Elbert J. Chapman Was A Victim of Military Discipline

Elbert J. Chapman, “Old Yaller”

The story of Elbert J. Chapman has been told many times and as many times forgotten.  Accounts published in 1887 editions of the Atlanta Constitution have been the subject of previous posts (see General Levi J. Knight’s Berrien Minute Men, and L.E. Lastinger and Captain Knight’s Berrien Minutemen)

In January, 1909 another version of the execution of old Yaller was published in Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine under the title “A victim of military discipline“.

Cover, Watson's Jeffersonian Magazine

Cover, Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine

Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine was the monthly publication of Thomas E. Watson whose political influence was sought by many a Georgia politician, including the subject of the previous post, Jon P. Knight (see Jon P Knight Sought Nomination to the Bench).  Of Watson’s Jeffersonian Publishing Company, the New Georgia Encyclopedia says the following:

Incorporated in 1910 by the Georgia lawyer, author, and statesman Thomas E. Watson, the Jeffersonian Publishing Company was the official mouthpiece of Georgia’s firebrand Populist. The company  Tom Watson’s Magazine  printed most of Watson’s literary works—pamphlets, monographs, biographies, and histories—but it was known primarily for Watson’s newspaper, The Weekly Jeffersonian, and his monthly literary magazine, Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine.  Initially given to trenchant muckraking editorials written in the Populist Party spirit, both magazine and newspaper eventually included Watson’s fierce attacks against the Catholic Church hierarchy and the domestic and foreign policies of U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. Watson’s publications survived an organized Catholic boycott and a federal prosecution for mailing obscene literature, and would not be silenced until finally suppressed by the Wilson administration under the Espionage Act of 1917. Despite controversy and opposition, Watson’s weekly and monthly publications commanded a loyal political force, and no Georgia governor between 1906 and 1922 was elected without Watson’s support.

While the Jeffersonian’s January 1909 account of Old Yaller  does not give his name, and incorrectly gives his unit as the 46th Georgia Regiment, it is clear from the details that this is the story of Berrien County’s Elbert J. Chapman.

Although E. J. Chapman never lived in the immediate vicinity of Ray’s Mill, GA his short life was inextricably interwoven with the settlers and events of the area. After his death, his widow was enumerated in the 1144th Georgia Militia District, the district centered on Ray City, GA.

Elbert J. Chapman was born about 1832; the details of his birth and parentage are not known at this time. About June of 1859 Chapman married Mary E. Boyd, a daughter of Aden Boyd and Nancy Sykes.

On October 1, 1861 Chapman enlisted in Company D, 29th Georgia Regiment.

His service records provide the following information:

Chapman, Elbert J. private October 1, 1861.
On furlough December 31, 1861.

Absent without leave December 31, 1862
Delivered to headquarters of regiment as
a deserter May 30,1863.
No later record.

Here transcribed, is M. P. Carroll’s account of the execution of Elbert J. Chapman, as published in Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine:

Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine
January 1909, Vol. 3, No. 1, Pg 79
A Victim of Military Discipline.

Dear Mr. Watson:

I am requested to write out the details of the execution of a Confederate soldier at Morton, Mississippi, In July, 1863. I will endeavor to do so to the best of my recollection; and I think that what I shall write will be substantially correct, because the incident is frescoed upon my memory.

During the siege of Vicksburg, General Joseph E. Johnson was placed in command of the Army in Mississippi which was being organized outside to relieve General Pemberton. General W. H. T. Walker commanded a division in said Army. His command consisted of the brigades of Qulst, Wilson, McNair, Ector and Gregg. I was on the staff of General Gregg. We were for some time at Yazoo City preparing to move on the rear of General Grant, who was then closely besieging Vicksburg. When we got ready and our large supply train prepared (which we expected to take into Vicksburg), we marched from Yazoo City towards the Big Black Creek and encamped some days at a little hamlet called Vernon, a few miles West of Canton. While in camp there, one day a regiment of cavalry passed along the road, by the side of which the 46th Georgia Regiment was encamped. This regiment was commanded by Colonel Peyton Colquitt, who was afterwards killed at Chickamauga. Some one recognized a man in the cavalry who formerly belonged to the 46th Georgia. The soldier had deserted from the latter regiment whilst it was on the Georgia coast, and joined this regiment of cavalry. He was arrested—charges preferred against him for desertion. He was tried by a court martial which was sitting at Vernon.

