Firing Squads became a common sight during the War of 1812 in Ohio.
In the early American Republic there was no ethos of professional military service like that of the modern US Armed Forces. The small professional army was a poorly paid and supplied organization. The War of 1812-1815 brought on an expansion from seven to over forty line regiments, the largest the US Regular Army would get until the 20th Century. Maintaining discipline among this diverse and inexperienced group of soldiers presented unique challenges for the young American Army. The United States Army remained a much less disciplined and professional organization than its opponent, the British Army. It's men had to be welded into fighting units in much less time than their European counterparts required (some British officers estimated it took at least three years to make a recruit into an effective soldier). The standard terms of enlistment for European soldiers could be as long as 25 years—and many men stayed in for life. By contrast the American soldier volunteered for a maximum of five years of service.1
The War of 1812 had started as a short, summertime campaign to march into Canada. President Madison and the Republican Party (traditionally anti-military) expanded the United States Army but hoped to fight the war mostly with citizen volunteers and state militia. The early, devastating defeats at Detroit and Queenston Heights turned the Second Amendment ideal of organic self-defense on its ear. The new Secretary of War, John Armstrong, firmly wanted an organized, professional regular Army to complete the invasion of Canada. The law allowing volunteer units like the Pittsburgh Blues to register for year-long service was repealed and replaced by a new law authorizing 12-month regular Infantry regiments. Armstrong hoped to increase the regular forces to 50,000 men by the end of the year. The American ideal of military service, which disdained professional soldiering, was crumbling under the reality of a sustained war.
American commanders continued to face the problem of maintaining discipline in an army of frontier citizens. The men who volunteered to fight in the ranks of the regular regiments were citizen soldiers, and they were recruited led by and large by officers who had come from their own communities. American leaders liked to contrast these men with the “hirelings” who fought in the British Army, but in both cases regular service and discipline was harsh and men deserted and misbehaved. The officers presented a different problem for commanders, since they often quarreled (this was the heyday of dueling), disobeyed orders, and there were always incompetents, drunkards and cowards to be weeded out. Commanders relied upon harsh and traditional forms of military justice to keep the army functioning. Military courts martial, made up of councils of field officers, dispensed justice to officers, enlisted men, and even civilians connected to the army.
Military justice was harsh, but had roots in both military tradition and the physical, rough culture of the frontier. Gentlemen settled issues of honor with an elaborate culture of dueling, which could but usually did not lead to death. Working-class men (and the line between the working classes and gentlemen often blurred on the edges of the great migration) settled their differences by brawling. The loser would very often suffer his eye gouged out—some toughs kept their thumbnails long for this specific purpose. There were no prisons, and jails were only built to hold prisoners before they could be tried. Whippings, beatings, and tar and feathering, and other corporal punishments were routine in the rude log settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The European tradition of military service (which the small peacetime army followed) recruited from the lowest classes of society to fill out the ranks and devised cruel punishments to keep the men in line.
Desertion was the biggest problem facing the American army. By the spring and summer of 1813 the Northwest Army was hard at work recruiting seven thousand regular soldiers whom Secretary of War John Armstrong had promised General Harrison. The hardship of the winter campaign caused many men to desert from the forward posts. New recruits for both the existing regiments (the 17th and 19th United States Regiments of Infantry, soon to be joined by the 24th Regiment from Tennessee) and the new ones (the 26th, 27th, and 28th Regiments made up of 12-months volunteers) often changed their minds about enlisting and sought to escape the service. Short of murder and mutiny, desertion was the most serious crime a soldier could be charged with. Conversely, for the rank and file who had no other way to remonstrate their treatment at the hands of officers and NCOs, desertion was the only alternative to unquestioning obedience.
Throughout the war newspapers were littered with advertisements from officers seeking deserters who had absconded from their units. These shared the space of, and were akin to the notices for runaway slaves and apprentices. Private citizens were encouraged to turn in the fugitives for a reward. In one case in Chillecothe, this led to tragedy when a teenaged soldier, disheartened at the execution of a deserter from his regiment, went absent without leave to visit his mother's house nearby. He was turned in by a neighbor for the reward, and was condemned to death by an unsympathetic court martial.
