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

 

These Union officers gathered at Chattanooga, either in 1864 or 1865, to serve as a court martial. Picked from different regiments, the officers would act as a grand jury in issuing indictments and as a regular jury, hearing evidence presented in a military trial and determining a verdict. Alfred H. Lunt, a deserter from the 8th Maine Infantry Regiment, was tried in St. Augustine, Fla. before a court martial headed by Col. Alfred Terry of the 7th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. Found guilty of egregious crimes, Lunt was sentenced to be shot. (Library of Congress)

These Union officers gathered at Chattanooga, either in 1864 or 1865, to serve as a court martial. Picked from different regiments, the officers would act as a grand jury in issuing indictments and as a regular jury, hearing evidence presented in a military trial and determining a verdict. Alfred H. Lunt, a deserter from the 9th Maine Infantry Regiment, was tried in St. Augustine, Fla. before a court martial headed by Col. Alfred Terry of the 7th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. Found guilty of egregious crimes, Lunt was sentenced to be shot. (Library of Congress)

After deserter Albert H. Lunt of the 9th Maine Infantry Regiment was convicted of various crimes by a court martial convened at St. Augustine, Fla., he was sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln upheld the sentence in mid-November 1862; Army officers scheduled the execution for Dec. 1.

Lunt was transferred to Hilton Head, S.C., where he was guarded by the provosts commanded by Maj. George Van Brunt of the 47th New York Infantry Regiment, the provost marshal.

So that Lunt’s “mind might be turned into reflection,” he was transferred under heavy guard from his cell to a tent “which was pitched in an isolated part of the Provost-Marshal’s encampment,” wrote Henry J. Wisner, a New York Times correspondent.

A 47th New York Infantry chaplain ministered to Lunt, who “underwent, to all outward appearance, a marvelous change. Seriousness took the place of levity,” Wisner noted. On Nov. 26, Lunt “professed to see clearly the way of salvation and expressed himself as at peace with his Maker and the world.”

In midafternoon on Nov. 29, Wisner “received a note from the Provost-Marshal, inviting me to visit” Lunt, who wanted “to see a representative of the Press.” Wisner “overcame a natural reluctance to call upon a person in his condition, and had the interview.”

If Wisner expected to encounter a monster, he did not. “I found him (Lunt) perfectly composed, and during more than an hour I passed with him, not once did he lose his remarkable self-possession,” Wisner noted.

Lunt wanted Wisner to “publish … his protestations of innocence of the crime of desertion,” according to the New York Times. Lunt gave Wisner 6½ pages “of closely written foolscap” and “asked me to print the paper.”

As to the desertion charge, Lunt claimed a 9th Maine officer had sent him to the home of Mrs. Ellen Manning, a Florida woman whom Lunt had robbed of $268 on April 6, 1862. Afraid that “a party of our own troops” might find him at the house, “which would have placed him in difficulty,” Lunt “pressed on further” until Confederate cavalry caught him.

Lunt had also been accused of stealing the watch belonging to the Major of a Florida regiment. “As far as the theft of the Major’s watch was concerned, he did not consider that wrong, as it was filched while that officer had him under guard and was searching his pockets,” Wisner noted.

“For the sake of my family I want it to be published that I am innocent,” Lunt said. “Tell my fellow-soldiers that I have been a hard boy, and have done a great many wicked things, and they must take my death as a warning not to be led astray by bad company.”

At the court martial, witnesses had lied about Lunt, he claimed, “but I have no ill-feeling toward them. I am resigned to my fate.”

Two Army chaplains stayed with Lunt until 3 a.m., Dec. 1, when he finally fell asleep. The time passed, “hours of which each minute must seem a year,” according to Wisner.

In this Harper's Weekly engraving from 1864, Union pickets warily watch approaching Confederates who claim to be deserters. Men who fled to the opposing lines had better hope that they were not caught later by soldiers from "their" side; execution often awaited a soldier caught after deserting in such a manner.

In this Harper’s Weekly engraving from 1864, Union pickets warily watch approaching Confederates who claim to be deserters. Men who fled to the opposing lines had better hope that they were not caught later by soldiers from “their” side; execution often awaited a soldier caught after deserting in such a manner.

Clad in his uniform, Lunt “stepped from his tent” at 10:30 a.m., and walked to a horse-drawn ambulance while guarded by “two men with side arms.” The ambulance stood within a square “formed by the firing party of twenty-four men of the Provost Guard,” Wisner described the scene. The soldiers stood “at open order, with pieces (firearms) reversed.”

