Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stand your ground, circa 1864

Point Lookout, Md. The prison camp is at upper right, with the tents of the enlisted guard members outside the fence.
At about 5 p.m. on March 20, 1864, Lt. Joseph H. Wilkinson of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers heard that more Confederate prisoners had just reached the Union prison camp at Point Lookout, Md. They had arrived by boat from Baltimore, and it was Wilkinson’s job as the commissary officer to make sure they were fed.

Wilkinson found the prisoners standing in small groups. He made his count and turned to leave, but he hadn't gone far when some of the prisoners began to squabble about a debt. Wilkinson saw a prisoner swearing and waving a greenback. The man said he would be damned if he would accept a bill with Abraham Lincoln’s likeness on it.

5th New Hampshire officers at the prison. Gus Sanborn is top row, right. 
Wilkinson considered berating the prisoner about his crude language and behavior but decided the man was too out of control. He headed back to his quarters. Before he got there, he heard a pistol shot. He fetched the officer of the day. Together they found the man who had been cursing and carrying on lying dead on the ground.

The dead man was a prisoner named Peyton, probably Lawrence Peyton. The record wobbles on whether he was a captain or a private. Although he had claimed to have an officer's commission, he was probably a private in the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry.

The trouble that led to Peyton's death lasted less than 10 minutes. It began as Peyton walked arm-in-arm in the stockade at Point Lookout with Lt. H.B. Dunlap, a fellow prisoner. Dunlap saw a guard passing and suggested to Peyton that they ask him for whiskey. The guard turned them down, but Peyton wouldn't take no for an answer. Dunlap, who had seen Peyton drinking during the boat passage from Baltimore, later speculated that Peyton’s bravado came out of the bottle.

Peyton bantered with the Yankee sergeant, first suggesting that he was too high-minded and then asking whether the white or the black soldiers at the prison camp made better guards. The sergeant laughed and said probably the Negroes. “Yes, I suppose the Negroes are superior,” Peyton said sarcastically.

The sergeant told him to stop talking to him that way. Peyton said he’d talk to him any way he wanted, He began cursing. The sergeant reached for his pistol. “Goddamn you, shoot,” Peyton shouted. The sergeant said he would if Peyton didn’t “dry up.”

When the sergeant pointed the pistol at Peyton, Dunlap stepped between them and begged him to hold his fire. Dunlap tried to drag Peyton away, but Peyton stood his ground and said: “If he wants to shoot, let him shoot.” The sergeant drew the pistol again. Six feet away, Peyton bared his chest. The sergeant pulled the trigger.

Capt. Gus Sanborn
Gus Sanborn of Franklin, a newly minted Fifth New Hampshire captain, was staff officer of the day. He heard the gunshot and saw a sergeant approaching. “Captain,” the man said, “I have shot a man while in the line of my duty.” Sanborn ran to investigate.

Standing near Peyton’s body, Dunlap told Sanborn the shooting had occurred because Peyton said the black soldiers on guard were superior to the sergeant. He said Peyton was shaking his fist in the sergeant's face.

The prison surgeon, James H. Thompson, examined Peyton’s body at around 8 p.m. and found a bullet hole in this chest. The slug had hit him in the sternum and passed through his heart and aorta before lodging just under the skin in his back.

Edwin Young, a 23-year-old sergeant from the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers, had fired the fatal shot. He told his story in a straightforward manner, placing his fate in the hands of his superiors at Point Lookout and higher echelons of the Union army in Washington.

The 2nd, 5th and 12th New Hampshire regiments had all been mauled at Gettysburg eight months earlier. After a trip back to Concord, they were sent to Point Lookout, a prison camp built for 10,000 men. In part because the Union-Confederate prisoner exchange stalled, the POW population at Point Lookout swelled to 20,000. During the two years of the prison’s existence, 4,000 Confederate prisoners died there.

