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.
P. A. PORTER,
Col. 8th N. Y. V. Arty.
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
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:
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
(Signed) E. M. STANTON,
Sec. of War.