Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 37

THE EXECUTION--BUILDING THE SCAFFOLD--DOUBTS OF THE CAMP-CAPTAIN WIRZ
THINKS IT IS PROBABLY A RUSE TO FORCE THE STOCKADE--HIS PREPARATIONS
AGAINST SUCH AN ATTEMPT--ENTRANCE OF THE DOOMED ONES--THEY REALIZE THEIR
FATE--ONE MAKES A DESPERATE ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE--HIS RECAPTURE--INTENSE
EXCITEMENT--WIRZ ORDERS THE GUNS TO OPEN--FORTUNATELY THEY DO NOT-THE SIX
ARE HANGED--ONE BREAKS HIS ROPE--SCENE WHEN THE RAIDERS ARE CUT DOWN.

It began to be pretty generally understood through the prison that six
men had been sentenced to be hanged, though no authoritative announcement
of the fact had been made. There was much canvassing as to where they
should be executed, and whether an attempt to hang them inside of the
Stockade would not rouse their friends to make a desperate effort to
rescue them, which would precipitate a general engagement of even larger
proportions than that of the 3d. Despite the result of the affairs of
that and the succeeding days, the camp was not yet convinced that the
Raiders were really conquered, and the Regulators themselves were not
thoroughly at ease on that score. Some five thousand or six thousand new
prisoners had come in since the first of the month, and it was claimed
that the Raiders had received large reinforcements from those,--a claim
rendered probable by most of the new-comers being from the Army of the
Potomac.

Key and those immediately about him kept their own counsel in the matter,
and suffered no secret of their intentions to leak out, until on the
morning of the 11th, when it became generally known that the sentences
were too be carried into effect that day, and inside the prison.

My first direct information as to this was by a messenger from Key with
an order to assemble my company and stand guard over the carpenters who
were to erect the scaffold. He informed me that all the Regulators would
be held in readiness to come to our relief if we were attacked in force.
I had hoped that if the men were to be hanged I would be spared the
unpleasant duty of assisting, for, though I believed they richly deserved
that punishment, I had much rather some one else administered it upon
them. There was no way out of it, however, that I could see, and so
"Egypt" and I got the boys together, and marched down to the designated
place, which was an open space near the end of the street running from
the South Gate, and kept vacant for the purpose of issuing rations.
It was quite near the spot where the Raiders' Big Tent had stood, and
afforded as good a view to the rest of the camp as could be found.

Key had secured the loan of a few beams and rough planks, sufficient to
build a rude scaffold with. Our first duty was to care for these as they
came in, for such was the need of wood, and plank for tent purposes, that
they would scarcely have fallen to the ground before they were spirited
away, had we not stood over them all the time with clubs.

The carpenters sent by Key came over and set to work. The N'Yaarkers
gathered around in considerable numbers, sullen and abusive. They cursed
us with all their rich vocabulary of foul epithets, vowed that we should
never carry out the execution, and swore that they had marked each one
for vengeance. We returned the compliments in kind, and occasionally it
seemed as if a general collision was imminent; but we succeeded in
avoiding this, and by noon the scaffold was finished. It was a very
simple affair. A stout beam was fastened on the top of two posts, about
fifteen feet high. At about the height of a man's head a couple of
boards stretched across the space between the posts, and met in the
center. The ends at the posts laid on cleats; the ends in the center
rested upon a couple of boards, standing upright, and each having a piece
of rope fastened through a hole in it in such a manner, that a man could
snatch it from under the planks serving as the floor of the scaffold, and
let the whole thing drop. A rude ladder to ascend by completed the
preparations.

As the arrangements neared completion the excitement in and around the
prison grew intense. Key came over with the balance of the Regulators,
and we formed a hollow square around the scaffold, our company marking
the line on the East Side. There were now thirty thousand in the prison.
Of these about one-third packed themselves as tightly about our square as
they could stand. The remaining twenty thousand were wedged together in
a solid mass on the North Side. Again I contemplated the wonderful,
startling, spectacle of a mosaic pavement of human faces covering the
whole broad hillside.

Outside, the Rebel, infantry was standing in the rifle pits, the
artillerymen were in place about their loaded and trained pieces, the No.
4 of each gun holding the lanyard cord in his hand, ready to fire the
piece at the instant of command. The small squad of cavalry was drawn up
on the hill near the Star Fort, and near it were the masters of the
hounds, with their yelping packs.

All the hangers-on of the Rebel camp--clerks, teamsters, employer,
negros, hundreds of white and colored women, in all forming a motley
crowd of between one and two thousand, were gathered together in a group
between the end of the rifle pits and the Star Fort. They had a good
view from there, but a still better one could be had, a little farther to
the right, and in front of the guns. They kept edging up in that
direction, as crowds will, though they knew the danger they would incur
if the artillery opened.

