Two days later, at two in the afternoon, our division turned out and formed a hollow square to witness the execution of two deserters. They were of the 14th Connecticut, who had enlisted for the sake of the bounty and, having got a liberal advance, had disappeared but were caught somewhere in New York or Boston and brought out to the field to suffer the extreme penalty for their crime. Until quite lately owing to the clemency of President Lincoln, the death penalty had been visited on but few of the rascals who had made a profession of deserting. Bounty jumpers, as they were called, were organized into bands and laughed at the Articles of War, which decreed death for desertion in time of war. But General Meade changed all that. It is said that he succeeded in convincing the President of the need of enforcing a law recognized by all nations, and today we are under the disagreeable necessity of witnessing its execution.
The division formed three sides of a hollow square. The open side was the hill. Two graves had been dug at the foot of this hill. Shortly after we had completed our formation, the sad tones of a dead march smote our ears and a funeral procession entered through an opening at the other end of the square. It consisted of the Division Provost Guard, under the Provost Marshal, with a band and two ambulances, each carrying a deserter sitting on his coffin and securely guarded, and a chaplain endeavoring to prepare his unfortunate client for death.
The procession halted at the graves and the dead-march ceased. The prisoners descended from the ambulances, and the coffins were placed, each in front of a grave, The sorry devils were made to sit upon them, after being pinioned. The sentence of the General Court-Martial was read to them and then was read also at the head of each regiment in the division. Then, after prayers by the chaplains, and all was ready, two firing parties from the provost guard took position in front of each victim. At a command from the Provost Marshal, the execution squads pulled their triggers. One of the two deserters was slightly wounded and fell over struggling on his coffin ; the other was not hit at all but with desperate energy broke his pinion and snatched the handkerchief from his eyes.
A murmur of mingled pity and disgust ran through the division. Most of the pieces had only snapped caps. Here was either wanton carelessness in the provost guard or a Providential interposition to save the lives of the men. General French, the division commander, was in a rage at the awkwardness of the Provost Marshal and his men. The firing parties changed their pieces for others and fired again, the unhit man having been again pinioned and blindfolded; but with no other result, that we could see than again to wound the already wounded man, and to drive the other into a paroxysm of fear and trembling without even hitting him! An audible groan now passed through the division.
The left-hand squad fired once more, killing the wounded deserter, for he fell back upon his coffin and never stirred again. But the right-hand squad only wounded the unhit man at the next volley. He continued to struggle to free himself from his pinions.
The guns had evidently been loaded the evening before and had become wet from the rains which fell during the night. The Provost Marshal now brought up his men, one by one, and made them pull the trigger with the muzzle almost touching the unfortunate devil's head! But strange to relate, they only snapped caps, the victim shivering visibly each time. At last the Provost Marshal himself, drawing his revolver, placed the muzzle against the man's head and discharged all the barrels of it! This finished the man and he fell over into his coffin and never moved again. General French rode up. As we could plainly see, he was indignant at this clumsy butchery. Artists representing the New York newspapers or magazines made on-the-spot sketches of this horrid affair.