A SHORT time before we left Shelbyville I was a participant in one of the most solemn, and at the same time one of the most dramatic, scenes of my whole life.
I was requested one day by General Polk to visit two men who were sentenced to be shot within a few days for desertion. One of them belonged to the Nineteenth Tennessee Regiment and the other to the Eighth Tennessee. The former was a man forty-seven years of age, the latter not more than twenty-three.
I cannot describe the feelings which oppressed me on my first visit in compliance with the General's request. I urged upon both men, with all the powers of my persuasion, an attention to the interests of their souls. The younger man was, I believe, really in earnest in endeavouring to prepare for death, but the other seemed to have no realizing sense of his condition. I found that the younger man had a Cumberland Presbyterian minister for a Chaplain for whom I sent and who would minister to him.
I called upon Governor Harris and begged him to see the judges of the Court and find if there was any possibility of having the men pardoned. I never begged so hard for anything in my life as for the lives of these men. I had a special sympathy for the older man, for he had deserted to visit his wife and children. However, the day came for their execution.
The Cumberland Presbyterian Chaplain baptized the man belonging to his regiment. I remained in town the night preceding the day appointed for the execution, and from eight o'clock to nine, the Cumberland Presbyterian Chaplain and myself engaged in prayer privately in behalf of the condemned men.
At seven in the morning I gave them the most comfortable Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood. Both prisoners seemed deeply and profoundly penitent and to be very much in earnest in preparing for death. The room in which they were confined was a very mean and uncleanly one. Half the window was boarded up, and the light struggled through the dirt that begrimed the other half. But the Sacrament Itself and the thought that the prisoners would so soon be in Eternity, made it all very solemn. The prisoners made an effort to give themselves up to God, and seemed to feel that this was the occasion for bidding farewell to earth and earthly things. I pronounced the benediction, placing my hand upon the head of each, and commending them to the mercy of God.
At eight o'clock, the older man, to whom I was to minister in his last moments, was taken from his cell, ironed hand and feet. He was placed in an ambulance, surrounded by a guard, and we started for the brigade of Colonel Strahl, seven miles out of town. On reaching Strahl's headquarters, the prisoner was placed in a room and closely guarded until the hour fixed for his execution, - one o'clock, - should arrive. A squad of twenty-four men was marched into the yard, and stacking arms, was marched off in order that the guns might be loaded by an officer, - one half with blank cartridges.
Leaving headquarter preceded by a wagon bearing the prisoner's coffin and followed by the squad which was to do the execution, we arrived on the ground precisely at one o'clock. The brigade was drawn up on three sides of a square. Colonel Strahl and his staff; Captain Stanford; Major Jack, General Polk's Adjutant; and Captain Spence of General Polk's staff, rode forward with me. A grave had been dug. The coffin was placed beside the grave, the prisoner was seated on it and I took my place by his side. Captain Johnston, Colonel Strahl's Adjutant, advanced and read the sentence of the Court and the approval of the General. The prisoner was then informed that if he wished to make any remarks, he had now an opportunity. He requested me to cut off a lock of his hair and preserve it for his wife. He then stood up and said: "I am about to die. I hope I am going to a better world. I trust that one and all of my companions will take warning by my fate."
He seated himself on his coffin again and I began the Psalm: "Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord," and after that the "Comfortable words." We then knelt down together, and I said the Confession from the Communion Office. Then I turned to the office for the Visitation of Prisoners, and used the prayer beginning, "O Father of Mercies and God of all Comfort," and so on down to the benediction, "Unto God's gracious mercy and protection I commit you." I then shook hands with him and said: "Be a man! It will soon be over!"
The firing squad was in position, the guns were cocked, the order had been given to "take aim," when Major Jack rode forward and read "Special Order, No. 132," the purport of which was that since the sentence of the Court-martial and order for the execution of the prisoner, facts and circumstances with regard to the history and character of the man had come to the knowledge of the Lieutenant-General Commanding which in his judgment palliated the offence of desertion of which the man had been condemned and warranted a suspension of his execution. The sentence of death was therefore annulled, and the man was pardoned and ordered to report to his regiment for duty.
The poor fellow did not understand it at first, but when the truth burst upon him, he exclaimed: "Thank God! thank God!" and the tears streamed down his face. The whole scene was most impressive, and was calculated to have a good effect upon all who were present. The other prisoner was executed at high noon in another locality.