Maine musician watches the Army kill a deserter

Convicted of desertion, Pvt. William H. Johnson (right) of the 1st New York Cavalry Regiment sits on his coffin as the firing squad takes aim around 3:40 p.m., Friday, Dec. 13, 1862. Soldiers from the 5th Maine Infantry witnessed the execution, which took place at Fairfax Seminary in Virginia, and Pvt. Samuel Franklyn Parcher shared the gruesome details in a letter to a Portland friend. (Harper’s Weekly)

A Portland soldier could not wait to share the gory details he saw while witnessing the first execution of a Union soldier during the Civil War.

On Dec. 14, 1861, Pvt. Samuel Franklyn Parcher — he went by “Franklyn” or “Frank” — wrote a letter to his friend James O. Parsons, with whose family Parcher was living in Portland when a census taker found him in 1860. A member of the Portland-based Chandler’s Band, Parcher enlisted in the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment as a musician first class on June 21, 1861.

The regiment was at Camp Franklin in Virginia when Parcher reported on the thrilling events occurring on Friday, December 13, a particularly unluck day for a particular New York soldier.

Home in Maine, James Parsons “was on the frozen pond, skating, while your anxious wife [Angeline] was calculating the chances of being prematurely made a widow by your recklessness in venturing beyond your depth,” Parcher wrote, revealing he had news of his friend’s recreational antics.

We had something new yesterday, what the ‘boys’ call a ‘shooting match,’” Parcher calmly wrote. “A public execution of a traitor!

These are the particulars,” he set the stage. William H. Johnson, “a private in the Lincoln Cavalry [1st New York Cavalry], deserted and had, as he supposed got within the lines of the enemy.”

Assigned on December 4, 1861 to picket duty where the Columbia and Little River turnpikes intersected some 7 miles outside Alexandria, Johnson climbed into the saddle near dark and rode westward on the Braddock Road. Centreville lay ahead, and Johnson figured on encountering Confederate pickets.

A 23-year-old clerk when he joined Co. D, 1st New York Cavalry in late August 1861, Johnson was anybody’s fool. Nearing the Southern lines, “he fell in with an officer, whom he supposed was a rebel, and freely expressed his intention of joining the confederates, and said that he possessed a good deal of information in regards to the positions &c [etc.] of the Federals, and should communicate it.”

The officer was Col. George W. Taylor of the 3rd New Jersey Infantry Regiment, bringing a patrol into Union lines. Johnson evidently could not differentiate between Southern and Yankee accents. “The cunning officer began to question him about the kind of arms used by the U.S. soldiers and asked him to show him his pistols, which he had,” Parcher reported.

The pistols now in his hands, the officer “presented them at his heart and politely invited him to dismount and follow him into camp, which he did not like to do, but was finally persuaded,” Parcher wrote (underlined in the original).

He was courtmartialed, condemned, sentenced and executed ‘double quick,’” Parcher commented.

Comprising one man from each of the 12 companies of the 1st New York Cavalry Regiment, the firing squad targets deserter William H. Johnson on Dec. 13, 1861. The initial volley left Johnson alive; beyond the firing squad stand the four extra riflemen, holding their weapons high, who promptly marched over and riddled Johnson’s head with bullets. (Harper’s Weekly)

I had not the slightest intention of deserting up to a few minutes before I started” toward enemy lines, Johnson admitted during his trial and as reported in the Northern press. He stopped at “the first house” he saw and asked its residents, “a man and a boy … for some milk,” of which none was available.

It was then that I conceived the idea of deserting” to “go and see my mother in New Orleans, stay for a few weeks in the South, and then be able to get back to our regiment again, perhaps with some valuable information,” Johnson reasoned.

Running into Taylor, he expressed his desire to desert. Johnson handed his revolver [singular] to Taylor, who “took it, and cocking it, said to me, ‘Dismount, or I will blow your brains out!’” Johnson dutifully “dismounted, handed up my belt and sabre,” and with his hands tied behind his back, returned to Union lines escorted by “three men, besides another who took my horse.”

Johnson marched forth with his “funeral procession” around 3 p.m., Friday, Dec. 13. A reporter described the execution site as “a spacious field near the Fairfax Seminary, a short distance from the camp ground of the division.”

Forming a three-sided hollow square, “the whole division was present. Including 12 Regts. and several squadrons of cavalry and a battery of artillery,” Samuel Franklyn Parcher duly noted to James Parsons.

Two priests with rosarys” led Johnson “to his coffin” and remained “continually praying and talking” with him,” Parcher wrote. As Johnson and the priests walked, “each [regimental] band played a funeral dirge, and many a tear of pity was shed [by watching soldiers], but none of sympathy.”

Standing nearby, civilians from Alexandria and Washington, D.C., “ladies as well as gents,” witnessed “the spectacle, noted Parcher, hoping “it will probably be enough to satisfy the curiosity to see one such butchery.”

Soldiers from his division watch as Pvt. William H. Johnson awaits execution for desertion. The 5th Maine Infantry was among the 12 regiments required to witness the event. (Harper’s Weekly)

Armed with Sharp’s breech-loaders, 12 troopers from the 1st New York Cavalry comprised the firing squad. One rifle contained a blank with a full powder charge.

Johnson stood 5-6, “with light hair and whiskers, his eyebrows joining each other,” and “presented a most forlorn spectacle,” a reporter observed. “He was dressed in cavalry uniform, with the regulation overcoat and black gloves.”

His eyes blindfolded, Johnson “sat upon his coffin … and when the soldiers fired, he struggled but very little and expired,” according to Parcher.

The newspaper reporter disagreed. Johnson sat upright “for several seconds … quivered a little, and fell over beside his coffin,” the journalist testified. “Shot several times in the heart by the first volley,” Johnson breathed still, so four more riflemen hustled forward to shoot the prisoner in the head.

He died instantly” at 3:45 p.m., the time-watching journalist noted. Besides the bullets in his chest, Johnson now had a bullet in “his chin, another [in] his left cheek,” and two in “the brain just about the left eyebrow.”

The Army saved the worst for last. “The soldiers were so arranged that every one could see him when he fell,” Franklyn Parcher said. “Then the whole were marched close by the body, which was shockingly mangled being pierced by 12 bullets.”

Sources: Harper’s Weekly, “The Execution of Johnson,” Dec. 28, 1861; Samuel Franklyn Parcher letter to James Parsons, Dec. 14, 1861 (courtesy Eric Hill)


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Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

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 jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.