Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, appointed commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in November 1862, carried with him a reputation as a harsh taskmaster — quick to shoot a man for any number of infractions ranging from desertion, looting, destruction of civilian property or unauthorized discharge of a weapon.
Soldierly rumormongering, rather than documented fact, accounted for the most damning stories of Bragg’s absolute devotion to strict discipline, such as the tale that Bragg once ordered a soldier’s execution for shooting a chicken. But his unflinching resolve in using the ultimate punishment for infractions of army regulations yielded much-needed order and discipline to the army.
Bragg regarded desertion as a pernicious moral failing and the most serious factor in the Army of Tennessee’s diminishing fighting spirit. Ironically, Bragg offered his soldiers amnesty as his first action to address the growing problem of desertion. General Order No. 4, issued on Dec. 1, 1862, granted a full amnesty to all men absent without leave who returned to their units.
However, the proposal came with a caveat. New military courts would vigorously pursue all of those who failed to respond and the army would administer appropriate punishment swiftly and surely to all offenders.
The men of the Army of Tennessee were not accustomed to this new level of increased discipline and initially viewed Bragg’s rigid desertion policy with suspicion. An improved court-martial process removed much of the arbitrary nature of previous proceedings. The transparency of the hearings ensured men received a fair trial, and the court, not the commanding general, decided punishments. Only those charged with multiple instances of desertion risked execution, and the court imposed the punishment sparingly. Bragg even issued an additional 20-day amnesty in August 1863 covering men guilty of a second offense. The courts-martial reduced the majority of desertion charges to absent without leave and ordered company punishment. Although still painful to witness, soldiers increasingly believed that, if imposed, executions came with just cause.
By November 1863, following the twin disasters of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, Bragg’s military reputation lay in shambles and Confederate President Jefferson Davis accepted his resignation as commander of the Army of Tennessee. Davis appointed Gen. Joseph E. Johnston as the new commander of the Army of Tennessee, then in winter camp around Dalton. While Davis had doubts regarding Johnston’s suitability for command, the men of the Army of Tennessee did not share those reservations. Blaming Bragg for their military misfortunes, the depleted nature of the army’s supply system and the general feeling of despair that permeated the ranks, the soldiers whole-heartedly welcomed the change.
Through a flurry of orders and requisitions, Johnston quickly improved both the quality and quantity of provisions issued by the commissary. The men received new uniforms, shoes, hats, and tents. Not surprisingly, the increased whiskey and tobacco rations raised spirits. Johnston’s new drill and training schedules reduced idleness and the perception of rules for rules’ sake.
Furloughs allowing men home visits while the army regrouped, a concept unimaginable under Bragg, provided Johnston’s greatest boost to the army’s improved morale. Now, the men believed, with “Old Joe” in command the revitalized and rejuvenated Army of Tennessee would take the field and give the Yankees the whipping they deserved.
But their new self-pride and confidence were not universal, and the army continued hemorrhaging men at an alarming rate. Johnston, for all the praises of his benevolent concern for his men, was an iron-willed disciplinarian. If improvements in army life did not infuse the men with renewed devotion to duty, then Johnston would resort to harsher means.
During his yearlong tenure as commander of the Army of Tennessee, Bragg’s heightened disciplinary procedures resulted in the execution of 16 deserters. In his seven months as army commander, Johnston approved the death warrants for 30 condemned men, 13 of them occurring between January and April. Even though the men displayed a sense of accommodation at the growing numbers of executions as a necessary means to achieve a greater goal, the events of May 4, 1864, still shocked their hardened sensibilities.
Executions were not secret affairs but public spectacles designed to provide a lesson to the troops. Witnessing a single man’s execution was always a painful procedure, but it could be endured with a sense of stoic acceptance. However, what was to be made of the mass execution of May 4, 1864? “It was the worst sight I ever saw too horrible to think about,” wrote an officer of the 63rd Virginia Regiment who witnessed the events of that Wednesday morning.
Fourteen men of the 58th and 60th North Carolina regiments of Maj. Gen. Carter L. Stevenson’s Division, having been tried and judged guilty of desertion in a mass court martial proceeding on April 2, 1864, marched under guard from their camp in Crow Valley to Aults Mills where by order of Johnston they would forfeit their lives as an example to the others.
On the morning of May 4, 1864, a detail from the provost guard assembled at Gen. Stevenson’s headquarters, stacked their arms, and left. In their absence, staff officers loaded the rifles, half with blank cartridges and half with live rounds so that no man could know for certain if he fired a fatal shot. The detail then returned, took up their arms and proceeded to the tents that held the condemned men. To the tune of the “Dead March,” the guards paraded the prisoners before the men of their division who formed a three-sided square with an open end. Ambulances carrying the soon-to-be-filled coffins followed the procession. A long ditch had been dug with posts erected before it. Blindfolded and tied to the posts, the men listened as the chaplain of the 58th regiment read a scripture and offered a prayer. Only one had a last remark. “Tell my wife,” he said, “not to grieve for me. I have no doubt of reaching a better world.”
Twelve men filed before each prisoner and stood 10 paces away. Precisely at noon, Lt. Robert Clayton of the 60th regiment, that day’s commander of the provost guard, read the court’s decision and gave the command to fire. The regimental surgeon examined the bodies and determined that all but two died in the volley. A reserve firing squad of 14 stepped up to within a few feet of the two and fired a second volley directly into their heads and bodies. The assembled units then marched by the men in their coffins as a last reminder of the grim cost of desertion. A provost detail laid the coffins in the ditch and covered them; no stone or marker noted their place.
Much of the warm feeling the common soldiers had harbored for Johnston ebbed after the events of May 4, 1864. As the surgeon of the 60th regiment noted in his diary, “The private soldiers were all bitterly opposed to the execution of these men and that night several hundred of them left the army and never returned.”
It appeared from the doctor’s observation that the events of that day had the opposite effect to Johnston’s goal, but the more frequent references in soldiers’ letters and diaries to the intimidating effects of executions indicate that the awful threat of capital punishment acted as an effective means of keeping the Army of Tennessee together in the dark days ahead.
This article is part of a series of stories about Dalton and life in Dalton during the Civil War. The stories run on Sunday and are provided by the Dalton 150th Civil War Commission. To find out more about the committee, go to www.dalton150th.com. If you have material that you would like to contribute for a future article contact Robert Jenkins at (706) 259-4626 or email@example.com.