The day was broiling hot. The sun shot his perpendicular rays down with
blistering fierceness, and the densely packed, motionless crowds made the
heat almost insupportable.

Key took up his position inside the square to direct matters. With him
were Limber Jim, Dick McCullough, and one or two others. Also, Ned
Johnson, Tom Larkin, Sergeant Goody, and three others who were to act as
hangmen. Each of these six was provided with a white sack, such as the
Rebels brought in meal in. Two Corporals of my company--"Stag" Harris
and Wat Payne--were appointed to pull the stays from under the platform
at the signal.

A little after noon the South Gate opened, and Wirz rode in, dressed in a
suit of white duck, and mounted on his white horse--a conjunction which
had gained for him the appellation of "Death on a Pale Horse." Behind
him walked the faithful old priest, wearing his Church's purple insignia
of the deepest sorrow, and reading the service for the condemned. The
six doomed men followed, walking between double ranks of Rebel guards.

All came inside the hollow square and halted. Wirz then said:

"Brizners, I return to you dose men so Boot as I got dem. You haf tried
dem yourselves, and found dem guilty--I haf had notting to do wit it.
I vash my hands of eferyting connected wit dem. Do wit dem as you like,
and may Gott haf mercy on you and on dem. Garts, about face! Voryvarts,
march!"

With this he marched out and left us.

For a moment the condemned looked stunned. They seemed to comprehend for
the first time that it was really the determination of the Regulators to
hang them. Before that they had evidently thought that the talk of
hanging was merely bluff. One of them gasped out:

"My God, men, you don't really mean to hang us up there!"

Key answered grimly and laconically:

"That seems to be about the size of it."

At this they burst out in a passionate storm of intercessions and
imprecations, which lasted for a minute or so, when it was stopped by one
of them saying imperatively:

"All of you stop now, and let the priest talk for us."

At this the priest closed the book upon which he had kept his eyes bent
since his entrance, and facing the multitude on the North Side began a
plea for mercy.

The condemned faced in the same direction, to read their fate in the
countenances of those whom he was addressing. This movement brought
Curtis--a low-statured, massively built man--on the right of their line,
and about ten or fifteen steps from my company.

The whole camp had been as still as death since Wirz's exit. The silence
seemed to become even more profound as the priest began his appeal.
For a minute every ear was strained to catch what he said. Then, as the
nearest of the thousands comprehended what he was saying they raised a
shout of "No! no!! NO!!" "Hang them! hang them!" "Don't let them go!
Never!"

"Hang the rascals! hang the villains!"

"Hang,'em! hang 'em! hang 'em!"

This was taken up all over the prison, and tens of thousands throats
yelled it in a fearful chorus.

Curtis turned from the crowd with desperation convulsing his features.
Tearing off the broad-brimmed hat which he wore, he flung it on the
ground with the exclamation!

"By God, I'll die this way first!" and, drawing his head down and folding
his arms about it, he dashed forward for the center of my company, like a
great stone hurled from a catapult.

"Egypt" and I saw where he was going to strike, and ran down the line to
help stop him. As he came up we rained blows on his head with our clubs,
but so many of us struck at him at once that we broke each other's clubs
to pieces, and only knocked him on his knees. He rose with an almost
superhuman effort, and plunged into the mass beyond.

The excitement almost became delirium. For an instant I feared that
everything was gone to ruin. "Egypt" and I strained every energy to
restore our lines, before the break could be taken advantage of by the
others. Our boys behaved splendidly, standing firm, and in a few seconds
the line was restored.

As Curtis broke through, Delaney, a brawny Irishman standing next to him,
started to follow. He took one step. At the same instant Limber Jim's
long legs took three great strides, and placed him directly in front of
Delaney. Jim's right hand held an enormous bowie-knife, and as he raised
it above Delaney he hissed out:

"If you dare move another step, I'll open you ---- ---- ----, I'll open
you from one end to the other.

Delaney stopped. This checked the others till our lines reformed.

When Wirz saw the commotion he was panic-stricken with fear that the
long-dreaded assault on the Stockade had begun. He ran down from the
headquarter steps to the Captain of the battery, shrieking:

"Fire! fire! fire!"

The Captain, not being a fool, could see that the rush was not towards
the Stockade, but away from it, and he refrained from giving the order.

But the spectators who had gotten before the guns, heard Wirz's excited
yell, and remembering the consequences to themselves should the artillery
be discharged, became frenzied with fear, and screamed, and fell down
over and trampled upon each other in endeavoring to get away. The guards
on that side of the Stockade ran down in a panic, and the ten thousand
prisoners immediately around us, expecting no less than that the next
instant we would be swept with grape and canister, stampeded
tumultuously. There were quite a number of wells right around us, and
all of these were filled full of men that fell into them as the crowd
rushed away. Many had legs and arms broken, and I have no doubt that
several were killed.