Tradition and the law prescribed capital punishment for deserters, but early in the war officers tended to be reluctant to shoot men. One reason was that most leaders expected to return to civilian life after the war, and the reputation of condemning fellow citizens (many from their own communities) would cast a shadow over their reputations at home. Indeed, many former officers who went into politics later in life found their opponents using wartime executions against them.2 Many of the commanders also wanted to reform rather than execute able-bodied men under their command. But their reluctance to execute deserters weakened the deterrence of capital punishment. Some men became serial deserters, repeatedly escaping from their units whenever a chance presented itself. On the front lines, where deserters from either side were a prime source of intelligence on enemy operations, desertion could have serious consequences for the army.
William Henry Harrison was a professional soldier who was as skilled in politics as he was in tactics. He understood his army as a force of citizens who had to be persuaded and inspired to serve. His forces were always made up of a majority of volunteer and drafted militia, and unlike General Hull or General Winchester he understood that he could not treat them like professional soldiers.3 Winchester had earned the ire of his troops by shooting some men while letting other offenders go with a reprieve and a paternalistic urging to do better next time. Harrison had begun his military career with a controversy over flogging a couple of civilian contractors. By the War of 1812, however, he had developed a reputation for being soft. One later writer asserted that Harrison "could never hurt a fly."
A typical execution was carried out in public, in front of the entire regiment and whatever other soldiers or civilians happened to be nearby. The regiment formed a hollow square allowing each man a good view. The battalion square was left open on one side, where the prisoner was marched and made to stand in front or seated on his own coffin. He was then blindfolded, and usually stripped down to his shirt. A squad of soldiers marched up to five paces away from the prisoner. Although the commands to make ready, take aim, and fire were given by silent hand gestures, the distinctive click of hammers being cocked on the muskets must have been unmistakable. At five paces distance, there was little chance of having a ball miss the target. Contrary to modern practice the firing squad was not issued with a single blank charge—the recoil of the weapons would have made it irrelevant in any case.
Sometimes, though the prisoner would have little cause for hope, the commanding general would secretly issue a reprieve. In these cases the whole process was carried out until the last step, when an officer halted the proceedings and issued a reprieve. The prisoner was then sometimes ordered to step back into the ranks of his company—if he was still conscious. In some cases, multiple deserters were sentenced and shot on the same afternoon, and one of them would be reprieved—but not before listening, blindfolded, as several volleys leveled his fellow prisoners. In at least one case, a volley of blanks was fired at a condemned prisoner who then fell over, unconscious but alive. One veteran of General Winfield Scott's brigade described such a reprieve amidst a typical mass execution of deserters:
They were dressed in white robes with white caps on their heads, and a red target fastened over the heart...Five graves were dug in a row, five coffins placed near them, also in a line, with distance between coffins and graves, to enable the criminals to kneel between them. About twelve men were assigned to the execution of each offender. Their guns were loaded by officers, and they were not permitted to examine them afterwards until they had fired.
All things being in readiness, the chaplain made a prayer, the caps were pulled down over the eyes of the poor culprits, and the word of command givin: “Ready! Aim! Fire!” They all fell! Some into their graves, some over their coffins. One struggled faintly and the commanding officer ordered a sergeant to approach and end his misery. He obeyed by putting the muzzle of the piece within a yard of his head, and discharging it. This quieted him perfectly!
At this time one of the condemned slowly arose from his recumbant position to his knees and was assisted to his feet. His remark was “By G__, I thought I was dead.”4
General Harrison tended to be lenient towards deserters, in the early days of the campaign. In April 1813 Private William Clark of the 19th US Infantry was found guilty of deserting several times. He was sentenced to death and brought out in front of the camp to be shot, before receiving a last-minute reprieve from the General. In several cases during the 1813 campaign, men from the US Army who had deserted and then joined the British before being recaptured were sentenced to death. They were not allowed the death of a firing squad, but were sentenced to hang. In the early 19th century, before the drop-fall gallows, this meant “hanging from the neck until dead” or slow suffocation.
