On the return of the command measures were at once taken to ascertain the cause of the defeat of the plans, or rather how the information reached the enemy in time to defend the crossings at the Chickahominy River. As a result of the investigation Private Thomas Abrahams, Company G, One Hundred and Thirty-ninth New York Volunteers, was arrested, tried by court-martial, convicted of some connection with the divulging of the plans, and sentenced to be "shot to death with musketry." The proceedings, findings, and sentence of the court were approved, and, on the seventh day of March, 1864, the sentence was carried into effect in the presence of all the troops stationed at Yorktown.
The execution took place on the plain south of Fort Yorktown. The troops were formed in line, on three sides of a parallelogram, the battery at one end, and the prisoner sitting on his coffin at the other. When all were in position the order condemning the prisoner to death was read to the troops by the adjutant of each organization ; the firing detail marched into the centre, near the prisoner; the detail was divided into two parties, one of eight men, who constituted the main firing party, and one of four men as a reserve, to be used in case the first fire was not effective; the prisoner was blindfolded and the work very quickly performed. In this case no call was made for the reserve firing party. The body remained as it fell across the coffin and the whole command was marched in review, as it were, before the dead man. As each company arrived opposite the body the command was given " Eyes right," that each and all might receive a lasting impression of the penalty of treason. This was the only execution witnessed by the whole battery, although others took place at Yorktown.
An account of the execution published in The Cavalier, newspaper printed at Yorktown, in its issue of March 7, 1864, reads as follows:
"Private Thomas Abrahams, of Company G, 139th New York Volunteers, found guilty by court-martial of giving intelligence to the enemy, in violation of the 57th Article of War, and advising and persuading another soldier to desert the service of the United States, in violation of the 23d Article of War, was shot, this morning, at this place.
Abrahams was the sentinel placed over William J. Boyle, of the 1st N. Y. Mounted Rifles, a prisoner under sentence of death at Fort Magruder, on the night of that prisoner's escape, and the testimony against him shows that he put Boyle in possession of valuable information in regard to an expedition against Richmond, and then wilfully and maliciously advised and assisted him to escape to the enemy's lines with such information.
He was ordered to be shot to death with musketry within forty-eight hours after hearing his sentence read. which took place at sunset on Saturday.
Abrahams was much affected upon hearing his sentence, and protested his innocence, weeping bitterly. The prisoner desired that a Catholic priest should be sent for to act as his spiritual adviser, and one arrived yesterday evening, from Norfolk, and entered upon his good work with zeal. We are unable to learn his name. He also expressed a strong desire to see his wife and children, who reside in Brooklyn, and requested that two of his comrades-in-arms might be sent for, but it was impossible for them to reach this place before the time appointed for his death.
The spot selected for the execution was outside the fort, near the southern gate, and every arrangement was made to render the melancholy spectacle what it should be, a solemn and impressive warning to all who witnessed it. At ten o'clock the 148th N. Y. Vols., 16th N. Y. Artillery, and Belger's and Hunt's Batteries, were upon the ground and formed three sides of a square, opening towards the river. Soon after Colonels West and Spear, with the officers of their staffs, the officers of General Wistar's staff. Surgeon Voorhees and others, made their appearance, and took their positions near the spot where the execution was to take place.
About eleven o'clock the prisoner was brought on the ground, seated upon his coffin in an open wagon, which was preceded by Captain Brooks, provost-marshal, and Captain Reynolds, assistant adjutant-general, a detachment of the provost guard bringing up the rear. His spiritual adviser was seated in the wagon beside him.
The prisoner was taken directly to the place of execution, where the cortege halted. He got out of the wagon unassisted, climbing over the side and jumping lightly from the wheel. He showed but little trepidation, and upon his coffin being placed upon the ground, took his position in front of it with remarkable firmness.
The twelve men from the provost guard who were detailed to shoot him then filed around to his front, and took their position in two ranks, fifteen paces from the coffin. Captain Reynolds, A. A. G., then read to the prisoner the charges and specifications against him, with the findings and sentence of the court-martial and the order for his execution. The prisoner then knelt with his spiritual adviser, who had remained at his side in front of his coffin, and, for a few moments, devoted himself to earnest prayer. Upon arising he took an affectionate leave of the priest, expressing an earnest hope of salvation. The priest then retired, and the prisoner seated himself upon his coffin without hesitation, seeming completely resigned to his fate.
The provost-marshal now approached him, when his handcuffs were taken off and he rapidly divested himself of his blouse, deposited it at the head of his coffin, and, seating himself for the last time, held up his wrists to be again secured, without any apparent nervousness. The provost-marshal then placed a white handkerchief over his eyes, and, shaking him by the hand, bid him farewell. The prisoner returned the last earthly adieu with warmth, and then, turning his thoughts heavenward, devoted his last moments to prayer. The earnestness of his last appeal for Divine mercy was visible in the raising of his clasped hands, the motion of his head, and the swaying of his body.
The sergeant of the squad now gave the command "Ready — Aim — Fire !"and, simultaneously with the last word, the men discharged their pieces and the unfortunate man fell dead across his coffin without the quivering of a muscle. One musket of the twelve contained a blank cartridge.
Surgeon Voorhees then approached the body, and, upon examination, it was found that eight balls had entered it — three in the chest (at least one of which entered the heart), one in the left eye, one in each arm, and two in the stomach. When the surgeon reached him he was quite dead, the shot in the eye having caused instantaneous death.
The troops who were drawn up to witness the execution were now marched past the corpse, and the guards that had been posted to keep back the crowd being removed, all who desired to do so were permitted to approach the body. To the credit of humanity be it said but few availed themselves of the opportunity, and the large concourse of people present soon dispersed to their homes or quarters.
The body was soon after placed in the coffin by a squad of negroes in attendance for the purpose, and consigned to mother earth.
Abrahams enlisted from the city of Brooklyn, where he has left a widow and several small children to deplore his unhappy fate. He was apparently about thirty years of age."
-Battery F. First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery, In the Civil War
Philip S. Chase,
Providence: Snow & Farnham, Printers, 1892
This is a cross posting from New Kent County History.