Execution of a Seventeen-time Bounty Jumper

John Hartwell

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[Elkton Whig, Sept. 22, 1864]
An entry from the diary of Sergeant-Major Charles F. Bosson, included in the History of the 42nd Mass. Regiment (1886, p. 451), offers an eyewitness account:

September 16th — All troops in the command were paraded to witness an execution of a private Fourth Maryland Volunteers, shot for desertion, at eleven a.m., in the open field northwest of Sickels Barracks Hospital. The negroes in and around Alexandria made a gala occasion of the affair, with tents pitched near the spot for sales of cake, pies, lemonade, etc. So far as appearances went the man to be shot, a thick-set fellow, with heavy, black whiskers, was more indifferent to his fate than the soldiers formed to occupy three sides of a square, obliged to be unwilling witnesses. On the open side were gathered a curious crowd of colored people. The condemned man was marched upon the ground, a band playing a dirge. He was followed by a faithful Newfoundland dog, who had to be taken away when his master took position in front of his coffin, face to the firing party. In a speech he confessed to being a professional bounty-jumper, worth at that moment near twenty thousand dollars, the proceeds of his work in jumping sixteen bounties. When the detail of soldiers fired upon him he fell lengthwise upon his coffin. The troops were then filed past him, and had just commenced the movement when signs of life were shown, necessitating a second file of men to be ordered up and put another volley into him."
The Commandant of the district had wanted only military personnel to be present, so the execution was not publicized. But, the area around Sickels barracks was a major contraband encampment, and news soon leaked out, resulting in something of a carnival atmosphere. The execution, we are told, took place “on the common northwest of the city, near Sickels Barracks Hospital." Provost Marshal Capt. Gwynne read the sentence.

Samuel Downing appears to have been very much at ease, joking and laughing with his guards, and clearly had come to terms with his fate. To the end, we are told, he behaved with dignity, showing no fear. The Washington Evening Star (Sept 16.) reported his last words:


“Well, soldiers, I suppose I’ve got to be executed, and I reckon it’s all right. All I’ve got to say is, do your duty to your country faithfully. I was once color sergeant of the 110th Pennsylvania, an honorable man, but I have disgraced myself and now have to die for it. You had better work for one dollar a day all your lives than act as I have. I am worth twenty thousand dollars, but I am to be executed, and it won’t do me any good. Take my advice then, and let prostitutes alone. Bounties won’t do you any more good in the long run than they have me. Serve your country faithfully and take a little whiskey now and then -- it won’t hurt you! I haven’t got time to say anything more. Good bye.”

Downing had enlisted in Co. E, 110th Pennsylvania in August 1861. He participated in the battle of Fredericksburg, at Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. He served honorably, by all accounts, until July 1863, when he deserted. A few weeks later, he enlisted once again at Greencastle, Pa., collecting a bounty of $500. Before the month of August was up, he had enlisted three more times, twice in New York, once in Harrisburg, each time disappearing within days of collecting his bounty. He pulled the same trick nine times more before the end of the year at various points in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. His final enlistment attempt was his only one in Maryland, but his fourth in 1864. By that time he was over $7000 ahead of the game. But, it was all-too easy, and greed for "one more time" overcame him.

1861-1865 Union Executions, by Corey S. Retter contains more detail.

 
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Drew

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Well, this is pretty barbaric, but twenty thousand dollars in the 1860s is very roughly half a million bucks in today's money. Not too shabby, but the guy was right, it would do him no good.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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I don't know. We seemed a little happy to add to the carnage. This shooting of deserters did no one any good either. There we all were, both sides, out there fighting for some kind of righteous, ' glorious ' cause. One side claimed to be fighting for a humane reason ( please no one go up a wall on why the war was fought, we'll have 4 pages ). So hauling off and shooting men who violated the nice, tidy order of how everyone else was killed was just repulsive.

I'm not judge or jury either. He was a vet who served through the thick of things. Should have been reason enough for someone to give his case a little thought.
 

John Hartwell

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Greed will get you every time. (Or, maybe get you elected.)
I don't know. We seemed a little happy to add to the carnage. This shooting of deserters did no one any good either. There we all were, both sides, out there fighting for some kind of righteous, ' glorious ' cause. One side claimed to be fighting for a humane reason ( please no one go up a wall on why the war was fought, we'll have 4 pages ). So hauling off and shooting men who violated the nice, tidy order of how everyone else was killed was just repulsive.

I'm not judge or jury either. He was a vet who served through the thick of things. Should have been reason enough for someone to give his case a little thought.
Many desertion death sentences were commuted to imprisonment. If a man's officers, friends (or Abe Lincoln) would speak up in his behalf, there was a fair chance of it. But Samuel Downing's egregious greed pretty much scotched that possibility.

I have to admit to a certain soft spot for deserters, draft dodgers, etc. They show a great deal of good sense in wanting to get and stay away from the idiocy of it all. But, if we are going to live in this world, we must live by its rules, or risk the consequences.
 

Carronade

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I have to admit to a certain soft spot for deserters, draft dodgers, etc. They show a great deal of good sense in wanting to get and stay away from the idiocy of it all. But, if we are going to live in this world, we must live by its rules, or risk the consequences.
We might sympathize with someone who simply didn't want to fight, or didn't find a particular cause worth fighting for; but this fellow deliberately and fraudulently enlisted over and over again just to steal money. He knew the penalty for desertion and chose to risk it, repeatedly. No need for sympathy there.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Yes, certainly and no arguments the fellow became a slime ball. Death? Still unconvinced. For any desertion. It's the wider picture that may be coloring my perception. Other ships than Sultana were overloaded through greed- one awful example of opportunists making money from the war while going home each day. No soldiers there. That is stealing, the real thing, as were what happened in a lot of government contracts. Once in awhile the feds became shirty over something too glaring to ignore but mostly - not a peep.

Two wrongs do not make the proverbial right. It would have been terrific to indicate which thief was immune, and why.
 


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