Civil War executions were overt events
Military censorship has been part and parcel of war reporting worldwide for at least a century.
Nearly half the French divisions on the Western Front mutinied to one degree or another in 1917, their will weakened by three years of devastating losses and no prospects of success as World War I dragged on. However, revelations on the extent and intensity of the mutinies, which included the execution of several dozen French soldiers, weren’t disclosed until 1967, and some information has still not been made available even after 96 years.
The British, in the same conflict, often didn’t even disclose to family members that their loved ones had been executed, choosing to bury men convicted and executed for crimes such as desertion in the same area as other soldiers killed in action and awarding the families pensions.
And as recently as 2004, the US military did its best to lay down a smokescreen surrounding the friendly-fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan.
The thought being, more often than not, that the morale of troops and/or folks at home would be damaged by the truth.
That apparently wasn’t a concern in the South during the War Between the States.
South Carolina’s Edgefield Advertiser ran a story on May 11, 1864, which detailed the execution of Pvt. Henry Jerome of the 17th South Carolina Infantry regiment in Charleston.
MILITARY EXECUTION – About half-past ten o’clock yesterday morning, the Race Course was the scene of a military execution. Private Henry Jerome, of Company A, 17th Regiment, S.C.V., who twice had been guilty of the crime of deserting his colors, paid the penalty with his life. The execution took place in the presence of Major Blanding’s command of the 1st S.C. Artillery and an infantry regiment – the firing squads being detached from the ranks of the Regulars. The condemned, a man of mature years, short in stature, and of quiet demeanor, was brought to the ground in an ambulance, attended by Rev. Mr. Aldrich, Chaplain of the 1st S.C. Artillery. After the last prayer had been said, the culprit refusing to have his eyes bandaged, knelt beside his coffin. At the first fire, he fell insensible, having received several mortal wounds in the chest, and within two minutes all signs of animation had disappeared. Private Jerome was, we understand, a native of Chester District, and leaves a wife and three children.
The tagline on the story indicates that it was originally printed in the Charleston Mercury on May 3, 1864. The story likely appeared in newspapers throughout the Southeast.
By this period, privation and loss were common features across the South. Death had touched practically every community, no matter how small, and the early optimism of the war’s first year was long gone.
Given the inherent difficulties in transmitting media 150 years ago, it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult for the Confederate government to have simply censored news it didn’t want broadcast. And while there may have been some value in sending a message to those considering deserting, it can’t help but have had a demoralizing effect on others who saw their government executing citizens, even if it was for desertion.
The reporting of Jerome’s extreme punishment was not an anomaly, either.
Perusing Civil War-era newspapers, Gann (Mass.) Academy History instructor Kevin Levin discovered accounts of other military executions, as well, including that of Confederate Capt. J. R. Rhodes in September 1863 in both the Richmond Examiner and the Augusta Daily Chronicle & Sentinel; the execution of 10 men from the 3rd North Carolina for desertion and murder in the Richmond Daily Dispatch; and the execution of three soldiers from the 36th Virginia in March 1864 in the Lynchburg Virginian.
Southern newspapers often didn’t shrink from providing graphic accounts of the event, either. The Richmond Examiner didn’t mince words in its description of Rhodes’ execution:
Attention! The command startles every one. The doomed man sinks down upon his coffin and fixes his eyes upon the twelve bright tubes that are leveled at his breast, but drops his head the next moment. Fire! – a dash, a report – and as the white smoke is slowly lifted by the breeze a mangled, lifeless form is seen lying beside the coffin, and the long lines of soldiers shrink back from the sight.
“Accounts that provided such detail sent a clear message to a number of parties, including men in the ranks, loved ones back home, and those enlisted men who had already deserted,” Levin writes.
Interestingly, Jerome apparently was not the shirker that one commonly associates with being a deserter.
He originally volunteered for a 12-month stint in the Southern army and left the 17th South Carolina in September, 1862, heading home to South Carolina and stating that the government had no further claim on him after his term was up, according to Capt. William H. Edwards in his 1906 work, A Condensed History of Seventeenth Regiment S.C.V. C.S.A.: From its Organization to the Close of the War.
Jerome, who had originally left his regiment in September 1862 in Virginia and returned to Chester County, had been arrested and sent back to his company a few days before the 17th (South Carolina) started for Mississippi in the spring of 1863, according to Edwards.
“He ran away again in Branchville (SC) and was arrested and sent to the regiment at Charleston, S.C., in the spring of 1864,” where he was executed, Edwards adds.
Edwards, however, had surprising praise for Jerome. While stating that Jerome was the only man of the 17th South Carolina executed for desertion during the war, “We had a number, though, who ought to have been shot, in fact we ought to have hung them after the war was over, but we did not. Some of the white-livered scoundrels are living yet, I am sorry to say. I refer to those that went over to the enemy.
“I have far more respect for the memory of Henry Jerome than I have for them,” Edwards wrote. “He could have gone to the Yankees, but did not. He was a man of unquestioned courage, in fact he was recklessly fearless. “