March 31, 1865: Execution of Private James Preble, 12th New York Cavalry, for the crime of rape

The April 7, 1865 edition of the New York Tribune carried, among other news from Goldsborough, North Carolina, an account of the execution in the Federal camp on March 31, 1865:

A most imposing military execution has just taken place about half a mile in front of the field works, fronting the Provisional Division, and running almost parallel with Little River stream.

The condemned, James Preble, of the 12th New York Cavalry, was executed for a rape committed on an aged woman on the 16th inst., in the vicinity of Kinston.

The whole of the Provisional Division of Schofield’s command was paraded together with the arrangements for the execution, under the command of Col. Claassen of the 132d New York Volunteers.

The division arrived on the ground at precisely one o’clock, and was formed in two ranks in three sides of a square, the rear rank ten paces in rear of the front rank, which came to an about face when the unfortunate condemned one was paraded through the ranks.

At about twenty minutes to three o’clock, the procession which attended the unfortunate man who was soon to be summarily summoned into presence of his Maker, made its appearance at the following order: A detachment of the 132d New York and 17th Mass. Vols., under command of Capt. Keenan, Acting Provost-Marshal, four men carrying a coffin, an ambulance containing the condemned man and his two spiritual advisers, the Rev. H.M. Bacon, Chaplain of the 63d Indiana, and the Rev. Mr. Dodd, Chaplain of the 25th Mass.  Upon arriving on the ground the unfortunate man was taken from the ambulance and escorted in mournful procession with Drum Corps playing the dead march through the ranks forming the three sides of the square.

James Preble did not appear to be more than 20 years of age, and about six feet in height; his appearance in no way gave indication of the brutality which would be naturally supposed to characterize the appearance of one proved to have been guilty of so heinous an offense. He marched with a remarkably steady step all the way round the square, and but seldom raised his eyes from the ground.

In the center of the space in the open side of the square, Preble’s grave was dug, and on arriving at it, after marching around the square, the procession halted, and the proceedings and sentence of his court-martial, together with the order for his execution, was read by the Provost-Marshal, after which he knelt down by his coffin, with the chaplains in attendance, and prayed for about five minutes, when his eyes were bandaged with a white handkerchief, and the firing party, consisting of 12 men from the 132d New York and 17th Pennsylvania, were formed in line about twelve paces in front of him.  At precisely five minutes past three the order to “make ready, aim, and fire,” was delivered in a clear, audible tone by the Acting Provost-Marshal, and the unfortunate man fell down dead, pierced through the breast. He was immediately examined by the Provost-Marshal and the Surgeon in attendance and pronounced dead.  The whole division then marched past the corpse, which was placed on top of the coffin, by columns of companies, and filed back to their quarters.  This will doubtless prove, as it is intended it should, a warning to evil disposed and reckless men, and they well know that acts of barbarity will not be tolerated in an army whose purpose is to restore law and order.

Among all the remarks made by the thousands of men present as spectators of the terrible scene, your correspondent failed to hear a single remark but what approved of the punishment inflicted on Preble.  So jealous are the men composing this army of their reputation, that I actually hear many of them express a desire to be of the firing party.

That last line is worth rolling around.  Major-General William T. Sherman is often figuratively tarred and feathered for his liberal foraging policies.  And certainly those policies opened situations where soldiers could push the limits of convention.  But at the same time, these men did not want to return home in shame for such deeds… particularly given the honor and glory hard won on the battlefield.

Driving Dixie Down: A flooded Yadkin River delays Stoneman’s advance, March 30-April 2, 1865

Allow me to briefly outline the movements of Major-General George Stoneman’s raiders as they moved from Wilkesborough up to the North Carolina-Virginia state line from March 30 to April 2, 1865.  In the last post on this thread, I closed with the capture of Wilkesborough on March 29.  Stoneman’s command moved up to that point in two columns, with Colonel William Palmer moving north of the Yadkin River while Stoneman and the rest of Brigadier-General Alvan Gillem’s division moved south of the river. One of Palmer’s three regiments, the 12th Ohio Cavalry, entered Wlkesborough on the evening of March 29.  The other two regiments remained on the north side opposite the town.  This setup a dangerous position for Stoneman, with a portion of his command isolated from the rest.

March 30 brought rains.  According to observes in Charleston South Carolina, the season’s last Nor’easter ran up the coast.  I don’t know if that storm directly caused the rains which fell on Stoneman, as satellite imagery was a bit slim during those days.  But we might at least say that the precipitation, be that from what ever weather event one might conceive, once again worked to limit Federal operations that spring.


The 12th Ohio rejoined the rest of Palmer’s brigade north of Wilkesborough that morning (depicted on my map by a dashed line).  But the rising waters of the Yadkin prevented the rest of Stoneman’s forces from crossing.  At that moment, Stoneman’s dispositions were terrible.  One brigade isolated from the rest of the command and an unfordable river at his back.  But after spending most of the morning in a foul mood, Stoneman settled comfortably with the knowledge that no organized Confederate force was anywhere close.  So March 30th was spent doing what soldiers often have to do – attempting to stay dry.

On the 31st the river continued impassable,” recorded Gillem.  Stoneman had the command move east, but still waited on the Yadkin to fall.  While waiting, the Federals fanned out on both sides of the river searching for forage, horses, and anything worth plundering.  The trailing brigade, Colonel John Miller, caught up with the main force east of Wilkesborough that day.  Meanwhile on the north side of the river, Palmer reached Roaring Creek to find it also in flood stage.

