The Army of the Potomac: Execution of Deserters, 1863
The image of the deserter shot at dawn is one of the commonest in popular representations of the First World War. From Michael Morpurgo to Elvis Costello to Downton Abbey, the figure of the hapless victim of the military machine has been a potent symbol of the cruelty of war.
So linked is this trope to representations of the Great War that we might sometimes forget that such executions were common in other wars, too.
Stephen Spielberg included such an execution (a German one) in his Great War War Horse. In Lincoln, however, he shows the opposite. Warm humane Abe (and yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is very good indeed in the part) is going through his despatches and refuses to endorse the execution of a boy-soldier. He says something like: ‘I’m not in the business of shooting sixteen-year-olds for being frightened.’ Abe is thus established as a caring commander. We are never told what the boy’s punishment was commuted to. (Hard labour, maybe – or sometimes in that war deserters were branded with a ‘D’.)
What struck me while watching the film that there is a scene you never see in Great War literature or cinema – Douglas Haig refusing to endorse a sentence (though he rejected about 90% of the requests for endorsement that came to him.)
I’m not sure how many deserters were executed during the American Civil War. The South, I gather, shot more of their own soldiers, because they had a constant problem of men sloping off back to their farms, especially when the war was going badly.
The North too had its executions, though I gather that Lincoln, like Haig, did try to limit these. When they happened they could be very public affairs. Click on the picture above for a larger version, and you’ll see an execution designed as a spectacle. It’s in September 1863, and what looks like the entire Fifth Corps has been gathered to watch the exemplary execution of five unfortunate men. The drawing is by Alfred Waud, a noted war artist, who also wrote this article explaining and describing the execution: