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150 Years Ago: Sunday, December 28, 1862


Execution of Asa LewisSource: Library of Congress

Execution of Asa Lewis
Source: Library of Congress

“Amidst a drenching rain-storm, Asa Lewis, member of Captain Page’s company, Sixth Kentucky regiment, was shot by a file of men. He was executed upon a charge of desertion, which was fully proven against him. The scene was one of great impressiveness and solemnity. The several regiments of Hanson’s brigade were drawn up in a hollow square, while Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, with their staffs, were present to witness the execution. The prisoner was conveyed from jail to the brigade drill-ground on an open wagon, under the escort of a file of ten men, commanded by Major Morse and Lieut. George B. Brumley. Lewis’s hands were tied behind him, a few words were said to him by Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, and word fire was given, and all was over. The unfortunate man conducted himself with great coolness and composure. He was said to have been a brave soldier, and distinguished himself at the battle of Shiloh.” — The Chattanooga Daily Rebel Banner

Asa Lewis was 19 when he was executed for desertion, with the orders given by C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg, Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Lewis had joined Company E, the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment of the “Orphan Brigade” at the beginning of the war. Just a farm boy from Barren County, Kentucky, he had received no training, only a rifle. He was at the horrific battle of Shiloh, Tennessee in April 1862 and afterwards was promoted to Corporal for his actions on the field. When his enlisted service period of one year was over, Lewis stayed instead of returning home.

But Lewis was receiving panicked letters from his mother that his family needed him. His father had passed away shortly after he left home, and his mother and three sisters were unable to take care of the farm and were starving and financially broke. Lewis formally requested a furlough so he could return home to plant the crops needed for his family to survive, but was denied as the Confederates needed every man they could muster serving in the field. Lewis made the decision to leave anyway, without permission; he would return home to make sure his family had a crop this year and then would then return to his unit.

Desertion in both armies is very common and causes a great deal of frustration for both governments. In order to have an effective military force, both sides need reliability when it comes to their troops. An emphasis is put on finding deserters and bringing them back; while some are sent back into the field, others are punished or sentenced to death. Though the officers of Lewis’s unit plead with Bragg, he refuses to repeal the sentence, stating that the desertion rate is growing and an example has to be set. Even Kentuckians who were supporters of the Confederacy petitioned that the sentence be commuted. It didn’t make a difference; Lewis was executed two days ago. Kentuckians are furious at Bragg as the news spreads of Lewis’s execution; the 6th Kentucky Infantry is so outraged that a mutiny almost breaks out. Lewis will not be the only one to die for desertion; many are killed at the orders of Bragg to set an example to the rest of his men that desertion will not be tolerated.

North of Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S. Major General William T. Sherman has been conducting reconnaissance to find weaknesses in Confederate defenses surrounding the city. One of his four divisions, led by Frederick Steele, attempts to turn the Confederate right flank but is repulsed by artillery fire as they advance on a very narrow front. For now Sherman remains on his own with 32,000 troops; Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and John McClernand are no where near the city where the attacks were to be coordinated.

After traveling from Springfield, Illinois, McClernand arrives Memphis, Tennessee and finds himself without the divisions he expects to have waiting for him. He finds that Sherman has absorbed them into his command and has already gone downriver. McClernand is under the impression that the Vicksburg campaign is his to run, not Grant’s; he has papers from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assigning McClernand command of the Vicksburg expedition. Not having heard from Grant, he sends him a letter expressing his disappointment with how things have been handled and wants guarantees from Grant that his command will be restored to him. He is not aware that Grant is currently maneuvering his troops back towards Memphis after his supply and communication lines were cut off by Confederate cavalry in Mississippi.

Betty Herndon MaurySource: Virginia Historical Society

Betty Herndon Maury
Source: Virginia Historical Society

Twenty-seven year old Elizabeth “Betty” Herndon Maury is a life-long Virginian and supporter of the Southern cause. Her husband (and cousin) of five years, William A. Maury, is the Judge Advocate General of the Confederate States of America. Her brother Richard is a commander of the 24th Virginia.

Betty was living in Fredericksburg before the battle and has since returned to her home. Today she writes in her diary about the conflict:

“On the 13th of December God blessed us with a great victory at Fredericksburg. Upwards of eighteen thousand of the enemy were killed. We lost but one thousand. Even the Yankees acknowledge it to be a great defeat.

The battle took place in and around the town. The streets were strewn with the fallen enemy, the houses were broken open, sacked and used for hospitals, and their dead were buried in almost every yard.

Dr. Nichols was there—came as an amateur with his friend Gen’ Hooker—he occupied Uncle John’s house (where his wife has been most hospitably entertained for weeks at a time) drank up Uncle J’s wine, used his flour and ate up Ellen Mercer’s preserves.

Delicacy, and so cold blooded and heartless as to come—not at the stern call of duty, but for the love of it—to gloat over the desolated homes of people he once called friends, and who are relations and connections of his wife’s.”

About thecivilwarproject

Like many others, I have a passion for the Civil War era, and for decades have chosen to spend my much of free time researching this topic - particularly the people, as the human component is what I find most fascinating. The site is not a source of revenue for me, nor is it tied in with a company or individual behind the scenes. It is my own personal venture. It is because of this genuine bond of respect and affection I feel towards this period in our history that I created "The Civil War Project." If this is your first time visiting the site, I welcome you and thank you for your interest. If you have any feedback or questions, please feel free to contact me at thecivilwarproject@yahoo.com.

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