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postedApril 1, 2003
True Tales of the Tenth Kansas Infantry
The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time
The Execution of Barney Gibbons
by Howard Mann
Richard C. Day, former sergeant in the 7th U. S. Regular Infantry, was posted as a civilian in the Quartermasters Department in Saint Louis, Missouri. On an early morning in June 1864, Day went down to get breakfast at the Military Boarding House on Broadway, when he noticed a man standing outside. As he passed the man he noticed him turn pale and something about his stance brought back an old memory. Recognition passed across Day’s face as he realized that the man was Barney Gibbons, a former comrade-in-arms. Anger clouded Day’s painful memory and he clapped his hands on the stunned Barney Gibbon’s shoulder, stating that Gibbons was under arrest and his prisoner. Gibbons did not resist.
The story unfolded at Barney Gibbon’s court-martial on July 13, 1864 in Colonel William Meyers office. Barney Gibbons was accused as follows:
Specifications: In this, that he, Barney Gibbons, a private of Company A, Seventh Regiment United States Infantry, duly enlisted in the service of the United States on or about the 27th day of July, A. D. 1861, at or near San Augustine Springs in the Territory of New Mexico, did absent himself from and desert said service and go over to and join with rebel forces in arms against the government of the United States.
Asst. Adjt. Genl.
Witness: Richard C. Day in Col. Wm Meyers Office
Major General William C. Rosecrans ordered the convening court martial board to consist of Colonel William A. Barstow, 3rd Wisconsin Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel C. W. Marsh, A.A.G., Missouri State Militia, Lieutenant Colonel T. H. Dodd, 2nd Colorado Cavalry, Lieutenant Colonel D. J. Hynes, 17th Illinois Cavalry, Major P. E. Fisher, 17th Illinois Cavalry, Captain Alexander McLean, 7th Enrolled Missouri Militia, Captain W. S. Johnson, 1st Arkansas Cavalry, and First Lieutenant Clifford Thomas, 1st New York Cavalry as the Judge Advocate of the Court.
Sergeant Day was the principle and only witness. Day and Gibbons were both members of Company A, 7th Regiment U.S. Infantry. Barney Gibbons was born in Hamilton, Madison County, New York in 1836. His father died when he was nine years old and his mother, when he was thirteen. On December 1, 1858 he joined the United States Army at Toledo, Ohio for a period of five years. Gibbons listed his profession as a teamster. He had grey eyes, dark brown hair, and fair complexion and stood five feet, five and one-half inches tall. Barney swore an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whomsoever…”
According to Sergeant Day, Barney joined the 7th Regiment at Camp Floyd, Utah Territory with a batch of recruits from Newport, Kentucky. When the hostilities broke out Company A, 7th Regiment found itself isolated at San Augustine Springs, New Mexico Territory. The commanding officer, Major Lynde, decided to move the command to the safety of Fort Fillmore. Day testified:
We were on the march from San Augustine to Fort Fillmore, Major Lynde had command of a part of our regiment. We had evacuated Fort Fillmore. He marched us across, and we had no water. There were about 300 men laying back on the road for water. I was in the rear guard, and this man fell to the rear. I supposed for the same purpose as the others. I didn’t see anything of him from about 4 o’clock in the morning of the 27th of July. He fell to the rear as we thought for water together with quite a number of the regiment. I got into San Antonio with 12 men of my company with a Lieut. and there formed in line of battle, and were surrendered by Major Lynde. We were then marched from San Antonio to Los Cruces, and were then paroled. We laid in camp there about 3 days. During the 3 days, I had been sent up to Fillmore for a drum and different things of the command that we were told we could have, and while there I met this man, and the day before we marched he rode down into camp on one of the horses that had been turned over by the mounted riflemen. I didn’t see him again until the night before we marched when I saw him riding out on a black horse, with the rebels when it was expected that Capt. Chaplin could come up with 3 companies of our regiment. I haven’t seen him since until I met him up on Broadway.
