Execution of Bushwhackers

On the 29th wit. A.J. Copeland, James H. Rowden, John Norwood and William Carey suffered the extreme penalty of the law for murder and the violation of the civilized rules of warfare. These men were tried by a military commission and found guilty of the above names crimes.

In April here, in company with twenty or more accomplices, they murdered eight Federal soldiers of the 1st Ark. Cav., who were herding horses near Fayetteville, Ark. They approached our men dressed in the uniform of U.S. soldiers, and pretending to belong to the 14th Kans. Cav., completely throwing them off their guard. That point gained, they suddenly and without a moment's warning fired upon them, and killing eight out of ten.

A Union citizen, named John Brown, was also killed by the miscreants at his own house about the same time.

When the sentence of death was first read to the culprits, they first seemed to be indifferent, one of them remarking with an air of bravado, "Well, all right." As the time of their execution drew near, however, they began somewhat to realize their awful situation, and requested the services of a spiritual adviser, and Rev. Francis Springer assumed that duty.

During the ministrations of several weeks of this reverend gentleman, they showed symptoms of considerable contrition, thought at first they seemed to be aware of scarce any consciousness of the awfulness of their crimes, which they had committed. They began to feel that they had been in their previous career the enemies of God and man, and confessed that they had been "pretty bad boys." So callous and hardened were they at first that what they had done, they considered as first rate, too.

The condemned were all very young men, their average age not exceeding nineteen years.

Carey, the youngest, was a most desperate case, and gave his spiritual adviser a partial history of his wicked career. He is said to have killed twenty-one men. . They had all been once in the confederate army, but at the time of their capture were levying war upon their own hook, that so had become outlaws.

Early in the morning of their last day on earth the prisoners were visited by the chaplain, and impressive religious [illegible] were held. Soon after the close of this interview the irons were taken off the culprits. They were then brought forth from the prison and placed in the custody of the guard detailed for the occasion. In a few moments more they were in the wagons each one seated on his coffin. Chaplain Springer was with two of the condemned in the first wagon, and Chaplains Wilson and McAfee with the other two in the second wagon.

The solemn procession was then formed, the Provost Marshal of the District, Capt. C.O. Judson, 6th Kans. Cav., with his staff, taking the lead. Then came the music and the firing party, consisting of 64 men of the 13th Kans. Inft., the two wagons with the culprits and chaplains, and lastly the guard. A large number of citizens and soldiers lined the streets through which the procession moved.

The unfortunate but guilty man evidently tried to be firm and composed on the march, except Norwood, who repeatedly gave signs of grief by weeping and inaudible prayer. The expression of their countenances, in spite of endeavors to be self-possessed, was that of sadness and despair.

On reaching the place of execution south of town and just outside of the rifle pits, the prisoners were arraigned in a line, each one by the side of his coffin. Three sides of a hollow square of infantry had previous been formed to keep the multitude of the spectators at a proper distance, leaving the side next to the prisoners open.

The Judge Advocate of the District, Lieut. Whicher, then read to them the charges and findings of the military commission, after which the condemned kneeled down with the chaplains, and Rev. Mr. Springer offered a short and appropriate prayer. At the conclusion of it, the officers and others about the condemned shook hands with them and, bidding them a final farewell, retired except the Judge Advocate who remained til their eyes were bandaged and hands tied. By this time all of the unfortunate men showed signs of intense mental distress. Carey and Copeland prayed audibly and with great force. Norwood started a hymn, and was still singing in a low voice when the death volley sent his soul into eternity. Carey, on shaking hands with the Judge Advocate, remarked, "Judge, I hope to meet you in Heaven." At length, as the preparations were completed, and in another moment or two forty-eight muskets were pointed at the culprits. One moment more and at the simultaneous discharge of the forty-eight guns, four lifeless bodies lay stretched on the ground.

The whole terrible scene, from beginning to end, was conducted with the propriety due to a transaction so awful but to the detail entrusted with the fatal shooting a special word is due. The entire detail, consisting of sixty-four men of the 13th Kans. Inf., was commanded by Capt. Frankhouse. Forty-eight were in line about twenty-five feet from the doomed men. One half of the guns were charged with ball and the other half with blank cartridges. The remaining sixteen men were held as a reserve in case of failure in the first discharge, but the volley of forty-eight guns was simultaneous and complete. Death ensued almost instantaneously — no lingering agony remained to torture the doomed and distress the beholders. The most painful reflection awakened by the sad ceremony was that selfish, faithless, and traitorous citizens should have stirred up a strife that precipitates into the vortex of crime, ignominy and ruin so many of the young men of our once peaceful, prosperous and happy country.

This account of the execution of four bushwhackers originally was published in the Aug. 6, 1864 edition of the Fort Smith New Era. Although the name of its author was not given in the New Era, the Rev. Francis Springer wrote the account under the name Thrifton, according to The Preacher's Tale: The Civil War Journal of Rev. Francis Springer, Chaplain, U.S. Army of the Frontier, by Francis Springer; ed. William Furry. A copy of the account in Springer's hand signed "Thrifton" was with his journal. Letters from each of the condemned men to their families, three of which also were written in his hand, were found among his papers. Presumably, Springer took dictation from them. For another version of the execution from Springer and text of the letters, prefer to The Preacher's Tale.