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.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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

  1. Had never seen an account of execution for this crime. Very interesting, especially considering this punishment came in Sherman’s army. Good point that these were mostly honorable men who did now want shameful actions tarnishing their reputations and victories.

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