The hapless Barney Gibbons made a statement to the Court defending his pleas of innocent:
All I have got to say is the charges against me is false. I never belonged to the United States Infantry, but there was a man, my brother, who went by the name of Barney Gibbons, that did and he belonged to that company. I was in Texas at the time, and was in a light battery. My brother pretended to say that he was not treated well and left them and joined us. He resembled me very much and I suppose this man arrested me under that name for this reason. My name is Benjamin Gray. I never assumed the name of Barney Gibbons. My brother did. He joined under that name. He got into trouble and assumed that name to get out of it. I have a cut on my lip and so has he. I was born in Pennsylvania. I came up to Fillmore in Col. John Baylor’s command. I never was in the service of the United States. The company, rebel company, that I belonged to was broken up and I was assigned to a gun boat, the Sachem, but I was dissatisfied and the first opportunity I left them. I never saw this man before that. I know of I might have seen him at the time he stated, but I don’t recollect it. I was in the rebel service at the time this company of the 7th U.S. Infantry surrendered. I was in a battery when the regiment was taken.
Richard Day was challenged about his identification of Gibbons. Day refuted the possibility of a mistaken identity.
He has a cut upon his lip, and a peculiar manner of walking. Capt. Jones of our company was always at him because he never could walk like a soldier, he would throw his head forward and his arms to the rear. He always walked with his hands open and fingers apart even when he had gloves on.
Even when Day was recalled he denied ever hearing of a brother of Gibbons and further explained the mysterious cut.
Q. Did he ever explain how he got that cut on his lip?
A. I think I heard some of the men say he got it from a kick of a horse. We used to call it a hare lip.
Day’s memory seemed to stay sharp for one reason. He put it succinctly.
Q. You have no enmity towards him?
A. None at all except that he deserted us. Was among the few that disgraced us.
The court deliberated and found Barney Gibbons guilty of desertion. The sentence was equally as terse.
And the Court does therefore sentence him, the said Barney Gibbons, a private of Co. A, Seventh United States Infantry, to be shot to death with musketry, at such time and place as the commanding General may designate. Two-thirds of the members of the Court concurring in the above sentence.
July 14, 1864
The date was set for August 13th. A unique aspect of Barney Gibbon’s execution was it was the first military execution of a Union soldier to take place in St. Louis. The military establishment wanted to make a spectacle of it and to impress the Union soldiers with the seriousness of deserting over to the enemy.
Major R. D. Nash, Superintendent of Military Prisons and Colonel Baker, Post Commandant, arranged the details.
The troops, to the number of seven or eight hundred, on arriving at the place of execution (Fort No. 4) formed a hollow square on the west side of the fort, with an open face on the east. A squad of sixty men of the 10th Kansas, commanded by Lieutenant Wood, conducted the prisoner from Myrtle street prison to the place of execution. The prisoner was conveyed in a black covered wagon, belonging to Mr. Smithers, the undertaker, sitting on his coffin by the side of the officiating priest, Rev. Father Santois, of the St. Louis University, who had visited him in the prison and baptized him in the Roman Catholic church on Wednesday last. Gibbins had never received the benefit of a religious education, having been left an orphan at an early age; and it was through the teachings of Father Santois in prison that he was induced to embrace the doctrines of Christianity.
The preparations being completed, the priest and the prisoner got out of the wagon and knelt on the ground, in front of the post which had been placed in the ground on the west side of the fort, and for a few moments engaged in prayer. Rising up, the doomed man stepped forward to the post to which he was to be tied, and to which a seat was attached. The coffin was placed on the ground close by, and the attendants brought forward the rope and white cap. Fifteen feet from the post were six soldiers of the 10th Kansas, and just behind them four more of the same regiment. These were the executioners. The guns of the first six were all loaded with ball and cartridge, except one, so that neither of them could say with certainty that he had caused the prisoner’s death, as it was not known which one carried the gun loaded with blank cartridge.
The prisoner now stood up, facing the executioners. He appeared calm and unmoved, as though determined to meet his doom with manly courage. He was a young man 28 years of age, about five feet nine inches in height, with sandy whiskers, brown hair, and dark blue eye; compactly built, with broad shoulders and full chest and regular features. He was in his shirt sleeves, with his pantaloons turned up at the bottom, and wore coarse heavy boots.
Seeing the attendants handling the rope, he said, “I prefer not to be tied.” He then sat on the seat against the post and waving his hands, said, “Farewell! farewell!”
Major Nash came forward and read the findings and sentence of the court-martial, after which he asked the prisoner if he had anything to say. Gibbins replied in a calm, firm voice: “I have; but I wish to ask if the President of the United States signed that?”
