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History of military executions.

While many executioners remain anonymous, there have been several noteworthy ones. For example, Master Sergeant John C. Woods conducted many of the hangings in Europe (including those of Nazi war criminals) during and after World War II. And Lieutenant Charles Rexroad performed most of the Pacific Theater hangings (including those of Japanese war criminals). Both of these men had several assistants. In addition, Soldiers from military police security units at various prisons served on firing squads at disciplinary training centers in Europe; and on occasion, the commanders of the disciplinary training centers--namely Major Mortimer Christian (Seine Disciplinary Training Center, Paris, France), and Lieutenant Colonel Henry L. Peck (Loire Disciplinary Training Center, Le Mans, France)--actually performed hangman duties. Contract hangmen were even hired to perform executions in England, Australia, and New Guinea. The presence of a chaplain--who is designated by the commandant of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) or provided at the request of the prisoner--is authorized at executions. (1)

As far back as the Revolutionary War, capital punishment has been the most severe form of punishment that could be administered by a court-martial. Even then, strict safeguards were established to prevent the abuse of power by the courts. All death warrants were required to be signed by General George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army. He signed the first of these warrants on 28 June 1776; the after-order states:

      Thomas Hickey, belonging to the Generals Guard, having been
   convicted by a general court martial whereof [Colonel] Parsons was
   president, of the crimes of 'sedition and mutiny, and also of
   holding a treacherous correspondence with the enemy, for the most
   horrid and detestable purposes,' is sentenced to suffer death. The
   general approves the sentence, and orders that he be hanged
   tomorrow at eleven o'clock.

      ... All the officers and men off duty belonging to [General]
   Heath's, Spencer's, Lord Stirling's and General Scott's brigades to
   be under arms, on their respective parades, at ten o'clock tomorrow
   morning to march from thence to the ground between [General]
   Spencer's and Lord Stirling's encampments, to attend the execution
   of the above sentence.

      The provost marshal immediately to make the necessary preparations
   and to attend on that duty tomorrow.

      Each of the brigade majors to furnish the provost marshal with
   twenty men from each brigade, with good arms and bayonets, as a
   guard on the prisoner to, and at the place of, execution. (2)

Later, all death warrants were required to be approved by the President, and the provost marshal was tasked with administering the punishment. The methods used for execution were hanging and musketry. Captain William Marony, the first provost marshal, deserted in order to avoid executing a prisoner; and another, Captain William Hutton, was court-martialed for allowing a condemned man to escape. (3) The estimated number of executions carried out by the Continental Army ranges from 40 to 100.

During the War of 1812, executions (usually by firing squads consisting of line troops), were reserved mainly for deserters--especially repeat offenders or bounty jumpers (men who enlisted only to receive the bounty and then deserted so that they could enlist for another bounty elsewhere). According to John S. Hare's article entitled "Military Punishments in the War of 1812," 205 executions were carried out from 1812 to 1815, with three-fourths of those taking place in 1814, when the Army became much larger and military officials were determined to crack down on desertion. (4) Reprieves were sometimes granted; and occasionally, that information was not relayed to the condemned man until all the formalities of a regular execution had been followed up to the point of the command to fire, which was then withheld and the reprieve read. Notifying the prisoner of his reprieve in this manner was apparently designed to bring home the seriousness of his offense.

A chaplain who was called upon to witness an execution related his experience in detail. He states, "Prompted by feelings of pity, I called ... to see him in prison. There, chained by the leg to the beam of the guardhouse, he was reading the Bible, trying to prepare himself, as he said, for the fatal hour." (5) The narrative goes on to follow the prisoner through the entire execution routine until the pronouncement of death.