Despite several early cases of reprieves and non-death punishments, the desertion problem became so severe by the summer of 1813 that executions were becoming more common. From four death sentences passed down by military courts in 1812, a total of 43 were issued in 1813 (11 of which were reprieved). The total would climb to 160 in 1814 and 53 in January 1815 alone. By contrast, the Union Army only executed 112 men for desertion during the American Civil War.5 One reason for the soaring number of executions as the war went on was that the United States Congress finally increased bounties for enlistment in the regular army, from 16 dollars to over a hundred dollars. Since the money was given in advance it created a situation where bounty jumpers risked the death sentence to enlist in several regular companies, pocketing their bounty money before deserting.
Lesser punishments were more common for deserters from the Northwest Army in 1813. Two men found guilty of desertion in June were to carry a 6 pound cannon-ball for 39 days, to receive only half pay for that time, and to do hard labor. Moreover they were sentenced to ride the “wooden horse”-- a wedge-shaped affair that left its rider sore and exposed to the entire camp--and to have their heads shaved. Perhaps worse of all, their whiskey rations were stopped for the period of punishment.6 Public humiliation and physical pain were normal components of Army punishments.
Private Robert Berkeley of the 19th Infantry, who had fallen asleep at his sentry post was sentenced to ten days of hard labor and to have his whiskey stopped for that time. Private John T. Mosby of the 17th Infantry, who had been overheard talking about blowing up the powder magazine and deserting to the British, was severely punished: “to be confined, tied to a post or a log in a tent by himself one month, to have a handcuff on his right hand, to ride a wooden horse 30 minutes once a week for one month with a six pound (cannonball) fastened to each foot, to wear a ball and chain the whole time, to have one eye brow and one side of his head shaved and to be fed on bread and water only,” before being drummed out of camp.7 The “wooden horse” was a rail suspended off the ground. The offender had to sit astride it with weights on his feet, a painful and publicly humiliating punishment.
Other infractions might be punished by “picketing”, which meant that the subject was made to stand, bare footed on a thin piece of wood—which led to debilitating pain after a few minutes. A prisoner's head might be shaved and he would be marched around the camp with a sign stating his offense—a common punishment for thieves. At some posts, a small cellar called a “black hole” would be dug to confine prisoners in a lightless, airless space. Such punishments were considered neither unusual nor cruel during the early 19th century. For lesser offenses, officers and sergeants had a variety of means at their disposal. They could order men to carry cannon-balls in their knapsacks, confine them to quarters or revoke privileges. “Cobbing” or hitting and paddling men was common.
One exception was flogging. Whipping with a piece of rope with nine ends had been a common military and civil punishment before the war. Lately it had been outlawed in the Army by the Articles of War. Flogging was probably so associated with the harsh disciple of the professional European armies and the British Royal Navy that it was condemned by many patriotic Americans as a punishment for their soldiers. However, after the War of 1812 whipping was reinstated as a punishment for enlisted men and employed well into the 1860s.
Officers were considered gentlemen, and required a separate set of punishments from the lowly enlisted men. An influx of young men with newly acquired commissions from civilian life swarmed into the thin ranks of the existing officer corps. Other officers who had served in the sleepy prewar period were unequal to the challenge of active service. Alcohol, gambling, and feuds were always common. Duels were outlawed under the Articles of War and officers who were caught dueling or acting as second in a duel were liable to be dismissed from the service. In the eastern armies several duels occurred—including one in which both parties were surprised and captured by a British detachment! Despite the many Southern officers serving, no evidence supports dueling taking place in the western army. Officers were expected to lead from the front, and cowardice was not tolerated. Junior officers were sometimes punished for cowardice by having their swords broken over their heads in front of the regiment, before being dismissed from the service.