Lunt walked through his executioners “and entered the ambulance sedately and unaided, seating himself upon the rough coffin which was destined for his remains,” Wisner wrote. There Lunt sat with “his face reclining upon his right hand, and his elbow supported upon his knee.”

For the next 30 minutes, “the mournful tap of muffled drums” resounded as the ambulance traveled slowly “to the place selected for the execution,” Wisner detailed the procession. Soldiers from the 47th New York Infantry marched in front of the ambulance; the two chaplains and several “medical officers” walked behind it.

Lunt would die in “a spacious field” just beyond the Federal trenches that crossed Hilton Head, Wisner wrote. Several regiments formed a three-sided “hollow square” inside which the execution would take place.

“All the troops at Hilton Head were called out to witness a very painful scene … the execution of a hardened criminal,” recalled Frederic Denison in “Shot and Shell: the Third Rhode Island Heavy Artillery in the Rebellion.”

“The desperate character was William H. Lunt (true name Albert Lunt), of Company I, Ninth Maine Regiment,” Denison wrote. “The place of execution was beyond the entrenchments on the south side.”

After rolling into the hollow square, the ambulance stopped. Lunt “alighted without assistance, and his coffin was placed beside him,” Wisner wrote. Lunt displayed “no dampness upon his brow, no tears upon his cheek.”

A lieutenant read the court-martial proceedings, and Lunt spoke briefly “in a loud, clear tone.” He cautioned the watching soldiers to seek “salvation from the Lord before it is too late.”

Then Lunt reiterated his innocence.

His overcoat removed, “he knelt upon his coffin,” Wisner wrote. “In this position a bandage was fastened over his eyes, and at the same moment a squad of twelve men were silently motioned to post themselves in front of him at a distance of fifteen paces.”

Actually comprising 24 men, the firing squad had been “selected by the Provost-Marshal with a view to nerve and good marksmanship,” and the soldiers had practiced shooting at a stationary target set “at the designated distance,” Wisner wrote. Capt. Edward Eddy commanded the firing squad.

As the chaplains quietly prayed with Lunt, the 12 soldiers cocked their rifled muskets. Eleven were fully loaded; the 12th was loaded with “a blank cartridge and a heavy wad” so that as each soldier received a musket, he could not tell if it contained the blank or not, Wisner pointed out.

Van Brunt shook Lunt’s hand, then moved away a few steps. Eddy waved his sword, and the 12 soldiers raised their muskets to their shoulders and aimed at the silent Lunt. Van Brunt dropped “his pocket handkerchief” to signal Eddy to shoot.

Eddy shouted, “Fire!” Eleven muskets roared; the percussion “cap of one musket exploded without discharging the piece,” Wisner noted.

“Six or eight dark splotches” suddenly appeared “as if by magical power … upon the body,” and Lunt “lies lifeless upon the ground,” Wisner breathlessly wrote. The second 12-man firing squad was not needed; the medical officers who had accompanied Lunt from his prison tent ascertained that he wad dead.

At other deserter executions during the war, the watching soldiers would be marched past the corpse to remind them what fate awaited deserters. Now a brigadier general, Terry waived this practice after Lunt died; once the casket was nailed shut, six soldiers escorted it without “the usual military honors” to a graveyard for burial, Wisner wrote.

Some eyewitnesses approved of the execution. “Desertion on the front is a crime that may not be measured,” opined Denison. “The character of Lunt was vile beyond description.”

People agreed in Maine, where no politician wanted to admit Lunt’s connection with the Pine Tree State. When he later issued his report on Maine’s 1862 war efforts, Adjutant General John Hodsdon claimed that Lunt had lived in Plattsburg, N.Y. prior to enlisting.

And patriotic Orono residents were aghast that Albert F. Lunt was “on our list of men furnished for the war,” Samuel Libbey protested in print to Hodsdon on Nov. 19, 1862.

“He is the infamous scoundrel who was recently sentenced to be shot, for desertion, etc and has no reason to hail from here,” Libbey figuratively snorted. “His father Henry Lunt moved from here in [18]48 or 49. The young man hasn’t ever worked here since; but lived in Old Town and lastly in Hampden.

“I wish our town might be spared the disgrace of such fellows hailing from it by putting them where they belong,” Libbey wrote. “I merely state the facts … as I understand them and you will of course dispose of this case as you think best.”

Brian Swartz can be contacted 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.