On this day in 1864, at nine o’clock in the morning, William Henry Johnson was hanged outside the Union trenches encircling Petersburg. A Baltimore native and a private in Company E, 23rd Regiment, United States Colored Troops, Johnson was accused of desertion and, according to a Harper’s Weekly report, of attempting “to commit an outrage on a white woman at Cold Harbor.”* In order to build a gallows, the troops needed to call a short truce with nearby Confederates, and Union officers invited two sets of cameramen—from the competing firms of Alexander Gardner and Mathew Brady—to record the event.
The sterograph above was photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan (who worked for Gardner). (So was this.) Below is one of Brady’s photographs and an engraving of it that accompanied the Harper’s article, published July 9, 1864.
General Marsena Patrick, the provost marshal of the Army of the Potomac, ordered the hanging, and that day recorded a description of the event.
The Execution came off this morning. I went out, early, & examined the gallows, with other arrangements & then went back for the troops & prisoner—They arrived, just after a shelling commenced, upon the very place where the gallows were erected so that I had to form the troops below the crest & leave as few exposed as possible—The Chaplain prayed with him; he acknowledged that he was a deserter, that he had changed his name & committed the crime charged upon him—The rope was adjusted the bandages placed over his eyes & the drop fell—He never knew anything after. A shell killed the Sergt. Major of a Mass. Regt. just at the time.
One supposes that the Union officer inspecting Johnson’s body in the Brady photograph is General Patrick. And according to William A. Frassanito in Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864–1865 (1983), the dead sergeant major was George F. Polley of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry. Just that morning a bored Polley had carved his name and the words “killed June—, 1864” into a board before cutting it up to make a fire for his coffee. His regiment, meanwhile, was on a three-year enlistment that was about to expire.
* The 23rd Regiment of USCT had not one, but two William Henry Johnsons. The other one died a little more than a month later at the Battle of the Crater.