Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Execution of John Wood on the March to Gettysburg

I have had a lifelong interest in the American Civil War, and in recent years have done some research and written a couple articles for the Gettysburg Magazine.  The most recent issue (Issue 45, July 2011) contained a poignant article that affected me.

Private John Wood, a member of the 19th Indiana regiment, had enlisted days after the initial battle of Bull Run in July 1861.  He had deserted twice before, and was excused by reason of being sick.  His third and final desertion took place In May 1863.  This time the stakes were much higher: as his regiment was advancing as part of the Gettysburg Campaign, as Union General Joseph  Hooker began to follow General  Lee's Confederate army northward.  Every man was needed in the ranks, and if making an example of a deserter would help deter other men from deserting, this would be a small price to pay.

The execution took place on June 12, 1863, across the road from Hartwood Church, near Warrenton, VA.  In military world, it was a necessary action.  But I cannot help but feel for the man who died.  Today he might likely have sought status as a conscientious objector.  But that avenue was unavailable for a soldier in 1863, especially one who had willingly enlisted.  The realities of battle proved too much for Private Wood:

I did not want to go into a fight.I cannot stand it to fight.  I am ashamed to make the statement, but I may as well do it now as at any other time.  I never could stand a fight.  I have done my duty in every way but fight.  I have tried to do it but cannot.  I am perfectly willing to work all my lifetime for the United States in any other way but fight.  I have tried to do it but cannot.

So...148 years ago a Union deserter was shot by a firing squad in northern Virginia and his body was buried in a field near a church.  Presumably it still remains interred there.  The death of one man was but a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands produced by that war, but something about this story touches me. 

I guess it's the fact that he enlisted, as did thousands of other young men on both sides, in the heady enthusiasm of the war, but as reality set in, the realization that you were to load and shoot your rifle at other human beings, Private Wood realized that he could not do that.  No matter how noble the cause, he could not pull that trigger, and deserted multiple times to avoid that dilemma.

Many of us face dilemmas in our lives, but seldom do they rise to the level of life and death as it did for Private John Wood.

1 comment:

  1. I'm reading through a Civil War diary that was passed down to me, and I believe that my ancestor (great great great grandmother's son) was part of the firing squad.