More on the execution of “Old Yaller”, Elbert J. Chapman, a private of the Berrien Minute Men whose widow resided in the 1144th Georgia Militia District, the Rays Mill District.
“A VICTIM OF MILITARY DISCIPLINE.”
(Ed. Note: In the January number of this magazine was published a letter written by Captain Phil Carroll, of Augusta, Ga., giving an account of how a Confederate soldier who had transferred himself from Savannah, where there was no fighting, to the Western army, where he could fight and where he did fight, was shot as a deserter by his Confederate companions-in-arms.
Considering this one of the most barbarous deeds ever committed in the name of military discipline, the incident was woven into the war-story, “Bethany.”
The publication of Capt. Carroll’s letter attracted the attention of Capt. R. T. Redding, who wrote to Maj. Cumming about it.
The Major replied, corroborating Capt. Carroll, and hands us a copy of the letter, which we are glad to publish.)
January 15, 1909.
Hon. Thos. E. Watson, Thomson, Ga.
My Dear Mr. Watson: At the request of Capt. R. J. Redding, of Griffin, I send you herewith, for such use, or no use, as you choose, copy of a letter which I wrote to him a few days ago.
Very truly yours,
JOS. B. CUMMING.
January 7th, 1909.
Capt. R. J. Redding, Griffin. Ga.
My Dear Sir: I have your letter of January 6. I have not seen the article written by Mr. M. P. Carroll to which you refer. Mr. Carroll, however, probably refers to the execution at Morton, Miss., of a deserter, not from the 46th Georgia Regiment, but from one of the Georgia Regiments of Wilson’s brigade, either the 25th or the 29th or 30th Georgia, The facts, as I remember them very distinctly, were these:
“While Walker’s Division was in bivouac at Vernon shortly before the second battle of Jackson, a Confederate Cavalry Regiment came marching by. Col. Wilson, in command of Wilson’s Brigade, was an onlooker as it passed. He recognized in the ranks of the Cavalry a deserter from his Regiment while the latter was stationed at Savannah. He made reclamation for the man on the Colonel of the Cavalry Regiment, and the man was surrendered to him. He was tried by courtmartial for desertion, his desertion having consisted in his leaving Wilson’s Infantry Regiment, then stationed on the coast of Georgia, and joining a Cavalry Regiment at the front—a “desertion” of a soldier from inactive service in the rear to fighting at the front.
There was delay in promulgating the finding of the courtmartial, produced by the active operations in the neighborhood of Big Black, and at Jackson after the fall of Vicksburg. In the meanwhile the man was kept under guard. Neither he nor any one else except the members of the court knew that he had been condemned to be shot.
The last day of our march from Jackson to Morton, there was a terrible rain and thunder storm, so violent that the troops, particularly as night came on. became very much scattered, and under these circumstances the guard lost their prisoner. After, however, the troops had bivouacked for the night in came the prisoner and surrendered to the Lieutenant in command of the guard, remarking, “Lieutenant, you thought you had lost me.” The next day the sentence of the courtmartial was promulgated and the order sent down to the headquarters of Walker’s Division for the execution of the sentence. I was then Adjutant General of the Division and under instructions from General Walker immediately sent a copy of the order to Col. Wilson, commanding the Brigade, with instructions to make a detail from Schaaf’s battalion for the execution of the man the next morning. Col. Wilson was horrified at this denoument, and at once got up a petition signed by himself and the officers of the man’s Regiment addressed to General Johnston, asking at least commutation of the sentence. This petition was brought up to General Walker’s headquarters where it happened that General Johnston was visiting at the time. I received the petition and handed it to Major J. B. Eustis (afterwards U. S. Senator from Louisiana), one of General Johnston’s staff, and asked him to hand it at once to General Johnston. He said, “I will do so, but there is no use; General Johnston will not change the order.” He did hand it to General Johnston during the visit, but he refused to consider it, and the petition was handed back to me. I prevailed upon Major Eustis to offer it again to General Johnston after he had mounted his horse, and I can see now the rather impatient way in which General Johnston waved Major Eustis aside.
The next day the man was shot.
My admiration for General Johnston was and remains very great. I never think of this incident without great pain and deep regret as the one shadow on the picture, which I image to myself of that great man.
At the close of the war I was on General Johnston’s staff, and was fully cognizant of, and participant in, an incident which showed, after all, how in the midst of great cares he could remember a poor private soldier and save him from the execution, to which he had been sentenced, but which had become uncalled for, as the war was manifestly about to end and the necessity for stern discipline was over.
Very truly yours,
JOS. B. CUMMING.