Thursday, April 14, 2011

The blandishments of a Southern Beauty...

Earlier this week marked the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War. I will post on occasion about Unitarianism during this fearful conflict. This from Charles A. Humphreys account of his time as Chaplain of the Second Mass. Cavalry...

"The hardest duty that ever fell to my lot as Chaplain was to prepare a deserter to die. He was one of our own regiment, and born in Massachusetts, but had early in life gone to California, where he led a wild and reckless career till he enlisted and came East. Now he had yielded to the fascinations of a Southern girl and been induced to desert, and was captured while fighting against us with a band of guerrillas. This offence was of course unpardonable in martial law; yet, as he chose me for his counsel at the trial by drum-head courtmartial, I pleaded, in extenuation, his youth and the blandishments of the Southern beauty, but to no effect. Perhaps one reason why I did not win the case was that the opposing counsel was Lewis S. Dabney, whose legal acumen made him then Judge Advocate, and later made him one of the leaders of the Bar in Boston. Still I had to admit in my own mind that in the existing military situation the sentence of death must be pronounced. The poor victim chose to lean on my arm as he walked to execution behind his own coffin borne by his old messmates, while the band marched beside playing a funeral dirge. And he leaned still more closely on my faith that, though his country could not forgive him, beset as she was with enemies, God would forgive if he was truly penitent; and the thought appealed to the native nobleness of his nature, and awoke in him the desire even then to redeem himself and to serve the cause that he had betrayed. And the more he revolved this in his mind, the more he felt the inspiration of noble feeling, and, being permitted to speak a few last words to his fellow-soldiers who were drawn up on three sides of a hollow square to witness the execution, he said: "Comrades! I want to acknowledge that I am guilty and that my punishment is just. But I want also that you should know that I did not desert because I lost faith in our cause. I believe we are on the right side, and I think it will succeed. But take warning from my example, and whatever comes do not desert the old flag for which I am proud to die." Everything being now ready, I offered prayer with him and commended him to the mercy of God; then I bound the handkerchief over his eyes, and at his request asked the marksmen to aim steadily and at his heart. Then shaking hands with him in farewell, I said, "Now die like a man." He sat down upon the foot of his coffin in perfect composure, and said, "I am ready." Fronting him were six men in line, with carbines, five of which were loaded. Each man could persuade himself that his own carbine was the unloaded one, and so was relieved from the otherwise necessary conclusion that he had shot his fellow. The sergeant in command of the shootingsquad gave the order—"Ready! Aim! Fire!" and the deserter in one moment was dead. The lesson of his punishment had never to be repeated in our brigade.
All this was Sunday morning. I did not feel like holding a service after it, and thought the ceremony of execution had preached more effectively than I could. One of the members of E Company, to which the deserter had belonged, said to me, "I wonder how you got enough influence over him to lead him to declare that he died believing our cause was just." I replied, "It was not I that did it but the awful presence of death." That made him see clearly the truth and his own terrible mistake. I doubt not that the intense self-examination and marvellous insight of his last hours influenced his character more than any other hours of his life, indeed more than whole years of thoughtless wandering and heedless sin. I was glad that I could induce him to keep up such good courage and die in so true a spirit, but hope I shall never have to witness such another scene."


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