June 1863 saw messages and telegraph traffic explode to new levels as the North and the Army of the Potomac anticipated General Lee’s next move. Many expected Lee, fresh from victory at Chancellorsville, to go on the offensive. The North, wounds still knitting from that battle, reorganized and prepared to match Lee’s movements. Many enlistments in the Army of the Potomac had expired on June 1st, and many one year and ninety-day men went home. The draw down in man power and influx of new units saw the Iron Brigade re-designated as the First Brigade of the First Division of the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. They would now be first on paper, as well as first on the field, in the coming campaign.
The men of the Iron Brigade knew nothing of General Lee’s plans, and continued to rotate on and off of picket duty. They’d built up a congenial existence with their counterpart Confederate pickets across the river, often conversing with them, trading Northern coffee for Southern tobacco, and observing a mutual truce to not shoot at each other. As such, the men of the First Corps knew nothing of their army’s thoughts on those General Lee’s plans, and nothing of what they would be expected to do, until one morning in early June the Confederates across the river were simply gone. The Iron Brigade followed on June 12th, stepping off before sunrise and towards the north. Within hours they halted for lunch, and to take care of some unsettling business: the execution by firing squad of one of their own.
Private James Woods of Company F of the 19th Indiana had a habit of disappearing. He’d left the unit around August 20th and returned in early November, missing both Brawner Farm and Antietam. He’d also disappeared for a period that covered the fight at Fredericksburg, been captured, but had convinced a court-martial of his innocence based upon a story of suffering a near miss of an artillery shell and being sent to the rear by an officer. And then the third time came the morning of the fight at Fitzhugh’s Crossing where the unit had taken to boats and carried Rebel positions across the river. Woods dropped his gun and ran, then was later captured dressed in a Confederate Uniform. One has to wonder if he’d just turned himself in if he’d have received a pardon based on the recent policy on desertion. Regardless if it was because it was his third offense, or if it was because he’d been found in enemy clothes, Private Woods’ time was up.
A general court-martial assembled on May 29th to hear Woods case. The private, who up until then had offered any number of excuses for his three absences, everything from being wounded, being ill, and simply getting lost, this time only told the truth. “I can’t fight,” he stated to those assembled. “I cannot stand it to fight.” “I am perfectly willing to work all my lifetime for the United States in any other way but fight,” “I was always willing to try to fight for my country, but I never could.”
Quick deliberation by the court found Woods guilty of desertion; the penalty was “to be shot to death with muskets”. General Hooker approved the sentence and dictated that it be carried out on Friday, June 12th, between noon and 4 p.m., wherever the division may happen to be.
Woods was immediately turned over to the Provost Marshal Clayton Rogers and remained in custody until the 12th. The 7th Wisconsin’s chaplain spent most of June 11th with Woods, and stated that “his firmness, composure and naturalness is astonishing.”
Woods rode in an ambulance that morning as the unit marched north, following Lee into Maryland and into what most now knew was a second invasion of the north. Reports vary if his coffin had already been constructed and was in the ambulance with him, or if it was constructed quickly on the site of his execution. Regardless, once the division had eaten lunch, the entire unit was mustered into ranks in a large U shape, with Woods, sitting on his coffin, at the open end.
The executioners were selected from the five regiments of the brigade. Of the twelve shooters, one would have a musket loaded with only a powder charge and no bullet. None of the shooters thought this would do much good in hiding the facts, as they’d all shot a properly loaded gun, and one with only a blank charge before, and the difference in the kick of the weapon would make it easy to tell the difference.
Woods sat on the edge of the open coffin. Rogers blindfolded the prisoner — even though he requested not to have his eyes covered — pulled open his shirt, stepped aside, and gave the order to fire. The soldiers – some stated they looked worse for the experience than the condemned – fired. Only four of the ten shots hit Woods. Rogers called up one of the reserve shooters. The soldier took careful aim and fired a single shot into Woods twitching body, ending his life.
Woods was put into his coffin, the lid nailed shut, and buried where he fell. At that time in June of 1863 the area was an open field. In recent years I’ve discussed the likely location of Woods with several Iron Brigade and Civil War historians, and while his body has never been officially sought out, the general consensus is that he likely lays forgotten under a parking lot or in a housing development back yard in the suburbs of the Washington D.C. and Alexandria area.
The execution served as a warning to others in the Army of the Potomac against the desire to run from a fight. They’d often said that “No man can fight when surrounded by cowards”, and all knew that the only thing one could depend on in a fight was the man on either side of you. What if that man ran? But the execution of Private Woods put the tangible cost to them all: while it was a bad thing to run in the past and let your friends down, from then on it would be deadly, too.
Once Woods was in the ground, the unit marched once more. They spent the next several days heading north, sometimes so fast and under such harsh conditions that some men would not only fall out due to the heat and dehydration, a few members of the division actually died of heat stroke. Their track kept them close to roads they’d marched before, and with the thought of Second Bull Run – where the armies fought on the same fields twice — the soldiers began to worry that they were simply heading to a reunion with the Confederates on the fields around Antietam. At one point they made camp only two miles from the location of the South Mountain battle the year before. Some of the veterans of that fight visited the rocky mountainside field, looking for the graves of fallen friends. That was all they were willing to do, though, and as they looked over the mountains towards the west where Sharpsburg and Antietam creek lie, many said they’d never fight there again. The horror there was still too fresh, and the shock of seeing Woods shot dead by his own might not have been enough to keep them from simply dropping their guns and going home, rather than fight in the Cornfield again.