About 50 American Service members were hanged or shot during the Mexican War. A large number of these executions occurred as a result of General Orders 259 and 263, which established two courts-martial for 72 deserters. Most of these men were Irish immigrants who had left the U.S. Army to serve in the San Patricio (Saint Patrick's) Battalion in Mexico. General Winfield Scott issued the orders. Colonel John Garland convened the first court-martial on 23 August 1847 in Tacubaya, Mexico. Colonel Bennet Riley, an Irish Catholic officer, convened the second court-martial on 26 August 1847, in San Angel, Mexico. Only two of the 72 defendants avoided the death sentence; one was excused due to improper enlistment in the Army and the other because he was deemed insane. However, General Scott was troubled by the sweep of guilty verdicts. He knew that the Irish-born Catholic deserters had allegedly felt mistreated in the Army and that they had witnessed atrocities against their fellow Catholics, the Mexicans. He did not want to alienate the Mexican public, who by now considered the deserters national heroes. In addition, he did not want to encourage insurgency among the Mexican people, thereby weakening the pacification program that was in progress. Therefore, he felt the need to confirm the trials and sentences. He concluded that some of the men did not deserve such severe punishment, and he sat up nights attempting to come up with excuses to avoid the universal application of capital punishment. In the end, General Scott approved the death penalty for 50 of the deserters, but later pardoned five of these and reduced the sentences of 15 others, including the ringleader, Sergeant John Riley. This left 30 men slated for execution--16 of whom were hanged on 10 September 1847 and four of whom were hanged the following day. The rest were assigned to Colonel William Harney for execution at a later date. (6)

More Soldiers were executed during the American Civil War (1861-1865) than during all other American wars combined. About 500 men from the North and the South were hanged or shot during the 4-year conflict--two-thirds of them for desertion. The "Articles of War for the Government of the Armies of the Confederate States" (commonly known as the "Confederate Articles of War") specified that "All officers and Soldiers who have received pay, or have been duly enlisted in the services of the Confederate States, and shall be convicted of having deserted the same, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as, by sentence of a court-martial, shall be inflicted." (7) The "General Orders of the War Department Embracing the Years 1861, 1862, and 1863" directed that those men convicted of desertion were "to be shot to death with musketry, at such time and place as the commanding general may direct." (8)

Several members of the U.S. Army were executed during the Philippine-American War. One enlisted man serving in the Philippines was executed for murder during the year ending 30 June 1901. Another three were executed for murder during the year ending 30 June 1902. Two more (Private Edmond Dubose and Private Lewis Russell, 9th Cavalry Regiment) were executed on 7 February 1902 for desertion and joining the enemy. (9) Private William Taylor, 24th Infantry, was executed for shooting an officer.

The Houston Riot of 1917 (also known as the Camp Logan Mutiny) involved 156 Soldiers of the all-black 3d Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment--a unit of the famed Buffalo Soldiers. The riot was caused when Corporal Charles W. Baltimore, a black military police Soldier, approached two Houston, Texas, police officers to question the brutal apprehension of a 24th Infantry Regiment Soldier and was attacked by one of the officers, pistol-whipped, and fired at when he tried to escape. Although Baltimore was severely injured and jailed, word got back to camp that he had been killed. In retaliation, Soldiers of the 24th armed themselves and--on the hot, rainy night of 23 August 1917--initiated a 2-hour gun fight with civilians in Houston. Four Soldiers and 15 white civilians were killed during the incident, making this the only race riot in U.S. history in which more whites than blacks were killed. The incident also resulted in the largest murder trial and the largest court-martial in U.S. history. Nineteen of the accused rioters were sentenced to death by hanging, and 63 received life sentences. Ironically, Corporal Baltimore was among the first group hanged.

During World War I, 36 U.S. Army Soldiers were executed--all by hanging--from 5 November 1917 to 20 June 1919. Eleven of these hangings were conducted in France; the remaining 25 were carried out in the United States.

The only commissioned officer to be executed was hanged in the Philippines on 18 March 1926. Second Lieutenant John S. Thompson, who was stationed at Fort McKinley, near Manila, had shot and killed his 18-year-old fiance from Memphis, Tennessee, almost a year earlier. Thompson was the first American officer ever convicted of a murder charge by court-martial in peacetime and ordered to forfeit his life. Thompson's remains were returned to New York for burial by his family.

