The Executions at Beverly Ford

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Narrated by George Levy and Robert Marcus.
Runtime: 4:54

August 29, 1863

The Civil War was a time when soldiers would be executed for desertion, in order to prevent further desertion. Even immigrants, whose understanding of English and the conditions of service was limited, were executed in the American Civil War. Watch the story of five Union soldiers at Beverly Ford, VA, who perhaps unjustly were denied a stay of execution from President Lincoln.

Transcript

President Lincoln should not have allowed these executions to proceed.

Bob Marcus:
General Meade believed, by killing these men, he would stop the desertions. But he was very wrong.

George Levy:
They had no interpreter. They had no defense counsel.

John Sellers:
It’s almost like murder, in a way, all those executions.

Narrator 1:
In an effort to contain a conflict flaring out of control, came one of the most unsettling and sensational days of the civil war.

Narrator 1:
Two years into the civil war, and bloody battles have taken hundreds of thousands of lives. Volunteers for the fight have dried up. Desertion is rampant. In desperation, the Union institutes a draft, but allows wealthy draftees to pay substitutes to enlist in their place.

George Levy:
In that act, it made it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.

Narrator 1:
August, 1863, having lost 23,000 men in his victory at Gettysburg, Major General George G Meade anxiously awaits the arrival of reinforcements while camped at Beverly Ford, Virginia.

Bob Marcus:
Two hundred substitutes were organized in Philadelphia and fully 100 had deserted on route.

Narrator 1:
Five of the captured deserters are set aside as an example. All our recent immigrants and all are substitute soldiers.

George Levy:
General Meade thought this would be a lesson that would stop desertions. But, it was foolish.

Bob Marcus:
Lincoln frequently would pardon or commute the death sentence of many condemned deserters.

Narrator 2:
We, the prisoners, implore your mercy. We think we have been wrongfully sentenced.

Narrator 1:
One of the desserts, a Prussian Jew named George Kuhne, requested a Jewish chaplain at the execution, a move without precedent. Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore agreed to travel to Beverly Ford, going first to Washington and begging President Lincoln for clemency for the deserters. But Lincoln had already sent his answer to Meade the previous day.

Bob Marcus:
He left it entirely up to the general Meade in this case.

George Levy:
He felt he owed General Meade. After all, General Meade turned the war around at Gettysburg. And then President Lincoln was caught up in the substitute frenzy. He felt that his entire draft act was being undermined by the substitutes deserting instead of serving their time, like they were supposed to.

Narrator 3:
Please let them know at once that their appeal is denied. Abraham Lincoln.

Narrator 1:
Saturday, August 29th, 1863.

Narrator 3:
Dear father, I have just come to camp. We were called out to witness the execution of deserters. The day was beautiful. The troops with massed on the side of a hill. The graves of the men were dug under a tree. Twenty-five thousand persons were present. The prisoners had white shirts, blue pantaloons, and government caps on. Their hands were tied behind their backs. They were marched to their own funeral. They were seated on their coffins in front of their graves. The spectacle was an unusual one. The Protestant, the Hebrew, and the Catholic stood side by side uttering prayers for the departed souls. I hope their fate may be a warning to all others.

Narrator 1:
The executions at Beverly Ford. Now find out for yourself what makes it one of the darkest moments of the civil war. View rare documents that show how citizens, soldiers, and even the President, were forced to face the uncomfortable truths of the most desperate time in American history.

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