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Ordered To Execute Gordon By Shooting

I was on duty with troops until detailed as Assistant Provost Marshal at

Fort McHenry. The administration of prisoners confined at Fort McHenry

had become unsatisfactory; escapes were frequent. Colonel Porter

selected Capt. Holmes of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery and myself to

reform the prison.

Headquarters, Fort McHenry,

October 25, 1863.

Order No. 51.

I. Lieut. George Nellis, Co. D., 5th Arty., N. Y. V., is

hereby relieved from duty as Asst. Provost Marshal and will

without delay report to his Company Commander for duty.

II. Lieut. H. B. Smith, Co. D., 5th Arty., N. Y. V., is hereby

appointed Asst. Provost Marshal and will without delay assume

the duties of that office.


Col. 8th N. Y. V. Arty.

Com. Post.

Lieut. H. B. SMITH,

D. Co., 5th Reg., N. Y. V., Arty.,

Fort McHenry, Md.

Right here was begun what led up to my ultimately becoming a

full-fledged secret service operator. Born in the green foot-hills of

the Catskill Mountains (near where Rip Van Winkle dozed), I learned my

"A B abs" in the little brown school house at Cornwallville. Father died

when I was four years old. Mother traded the farm for some New York

tenements, and we all located there, when I was ten years old. I

attended the public schools where I was properly "hazed" and got what

was "coming" to all country boys; finally I graduated under the tutelage

of Dr. Joseph Finch (a patriot indeed, who made a lasting impress for

earnestness on thousands of boys), and then went to business as an entry

clerk with a large importing metal house, where I remained until the war

broke out. You will therefore see I had had no former experience (my age

was 22 years) and whatever wit I had for such service was inborn or

home-made. Zeal I know I had; perhaps its birth was from a chalk legend

some pedagogue had inscribed over the door-frame in the little brown

school house, reading: "What man has done, man can do." At any rate I

have remembered it.

My education in the burning political questions had been sharply marked

by the presidential campaign of 1860. My brothers, A. P. and Burdette,

were "Douglas" Democrats. My fellow clerk, Clarence W. Meade (later

Judge Meade), was a "Bell and Everett" Democrat. I was a born "Lincoln"

Republican. So between the discussions at the house and the office, I

was somewhat sharpened. I remember how I struggled against their

arguments that Lincoln was an uneducated, uncultured rail-splitter. I

knew of his discussions with Douglas, but never did I completely

vanquish them until Mr. Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg oration, and

"that ball fetched all the pins and knocked a hole through the alley."

And it must be noted that I thought myself, somewhat like a Demosthenes,

for I had practiced in that little school house on "Twinkle, Twinkle,

Little Star" and two verses of "On Linden When the Sun Was Low," much to

mother's delight. So equipped, or so not equipped, I began my duties as

Assistant Provost Marshal.

Confederate mail carrying, spy promoting, blockade promoting, recruiting

for Confederate service, were being engineered right from among these

prisoners. I "under-grounded" it all. Through this channel I enlisted

for the Confederate service. Of course you know that when I enlisted in

the service of our enemies, I did so to discover their actions, and was

what most people call a "spy." I had often read the story of Nathan

Hale, the splendid patriot of the American Revolution who was a spy in

the service of General Washington and who gave up his life to the

service. (The Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York have

erected a fine monument to him in the New York City Hall Park). Perhaps

there would be less danger in being a soldier in the ranks who goes

forward with arms in hand and fights openly in battle and dies thus,

than to be a spy and constantly in the shadow of death, night and day,

and no soldier's death for him, but the death of the hangman's noose;

yes, I knew all this.

I worked a blockade running outfit, involving General Morris's adjutant

general, Capt. E. W. Andrews (of whom I will tell more later on), and I

captured Confederate mail carriers, none of which were any part of my

duty, but all contributed to the general good of the service. Strictly

speaking, my duties were completed by caring for the safe keeping,

discipline and comfort of the prisoners in our charge. To do more was

supererogation, and ought to be credited to zeal.

In a short time I found that these Confederates worked their escape

through the use of gold supplied them by their sympathizers in bribing

the guards. But we stopped that and thereafter the soldiers for sentry

duty at certain posts were selected for their known probity. Escapes

continued for a time (but they were always recaptured when they supposed

themselves safe outside our guards). When these escapes (?) were

accomplished there was great jubilation among the Confederates. They had

a great "laugh" on the Yankees; which laugh was changed to "the other

side of the mouth" when all the escaped (?) ones were marched back into

camp, one bright morning. About a mile down the road leading from our

exterior gate to Baltimore was a hotel called the "Vineyard." I engaged

the upper floors of it in which to domicile my escaped (?) prisoners.

When we had accumulated there about fifteen we marched them all back to

our prison.

After telling their fellows of the futility of their plans no more

escapes were attempted.

The government was kind to prisoners. We clothed them and gave them

blankets to keep them comfortable. I have receipted rolls now showing

such issues. They came to us in rags or worse than rags, in fact, and

left us fat and well clothed. On one occasion when an exchange of

prisoners was ordered, I judged that one good suit of clothes was enough

to start them off with; but orders came from Washington to allow them

to carry away all the clothing given them by their friends, which in

some instances was three or four suits to a man. Our prisoners were

confined in buildings known as the Ringgold Battery Barracks, quite

insecure for the purpose. We constructed about the premises a plank

fence twelve feet high, with balcony and sentry boxes on top, leaving no

good chance for communication between prisoners and guards.

The first unpleasant duty devolving on me is described in the following


Headquarters, Fort McHenry,

Nov. 19. 1863.

General Order No. 53.

In pursuance of General Order No. 54 and 56 issued from

Headquarters, Middle Department, 8th Army Corps, Oct. 26, and

Nov. 3, 1863, and General Order No. 92, issued from

headquarters 2d. Separate Brigade, Defences of Baltimore, Nov.

19, 1863, William F. Gordon, a prisoner in confinement at this

post, will be shot to death with musketry, between the hours

of 12 M. and 3 o'clock P. M., on Friday, the 20th inst., on

the Parade Ground at Fort McHenry, according to military usage

in such cases, provided the approval of the President of the

United States be received.

The Asst. Provost Marshal of the Post, Lieut. H. B. Smith, is

charged with the execution of this order.

(Signed) By Command of

Col. P. A. PORTER,

8th N. Y. V. Arty., Com'd'g Post.


Lieut. 8th N. Y. V. Arty and Post Adjt.

A harder duty could not be directed. In cases where execution is by

shooting, a firing party is picked, and their rifles are loaded for

them. One gun among them is loaded with a blank cartridge, so that each

member of the firing party can hope he has it. In case death does not

result from the firing it becomes the duty of the officer commanding the

firing party to complete the execution of the order. That was not a

cheerful prospect for me. I had twenty-four hours for serious

contemplation; suppose the men should aim wrong? Then I would be

compelled to shoot the man as a mere cold duty. We were spared its

execution by the following telegraphic order:

War Department,

Nov. 20, 1863.

Major General Schenck:

The President directs that the execution of sentence of death

against Gordon, now in Fort McHenry, be suspended until

further orders.

(Signed) E. M. STANTON,

Sec. of War.