150 years ago: The Execution of Private Elisha Clark

On this day (December 19) in 1863, Confederate troops on James Island assembled at Freer’s Store, located at a crossroads north of Secessionville, to witness the execution of Private Elisha Clark, convicted of desertion.  The journal kept at department headquarters in Charleston recorded:

A sergeant and 10 men were detailed from Company H, and 6 men from Company K, Palmetto Battalion Light Artillery, as a firing party to execute the deserter, Elisha Clark, of Company D, Palmetto Battalion Light Artillery.  He was shot on James Island at meridian.

Desertion was a problem in both armies around Charleston.  But Clark’s offense was a little more involved than just simple desertion.

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According to his service records, Clark enlisted in Company D at Charleston on November 14, 1861. He received pay on December 31 of that year.  But by May 1862 he was absent from his unit, “in Charleston jail, under sentence for desertion.”

A court martial in April 1862 stripped Clark of his pay.  Furthermore, he spent three months in Fort Sumter “kept at hard labor with a ball weighing twenty-four pounds with a chain six feet in length attached to his left leg.”  While not working, Clark was held in solitary confinement.  However, eventually he returned to his unit.

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At least in the eyes of some observers, tried to make good.  A letter to Chief of Staff (above), Brigadier-General Thomas Jordan, from some officers of the battalion, appealing to have his pay reinstated, indicated good behavior through November 1862:

Private Clark served out his sentence in Fort Sumter, and was returned to his Corps on the 28th July last, since which time he has been a quiet, orderly and obedient soldier, doing his duty promptly, cheerfully and to the satisfaction of his officers.

The recommendation noted Clark had received only his fifty dollar bounty and one months pay ($13.20) up to that time in his service.  The letter carried some weight.  Clark received pay in December 1862.

But Clark was not completely reformed.  Starting on February 1, 1863, rolls listed him as absent without leave.

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By summer, Clark was back in jail.  According to the proceedings of his trial, he was found in the ranks of Company G, 54th Georgia Infantry, while serving on James Island at Secessionville on August 18, 1863.  And Clark got there going the long way around.

Earlier that year on January 31, Clark received permission to visit Charleston. But he did not return later that day as expected.  Instead he went to Savannah where he enlisted in the 54th regiment on March 24, under the name William Baxter, as a substitute for Sergeant Thomas J. Rich.  For this, Clark received $2000.  (Rich later served in the 12th Georgia Cavalry.)  Clark, by circumstances of war, ended up where his trip started – on James Island.

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According to the records, Clark pleaded guilty on three charges – desertion and two counts of conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.  On December 3, 1863, the court accepted his plea and sentenced him to be executed.  The execution took place, as mentioned above, on December 19, by order of Brigadier-General Johnson Hagood.

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Clark was twice a deserter.  But he had demonstrated some rehabilitation in between.  And, after all, Clark had returned to the ranks.  Not like he had went over to Federal lines or gone into hiding.  Perhaps it was that $2000 that weighed most on his fate.  The Confederate Army could ill afford to have troops jumping from unit to unit looking for bounties.

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