Young, the shooter, was from Westmoreland, N.H. He had enlisted in the 2nd at the start of the war and risen through the ranks as the regiment fought at Bull Run, on the Peninsula, at Bull Run again, then at Gettysburg. Young had been wounded at Second Bull Run.

The shooting at Point Lookout clouded his future, but apparently he believed honesty gave him the best chance with the military justice system.

Col. Charles E. Hapgood of Amherst, N.H.
A fact-finding board, not a court-martial commission, heard the case. Its leader was Col. Charles E. Hapgood, commander of the 5th New Hampshire. The other two members were Maj. Samuel P. Sayles of Young’s own regiment and Lt. Hosea Q. Sargent of the 12th New Hampshire.

Addressing this board three days after the killing, Young said he had been in charge of two contingents of prisoners at Point Lookout for six months and had always been kind to them. “I never have treated anyone with undue harshness or taken advantage of their situation as prisoners,” he said.

On March 20, he had just finished installing a stove in a prisoner tent when two Confederate officers approached him and said: “You look like a damned old whiskey head. Can’t you get us some whiskey?”

He told them he was a teetotaler and whiskey was forbidden in the camp. One of them – Peyton, it turned out – said: “Do not make a Goddamn fool of yourself here, you fanatic philanthropist, or you will go to heaven. . . . We have got greenbacks, and you will get it for us.” Young refused.

During the exchange about the black troops at Point Lookout, Peyton said that the Yankees had learned all they ever knew from Negroes. He gestured toward a black soldier walking the guard fence. He asked where Young was from, and when Young told him New Hampshire, Peyton responded that this made him a fit subject to associate with Negroes.

Young said he tried in vain to silence Peyton. When even Peyton’s comrade couldn’t quiet him and Peyton began shaking his fist in Young’s face and calling him a coward, Young told him to stop or he would shoot. Peyton threw open his coat and dared Young to fire. “I cocked my revolver and fired,” Young said. He left immediately to report the shooting, first to Sanborn and then to Gen. Gilman Marston, the camp commander who had been the 2nd New Hampshire’s first colonel.

Details of the shooting reached Washington within 10 days. They were received with strong opinions – on both sides.

William Hoffman had been a POW.
William Hoffman was the 57-year-old commissary-general of prisoners and had been at West Point with Robert E. Lee in the class of 1829. When the war began, Hoffman had been stationed in San Antonio. Texas secessionists arrested him and imprisoned him for 16 months. Whether this experience influenced the opinion he submitted to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton is hard to know, but here is what he wrote:

“The circumstances as shown by the proceeding of the board of officers fully justify the act of Sergeant Young. While in the execution of his office he was grossly insulted and defied by a prisoner of war, and it was only after this was persisted in without provocation that he was compelled to vindicate himself and the position he held in a manner which resulted so seriously to the offender.”

Gen. Edwin R.S. Canby reached the opposite conclusion. “In the relation that existed between the sergeant and the prisoner,” he wrote, “the killing was, in my judgment, entirely unjustifiable. The sergeant should be put on trial for murder.”

Gen. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, a Vermonter who headed the commission overseeing the prisoner exchange, waffled. Though unsure Young was criminally liable, he called for a court-martial.

What came of this recommendation is hard to know. Gen. Benjamin Butler huffed that he should have been informed of the incident earlier. He and other higher-ups also worried about possible retaliation against Union captives if word of the shooting spread. But the Official Records contain no evidence that I could find that Young was court-martialed.

His service record in Ayling’s Register of New Hampshire soldiers is silent on this question. It lists Young as having served his full three-year enlistment and mustered out shortly after the battle of Cold Harbor in June 1864, three months after the shooting.

What made Sgt. Young pull the trigger? Was it just hatred for the enemy built up during years of bloody battles? Or did race-baiting play a role? Did Young feel truly threatened by a drunken loudmouth prisoner, or did Peyton’s remarks about white guards being inferior to black lead to his extreme reaction?

We may never know. 

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