “stealing a watch belonging to a Major of a Florida regiment,” Wisner noted.

The court martial sentenced Lunt to death. The execution would take place after President Abraham Lincoln reviewed the court proceedings; savage battles in Tennessee and Virginia occupied his attention that spring, so Lincoln took a while to decide Lunt’s fate.

Federal authorities transferred Lunt to Hilton Head, S.C., where he remained imprisoned that summer and fall under the watchful eye of Maj. George Van Brunt of the 47th New York Infantry Regiment. He was the Hilton Head provost marshal.

Lincoln approved Lunt’s execution in mid-November; Army officers scheduled the event for Dec. 1. “The announcement he received carelessly — almost with insolent derision — saying that he might as well die at one time as at another,” Wisner learned.

Next week: A deserter’s fate, Part II: A firing squad delivered the verdict

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jive with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.