This letter was written by Ezra McConnell (1836-1902), the son of Michael McConnell (1801-1872) and Susan Gallagher (1795-1875) of Cadiz, Harrison county, Ohio. Ezra was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in Co. B, 30th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI) in August 1861 and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant of Co. C on 25 October 1863. Ezra was not mustered out of the service until 10 January 1865. He was married in 1858 to Phebe Krim (1828-1894).
The majority of the content in this letter was devoted to a description of the desertion, arrest, court martial, and execution of Pvt. Richard Gatewood of Co. C, 1st Kentucky Infantry—the execution taking place on the date of letter, 20 December 1861. It was only the second Union soldier execution carried out by the military during the Civil War—the 7th of 267 recorded executions. From an article appearing in the Sunday Gazette-Mail of Charleston, West Virginia, written by Boyd B. Stutler and published on 4 February 1962, we learn that the 1st and 2nd Kentucky Infantry regiments attached to Gen. Cox’s command were “only nominally Kentuckians; the outfits were recruited along the waterfront at Cincinnati and were composed for a very large part of rivermen who had been idled by the suspension of steamboat traffic in the Southern waters. The men were rough and tough and did not take kindly to strict military discipline.”
Stutler’s article also informs us that the location of the execution was in the broad meadow just below the mouth of Elk River near the Kanawha river.
[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Greg Herr and is published on Spared & Shared by express consent.]
December 20th 1861
Here I have been detained for over a day waiting for a boat. We got to Gallipolis about 10 o’clock the night I wrote to Mother and stayed at the hotel until 6 o’clock the next morning. While there we heard that the Rebels were in Louisa near the Ohio River and that unless there was reinforcements soon, there might be trouble going down. We got in the Government boat Silver Lake and got here at 5:30 o’clock last night. The bat was hardly landed when an order came from Gen. [Jacob D.] Cox to take a company or two down to the Red House half way between here and Gallipolis as what troops were there were expecting an attack there by that lawless desperado Lt. Col. Jenkins of the Rebel army. I don’t know what they made of it.
I witnessed a solemn scene today. There was a soldier shot by a sentence of a General Court Martial. He was from Louisville, Kentucky, [and] belonged to the 1st Kentucky. He deserted and came back of his own accord. He was put under arrest and he behaved himself very badly—cursed and abused the Major, knocked down one of the guards, and today he suffered on account of it.
There was a hollow square formed consisting of the 1st and 2nd Kentucky, 12th Ohio, and a cavalry company. The ambulance containing the victim and three chaplains was driven into the center of the ground escorted by the Provost Marshal and his guards. They got out of the ambulance and took his coffin which he had been sitting on and laid it on the ground where the four knelt on it and each of the chaplains offered up a prayer for him. He seemed very penitent.
He ha his eyes bandaged. He then shook hands with the chaplains and surgeons and at the same time the guns were brought in. The Provost Marshal then went up to him and talked to him awhile 1 and the detail that was to shoot him came in. The Marshal got him to kneel on his coffin again and went forward apiece and motioned with his handkerchief and eight men came to an aim. Another wave of the handkerchief and the poor fellow fell back dead. He died without a struggle. They shot him through the heart. The surgeons went to him and took out his heart and saw that the balls had penetrated it, replaced it, put him in his coffin, and drove him off to the grave yard. 2
I hope the U. S. A. will never have occasion to do such another act. He deserved his fate. We must have discipline or we will have no success. He was a very bad man. His parents live near Louisville, Kentucky.
Farewell. Don’t forget to write. Love to all. — Ezra McConnell
1 The article entitled “The Execution of Pvt. Gatewood,” by Boyd Stutler states that the Provost Marshal, “with merciful deception” told the prisoner he must wait a moment and he would return to him before the final order, but quickly stepping out of the range of the muskets, he gave the signal with his handkerchief and the man fell dead at the folley which sounded like a single discharge.”
2 Other accounts of the execution say nothing about the surgeons removing Gatewood’s heart from his body, examining it, and replacing it before placing the body in the coffin. If true, this seems to have been a highly unusual and unnecessary measure to establish Gatewood’s death and if it was actually done, must have been ordered only to instill greater order and discipline among the troops.