AT an early hour on the morning of the 8th of April the Second landed at Yorktown, marched up through the little town, and went into camp on the plain outside the encircling fortifications. The post was under command of General Wistar, with a garrison consisting of the One Hundred and Forty-eighth New York and a brigade of colored troops. On the 11th the Twelfth New Hampshire came down from Point Lookout, one of the colored regiments being sent up to take their place.
The regiment was hardly in camp before the bounty jumpers began to jump. Within three days over a hundred men deserted from the Second. But very few got clear away. Some made their way toward the rebel lines, but the greater part struck down the Peninsula toward Fort Monroe, and were gathered in like rats in a bag. At Point Lookout they had been reasonably sure of escape if they could but once get outside the camp limits; but here the conditions were reversed their troubles commenced where they had formerly ended. The old men cursed each successive squad as they were brought in, and felt more homesick than ever.
It was a military necessity that an example should be made of some of these, and a court martial was convened for the trial of the most flagrant cases. John Egin, of Company A, was tried on the 12th, found guilty, and sentenced to be shot to death between the hours of 5 and 6 p.m. on the 13th. Egin was picked up while making his way toward the rebel lines by a Union scout in rebel uniform. Preparations were made for carrying out the sentence. The Second marched to the place selected for the execution, and Egin was on his way when a reprieve arrived and arrested the proceedings. Egin threw his cap in the air and danced for joy. He probably thought the whole affair was only "a bluff." But his reprieve was only temporary. On the 15th he rode forth again, seated upon his coffin, this time with a comrade in misery and to his death. His companion was from Company F, and had enlisted under the name of Henry Holt; but the night before his death he divulged that his name was McGuire, and that he was from Yorkshire, England, where he had a wife and two children.
The place of execution was about a mile below the fort, upon the bluff overlooking the river. The regulation formalities and arrangements for a military execution were fully observed. The condemned men's own regiment was drawn up in line, with unloaded muskets, facing the spot where the deserters were to die. A section of artillery was upon the left of the regiment, trained to rake it. The One Hundred and Forty-eighth New York, in line to its rear, and two colored regiments on the right, all with loaded muskets, hedged the Second round about. No words can tell how keenly the proud old men of the proud old Second felt the disgrace of the position.
The condemned men rode to the spot seated upon their coffins, and accompanied by a priest. The carts stopped directly in front of the Second, where the men alighted, and their coffins were placed upon the ground, end to end, a few rods from the edge of the river bluff. The provost marshal read the findings of the court and the sentence, when the firing party of twelve men advanced and took position a few feet in front of the coffins. The prisoners removed their coats, and knelt upon the grass while the priest performed the holy offices of the church. Arising, they shook hands with the provost marshal and the priest. Their eyes were bandaged and their wrists tied with white handkerchiefs. Then they were led to and seated upon their coffins, facing the executioners. The marshal raised his hand, and his men brought their pieces to a "ready ;" again, and the guns sprang to the shoulder; a third time, and the volley rang out. Two or three bullets were heard singing out over the river, and Egin and Holt fell back across their coffins. After a short time the bodies were examined by surgeons, who declared life extinct, when all the troops were filed past the bodies and back to their camps.
But vengeance was not yet satisfied. James Scott, of Company G, and Owen McDonald, of Company K, had been picked up by the gunboat "Mystic," while paddling up Chesapeake Bay in a small boat, outside the Union lines. From memoranda found on their persons relative to the military preparations at Yorktown, it appeared that they were prepared to furnish valuable information to the enemy. They were tried for desertion, found guilty, and paid the penalty upon the plain in front of Fort Magruder, at Williamsburg, on the 29th of April.
These drastic measures had a most salutary effect, the desertions by wholesale being immediately checked. Fred Phisterer, sometime Adjutant General of New York, states in his statistical record that twelve men who were soldiers were executed by sentence of court martial during the war. If his figures are correct, the Second Regiment certainly furnished an undue proportion of this disgraceful roll.
-A history of the Second regiment, New Hampshire volunteer infantry, in the war of the rebellion
Martin A. Haynes
Lakeport, New Hampshire 1896