137th Ohio soldier writes about hanging of Rebel spy

After writing that he hoped the regiment would account itself well and not show the white feather if called upon, he continued with an account of a public execution: I believe I wrote to you or Belle about a scaffold being erected on the parade ground of the fort, for the purpose of hanging a rebel spy. I supposed it would turn a hoax as everything of the kind generally does but it turned out to be a painful reality. Early last Monday morning we were all awakened by one of the boys coming in, and saying if we wanted to see a man hung to hurry and get up. I was amongst the first to get out and see the circus as the boys called it… He describes the prisoner being led from his cell in irons, a guard fainting, and so forth. The last words he uttered was in prayer, but so indistinct as not to be understood. He died very easy, a slight quiver of the knees was all that was perceptible. He hung thirty minutes, and was let down in to his coffin. Yesterday he was buried in the middle of the path that leads to the swimming place. He got his just desserts.

Excerpted from Cowan’s Auction

Sgt. Charles A. Willard Papers, 1864. 137th Ohio Infantry, Co. E,

Sgt. Charles A. Willard Papers, 1864. 137th Ohio Infantry, Co. E,

Full description:

A 100 day regiment raised in Hamilton County, the 137th Ohio Infantry served its brief time in the service (May-August, 1864) in and near Baltimore, standing guard at Fort McHenry and other sites. Their time in Maryland, however, coincided with the brutal summer campaigns in Virginia, and was accompanied by a steady stream of foreboding news from the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg filtering in through the newspapers and rumor mill.

Writing to a brother serving with Sherman near Atlanta, Willard wrote a great many seem to think that our regt is laying here, having a good time and doing nothing, but it is a mistake. We are as capable of doing garrison duty as a veteran regiment and we relieved the NY 8th Arty numbering 1800 men who has done some of the most brilliant fighting in Grants campaign. I would not be surprised if we had a little skirmishing before we left here. It is reported the rebels have crossed the Potomac and are within 50 miles of this place, all of the guns of this fort are loaded with shell, and turned on Baltimore for the purpose of shelling it, if the rebels gets possession. I however apprehend no danger (July 8, 1864).

After writing that he hoped the regiment would account itself well and not show the white feather if called upon, he continued with an account of a public execution: I believe I wrote to you or Belle about a scaffold being erected on the parade ground of the fort, for the purpose of hanging a rebel spy. I supposed it would turn a hoax as everything of the kind generally does but it turned out to be a painful reality. Early last Monday morning we were all awakened by one of the boys coming in, and saying if we wanted to see a man hung to hurry and get up. I was amongst the first to get out and see the circus as the boys called it… He describes the prisoner being led from his cell in irons, a guard fainting, and so forth. The last words he uttered was in prayer, but so indistinct as not to be understood. He died very easy, a slight quiver of the knees was all that was perceptible. He hung thirty minutes, and was let down in to his coffin. Yesterday he was buried in the middle of the path that leads to the swimming place. He got his just desserts.

Although the regiment saw no action to speak of, Willard seemed effected by the locals and the threat of a Confederate raid while the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia slammed against one another.  The excitement caused by the raid increases rather than diminishes, and the boys seem to delight in manufacturing rumors for the purpose of frightening the timid ones…. Baltimore is an awful secesh hole, and if Uncle Sam had none of his nephews, or any of his property here, I should like to hear of it sharing the same fate as did Sodom & Gomorah of old(July 10, 1863). Rumors continued for days about the course of events in Virginia and their effect in Maryland.  In and around Baltimore is a scene of considerable excitement, Willard wrote. The report reached our ears this morning, that Genl. Wallace had been defeated, and was retreating on the city, no less than 20,000 men has passed this post within the last 36 hours to reinforce Wallace. Martial law has been proclaimed in Baltimore, boats have stopped running, citizens, niggers, and horses are pressed into the service, and the greatest excitement prevails, but not so in Ft. McHenry. The boys are as high spirited and as full of dry jokes and wit as if nothing was going on outside of the walls…

As Willard’s time was running out, with nary a shot fired in anger, he learned that his brother Orson (probably of the 1st Illinois Light Artillery) had been wounded near Atlanta.  I never was so shocked, or taken by surprise, as I was when I heard the dreadful news. I hope and pray for the best, but I fear the worst…

The final ten letters in the collection post-date Willard’s time in the service (one more was written prior to service) and were written from Cincinnati, where Willard worked for a jeweler and hoped to return to normalcy. Interestingly, he was among those called to the draft in September 1864, paying for a substitute rather than going himself. In October, he complained of not being able to get his situation settled.  I cannot get a peep at Col. Jones, let alone speaking to him. Only about 15 men out of 445 that was drafted have reported, the balance have skedaddled. My name was the second on the list, after it fell t my lot to get drafted I am very glad that I got out of it honorably. I am not ashamed to look a man in the face. I do not feel like as if I had been caught in a sheep pen, with a pocket full of strings. In November, he wrote to complain about a fellow draftee who sold out his interest in his rope making shop and lit out for Canada, presumably until the end of the war.

The documents in the collection include Willard’s appointment as 4th Sergeant, a discharge and certificate of mustering out, and a printed certificate of thanks signed (in facsimile) by Abraham Lincoln and Edward M. Stanton. A 1907 document regarding his pension, and a document associated with the time, ca 1907, when Willard was evidently elected a councilman in Delaware County, Indiana.

Records of 100 day regimental service are scarce and getting scarcer. Though less glamorous than the battle-scarred three year regiments, they are a distinctive part of the Civil War scene and all the more important to document because of their ephemeral nature.

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