Major Nash replied, “Yes.” and Gibbins proceeded. He said he did not deny that he had deserted; but that he did not desert with the intention of joining the enemy. His company had marched from Arizona to New Mexico, and having traveled all night, he was exhausted and worn out, and fell out of the ranks, and laid down on the ground and went to sleep. While asleep, the rebels under Sibley came upon him and captured him. He was deceived by them and induced to join their ranks. He then gave an account of his escape from the rebel ship, Sachem, at Sabine Pass, and finding his way on board the Federal blockading steamer, Princess Royal. He said, “I think it the most unjust sentence ever passed upon man. I am sentenced to be shot, and I suppose by that escort,” (looking at the executioners.) Seeing some reporters present, he said, “My friends, I do not want that put in the papers; my name has gone far enough. I have no parents, they having died when I was very young, but I have brothers and sisters and I do not want them to know it.” He paused a moment and said, “If there is a man named Richard C. Day present, I would like to see him – Richard C. Day, who was a sergeant in my company.” He waited for Day to appear but Major Nash told him he was not present. Day is the witness upon whose testimony Gibbins was convicted. He said he died in the Catholic faith and thanked Father Santois for his kindness.
The prisoner having concluded, Father Santois shook him by the hand and said, “You are a soldier, and now you must die like a soldier and a Christian.”
Gibbins then took a seat on the chair of death and the white cap was drawn over his head. While this was being done he said, “I would rather not be bound; I think I can stand it without.”
After the cap was drawn down over his head, he said, “I have a word more to say;” but no notice being taken of his request, he waved his hand as if satisfied, and his arms were pinioned to the post. Lieutenant Wood then gave the order – “Ready – aim – fire!”
And simultaneously six rifles were discharged, four balls entering the body of the victim near the region of the stomach, and one striking the bank of earth behind him.
The stout frame of the prisoner quivered slightly, and he cried out in anguish – “Oh! – too low!”
Lieutenant Wood immediately ordered the reserves to fire, and their aim being more accurate, the deserter’s frame relaxed, his head dropped on his shoulder, his bosom heaved convulsively, and in a few moments life was extinct.
His arms were unbound; he was laid on the ground on his back, and Surgeons Dudley and Youngblood, of the army, examined the body and declared that life was extinct. Six or seven balls had entered his body, one entering the aorta, two or three the stomach and bowels, one the right lung, and one or two the breast.
The cap was then removed from his face, the body placed in the coffin with the hands crossed and while the band played a solemn dirge for the dead, the whole column passed slowly by, each soldier casting a sorrowful look upon the lifeless face of the man whose crime had been so fearfully expiated.
The conduct of the soldiers was highly commendable. Not a man offered an insult to the lifeless form in the coffin, but all looked sadly upon him, and each one felt that, whatever may have been the young man’s guilt, he had at least died like a brave man. Never, perhaps, has death been faced with so calm and fearless a mien as by that erring, guilty man, who had no friend but the good priest to speak a word of comfort to him in his last hour upon earth.
After the procession had passed, the body was taken possession of by Mr. Smithers, the lid of the coffin screwed down, and the remains of Barney Gibbins were interred in the cemetery at Jefferson Barracks.
Besides the troops but few spectators witnessed the execution, for the reason that very few persons knew where it was to take place. 
The day before his execution, Barney Gibbons provided a little more detail on his errant behavior. He admitted deserting with eighteen other soldiers of the 7th U.S. Infantry as Richard C. Day testified. He also admitted fighting in the battles of Valverde, Apache Canyon, Johnson’s Ranch and Albuquerque. While in Texas his artillery unit was transferred to the Confederate ship, Sachem. He did not like the duty and escaped on the captain’s gig to the blockading Union ship, Princess Royal. He disembarked at New Orleans and drove a Quartermaster’s wagon until May 1864 when he came to St. Louis. He joined the workers on the Pacific Railroad and cut ties near Knob Noster and Warrensburg, Missouri and again, returned to St. Louis in June 1864. He secured a position with the Quartermaster’s department until he was accosted by Richard C. Day.
Barney Gibbons was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
File No. LL 2210, Barney Gibbons, Proceedings of a General Court Martial Held at St. Louis, Mo. July 13, 1864, National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm M1523, Proceedings of U. S. Army Courts-Martial and Military Commissions of Union Soldiers Executed by U.S. Military Authorities, 1861-1866.
Military Records, Barney Gibbons, National Archives and Records Administration.
Barney Gibbons, Proceedings.
St. Louis Democrat, August 13, 1864, “Military Execution”.
©2003 Howard Mann
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