Military Death Sentences

The death penalty exists at three levels of law in the United States: military, federal, and state. In the first decades of its history, Pittsburgh was in the rare, probably unprecedented, situation of serving as the location of simultaneous military, federal, and state death penalty proceedings. Befitting a city founded as a fort, the first of those death sentences and executions – the first killings conducted under judicial authority – were military executions of deserters. Between 1782 and 1792, Pittsburgh was the location of seventeen military death sentences and fourteen executions. These cases occurred in two distinct clusters.

The Fort Pitt cases (1782)

In the spring of 1782, four soldiers garrisoned at Fort Pitt were sentenced to death and three were executed.

John Eels, executed April 12, 1782
Thomas Steed, executed May 3, 1782
John Phillips, pardoned May 3, 1782
James Gordon, executed May 26, 1782

In the earliest years of the American republic, conditions experienced by soldiers were deplorable. Oft-told stories of Washington’s shoeless troops fighting valiantly at Valley Forge romanticize the struggle against the British Empire at the risk of minimizing the adversity of those conditions. Add to the lack of proper clothing the lack of regular pay and food, poor training, and low levels of professionalism, and the problems of troop discipline and morale become clearer. The use of generous enlistment bonuses certainly helped, though it also led to serial desertions and reenlistment in a practice known as bounty jumping.

In the face of deprivation and disorder, desertion was commonplace. Estimates are that up to 25 percent of soldiers, many thousands in total, deserted between 1775 and 1783. No formal estimates exist for the period after the war, which saw sharp declines in troop levels until the 1790s. The Rules and Articles of War, enacted by the Continental Congress in 1776 and in place until 1806, provided death as punishment for desertion and a broad range of offenses, including mutiny and ordinary felonies.

With full enforcement of the Rules of War meaning a bloodbath and further injury to troop levels and morale, highly discretionary enforcement resulted. The vast majority of deserters faced flogging; lost wages, reduction in rank, branding, and running the gauntlet were also used. Executions were largely reserved for acts that put others at risk, particularly treason. A notable exception to this practice of restraint occurred in Pittsburgh, where the nation’s western boundary was most actively contested and where executions for desertion were briefly quite common.

In a striking parallel to the execution of Mamachtaga, a Native American and the first local person executed under state law in 1785, the first person executed under military authority and the first recorded legal execution in Pittsburgh was John Eels, a Native American serving under Captain Uriah Springer during an intelligence-gathering mission into the Northwest Territory. After being found to have been planning to betray the troops and join the Native American forces they were opposing, he was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad at Fort Pitt on April 12, 1782 (Butterfield 1882).

A few weeks later, on May 3, 1782, Private Thomas Steed of the 7th Virginia Regiment, was executed for mutiny and disobedience of orders. He and fellow soldier, Private John Phillips, had opposed the orders of and attacked Lieutenant Samuel Bryson of the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment, the commandant of Fort McIntosh. Steed was executed at Fort Pitt; as with subsequent military executions, “all the troops” were marched in to witness the killing (Butterfield 1882, 120). Phillips was pardoned by Brigadier General William Irvine “in compassion for his youth, in hopes he may be reclaimed and yet make a good soldier and citizen.”

In a letter to General Washington on May 21, 1782, Irvine noted that Steed and Eels were the only two soldiers to have “suffered capitally” as of that date. He also noted the beneficial effects of their executions, explaining that “the troops behave remarkably well since a few examples have been made.” Five days later, Private James Gordon, a Pennsylvania soldier with a record of “repeated desertion and re-enlisting,” was executed at Fort Pitt. As was noted at the time, “Gordon, from his own confession, appears to have made a trade of enlisting and deserting.”

After the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the American army was drawn down to as few as two hundred soldiers and its role shifted to that of a “frontier constabulary.” By 1784, Fort Pitt garrisoned only a lieutenant and twenty-five soldiers; the following year that number declined to six. For the remainder of the decade, Fort Pitt was occupied by a handful of troops and the village that had grown up around it declined accordingly. No further desertions, courts martial, or executions are recorded there before the decrepit fort was decommissioned in 1792.

The Fort Fayette Cases (1792)

In the summer and fall of 1792, General Wayne’s ruthless campaign to prepare his troops for battle resulted in thirteen death sentences and eleven executions.