It was the stormiest five minutes that I ever saw.

While this was going on two of my company, belonging to the Fifth Iowa
Cavalry, were in hot pursuit of Curtis. I had seen them start and
shouted to them to come back, as I feared they would be set upon by the
Raiders and murdered. But the din was so overpowering that they could not
hear me, and doubtless would not have come back if they had heard.

Curtis ran diagonally down the hill, jumping over the tents and knocking
down the men who happened in his way. Arriving at the swamp he plunged
in, sinking nearly to his hips in the fetid, filthy ooze. He forged his
way through with terrible effort. His pursuers followed his example, and
caught up to him just as he emerged on the other side. They struck him
on the back of the head with their clubs, and knocked him down.

By this time order had been restored about us. The guns remained silent,
and the crowd massed around us again. From where we were we could see
the successful end of the chase after Curtis, and could see his captors
start back with him. Their success was announced with a roar of applause
from the North Side. Both captors and captured were greatly exhausted,
and they were coming back very slowly. Key ordered the balance up on to
the scaffold. They obeyed promptly. The priest resumed his reading of
the service for the condemned. The excitement seemed to make the doomed
ones exceedingly thirsty. I never saw men drink such inordinate
quantities of water. They called for it continually, gulped down a quart
or more at a time, and kept two men going nearly all the time carrying it
to them.

When Curtis finally arrived, he sat on the ground for a minute or so, to
rest, and then, reeking with filth, slowly and painfully climbed the
steps. Delaney seemed to think he was suffering as much from fright as
anything else, and said to him:

"Come on up, now, show yourself a man, and die game."

Again the priest resumed his reading, but it had no interest to Delaney,
who kept calling out directions to Pete Donelly, who was standing in the
crowd, as to dispositions to be made of certain bits of stolen property:
to give a watch to this one, a ring to another, and so on. Once the
priest stopped and said:

"My son, let the things of this earth go, and turn your attention toward
those of heaven."

Delaney paid no attention to this admonition. The whole six then began
delivering farewell messages to those in the crowd. Key pulled a watch
from his pocket and said:

"Two minutes more to talk."

Delaney said cheerfully:

"Well, good by, b'ys; if I've hurted any of y ez, I hope ye'll forgive
me. Shpake up, now, any of yez that I've hurted, and say yell forgive
me."

We called upon Marion Friend, whose throat Delaney had tried to cut three
weeks before while robbing him of forty dollars, to come forward, but
Friend was not in a forgiving mood, and refused with an oath.

Key said:

"Time's up!" put the watch back in his pocket and raised his hand like an
officer commanding a gun. Harris and Payne laid hold of the ropes to the
supports of the planks. Each of the six hangmen tied a condemned man's
hands, pulled a meal sack down over his head, placed the noose around his
neck, drew it up tolerably close, and sprang to the ground. The priest
began praying aloud.

Key dropped his hand. Payne and Harris snatched the supports out with a
single jerk. The planks fell with a clatter. Five of the bodies swung
around dizzily in the air. The sixth that of "Mosby," a large, powerful,
raw-boned man, one of the worst in the lot, and who, among other crimes,
had killed Limber Jim's brother-broke the rope, and fell with a thud to
the ground. Some of the men ran forward, examined the body, and decided
that he still lived. The rope was cut off his neck, the meal sack
removed, and water thrown in his face until consciousness returned.
At the first instant he thought he was in eternity. He gasped out:

"Where am I? Am I in the other world?"

Limber Jim muttered that they would soon show him where he was, and went
on grimly fixing up the scaffold anew. "Mosby" soon realized what had
happened, and the unrelenting purpose of the Regulator Chiefs. Then he
began to beg piteously for his life, saying:

"O for God's sake, do not put me up there again! God has spared my life
once. He meant that you should be merciful to me."

Limber Jim deigned him no reply. When the scaffold was rearranged, and a
stout rope had replaced the broken one, he pulled the meal sack once more
over "Mosby's" head, who never ceased his pleadings. Then picking up the
large man as if he were a baby, he carried him to the scaffold and handed
him up to Tom Larkin, who fitted the noose around his neck and sprang
down. The supports had not been set with the same delicacy as at first,
and Limber Jim had to set his heel and wrench desperately at them before
he could force them out. Then "Mosby" passed away without a struggle.

After hanging till life was extinct, the bodies were cut down, the
meal-sacks pulled off their faces, and the Regulators formal two parallel
lines, through which all the prisoners passed and took a look at the
bodies. Pete Donnelly and Dick Allen knelt down and wiped the froth off
Delaney's lips, and swore vengeance against those who had done him to
death.

John McElroy