The U.S. military executed 160 Service members from 1942 to 1961 (not including prisoners of war, war criminals, or saboteurs executed by military authorities from 1942 to 1951); 106 of these were put to death for murder (including 21 involving rape), 53 for rape, and one (Private Eddie Slovik) for desertion. Of the 160 executions, 157 were carried out by the U.S. Army. The three remaining executions--one in 1950 and two in 1954--were conducted by the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. Navy has not executed anyone since 1849.

A total of 10 military executions (all by hanging) have been conducted by the U.S. Army under the provisions of the original Title 10, U.S. Code, Chapter 47 (10 USC 47), "Uniform Code of Military Justice," of 5 May 1950. The first four of these executions were carried out at the Kansas State Penitentiary near Lansing, Kansas; the remaining six were conducted at the USDB, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The last U.S. military execution conducted was the 13 April 1961 hanging of Army Private First Class John A. Bennett for the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old Austrian girl. The execution was carried out 4 years after it was approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The death penalty is still a possible punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Male U.S. military death row inmates are housed at the USDB. There are presently six inmates on death row at the USDB--the most recent addition being Nadal Hasan, who fatally shot 13 people and injured more than 30 others in a mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, on 5 November 2009. Although all previous USDB executions have involved hanging, lethal injection has been designated as the current method to be used for military executions.

Approval for the execution of Army Private Ronald A. Gray, who has been on death row since 1988, was granted by President George W. Bush on 28 July 2008. Gray--who was convicted of a rape, two murders, and an attempted murder of three women (two of them Army Soldiers and the third a civilian taxi driver whose body was found at Fort Bragg, North Carolina)--was scheduled to be executed on 10 December 2008. On 26 November 2008, a federal judge issued a stay of execution. (10) On 26 January 2012, the Army Court of Criminal Appeals denied relief in Gray's case. Gray's lawyers plan to appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.


(1) Army Regulation (AR) 190-55, U.S. Army Corrections System: Procedures for Military Executions, 23 July 2010.

(2) John C. Fitzpatrick, editor, The Writings of George Washington From the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, <>, accessed on 4 June 2014.

(3) Patrick V. Garland, "In the Beginning," Military Police, Spring 2011.

(4) John S. Hare, "Military Punishments in the War of 1812," The Journal of the American Military Institute, Vol. 4, No. 4, Winter, 1940, pp. 225-239.

(5) George Baker Anderson, "History of Greenbush, New York," Landmarks of Rensselaer County, D. Mason and Company, Publishers, Syracuse, New York, 1897.

(6) Pam Nordstrom, "San Patricio Battalion," Texas State Historical Association, < /online/articles/qis01>, accessed on 10 June 2014.

(7) "Articles of War for the Government of the Armies of the Confederate States," Evans and Cogswell, Charleston, 1861.

(8) "General Orders of the War Department Embracing the Years 1861, 1862, and 1863," Derby and Miller, New York, 1864.

(9) "The Battles of the Philippine American War," 22 November 2013, < -philippine-american-war.html>, accessed on 10 June 2014.

(10) "Ronald Adrin Gray," Murderpedia, <http://www>, accessed on 12 June 2014.


Thomas W. Cutrer, "Military Executions During the Civil War," Encyclopedia Virginia, 5 April 2011, <http://www _war#start_entry>, accessed on 10 June 2014.

10 USC 47, Uniform Code of Military Justice.

By Master Sergeant Patrick V. Garland (Retired)

Master Sergeant Garland retired from the U.S. Army in 1974. During his military career, he served in military police units and criminal investigation detachments and laboratories. At the time of his retirement, Master Sergeant Garland was serving as a ballistics evidence specialist at the European Laboratory. He remained in this career field until retiring from civilian law enforcement in 1995.
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Author:Garland, Patrick V.
Publication:Military Police
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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