But with the next morning the army moved again. Towards the north. Towards Pennsylvania.
My third piece for the New York Times “Disunion” series is now online. “Raiding the Keokuk” is about a daring salvage operation of an enemy warship in contested waters. The warship, USS Keokuk, is one of those oddities of technology that really should never have been built. As necessity during wartime can result in brilliant success — i.e. USS Monitor — it can also generate spectacular failures.
I’m really happy with this piece as I was able to get much closer to individuals and a single ship. USS Keokuk, while not a successful design, was a unique looking vessel, and I have a model of her in-progress that I look forward to completing.
Direct link to article HERE.
The spring of 1863 came to an Army of the Potomac in the midst of change. After taking command from General Burnside in late January, “Fighting Joe” Hooker spent the early days of the year rebuilding the army, both physically and mentally. Meals were improved, with more fresh food brought in daily. The paymasters got everyone up to date on their pay, removing the burden of worrying about providing financially for those back home.
A new furlough system lessened desertions. Soldiers were granted extended leave to visit home, some for the first time since they’d enlisted more than two years prior. And as the furlough system lessened the number of men deserting, those that had already run were welcomed back. The last three weeks of March 1863 Continue Reading »
The full table of contents, which includes many authors I’m proud to be published with, is below:
“Raw Recruits” by Will Ludwigsen
“The Swell of the Cicadas” by Tenea D. Johnson
“Bad Penny” by Carrie Laben
“Spectral Drums” by Devin Poore
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce
“Ten Thousand Miles” by Connie Wilkins
“No More Amongst the Cities of the Earth” by Christopher M. Cevasco
The Country House” by Jameson Currier
“An Unclean Thing” by Cindy Potts
“The Blank Flag of Arthur Kerry” by Kristopher Reisz
“Three Silent Things” by John F. D. Taff
“Across Hickman’s Bridge to Home” by Russell Davis
“Mistress” by Jennifer R. Povey
“Tommy Cleburne” by Jeff Mann
“The Overseer” by Albert E. Cowdrey
“Red Animal” by Ed Kurtz
“Proving Up” by Caren Gussoff
“Vermont Muster” by Nick Mamatas
“Like Quicksilver for Gold” by Chaz Brenchley
“The Beatification of Custer Poe” by Laird Barron
“The Arabella” by Melissa Scott
“The Third Nation” by Lee Hoffman
I’d planned on the joining of the upper and lower hulls on Chickasaw to be an ordeal, but it wasn’t as bad in some respects as I’d expected, but was worse in other respects. While Chickasaw doesn’t have the full “raft over a lower hull” arrangement of the original Monitor or her follow-on Passaic class ironclads, it does exist. While building the lower hull, I exerted too Continue Reading »
Something unusual. Overall a fun little kit, but I have to admit that at times I wasn’t having fun at all with some of the smaller bits and more than once Luzon nearly went sailing across a sea of profanities into the from room’s brick wall.
I’ve got a few more of these Niko resin kits from various eras (Great White Fleet, WWII British, and U.S. Cold War missile cruisers), and I’ll surely build something else from them in the future.
More photos and the full story on the build can be seen HERE.
My second piece for the Times’ “Disunion” web series has been published. “Rise of the Infernal Machines” gives an overview of the torpedoes of the day, what we now mostly know as mines. Crude, unstable, and mostly non-functional, they provided the Confederacy with a new weapon with which to strike back at the superior Union navy. Despite their endless problems, they succeeded in sinking more Union warships than all other means combined (probably speaking more to the ineffectiveness of Confederate warships and fortifications than to effectiveness of the torpedoes). The article can be access HERE.
January 1863 saw the 19th Indiana and the Iron Brigade in winter quarters, camped at Bella Plain, VA, on Potomac Creek. Still smarting from the defeat at Fredericksburg, many referred to the winter of 1862-1863 as “the Valley Forge of the Army of the Potomac”. The soldiers built wooden cabins that they fitted with fireplaces and covered with their field tents, then settled in for several months of inaction.
With little to do, talk among the soldiers turned to the recent Emancipation Proclamation. Most were against it, in the respect that they thought it changed the course of the fight. A Captain of the 19th wrote “I dont want to fight to free the Darkeys. If any body else wants to do so, they are welcome to come and do so.”(sic) The near-general consensus throughout the unit and most of the army was that they had signed up to restore and preserve the Union, not free slaves. Obviously little thought was given to the main reason that had caused the war and brought them to that place. Still, others welcomed the proclamation and couldn’t wait to get freedmen Continue Reading »
Very happy to announce that the New York Times has published my first piece for their website. Ironclad Fever is about the armored warship building frenzy in both North and South after the Monitor and Virginia (Merrimack) battle in 1862.
I’m extremely pleased to be able to put all of the historical research I’ve done while building models and writing stories into this format.