Article from The Letters of the Civil War (Copyright Tom Hayes 1998) which has unfortunately disappeared.. (Paragraphs about the 15th in bold print.)

From the Boston Journal; September 1, 1863; pg. 2, col. 2.

From the US National Archives

AUGUST 29, 1863.

Two Massachusetts Soldiers Shot for Desertion. Last Friday, 29 August ult; Wm. H. Hill of Co. K, 20th Massachusetts Regiment, and John Smith of the first company of Andrew (Mass.) Sharpshooters, were shot near the headquarters of the Second Army Corps in Virginia for desertion. Eugene Sullivan of Co. F, 20th Massachusetts Regiment, was also sentenced to be shot at the same time, but was reprieved. His crime was also desertion, but his extreme youth, some palliating circumstances in his case, and the intercession of the officers of his regiment, induced Gen. Meade to suspend the execution of his sentence until the President's will should be known regarding it. The correspondent of the New York Herald gives the following account of the histories of the condemned, and of the execution of Hill and Smith:

SKETCH OF WM. F. HILL'S CASE. Wm. F. Hill was nineteen years of age, and was born in North Brookfield, Mass; was a laborer before he enlisted, has an aged father, two brothers and three sisters. He was unmarried. He enlisted on the 14th day of July, 1862, in the 20th Massachusetts Regiment. He said that a man got him drunk and had him sworn in before he knew what he was about. Up to the battle of Antietam he followed this regiment without arms. The reason he gives was that the regiment was shot of guns and could not get any. After the battle of Antietam his regiment went to Bolivar Heights. Here they encamped about two months. When leaving there the regiment went up the valley of Virginia towards Fredericksburg. "When twelve miles from Bolivar," he continued, "Lieut Ropes, of my company, gave me permission to fall out of the ranks and get along the best way I could, as my feet were sore and my head ached. On going to a citizen's house, I saw a number of our soldiers. They advise and persuaded me to desert, and gave me information on how to cross the river, and the direction to take when I was on the other side. On account of my father, who is seventy-five years of age," he continued, "as well as a sister, who is thirty-five, and are not able to take care of themselves, I deserted, and reached my home at North Brookfield a few days after. Here I remained until the middle of June, when I was arrested by a policeman by the name of Charles Ruggles of Worcester. He had an order from the Provost Marshal for my arrest. I was taken under guard from there to Washington, and from Washington I was taken to Harper's Ferry, were our Corps then was, and given in charge to the Provost Marshal of the second division."

THE CASE OF SMITH, ALIAS WATERS. John Smith, according to the account of himself, was a native of Philadelphia, was a tailor by trade, and resided in Boston, Mass., when the war broke out. He was 37 years of age last February. Smith was a married man, but had no children. His father and five brothers are living, some of the latter being in the service. He enlisted in Captain Plummer's company of Andrew Sharpshooters about the 1st of December, 1862. He said that he was in the battle of Fredericksburg, "and did my duty, as the officers will say at any time."

About the middle of January, 1863, he deserted his company, which was then at Falmouth, attached to the 15th Massachusetts. He said that large numbers were deserting about that time, and when he left his company he did not think of the consequences. The morning that he deserted he fell into the company of some men who had liquor. He drank to excess, and while intoxicated said that he should like to get home, when his new friends answered that that was easy enough, for all that he got to do was to start now he had the chance. He said that the men were unknown to him, and even if he knew them he would not expose them. When he reached home he did not feel satisfied, and felt that he ought to get back to the army again, and had made up his mind to re-enter the service by joining Col. Frankle's artillery regiment, as he had a particular friend there. This friend advised him not to enlist at that time, as he was going to have a furlough, and that when it expired it would be time enough.

About this time Mr. William Ayers, a carpenter, residing at Waltham, Massachusetts, was drafted. He met Smith, and proposed to paying him the sum of three hundred dollars as a substitute, preferring to do this to going to the substitute office. Smith said after some persuasion he took the money and agreed to go as a substitute, though he did not want to go as such . He gave his name as Thomas Waters. He said that his intentions were good at the time; but they (the officers) do not look at it in that way. He at once applied to Col. Frankle to be mustered into his regiment, and the Colonel gave him a note to the Provost Marshal General, making that request, which Captain Herrick, Provost Marshal of the 6th Massachusetts District, dating from Lawrence, August 3, endorsed. Stating that Waters (or Smith) appeared worthy and deserving, and had conducted himself well since his enlistment. These letters were sent to Gen. Devens at Long Island, who declined to interfering in the matter, as he had no authority to transfer any to the Army of the Potomac. Accordingly on 8th August, Smith and about one hundred others started for the Army of the Potomac, with orders to report to the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment; but to his surprise he found himself face to face with his old comrades, the company of Andrew Sharpshooters having during his absence been transferred from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Massachusetts. He was immediately recognized and arrested, the Lieutenant of the Sharpshooters saying that he had no doubt all would be right, but that he wanted him back to his old company.