In July 1813 an officer at Fort Meigs, Lieutenant Jackson of the 19th US Infantry was charged with unofficerlike conduct-- “For calling me (the Prosecutor Jacob Smith) a damned rascal and pulling out of his pocket a Pistol and Cocking the same, and swearing he would punish me on the spot...” Jacob Smith also charged Jackson with striking him with a club, which knocked him to the ground. Then the Lieutenant kicked and beat Smith while he lay helpless. The court martial found him not guilty of the charges of unofficerlike conduct, but guilty of hitting Smith with a stick and kicking him. Nevertheless it sentenced Jackson to be “acquitted honorably.” When General Clay heard of this, he replied that it was “a novelty in the proceedings of Courts Martial” because the accused had been acquitted and condemned in the same sentence. He disapproved the sentence but gave the Lieutenant back his sword and released him anyway.
Drunkenness was as common a discipline problem among officers as it was for enlisted men. Lieutenant John Henderson of the 2nd Regiment of Artillery (newly promoted from being a sergeant of the Petersburgh Volunteers) was court martialed for “being in an evident state of inebriety,” during which time he attempted to take over the posts of other officers, “ordering the Match rope & slow match set on fire & kept so; declaring his intention to visit that Battery every hour in the night and making many threats in case his orders were not complyed with...”8 Later on he beat a corporal with his sword. On the same night Henderson found a private standing sentinel at the Grand Battery and “charging him with being a NonCommissioned Officer and on being answered in the Negative beat the said Heaton with his sword calling him a D-d liar & raskal and obliging him to assume the duties generally attached to a NonCommissioned Officer.” Finally, he was also charged with “Beating Thos (Thomas) Jones a private Soldier in Capt Cushing's Company unprovokedly—with his fist.”
Captain Cushing recorded in his diary that the Lieutenant had gotten “drunk, passed around the lines and abused several of the sentinels so much that they have entered a formal complaint.” Despite the nature of the charges the Judge Advocate considered them “lacking form” and declared himself noli prosequi (unwilling to prosecute), so the charges were dropped. Lt. Henderson continued to serve in the army until 1815. There were many other cases during the 1813 campaign when officers were charged with misconduct, but were either acquitted by the court martial, or set free by the commanding general.
The American Regular Army forces in the War of 1812 would eventually swell to include 48 numbered infantry regiments, 3 artillery regiments, a light artillery regiment, two light dragoon regiments, four rifle regiments, 10 companies of rangers, 10 companies of “sea fencibles” or seacoast garrison units, and a company of “bombardiers, sappers and miners.” Not until World War One would the United States Army include so many different types of soldiers.9 The expansion of the tiny pre-war army was not permanent—most of the new regiments were disbanded or combined into new units after peace was declared. The Articles of War laid down a strict set of rules to regulate the masses of new soldiers. Enlisted men bore the brunt of these rules, which did not deter them from deserting, drinking, or otherwise disobeying the authority of their officers. However, the harsh discipline and punishments inflicted on men by the military justice system eventually served to help create an effective fighting force. By the war's end, US regular troops could face down battle-hardened British soldiers on several fronts. They owed the rapid progress in no small part to the institution of discipline.
1Which is not to say that the American Regular Army didn't have it's “lifers”. One enlisted man who fought at Fort Stephenson in August 1813 continued to serve until the Civil War as an ordnance sergeant.
2Most notably Andrew Jackson, who as a Major General had condemned several militiamen in his command to death.
3He also made sure to remind the President and Secretary of War of his special affinity with citizen soldiers from the western states when lobbying for his appointment as Major General.
4D.E. Graves, ed. Soldiers of 1814: American Enlisted Men's Memoirs of the Niagara Campaign. (Youngstown, NY: Old Fort Niagara Association, 1995), 31.
5Clifton D. Bryant, Handbook of Death & Dying 1 The Presence of Death. (Thousand Oaks, Calif. [u.a.]: Sage Publications, 2003), 382. The real number may have been much greater because records were incomplete, but compared to the larger scale of the Union forces executions were much more common during the War of 1812.
7Harlow Lindley, ed. Fort Meigs and the War of 1812, 109.
8Harlow Lindley, Fort Meigs and the War of 1812, (Columbus,Ohio: Ohio Historical Society, 1944: 2nd Ed. 1975), 58-59.
9The large forces raised to fight in the American Civil War for the Union were mostly composed of state volunteer and militia regiments enrolled into Federal service.