3 pages | SMC 650
On the afternoon of August 29, 1863, the entire Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac massed at Beverly Ford, Virginia, to attend the execution of five soldiers in the 118th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry convicted of desertion. All were foreign-born, and each had enlisted to receive the bounty, but had not joined the regiment. Convicted to desertion by a court-martial on August 20th, all were found guilty and sentenced to be shot. The execution, decreed General Meade, was to take place on the 16th, between 12 and 4 p.m. The men appealed, however, for more time to prepare to die: two were Roman Catholics and one a Jew, they explained, and no priests or rabbis were available. They also asked that the sentence be changed to hard labor, since they were foreigners and had been told by other soldiers that “there would be no harm done.” Meade, disinclined to mercy, merely postponed the execution until the 29th, until such time as a Rabbi Benjamin Szold could arrive from Baltimore to solace and attend George Kuhne (or Kuhn), alias G. Weik, who had enlisted July 13th, been arrested August 13th, and would die, shot for desertion, some two weeks later, at 3:45 p.m. on the 29th.
Harper’s Weekly gave the execution a two-page illustration, and the artist, A. R. Waud, filed this report, which appeared on page 622 of the September 29, 1863 issue:
Mr. Waud writes: "The crime of desertion has been one of the greatest drawbacks to our army. If the men who have deserted their flag had but been present on more than one occasion defeat would have been victory, and victory the destruction of the enemy. It may be therefore fairly asserted that desertion is the greatest crime of the soldier, and no punishment too severe for the offense. But the dislike to kill in cold blood—a Northern characteristic—the undue exercise of executive clemency, and in fact the very magnitude and vast spread of the offense, has prevented the proper punishment being applied. That is past; now the very necessity of saving life will cause the severest penalties to be rigorously exacted. The picture represents the men who were sentenced to death in the Fifth Corps for desertion at the moment of their execution. Some of these had enlisted, pocketed the bounty, and deserted again and again. The sentence of death being so seldom enforced they considered it a safe game. They all suffered terribly mentally, and as they marched to their own funeral they staggered with mortal agony like a drunken man. Through the corps, ranged in hushed masses on the hill-side, the procession moved to a funeral march, the culprits walking each behind his own coffin. On reaching the grave they were, as usual, seated on their coffins; the priests made short prayers; their eyes were bandaged; and with a precision worthy of praise for its humanity, the orders were given and the volley fired which launched them into eternity. They died instantly, although one sat up nearly a minute after the firing; and there is no doubt that their death has had a very salutary influence on discipline."