The waters subsided somewhat on April 1.  Palmer’s brigade moved to the milling community of Elkin and continued their heavy foraging.  Stoneman ordered the main column forward toward Jonesville on the south side of the river.  But the Yadkin remained too swift and deep for a crossing. Not until the next day did the waters fall to a point that a crossing could be effected.

Finally across the Yadkin, Stoneman united his command and made a dash for the Virginia state line on April 2.  His plan was to recross the Blue Ridge near the border and then re-enter the New River Valley to reach his assigned objectives.  The main line of march was from Jonesville, through Dobson, up to Mount Airy.  In addition to that movement, a portion of Palmer’s brigade advanced to Rockford.  This was a feint aimed at causing pause for any Confederates pursuing the column.  Otherwise, all of Stoneman’s horses rode north that day.

As the lead elements of Palmer’s brigade entered Mount Airy that evening, word came of a Confederate wagon train having left the town earlier in the afternoon.  Gillem directed Palmer send a force to catch the Confederates.  “An officer of the Fifteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry had charge of the pursuing party, and after reaching the top of the Blue Ridge halted until the remainder of the command came up the next morning.”  Thus the vanguard of Stoneman’s force camped that evening in Virginia that evening and on the Blue Ridge.

From a larger context, Stoneman’s movements were having an effect on Confederate dispositions.  In Bristol, on the Tennessee-Virginia border, Confederate forces held as  Brigadier-General Davis Tillson’s infantry appeared to threaten that position.


To General P.G.T. Beauregard went the task of forming an opposition to Stoneman.  The first order of business, given reports of Federal activity at Lenoir, was to protect the North Piedmond Railroad which formed the backbone of the Confederate position at that time.  Urgency increased as reports came in regarding Stoneman’s movements from Wilkesborough and the raid into Rockford.  Beauregard pulled together what forces were available to form a series of defenses from Chester, South Carolina up to Danville, Virginia.

Another broad context to consider, thinking of the situation that existed on April 2, 1865, was what happened at Danville and to the east of that point.  Though he didn’t know it, Stoneman was threatening the Confederate retreat from Richmond.  But with his eyes on the Blue Ridge, some 4,000 cavalry troopers, and his orders in hand, Stoneman was not prepared to make any moves against Danville.

But that does not stop historians from pestering us with “what could have been” scenarios.   For what it is worth, Stoneman lost three days’ march distance on the Yadkin.  It is reasonable to say had that river not flooded at that time, Stoneman would have been well into Virginia.  But he would have been near Christiansburg, perhaps threatening Lynchburg, at that time, and not anywhere across the line of retreat from Richmond-Petersburg.  Stoneman was following orders, not seeking opportunities unknown to him at that moment.

Following Stoneman’s Raid by markers, for this leg there are stops at Roaring River, Elkin, Jonesville, Dobson, and Mt. Airy.  In addition, let me direct you to The Stoneman Gazette. On that blog Tom Layton is touching upon the many stories associated with the raid, particularly those of the civilians caught up in the middle.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 49, Part I, Serial 103, page 331.)

March 30, 1865: “There is a profound feeling about Charleston…” Henry Ward Beecher excited about raising the flag at Fort Sumter

On March 30, 1865, abolitionist leader Henry War Beecher and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton exchanged telegrams.  Beecher, as mentioned earlier, was selected as the guest of honor at the ceremony to raise the surrender flag at Fort Sumter, scheduled for April 14.

Beecher sent a pair of telegrams starting around mid-day:

There is a profound feeling about Charleston celebration.  It grows daily. It is a grand national event. Many eminent men desire to see this great occurrence of their lives. Could not a passenger steamer under direction of Collector Draper be allowed to go?

Then later Beecher, having not heard from Stanton, pressed the matter again:

Have received no word.  I am at a loss to know what arrangements to make and for what date. Can I take some of my family? A.A. Low, president of New York Chamber of Commerce, wishes to go with his wife.  He is one of our first citizens, and early and late energetic for Union, with hand, heart, and purse.

Stanton, with a full slate of business in his office, did not respond until well into the evening:

In conference with General Anderson final arrangements for the celebration of Fort Sumter were concluded yesterday.

First. The Steamer Arago will sail with General Anderson and yourself from New York on Friday, the 7th of April.

Second. Your family can accompany you.

Third. Tickets for you and for them will be forwarded by mail to-day.

Fourth. Mr. Low and his wife can accompany you, and tickets for them will be sent with yours.

Fifth. I expect to join you at Fortress Monroe if it be possible to leave here.

Sixth. The arrangements and ceremonies will be directed by General Gillmore.

I will write you more at length.

Interesting the exchange.  Not so much for the details, but the effort evident by the relating of those details.  These two men were living minute by hour by day at a time which you and I read about in the books.  Certainly they expected great things to occur over the weeks following this exchange.  Their focus was on a celebration … a very proper and visible celebration … of victory and achievement.   Had Stanton or Beecher been asked to predict what we’d be anticipating for our sesquicentennial observances between April 7th or April 14th, 2015, they likely would have mentioned the Fort Sumter flag raising.

Between April 7 and 14, 1865, several events would turn, making that week one of the most important in American history.  Events that would overshadow the “grand national event” planned at Fort Sumter.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 59.)