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Our holdings include hundreds of glass and film negatives/transparencies that we've scanned ourselves; in addition, many other photos on this site were extracted from reference images (high-resolution tiffs) in the Library of Congress research archive. (To query the database click here.) They are adjusted, restored and reworked by your webmaster in accordance with his aesthetic sensibilities before being downsized and turned into the jpegs you see here. All of these images (including "derivative works") are protected by copyright laws of the United States and other jurisdictions and may not be sold, reproduced or otherwise used for commercial purposes without permission.

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[REV 25-NOV-2014]

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Hanged: 1864

Hanged: 1864

June 20, 1864. Petersburg, Virginia (vicinity) "The execution of Sergeant William Johnson, Negro soldier, at Jordan's farm. Hanged for Desertion and an Attempt to Outrage the Person of a Young Lady at the New-Kent Courthouse." (Supposedly he insulted a white woman and was made an example of to other soldiers who might be considering desertion; the outcome was not what the Federal Army had hoped for.) Wet plate glass negative by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. View full size.

On Shorpy:
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Sgt. Major Polley

Once again thanks to William Frassanito. The confederates fired artillery in retaliation for artillery fire from Union Battery 5 north of the gallows. The Sgt. Major had playfully carved a headboard for himself in the morning of the day he was killed. He put his name and the words "Killed June 1864" on it. He had re enlisted and was getting a commission. He was struck in the abdomen by a shell. His friends looked for the headboard he had carved but found the Sgt. Major had built a fire with it to make coffee.

Re: Haunting & Disturbing

Although 19thCenturyGirl's point is well made, we should consider that if it were not for documenting such events from America's history, the totality of that history - its great moments and its sad moments - would not be archived so completely and we would be the poorer for it. Look at the faces of the men there who most likely witnessed Sergeant Johnson's death. They know the enormity of what they had seen. And before I slide my preacher's stepstool back behind the door, remember "He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it." (George Santayana) We need to somehow preserve as much of our national heritage as possible, virtues and vices alike.

More to the story

There was a good bit more to the story. The whole thing was something of a publicity stunt that had totally the opposite effect than the Union wanted. However it's worth noting that the man's crimes were not "just" insulting a white woman, as the caption claims. He was being hanged for desertion, which was at the time a capital offense. He had fled in the face of battle, and then lied to superior officers first about who he was and what unit he was attached to. Then after being pressed about it a second time he came clean. He was under the impression that the Union Army wouldn't do anything. Historically they hadn't, beyond the odd lashing. However this particular soldier had incited others to desert, and rumblings in the units were starting to make things look very badly. So to show to soldiers what happened to those who deserted, they hung him.

However the Union didn't expect the Confederates to take so poorly to it. In fact as they were building the scaffold, Confederate artillery began to fire on their position and managed to injure several and kill one. It was only after a flag of parlay was flown and the point explained that the firing stopped. Afterward, Confederate soldiers would tell slaves and black soldiers within their own ranks that "that's what happens if you surrender to the Union." In the end it was a total fiasco that blew up in the face of the union army. Not only did it not stop desertion, in fact it seemed to cause it more, but it turned many confederate citizens against the idea of surrender, fearing they were next.

Truly disturbing

19thCenturyGirl explained exactly how I feel about this photo. I have seen many sad ones here, but none that have upset me like this one.

Haunting & Disturbing

I realize this is our history in this shocking picture and thus was the methods of that time, but this undoubtedly is one of the most heinous photos I have ever encountered. It truly disturbs me to the core.

Can we go now?

He's dead and it's hot out here.

SHORPY HISTORICAL PHOTO ARCHIVE | History in HD is a vintage photo archive featuring thousands of high-definition images from the 1850s to 1960s. (Available as fine-art prints from the Shorpy Archive.) The site is named after Shorpy Higginbotham, a teenage coal miner who lived 100 years ago.

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