The man was convicted, but no publication was then made of the results of the trial, but the findings were regularly forwarded to General Johnson’s headquarters, and then we broke camp and moved down to the Big Black for the purpose of crossing to attack General Grant. Indeed, we reached the point to cross on the night  of July 3rd, and the engineer corps was preparing to throw the pontoons across, when news came that Vicksburg had surrendered. Then we commenced our retrograde movement towards Jackson—passing through Clinton, Mississippi, en route. Sherman was sent in pursuit and we reached Jackson one day ahead of him and went into the works which had been prepared for the defense of Jackson.

Sherman immediately extended his besieging lines with both flanks resting on Pearl River, forming a semicircle, leaving the Eastern side the city open for our retreat. I think we remained there one week before retreating. General Johnson found it impossible to keep Sherman from -crossing the river and getting in his rear and, therefore, evacuated the works and took up his line of march one night towards Meridian. After we were some distance on the road beyond Brandon, a terrific rain-storm came on, with heavy thunder and lightning. The rain was so heavy and the night so dark the troops scarcely march, encountering here and there wagons and artillery stuck in the mud.

We reached Morton about daylight and went into camp. The sun rose in all its brightness and intensity of July heat. The troops were drying off and preparing their camp for cooking, etc., when this convicted soldier struggled up to the provost guard and said to the Major in command: “Well, Major, I got lost last night but am up as soon as I could find you.” The officer turned over to the guard and said: “I am sorry you came up for orders have been issued that you must be shot today at one o’clock p. m.

General William H. T. Walker made a plea for the life of Elbert J. Chapman, but followed the orders of his superior officer, General Joseph E. Johnson.

General William H. T. Walker made a plea for the life of Elbert J. Chapman, but followed the orders of his superior officer, General Joseph E. Johnson.

When General Walker learned of this incident, his sympathies were aroused and he and Major Cumming mounted their horses and rode to General Johnson’s headquarters. General Walker dismounted, recited the facts to his superior officer and interceded for the poor fellow. The only reply was: “General Walker, my orders must be obeyed.” The latter saluted and replied, “General, they shall be,” and mounted his horse. With tears in his eyes he instructed Major Cumming to have Major Schauff (I do not know that I spell this name correctly) make a detail for the execution and carry it out at 1 o’clock promptly.

He then ordered the division out to witness the execution. The brigade formed three sides of a square in a large old field flanked by second growth of pines; the grave had been dug in the center of it, his coffin resting on the further side from the firing squad. The condemned man asked not to be blindfolded; his hands were tied behind his back, he knelt on his coffin, and in the presence of the whole division, including his old 46th Georgia Regiment and his comrades therein, and was shot to death, placed in his box, or coffin, and was buried right there in that old field.

The saddest part of it was that the testimony showed he had been so good and gallant soldier in his adopted regiment, and he stated the only reason he left the 46th Georgia was that he got tired of inaction down on the coast and wanted to be where he could do some fighting. He also stated that he had a wife and child at home in Georgia.

I wish I knew his name and Company, but I do not. Major Cumming may.

I think these facts are substantially correct, and hope they will be of some service to you.

M. P. CARROLL.

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4 Comments

  1. bill outlaw said,

    May 26, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Terrific post. I enjoyed it immensely, though saddened by the subject. Thanks for your work.

    • May 28, 2012 at 9:57 pm

      Thanks Bill. This tragedy fascinates me. It is so different from the Southern ideal of courageous gallantry.

  2. June 3, 2012 at 9:20 am

    I never knew the Confederate Army was so diligent about seeking out and courtmartialing deserters. I am a genealogist and have read numerous military records of our soldiers–there were many who left their company to come home and make sure their families were alright, even to the point of staying to make a crop on the farm; some returned, but some did not. I’ve even read of a couple local men (Emanuel County) who, after being captured by the yankees, gave oath to the Union. These men came home after the war and lived out their lives without repercussion, as far as I know. So I have to wonder why this one man was persecuted so. This is just unbelievable! And I know how his wife and child must have suffered because of it. I don’t like how this makes me feel about the leaders of our Southland!

  3. Charlene Taylor said,

    November 30, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Wow. Wow. Wow. How utterly sad!! I cannot explain how much I appreciate your articles!! Thank you so much!!!


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