A Military Execution
Cadet to Colonel, Vol II, Major-General Sir Thomas Seaton, K.C.B., 1866
Of all the solemn scenes enacted in the world, I think a military execution is by far the most solemn, the most impressive, the most terrible. Every regiment and detachment, every officer and man who can be spared from duty, is assembled at the appointed pot and drawn up on three sides of a square, the fourth side being reserved for the execution. The prisoner is marched from his cell under a guard, and when he turns the right flank of the troops, the last scene of his earthly career bursts on his view. There are his regiment and companions in arms, to hundreds of whom he is well known, and with whom he has gone through many a hard-fought day. Close to him are the band of his regiment, the firing party, the escort, and the coffin, all ready for the solemn procession. He is taken to his place behind the coffin, and the sentence of the court and the order for his execution are read aloud; then, after a momentary silence, there is a slight movement in the band, the coffin is raised from the ground, arms are reversed by the escort, and at the word "march," with a deep boom of the drum, the sad procession starts to the solemn strains of the "Dead March," and the prisoner paces onwards, each step bringing him nearer to his death and to eternity. As the procession marches along the front of the troops, he passes his own regiment and company. He looks up, sees the well-known faces of his companions in arms, and perhaps catches the pitying eye of his captain, of his own comrade, or of some loving friend. Deep as may be the internal feeling by which he is moved, yet as his comrades are looking on, with a desperate effort he controls his emotions, and passes on.
But the [soldier] had no friend or comrade to sympathize with him, and there were but few pitying eyes for the traitor who had turned and fought against us. He was a fine man, in full health and vigor, and it was terrible to think, traitor though he was, that in a few moments he would be a lifeless, dishonoured corpse.As he passed me, I noticed that his face, though pale and shrunken, was tolerably calm. His eyes were cast down, and he seemed unable to raise them. Large beads of perspiration stood on his forehead, yet his step was firm and he never faltered, but marched on steadily toward the fatal spot. To see a fellow-creature led forth to die, to know that in a few seconds his spirit will be in the presence of his Judge, is terrible to those who reflect on it; but in a military execution this awful fact is most awfully impressed on the minds of all who witness it. The slow funereal tread of the soldiers, the muffled drums, the soul-inspiring strains of the "Dead March" move the most callous heart to its inmost depths, and suggest the question, "Whither is that soul about to go?"
The calm and still afternoon, the spring-like and beautiful weather, the bright and clear sunshine, and the intensely blue sky, all made for peace and happiness only, contrasted painfully with the tragedy that was about to be enacted; and as the prisoner passed us, the feelings of all were so moved, that I could hear a gasp or two from the officers and men near me. Although there was not one of them who did not fully acknowledge the justice of the traitor?s doom, not one would have bent his finger to save him, yet the scene was intensely painful to all, and there were probably few among the spectators who did not feel some pity for the unfortunate though guilty man upon whom all eyes were fixed.
When at last the condemned criminal reached the appointed place, the music of the band ceased, his eyes were bandaged, the escort withdrew, and he stood alone to face the firing party. The silence and stillness at that moment were awful, not a soul drawing a breath, and I could have shouted out, "Be quick," the suspense was so unbearable. Meanwhile the men made ready, fired when the signal was given, and the [soldier] fell dead. It was a positive relief to all when the melancholy business was completed.
The troops then broke into open column and marched past the body.