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A blog of Nineteenth Century history, focusing, but not exclusively, on the American Civil War seen through the prism of personal accounts, newspaper stories, administrative records and global history.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Beloved Friends": The Execution of Henry A. Burnham

 We return to the desertion issues faced by the New Hampshire regiments and their new recruits in 1864. Namely the execution of one Henry A. Burnham at Point Lookout, Maryland. The below account consists in large measure of his "gallows' speech" . . .

May 9, at 8 a. m., Henry A. Burnham, of Company E, was shot to death as a deserter He had deserted twice, received two bounties and been a bad soldier generally.
But the end of our experience at Point Lookout was at hand. The last week of May, 1864, we left there by steamer to rejoin the Array of the Potomac, from which we had been separated since the latter part of July, 1863. On the 28th of May we were at Port Royal, Va., and on the 1st of June, just two years after our first pitched battle, we rejoined the First Brigade, First Division, Second Corps."
During the winter an occasional escape from the prisoners-of-war camp, and many desertions from the recruits in our regiments, served to render our officers alert and vigilant. Among these the desertion, capture, trial, and attempted second escape, sentence and execution of private Henry A.Burnham, Company E, Fifth Regiment, were noticeable. This soldier attempted to desert to the enemy, and had upon his person, when captured, evidence sufficient to convict him beyond doubt. He had a fair trial, was convicted and sentenced to be executed by shooting. At night he escaped from the guard-house with some fellow-prisoners and launched a boat, from near the colonel's quarters, into the bay This escape was discovered and they were arrested by the sentinels and returned to confinement. The affair produced much excitement throughout the encampment. The following account is taken from the "Hammond Gazette," issued at Point Lookout, May 18, 1864: —

