Hampden native joins circus, life of crime ends in execution

A large firing squad executes five Union soldiers convicted for deserting the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, sometime in 1863. Each blindfolded deserter sat on his coffin while awaiting his death; afterwards, each coffin was placed in the grave already dug for it. In South Carolina on Dec. 1, 1862, Alfred Lunt of Maine was shot under similar circumstances for deserting his Maine infantry regiment in Florida and robbing a local woman there. Lunt professed his innocence until the end, but too many eyewitnesses testified against him at his trial.
Library of Congress
A large firing squad executes five Union soldiers convicted for deserting the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, sometime in 1863. Each blindfolded deserter sat on his coffin while awaiting his death; afterwards, each coffin was placed in the grave already dug for it. In South Carolina on Dec. 1, 1862, Alfred Lunt of Maine was shot under similar circumstances for deserting his Maine infantry regiment in Florida and robbing a local woman there. Lunt professed his innocence until the end, but too many eyewitnesses testified against him at his trial.
Posted Dec. 02, 2012, at 1:34 p.m.

Bad boy Albert H. Lunt could do no good, so 12 Union soldiers shot him dead at Hilton Head, S.C. on Monday, Dec. 1, 1862.

And in case they missed, another dozen armed soldiers waited to use Lunt for target practice.

Lunt seemed destined to pay for a life of crime, according to Henry J. Wisner, a New York Times reporter who interviewed Lunt about 18 hours before his death. Born in Hampden “of respectable parents … [Lunt] early betrayed a waywardness which led him into every species of childish vice,” Wisner claimed. After a circus performed in Hampden when Lunt was 13, he literally “abandoned his house” to join the Big Top and become a “castinet-player in a band of Ethiopian Minstrels.”

In September 1861, Lunt joined Co. I, 9th Maine Infantry Regiment under the pseudonym “William W. Lunt.” The regiment helped occupy Atlantic coastal forts in Florida in spring 1862. On Sunday, April 6, Lunt left the regiment’s lines “near the railroad bridge called Lofton, on the railroad running from Fernandina [Beach] to Baldwin, Fla.” without authorization, specified the criminal indictments issued later that spring.

During his subsequent interview with Wisner, Lunt claimed, “that he had been sent three miles beyond our lines by one of our officers, on an improper errand connected with a woman (Mrs. Ellen Manning) whose existence was made known to them (some 9th Maine soldiers) on the previous day while they were scouting.”

Lunt confronted Manning in her house and “did forcibly take from her” $268, according to the official indictments charging Lunt with “highway robbery” and desertion. Manning complained to federal authorities, and the next day Lunt deserted from the United States Army and fled to the enemy’s lines without arms and accoutrements, according to the indictments.

A Confederate cavalry patrol swiftly captured Lunt, who convinced its officers that he wanted to join their unit. To prove his value, he told his captors where to find seven Co. I comrades who were on picket duty.

On Thursday, April 10, Confederate cavalrymen attacked the pickets, killed Pvt. Ansel Chase, and captured the other six men.

So Alfred Lunt joined the Confederate army, but even the enemy troops noticed his reprobate behavior; around April 20, a Confederate colonel “returned [Lunt] to our lines, with the request” that Confederate deserters “might be treated in a similar manner,” Wisner noted.

With Col. Alfred Terry presiding, a Union court-martial convened at St. Augustine, Fla., heard the indictments, sifted through the evidence, and convicted Lunt of both charges. The court martial sentenced him to death. Federal authorities transferred Lunt to Hilton Head, where he remained imprisoned under the watchful eye of the provost marshal, Maj. George Van Brunt.

President Abraham Lincoln approved Lunt’s execution in mid-November; Army officers scheduled the event for Dec. 1.

In mid-afternoon on Nov. 29, Wisner “received a note from the Provost-Marshal, inviting me to visit” Lunt, who wanted “to see a representative of the Press.” If Wisner expected to encounter a monster, he did not. “I found him (Lunt) perfectly composed, and during more than an hour I passed with him, not once did he lose his remarkable self-possession,” Wisner noted.

Lunt wanted Wisner to “publish … his protestations of innocence of the crime of desertion.”

“For the sake of my family I want it to be published that I am innocent,” Lunt said. “Tell my fellow-soldiers that I have been a hard boy, and have done a great many wicked things, and they must take my death as a warning not to be led astray by bad company.”

Two Army chaplains stayed with Lunt until 3 a.m., Dec. 1, when he finally fell asleep. Then, clad in his uniform, Lunt “stepped from his tent” at 10:30 a.m. and walked to a horse-drawn ambulance while guarded by two men with side arms, Wisner wrote.

The ambulance stood within a square “formed by the firing party of twenty-four men of the Provost Guard,” Wisner described the scene. Lunt walked through his executioners “and entered the ambulance sedately and unaided, seating himself upon the rough coffin which was destined for his remains,” Wisner wrote. There, Lunt sat with “his face reclining upon his right hand, and his elbow supported upon his knee.”

The procession moved slowly for the next 30 minutes to where Lunt would die in a field just beyond the Federal trenches that crossed Hilton Head, Wisner wrote. Several regiments formed a three-sided “hollow square” inside which the execution would take place.

The ambulance stopped. Lunt “alighted without assistance, and his coffin was placed beside him,” Wisner wrote.

A lieutenant read the court martial proceedings, and Lunt spoke briefly. He cautioned the watching soldiers to seek “salvation from the Lord before it is too late.”

Then Lunt reiterated his innocence.

His overcoat removed, “he knelt upon his coffin,” Wisner wrote. “In this position a bandage was fastened over his eyes, and at the same moment a squad of twelve men were silently motioned to post themselves in front of him at a distance of fifteen paces.”

The firing squad had been “selected by the Provost-Marshal with a view to nerve and good marksmanship,” and the soldiers had practiced shooting at a stationary target set “at the designated distance,” Wisner wrote. Capt. Edward Eddy commanded the firing squad.

As the chaplains quietly prayed with Lunt, the 12 soldiers cocked their rifled muskets. Eleven were fully loaded; the 12th was loaded with “a blank cartridge and a heavy wad” so that as each soldier received a musket, he could not tell if it contained the blank or not, Wisner pointed out.

Van Brunt shook Lunt’s hand, then moved away a few steps. Eddy waved his sword and the 12 soldiers raised their muskets to their shoulders and aimed at the silent Lunt. Van Brunt dropped his pocket handkerchief to signal Eddy.

Eddy shouted, “Fire!” Eleven muskets roared and the percussion “cap of one musket exploded without discharging the piece,” Wisner noted

The second 12-man firing squad was not needed. Once the casket was nailed shut, six soldiers escorted Alfred Lunt without the usual military honors to a graveyard for burial, Wisner wrote.

Brian Swartz is the BDN special sections editor. An avid Civil War buff, he has extensively explored and photographed Civil War battlefields throughout the South. Swartz may be reached at bswartz@bangordailynews.com or visit his blog at maineatwar.bangordailynews.com.

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