2 pages | SMC 1027
BackgroundFive Union soldiers who, having enlisted for the bounties and then deserted, were executed in front of 25,000 soldiers near Washington, D.C., in August, 1863. One of the men, the Prussian-born George Kuhne, was Jewish, and attended by a Rabbi who had appealed in person to Lincoln, in vain, to save the boy's life. At the execution, the Rabbi led the death procession; his faith, an officer ruled, was the oldest and outranked the others. But that a Rabbi was even included in the dire affair, was noteworthy: for the execution of the deserters at Beverly Ford, Virginia, marked an exceptionally unusual interfaith service. Indeed, in this remarkable eye-witness description, the seemingly novel presence of multiple religious leaders is highlighted: "the men", Lieutenant Closson wrote here, "were accompanied by a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi and a Methodist preacher.”
On the afternoon of the 29th August our whole corps were ordered out to witness the execution of five deserters from the 118th PV they were substituted for drafted men, the day was beautiful and the appearance and maneuvers of the troops grand, the troops were massed on the side of a hill about one mile from Beverly Ford, the graves of the condemned men were dug under a tree on the rise of ground opposite. A small stream running between the troops and the place of execution, we got into position directly opposite at 2 1/2 oclock, at 3 oclock the men were brought out and marched through the whole corps, their coffins carried in front of them and their hands tied behind them, and a brass band playing the dead march, they were dressed in white shirts blue pants and caps, they were accompanied by a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi and a Methodist preacher, after they arrived at the place of execution they were seated on their coffins in front of their graves, they conversed with the clergy, and bid their friends good bye, one of them prayed or spoke loud and cried bitterly but I could not understand him he was an Italian, one of the others fainted while marching they all seemed deeply affected. At 5 minutes before 4 oclock their eyes were bandaged the firing party advanced to within 6 paces of the prisoners and the command ready, aim fire was given at presisely 4 oclock, their deaths were instantaneous.
Lieutenant Closson closed with a hope - not unlike that of President Lincoln - that "their fate may be a warning to all others. A man that would desert his country at a time like this," he declared, "deserves to be shot."
[Beverly Ford: Execution of Deserters] James H. Closson, as Lieutenant in the Pennsylvania 91st Infantry, Autograph Letter Signed, 2 pages, recto and verso, Camp near Beverly Ford, Virginia, September 3, 1863. To his Mother.