On Monday morning, May 9th inst., at 8 o'clock, in accordance with General Orders No. 15, the troops of this command were marched to the open field opposite the grove, and formed three sides of a hollow square, to witness the execution of Henry A. Burnham, Company E, Fifth New Hampshire Volunteers. At twenty minutes of 8 o'clock the prisoner, escorted by a detachment of twelve men of the provost guard, arrived upon the ground. After taking a position he was asked by Lieutenant Hilliard if he had anything to say, when he expressed himself as follows: —
"My friends: — The time has come when I must die. I am willing to die and leave this world of sorrow. There is but one step between me and eternity, and I feel as if it were my duty to acknowledge that it is for a beloved country's good that I should die at the time appointed. I have forgiven all my friends in the Fifth New Hampshire Regiment. I have forgiven all who have ever done me wrong or injured me, and I hope to be forgiven bj' all to whom I have ever done an injury.
"Beloved friends, — I can address you as friends, for you have acted as such to me — it is necessary that we should all be prepared for death, since we must all die. I admit that I am a sinner. I have not acted manly to the government that I have defrauded, not only once, or twice, but many times, and I now feel that I have done a serious wrong. My advice to you is to do your duty to your country, faith-fully and well. Be true to the oath which you have taken, and you will feel better in your own heart. I do not see that in any other case you can do better. The only source of happiness in this world springs from doing your duty to your country and your God, and unless you serve them faithfully you cannot experience true enjoyment of mind. I would also say to you, that you have taken the oath to obey your superiors ; so have I, and I now know the advantage which would arise from that obedience. It is only since I received my sentence that I have realized the full enormity of my errors; you should do so whilst you have yet time. Furthermore, my advice to you in future is to attend to your duty as you owe it to yourselves and the country o defend her.
"I hope if there is any one here who may have any hard feelings towards me, that he will forgive me as I have forgiven every one who has ever done me an injury You can all better your country far more by obeying the laws which govern you, and it is the last hope and prayer of a dying man that you will endeavor to do so. There is but one step between me and eternity, and in my case it is a solemn thing. It is solemn and sad, indeed, to dear friends to stand by the bedside and watch the spirit of the dear friend they love taking its flight from the world; but if that be solemn, how much more solemn must it be to a dear friend of mine, to see me depart in such a way as this, with an offended law taking justice upon me. I die to-day, and it may be better that I should do so; as, although I may have wished that a little longer time had been extended to me to prepare for so awful a fate, still I may not be any better for it. I may be putting off repentance to the last moment, and then what would I have gained by the delay? I feel now as if I were prepared to die — as if I am prepared to meet my God. I have placed my whole trust in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who came into the world to save sinners. This has been the only subject of my reflections since the moment I received my sentence. I feel as if I could do a great deal of good for myself in this world, if I could only live, after the feelings which have taken possession of me within the last few days. But notwithstanding, I feel that it is for the beloved country's good, and I am satisfied. I cannot view it in any other light; it is necessary, and that is enough for me to know.
"Every man of you who has common sense must know that the state of things which has existed here, must be stopped. This rebellion must be put down, the country must be defended and the law upheld; and how is this to be done if desertion is not checked and discipline preserved in our army? I think the army is fighting in a good cause — the suppression of the rebellion; and if desertion is tolerated, it cannot succeed; it might as well be given up and all those who are true to their oaths, return home, having gained nothing by their exertions and zeal.
"I have, as I said before, forgiven every one who may have injured me; I have forgiven all the officers of the Fifth New Hampshire Regiment, as well as of all the regiments in the field, and I trust in God that they will endeavor to be as good as they can to the private soldiers. I suppose I am the first man who has been sentenced to pay the penalty of death on Point Lookout, Md., and I am satisfied to bear with it as an example. I have felt many times, since I received my sentence,that it would do the country a great deal of good by dying so — that I could do her more good in this way than by all the fighting I could do in the field, and I hope there is no one here who will doubt me. You do not better your condition by deserting; you may for a time succeed in escaping detection, but you have taken the oath before God and man that you will fight for the country, and it is a solemn and a very serious thing to break it.
"Dear friends, I hope that you will all come to Christ immediately; it is very wrong for you to delay; death is before you, and you do not know how soon it may come. I have enjoyed in my life all the earthly comforts which money could give on this earth ; but, after all, I was not happy, I was not contented, and no matter how badly he may have spent his life while on earth, when the time comes that he must die, he turns his heart to Christ for true happiness, and although I have lived a sinner, I want to die a Christian. Christ is willing to receive me even at the eleventh hour. I feel as if I were the greatest of sinners, but it is never too late to repent. Come to Christ immediately; the Christian's hope is great.
"Alas! my dear father and mother! How many hours have they wasted away in instructing me in the love which I owed to the Saviour! I forgot all their teachings; their hearts would be sad, indeed, to know the result of my waywardness. I never knew the worth of their teachings until within the last forty-eight hours. I feel it all now, the folly of my life, the reward of my neglect. Yes, it is true that order must be preserved amongst you. I say you, not myself, because I am about to die in a few, a very few minutes, and to appear before my God to answer my final account. That is a tribunal which is reserved for all, and from which none of us can escape, and I trust to Him for mercy. I have borne myself through this terrible ordeal as well as I could, perhaps as well as most men could, and I have been reconciled to my doom because it was one which I knew to be just, and because I threw myself upon Christ altogether in my hour of need, and I felt He would not forsake me. My last words then are, that you will do all in your power to procure for yourselves salvation. This world is nothing when compared with the world upon which I am about to enter. The trials, the sufferings of the just and righteous before God are easily borne with here. Be good Christians; obey the laws, and, when your hour comes, you can call upon Christ with confident hearts.
"My dear friends, I feel as if I could spend a much longer time speaking to you on this subject ; I could spend a whole day, but my time is come. I must say farewell to all. May you never meet so sad a fate. May you awake to the realization of the great truths of Christianity and reap the benefit of your devotion hereafter."

At the conclusion of his address he requested permission of the provost marshal to shake hands with the men who were detailed as the firing party, which was at once granted. He went through the ranks, accompanied by Lieutenant Hilliard, and clasped each man warmly by the hand. His step was firm to the last, and his voice clear and distinct. His memory seemed to catch inspiration from his position, as he did not forget even the most trivial matter which he wanted to settle. It compassed in that brief space the work which might, under ordinary circumstance, have taken years to accomplish.
Having bade farewell to his friends, the spot was pointed out to him where he was to stand, and he walked to it with great coolness, though exhibiting symptoms of confusion. He stood for a few seconds with his hands clasped in prayer, and when he had concluded he was requested to bend on one knee, which having done, the word was given to fire. One groan, alone, told that his troubles in this world were at an end — but two or three throes of the body, and all was still.
The deceased was a native of Vermont, was about twenty-eight years of age, had no family except brothers and sisters, to whom he sent his photograph with letters of condolence. His last words were,
"May God have mercy on me and receive my spirit."

-A history of the Fifth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers, in the American Civil War, 1861-1865
William Child, M.D., Major and Surgeon
Historian of the Veterans' Association of the Regiment.

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