Smith said that when he deserted he went to Boston to his friends, and remained there up to the time of his coming away as a substitute; that no one interfered with him, and that no one said a word to him about his desertion, and that he had no fear of being arrested as a deserter. Officers of Smith's regiment say that he deserted three several times. He had $300 when arrested, which he wished sent back to Mr. Ayers, whose substitute Smith had engaged himself to be, but the government took possession of the amount.

SKETCH OF SULLIVAN'S CASE. Eugene Sullivan, the writer describes, is a youth, between seventeen and eighteen years of age. He was born in Boston, Mass., and was an errand boy at the time of the breaking out of the rebellion, though occasionally assisted his father, who was a tailor by trade. Both father and son enlisted in the same company, fought at Antietam and at both of the battles of Fredericksburg. I asked him where his father was. "He was killed by my side at the second Fredericksburg fight," was the modest answer. This is true. Up to the time of his father's death he acted bravely, fighting by his side in these battles; but after his father fell the lad appeared to be afraid of death. Just before the battle of Gettysburg he fell out of the ranks to get some water, and did not return for three days. "But I returned of my own account," he said. This has been a terrible lesson to him, he says, and that if he ever gets out of it he will remember it as long as he lives. I said, "You are charged with insubordinate conduct also," "Yes," he said, "It was this; I refused to obey the order of the corporal to go into the woods after poles. This was the cause of my death sentenced; for when I returned to my company I only received a slight punishment; but after disobeying orders the old charge of desertion was brought up with it. I tell you," he continued, "that sentence made me shiver and feel bad. Do you think I will get clear?" I told him that I had no doubt he would, "but how did you feel when the reprieve came!" I asked him. "That I can't tell you," he answered; "it seemed as if a great weight of misery lifted itself from me, and that I was in a new world."

THE EXECUTION. The execution took place last Friday in front of the Division headquarters, at three o'clock in the afternoon. The preparations were of the usual character. The condemned men were taken from their prison, an old barn-the Second Army Corps having been previously disposed so as to form three sides of a square-and marched to the open side of the square, where their graves were already dug, and near which their coffins where placed. A Sergeant and sixteen men of the Andrew Sharpshooters, commanded by Lieut. Back, formed the firing party.

The men walked to the place of execution with slow and steady steps. Rev. Mr. Collins of the 72d Pennsylvania volunteers attended the condemned in their hour of extremity. The religious services being over and the last farewells being expressed, the men were blindfolded and knelt before their coffins, when Lieut. Black shook them by the hand and hastily turned a few paces to the left, at the same time giving the command, "Ready, aim," and then instantly, before the word "fire" could be given, the rifles had belched forth their contents in one report, and the same instant the two unfortunate men fell forward, Smith on the left and Hill on the right. The former lay motionless on his back, at full length, with his arms partly folded over his breast; the mouth opened and shut a few times, a heave and a sigh followed, and he was dead. Between the time Lieut. Black shook him by the hand and the firing of the volley he raised both his arms to Heaven and casting up his face, exclaimed twice, "Oh God have mercy upon us!" Hill said nothing.

For a few seconds after the volley, Hill remained perfectly still, and, it being supposed that both were dead, the military were about moving off, when he commenced to writhe, and, this continued for over a minute, one of the reserved sharpshooters was ordered up. He presented his piece and shot him through the head, the ball passing through, and caused the brain to ooze out on the grass. He still continued to writhing, when the other was ordered to fire. He did so, and another ball passed through his head; and, strange as it may seem, it was full two minutes before life was extinct.
(Boston Journal; September 1, 1863; pg. 2, col. 2.)

Thanks to the work of Tom Hayes, wartime articles in Massachusetts newspapers have been compiled and are being typed and posted on the web at: Letters of the Civil War Copyright Tom Hayes 1998.

15th MVI