An execution… a ghost’s last hymn… and a curse fulfilled(?)

Posted on October 31, 2010 by


As I’ve mentioned several times in my postings throughout the month, October brings to mind stories of witches and ghosts, but one ghost story captures my thinking frequently throughout the month. I suppose, one can almost say that it literally “haunts” me. The story actually developed over time, with each piece of information I uncovered in my research. I didn’t dedicate any great length of time to the research, but was able to find a few items of interest when I did dedicate time… and I also found some items of interest when I wasn’t looking.

It’s difficult to capture visual imagery that complements the series of events, but I do believe, despite my criticisms of the movie, that one section of Gods and Generals comes close. In fact, when I first viewed the movie, during that one particular section, all I could think about was this story.

So, as for this story…

Despite being part of a series of victories in 1862, the “Page Grays” of Co. H, 33rd Virginia Infantry, had seen their fair share of desertions (not, by any means, that the “Grays” were slackersas the company also saw more than its fair share of casualties in some of the hottest contests of the war… and was regularly designated the color company for the regiment, quite possibly an honor bestowed upon the company for their part in taking the guns at First Manassas). While in winter quarters, and during the high tide of courts-martial in Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps, those desertions caught-up with the company, and more than a few charges were brought to courts-martial. Seven men were sentenced to death, while eleven others were sentenced to a wide array of punishments, including the laying-on of 25-39 lashes across a bare back. Four of those sentenced to death were fortunate enough to evade execution because of technicalities; specifically, the courts-martial recorder had improperly maintained a complete record of the courts. In the end, however, Gabriel L. Price , Andrew J. Knight [note 1], and William Pence were not among the luckiest men. I have the good fortune of knowing more about Pence’s story than that of the other two.

Pence had actually deserted at Elk Run [in the vicinity of Conrad’s Store] on April 20, 1862, as Jackson was gearing-up for the best days of his 1862 Valley Campaign; but didn’t show-up again in the muster rolls until December 21, 1862, when he was recorded as having “joined from desertion”… and, by the way, the “joined” part is not indicative of a voluntary event. Also, Pence had just “enlisted” on April 5… so his quick desertion seems to reflect another story altogether, regarding enlistments immediately following the enforcement of the first Confederate Conscription Act… but that will be a story for another time, perhaps.

On a local level, Pence’s story was documented in April 1927, when Jacob H. Coffman wrote about the events surrounding his capture by conscript/deserter hunters:

Clearly, Rebecca Pence was not like the Southern woman portrayed in this image, refusing to let her male relative into her home because he had deserted his unit.

Pence… 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.

Gen. Elisha Franklin "Bull" Paxton

Despite the sentence, Stonewall Brigade commander, Gen. E.F. Paxton, intervened. It may be that Paxton’s actions were the result of appeals made by, as Coffman put it, “influential citizens” of Page County, who “went to work to bring about his reprieve”. Paxton did note that with all three of these men being from the same company and county, the execution of the three might bear some undesirable implications in discipline and morale in the “Grays”. In lieu of the execution of all three, Paxton recommended that the men be allowed to draw lots, leaving only one to be executed. Not one for leniency in these matters, Jackson did not endorse the idea on the routing slip, and forwarded the paperwork to Gen. Robert E. Lee, who, in turn, agreed to Paxton’s recommendation.

Lots were drawn by the three men… and Pence became the unluckiest of the unlucky three. On February 28, 1863, the execution was carried out… and documented by some who watched.

Map-maker Jedediah Hotchkiss wrote simply that “A deserter from the 1st Brigade was shot today, and one escaped yesterday” [though I also recall finding, somewhere, that Hotchkiss remembered that Pence “wept bitterly, wishing to see his family”].

Mager William Steele, of the 48th Virginia Infantry documented a good deal more. 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. Steele wrote:

… 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.

It so happens that Jacob Coffman’s brother, James H. Coffman (remember the story about the desertion of the Coffman brothers?), was also among the men who witnessed the execution. Coffman recalled the story of the incident, as remembered by his brother:

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.

When asked for his last statements, Pence asked to see his brother; a request that was not honored.

... but, in all three accounts, there was no mention of a blindfold.

Again, Pence was asked for a last statement, to which he replied, “No, nothing.” 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 three weeks since William’s seventh wedding anniversary.

Jacob Coffman continued:

A shallow grave was dug and they buried him, notifying his relatives… 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.

So, in the end, we not only have a sad story surrounding an execution, but also a ghost story… and was there also the hope of a curse fulfilled?

Coffman also remembered…

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.

Were Rebecca Pence’s prayers really… curses?

Capt. Michael Shuler (image from his headstone)

Among the three indicated officers who met death, we have… one of my third great grand-uncles, Captain Michael Shuler… and one of my distant first cousins, Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry Kite. Shuler was killed “instantly” (and, yes, I believe he may have been shot in the forehead) at the Wilderness on May 5, 1864. Kite was seriously wounded in the chest on May 10, 1864, and “lingered”… dying on the one-year anniversary of Shuler’ death, May 5, 1866. As for the other lieutenant, who was shot in the throat and killed instantly… I can’t seem to pinpoint who this may have been.

Ghosts and curses? What do you think?




Note 1. Knight later deserted again, with B.F. Price; both were taken as POWs in Pennsylvania in July 1864, and sent to Washington, D.C. Jacob H. Coffman wrote about Knight in 1927:

A Confederate deserter entering Federal lines.

Andrew Knight, [was] 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.