Account of Execution of Deserters at Beverly Ford Mentions Rabbi Praying With One of the Condemned Men

August 29, 1863

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Account of Execution of Deserters at Beverly Ford Mentions  Rabbi Praying With One of the Condemned Men
Autograph Letter Signed
5 pages | SMC 1026

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      "The execution of the substitute deserters sentenced to the penalty of death in General Orders No. 84, took place today.  More than ordinary interest was exhibited in this execution of military law, and it is estimated that not less than 25,000 persons were present. The ground were well selected, and every arrangement so complete that no accident occurred to mar the solemnity of the proceedings. The position of the spectators was upon a semi-circular elevation partially surrounding the place of execution. Previous to the execution the scene presented a remarkable view to the spectator. Two of the sentenced persons were Protestants, two Catholics, and the fifth a Hebrew. The spiritual advisers of each were present, administrating the last consolations of religion. The criminals were sitting upon their respective coffins, with the yawning graves in their rear. The troops were drawn up in close column by division, covering the complete semi-circle, and separated from the spectators by a creek. The order for their immediate execution was issued by Gen. Griffin, and the officer of the day, Capt. Crocker, of the One Hundredth and Eighteenth Pennsylvania, recalled the clergyman their spiritual duties. The rest is briefly told. At the order to fire, thirty-six muskets, and instant death was by announced by the surgeons in attendance as the result. The bodies were then placed in their respective graves, and the clergy performed the last religious rites over the deceased. The spectacle was an unusual one - the Protestant, the Hebrew and the Catholic stood side by side, each uttering prayers for their souls... The clergy who attended these unfortunates were the Chaplain of the One Hundredth and Eighteenth Pennsylvania regiment; Rev. C.L. Egan, of St. Dominick's Church Washington; and Rabbi B.S. Scold, of Baltimore. They were unremitting in their attendance upon the deceased from the time of their sentence until the final hour." - "From the Army of the Potomac... The Doomed Deserters...," New York Times, 31 Aug 1863

      The above-cited account of the execution of five deserters at Beverly Ford made its way into print some three days after the fact; in this letter, however, despite the rumor of a great Union victory at Charlestown and the gala presentation of a sword to General Meade, the chilling execution, witnessed that very day by young Captain Winans, takes the lead:

      I have just come to camp. We were out to witness the execution of five deserters belonging to the 1st Div.... They were substitutes and deserted while on the way to the Division.

      The corps was drawn out in line of column by divisions. The men were marched along the line between the Divisions, then to the graves, seated upon their coffins There was a Catholic Priest and Jewish Rabbi who prayed with them. They were killed the first volley. About 100 conscripts arrived here today from the 2nd Div. They were taken out under guard to witness the fate of conscripts who desert.

      The deathly spectacle was intended, of course, to impress upon the soldiers the merciless result of deserting, and so make terrible the very idea of desertion. Certainly the presence of officiating clergy - including what to many was the rare sight of a Catholic priest, and the even more  exotic sight of a Jewish rabbi - made the event especially harrowing, that so much human tenderness might be exhibited at a moment of such cold-blooded brutality.

       It musts be noted that the rabbi attending the Jewish prisoner George Kuhn, while un-named in Winans' letter home, was mis-named in the New York Times report. Rabbi "Scold" was in fact Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Baltimore - who went to Lincoln, and then at Lincoln's direction, to General Meade, to plead, unsuccessfully, for Kuhn's life.



      [Beverly Ford] Jacob S. Winans. Autograph Letter Signed,  5 pages, octavo, Camp near Rappahannock [Virginia], August 29, 1863. To his father Isaac Winans. Being an eyewitness account from the pen of Captain Winans (Pennsylvania 38th) on the day of the execution of five deserters at Beverly Ford.
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      Camp near Rappahannock 
      Saturday Aug 29

      Dear Father

      I received your letter last evening, was very glad to hear from you and that you are all well.

      I have just come to camp. We were out to witness the execution of five deserters belonging to the 1st Div of this corps. They were substitutes and deserted while on the way to the Division.

      The corps was drawn out in line of column by divisions. The men were marched along the line between the Divisions, then to the graves, seated upon their cofins [sic]. There was a Catholic Priest and Jewish Rabbi who 

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      prayed with them. They were killed the first volley. About 100 conscripts arrived here today from the 2nd Div. They were taken out under guard to witness the fate of conscripts who desert.

      I saw Capt Maynard to day, only had a few minutes to talk to him. He is quite well. His camp is at Sulphur Springs. He is now Commissary for the Brigade. I have never had much chance to get acquainted with the Capt. each time I saw him was upon the battlefield, and that is a very poor place to make acquaintances.

      Last evening we had a very pleasant time at Div. HQrs. A sword was presented to Gen'l Meade by the officers of the P.R.C. 

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      Gen'l Crawford made the presentation; Meade replied in a very good speach [sic]. He reviewed briefly the history of the division for the time he was connected with it. He complimented us very highly. Gov'r Curtin, Roberts & others made speaches [sic]. After this was over we had a supper. The only fault with the supper was that there was too little to eat, and too much to drink.

      Papers of today say that the Stars & Stripes are waving over Forts Sumpter & Wagner. I hope the news is true, if we succeed in taking Charleston I think it will end the war soon. There is no doubt but the Rebels are getting tired and more than that they are beginning to reap the effects of war in earnest. Famine & Pestilence will

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      soon bring them to terms. I hope it may come soon.

      We are still lying quiet [.] There is not near as much prospect of moving now as there was a week or two ago. It is thought that Lee has been reinforced, but for my part I cannot see where his reinforcements are coming from. If he has been reinforced, he will most likely make another such a trip as he did last fall. But if he does try it I hope he will not be so successful as then.

      It has got quite cool here, the men feel the cold very sensibly these nights. I hope that our very warm weather is over. The health of the men is very good, but there is some Dysentery among them.

      I must close. My love to Mother & the Children

      Yours affect[ionately]

      J.S. WINANS

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      P.S. I forgot about that money. I have just been talking to Crawford. He says that he is not particular abut having any interest and that you may put it on deposit in Bank.

      Do not [...] yourself to deposit it now, if you have not the money at hand wait until we are paid again and I will send enough to make it up. He wanted it sent home and he did not have a chance to send with rest so I took it for him.

      J.S.W.