A Tale for Halloween

Posted on October 31, 2008 by


Among the many stories that I gathered while conducting research for my thesis, there was one that caught my attention for more than one reason. I used a portion of the story for my thesis, as it was useful in documenting the activities of Confederate conscript hunters. The part that I did not use is more suitable for an evening by a crackling fire at a hearthside, especially on a dark Halloween night… or just as a post on days like today.

In early April 1927, Jacob H. Coffman, a former resident of Page County, Virginia, wrote the Luray newspaper (Page News & Courier) about something that had been with him since the Civil War. He began

Now I wish to tell of just three men out of many that were at that time deserting the Southern Army, some making their way North while some were hiding in or around home. All of these three had been apprehended and taken back to camp by the conscript officers and court-martialed and sentenced to be shot in ten days.

The first I will mention was William Parks, of Pine Grove, a quiet and peaceful citizen, but he was possessed with a slight deficiency in his bodily make-up, a thing over which he had no control, but it served to win him a pardon. He served to the end of the war and later died of a natural death.

We have next Andrew Knight, of the Mountain district near Mauck. He was a brother of Jacob, George and Jack Knight. I do not think he sought a reprieve but took a chance in the dead hour of night and got behind the tent of the guard house and slipped through a wagon train parked just back of it. He made for dear life for such it proved to be to him. He made his way to Media, not far from Philadelphia, where he worked on a farm until after the war, when he came back home and took his family back with him, where he stayed until the death of his wife, after which he came back to Page county and later on went to Baltimore, where he married the widow of Jas. Knight, but died about two years later.

And now the last and worse case is that of William Pence, who lived with his wife on the Pike, a mile West of Stanley. She was Rebecca Short, a daughter of the late ‘Dickey’ Short, by his first wife. They were law-abiding people. When the officers came to take him, she would not let them in the house, but they forced an entrance and the wife became so enraged that she hit one of the officers over the head with a frying pan.

He told her for that act she would be sorry as long as she lived. They then went away taking Pence with them and he, with the other two was booked to pay the penalty. Immediately influential citizens went to work to bring about his reprieve, but to no avail and up to the last hour before his execution took place, dispatches and couriers were running at top speed to save his life, but Jeff Davis would not interfere.

As much as I hate to interject in the middle of Coffman’s story, as a responsible historian, I did some research into this matter and found that Pence was actually one of seven men from Co. H (Page Grays), 33rd Virginia Infantry (Stonewall Brigade) sentenced to death during the winter of 1862-63. In addition to the seven, there were eleven others from the Page Grays sentenced to various other punishments including the laying on of between 25 to 39 lashes across a bare back. Four of the men were sentenced to death, but escaped on technicalities – the courts-martial recorder having improperly maintained a complete record of the courts. Gabrill L. Price, Andrew J. Knight (mentioned above in Coffman’s story) and William Pence were not as fortunate.

Realizing that executing so many men from the same company might prove detrimental to the discipline of the company, brigade commander, General E.F. Paxton, intervened. Paxton wrote General Jackson and suggested that the men be permitted to draw lots leaving only one to be executed. Not one for leniency, Jackson made remarks on the letter and forwarded the document to General Robert E. Lee. Lee, in turn, made his recommendation. The decision for drawing lots was found acceptable. Straws were drawn and the unlucky man of the lot was William Pence. The thirty-one year-old laborer from Leakesville was to face a firing squad on February 28, 1863.

As a witness to the execution, map-maker Jedediah Hotchkiss recollected that the condemned man “wept bitterly, wishing to see his family.”

Mager William Steele, of the 48th Virginia Infantry, provided even more details in his account of the day. After the entire division had formed near the site of the execution in a deep hollow near Camp Winder “the condemned man leaning on the arms of two chaplains” was brought into view. “We went up to the stake playing the Dead March… when we got to the place the men that were carrying the coffin put it down by the side of the stake and the condemned man sat upon it leaning against the stake. The preachers sang and prayed and then shook hands with him.” When asked for his last statements, Pence said he wished to see his brother, but request was not honored. Again, the condemned Page man was asked for a last statement to which he replied, “No, nothing.”

Coffman, in his version, wrote

My brother, the last James H. Coffman, was an eye-witness to this sad affair and this is his version. Pence was taken out in a field and set on his coffin, back of which a stake had been driven, his hands tied back of him and to the stake and while the band played that old familiar hymn, ‘Oporto,’ found in the old Harmonia Sacra, beginning with ‘Come Hither Ye Faithful,’ etc.; twenty men were drawn up in line, some twenty steps off and each man was handed a gun, ten supposed loaded and the other ten primed only, so in this way it might be known, who shot him.

According to Steele, when the order to fire was given, Pence “threw up his hands and fell over. He did not speak after he was shot, he gasped for breath twice. His last words were ‘O what will my poor wife do…”

It was just weeks since William and Rebecca’s seventh wedding anniversary.

Coffman continued

A shallow grave was dug and they buried him, notifying his relatives. And now comes another sad part of the story:

Henry Pence, a full brother, who was at that time in charge at the Gibbons Mills, now the Willow Grove Mills, South of Luray, together with Frank Short, a half brother of Rebecca Pence, went with a two-horse wagon and brought the body home. I went to see him after he was laid out and he had a very peaceful look. The late T.M. Offenbacker, cut a bullet out of his wrist and it may have been found among some of his effects after his death.

And now comes a part of this story that some have felt inclined to doubt, but we have it from the mouth of two witnesses, the way the truth is supposed to be proven, for both Pence and Short vouched for the story. They said on the way home with the body as they came to the foot of the Ridge, on the Madison side, night came upon them, and as it was raining very hard, they pulled aside, unhooked the horses and after giving them hay, they lay down under the wagons, not for a bed, but to keep out of the rain and just as all was quiet, the voice of a man was heard singing directly over the wagon and little higher than the tops of the trees and continued to sing until the break of day. As they began to hook up, the singing ceased. They said it was beautiful, but only one hymn, and it sounded very much like Pence, the dead man.

Mrs. Pence said that her prayer was that all three of the men that had a hand in bringing about her husband’s death, might be killed before the war ended. Now I knew all three of the men she held responsible, and the one, a captain, was soon shot in the forehead and killed instantly; the next one, a lieutenant, was shot in the throat and killed instantly; the third man, also a lieutenant, was shot through the lung and lingered a while, but died; thus, Mrs. Pence claims to have had her prayer answered. She afterwards married Wm. Flemmings, of Leaksville, where both lived for many years and passed on.

Not too scary, but an interesting “ghostly tale” regarding the transportation of Pence’s body home, Captain Michael Shulereh? However… that isn’t exactly where the story ends. You see, Mrs. Pence’s prayers of revenge may have been answered, if you really believe that her prayers resulted in the deaths of the three officers involved. Yet, among the officers was one of my third great granduncles, Captain Michael Shuler and one of my distant first cousins, Lt. Oliver Hazard Perry Kite. Shuler was killed “instantly” at the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Kite was seriously wounded in the chest on May 10, 1864, and died on the one-year anniversary of Shuler’ death, May 5, 1866.