Henry Hamilton, pardoned August 4, 1792
Hugh M. Laughlin, executed August 13, 1792
Jacob Hollom, executed September 2, 1792
Charles Jordan, executed September 2, 1792
John Elias, pardoned September 2, 1792
Samuel Rivers, executed September 2, 1792
James Nugent, executed September 30, 1792
John Lynch, executed October 3, 1792
Alexander McIlvanan, executed October 3, 1792
Edward Morris, executed November 2, 1792
William Griffith, executed November 2, 1792
Charles Bailey, executed November 2, 1792
John Trotter, executed November 11, 1792

By the 1790s, Pittsburgh found itself on the western edge of the colonial frontier during a determined American effort to push that frontier further west against Native American efforts to resist further colonization and eradication. After suffering a series of defeats under the leadership of General Josiah Harmar and General Arthur St. Clair, President Washington resolved to prevail. Promised broad power to train his troops and fight the campaign as he saw fit, General Anthony Wayne took command of his troops at Pittsburgh’s newly constructed Fort Fayette, on June 14, 1792, a month after the fort was officially commissioned. Under his ruthless command, desertion was rampant.

When the first sizable contingent of troops finally arrived in July, they brought trouble with them. On June 27, Henry Hamilton, a soldier under Major Asheton, used his bayonet to stab Ensign William Diven after Diven had given him an order. Diven survived. Upon arrival in Pittsburgh, Hamilton was subject to court martial for mutiny. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the gallows on August 4, 1792, Hamilton’s death sentence was commuted only after his death warrant was read and the noose was around his neck; such last second pardons were a “deliberate policy” to frighten soldiers.

On August 8, 1792, reports that Indian troops were gathering near Pittsburgh led to mass desertions. The following day, Henry De Butts, Wayne’s aide-de-camp at Fort Fayette, published a notice that the frequent incidence of desertion, which he described as “treacherous, base, cowardly,” would be stopped “by the most exemplary punishment” as well as by “liberal rewards” for those who turned in deserters. Increasingly desperate to impose order, Wayne proposed that deserters be branded on the forehead as cowards and, have their heads and eyebrows shaved. President Washington rejected such punishments as a violation of the Rules and Articles of War.

Days later, on August 13, 1792, Hugh M. Laughlin was hanged at Fort Fayette for desertion and horse stealing. Weeks later, on September 1, 1792, Privates Jacob Hollom, Charles Jordan, John Elias, and Samuel Rivers, were court martialed for repeated desertion and sentenced to death. Wayne approved their sentences, with orders that they be executed the next morning and that a fifth deserter, George Russells, serve as their executioner. The intercession of a priest led Wayne to spare Private Elias. The other three men went before the firing squad as scheduled; their executioner is not recorded.

Though these executions were thought to have restored order, Private James Nugent stole a horse and deserted on September 20. General Wayne ordered that no effort be spared in apprehending him. He was captured, found guilty by a unanimous court martial on September 29, and hanged at Fort Fayette on September 30, 1792. At a court martial on October 2, soldiers John Lynch and Alexander McIlvanan were also tried for desertion, found guilty, and sentenced to death by firing squad. They were executed the following morning.

Even as Wayne prepared to move forward and establish a new base at Legionville, closer to the Northwest Territory, desertions continued. At a court martial held on November 1, 1792, soldiers Edward Morris, William Griffith, and Charles Bailey were found guilty of repeated desertions and sentenced to death by hanging. They were executed the next day.

The following week, a court martial was held for Sergeant John Trotter, attached to Captain Faulkner’s Rifle Company that had been raised in Westmoreland County. On November 10, 1792, Trotter had enticed two other soldiers – Corporal William McHenry and Private George Donaldson – to join him in deserting. They were apprehended the next day. Within the span of that day, November 11, Trotter was tried by a court martial convened by Captain John Pierce, found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad. His accomplices were demoted and returned to duty.

Sometime later, the mythology developed that Trotter’s execution was a tragic mistake, in which Trotter was Wayne’s orderly and close companion, that he had only left the fort to visit nearby family, and that Wayne, having ordered the execution under the influence of alcohol, regretted his actions once sober. In the final chapter of this story, Trotter is reported to have cursed Wayne. This account is fiction.

Finally, on November 28, 1792, Wayne departed Fort Fayette and Pittsburgh for Legionville. In just over three months, eleven soldiers had been executed for desertion and two others sentenced to death; an apparently unparalleled use of the military death penalty. Of General Wayne, it was said that “his rages brought desertions that enraged him even more, and firing squads shot down those he could catch, sometimes three in a day.” His forces triumphed at the decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794.

%d bloggers like this: