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-Kent Courthouse; Petersburg, Virginia, June 20, 1864
On June 20, 1864, William Johnson, a black Sergeant in the Union Army, was hanged by the neck for desertion and insulting a white woman in Petersburg, Virginia. The gallows were erected in plain view of Confederate soldiers who were preparing to defend Richmond from a Union invasion. The distance from the gallows, along with the white wrap placed on Johnson¶s head prevented Confederate troops from knowing his true identity. Thinking the Union was hanging a Confederate spy to ³serve as an example,´ the Confederate unit unleashed a bombardment of artillery shells, wounding several Union soldiers and killing Sgt. Maj. G.F. Polley, the Union unit¶s commander. After the bombardment, a Union Private carried a flag of truce to the center of the battlefield and announced that the man being hanged was not a Confederate spy, but the black deserter, Johnson. As Richmond burned, black soldiers from the Confederate army were marched past the rotting corpse of William Johnson as a method to dissuade them from deserting their Units and fleeing to the North.
J.A.P. I. They Call Him a Negro. A Man This will end up an advantage for the Confederates, but not a Union soul paid attention. They are stationed along the front lines, Petersburg, Virginia. Dustbowl. Rickety gallows. Temporary. He was a sergeant. Co. E, Seventh Connecticut Volunteers and his letters number twenty-eight. ³I am optimistic. There doesn¶t seem to be any doubt as to the final outcome of the pending engagement.´ He discussed the health of the troops. The store of the army. Gave business advice. Love for his daughters. He was the suggestion of a fighting man, pen in hand, the mighty weapon. His single resolve: Tell the story. Tell the story. July 27, 1862: ³Red pepper is one of the best things in this climate that a man can use as it tends to keep off fever.´ He will not write of his own misfortunes. Not of specific deaths he caused or witnessed. Not the Diarrhea Blue Pills, musket backfires, or bayonet charges.
He is but a man. They called him a negro. A man.
II. The execution left something to be desired. And yet there he hangs for the world and Richmond to see. While on the run from the Connecticut Volunteers, he disgraced a woman. A white woman. At least that¶s what they said. Quite a bleak view, being a negro in Virginia, no matter your coat color. The real coat color is underneath. The Union doesn¶t believe in volunteering, and so they strung him up, gave his neck a tug, but no prayer, no reassurance that his body would reach his family. No promise that his daughters would touch his face again. He was no southern spy. Just a negro. A coward, company-deserting, raping negro. Or so they said.
III. A Confederate Soldier Witnesses the Hanging They¶re stringin¶ up a spy along their front lines. All nine of them catching shade beneath a dogwood while he swings. They¶re making an example of him.
So much for habeas corpus. So much for the glory of the Union. This war can¶t be brother against brother. A brother would never hang his kin. And although that face is at a distance, covered, their company is militant, not willing to have a heart and carry him in chains a bit.
IV. A Case of Mistaken Identity In the south they know what the gallows do. They know what the gallows mean. And so while the Union company erects the wooden structure in brazen view of Confederate lines, a Confederate captain is offended. Know of Richmond¶s falling. Orders an artillery bombardment. Made the Union company their target audience. Assumed the gallows were for a spy. Showed little restraint. True valor. They were southern gentlemen. Better to throw artillery at the Union than let it fall out of Confederate hands. Better to lob clods of dirt at a train than remain silent. Let the North hang what the South assumed was a southern man. And so one artillery shell strikes Sgt. Maj. G.F. Polley, Union leader, barking orders. Tore him to pieces, set the very earth around him ablaze, stained the gallows red. So a tattered
blue cloth that was his jacket sticks to the boot of a private marching, front-line-bound with a flag of truce, waving with a proclamation that this man was no southern man²this was only a negro, hanged for desertion and insulting a white woman. And so the µfeds ceased fire. Set camp. Set chairs. Grounded muskets. Spit snuff. Saw him hanged. They hail: ³what a sight!´ Yankees hanging a negro. But this was a bad example.
V. The Confederate Company Marches Their Slave-Soldiers Past Johnson¶s Body They¶re a Southern regiment, a battalion of men of color, and men of no color. Marching by. So for the Union this hanging was altogether unsatisfactory. The rebels, who squabbled and drove home the problem of desertion, used this. The punishment. ³Those darkies love to flee, sure as they¶re born.´ And when the lines broke and the Union turned to Richmond, William Johnson was left to rot in the June sun. Wind howling. A pendulum of Northern resolve, feet barely dangling above the ground. The µfeds marched their black slave-soldiers past the gallows, past the pendulum as Richmond burned. ³Yankees hang all their µcontrabands.¶´ And so for weeks the nocturnal escapes of black soldiers, grown so common, ceased.
VI. He Anticipated Victory His final letter mentioned a bombardment of Charleston, like a thousand Fourth of Julys each day and night. His final letter anticipated victory, him home, daughters in his arms. But when he was hanged, the creak of splintered wood kept the tempo of a hundred black rebel soldiers. They made an example of him, but it was not the example for which they planned. Over the horizon, Richmond burned, but he hung, his own burn from the rope. Choking. And his own burn from the rebel negros¶ eyes.
Bibliography ³1864: William Johnson, A Bad Example.´ Executed Today.com. 20 May 2010. ³Petersburg, Virginia (vicinity). Hanged body of William Johnson, a Negro soldier.´ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. American Memory, 1864. 20 May 2010. ³Petersburg, Va., vicinity. The execution of William Johnson, Jordan's farm.´ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. American Memory, 1864. 22 May 2010. ³The Fall of Richmond, Virginia.´ Civil War Preservation Trust. <http://www.civilwar.org>. 22 May 2010. ³William H. Johnson Civil War Letters.´ University of South Carolina Library. <http://www.sc.edu/library/socar/uscs/1995/whjohn95.html> 20 May 2010.