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Hannah and William, Part 5

(Click here for Part 4)

William's Signature in Casemate 11

The new court convened on 15 February 1864. Before his arraignment, William again asked for the court's permission to obtain legal counsel. His request was granted and William was represented by Edmund Randall. William had served under Randall during the Battle of Fredericksburg, so they had a relationship based upon trust. Randall had served as 1st Lieutenant of Company G of the 116th Regiment. He had enlisted a month before William and was discharged by Special Order on 27 January 1863.

This time, William pleaded not guilty to the charge of desertion and asked that the charge of murder be dismissed, arguing that the military court did not have any jurisdiction and that he be tried for that charge in the locale where the crime was said to have been committed. His objection was overruled.

Witnesses were called regarding the murder charge. Since there appeared to be some question as to the evidence that would support the charge of desertion, the court awaited documentation from the adjutant general's office in Washington, D.C. It was not until Tuesday, 1 March that the transcript had arrived and the court reconvened. At that time, a statement was entered into evidence that William deserted on 24 December 1862 and there was no indication that he had ever returned. Randall tried unsuccessfully to dispute the authenticity of the documentation.

When Randall closed his defense of William, claiming that the evidence was weak and the testimony illegal, merely gossip and hearsay. In a desperate move, it was contended that they were trying the wrong man since the court used the name of William Howe, as opposed to William H. Howe, as being "reported as a deserter from the 116th P.V. from Dec. 24th, 1862." The defense concluded with a plea for leniency and the hope of a "speedy release" from confinement.

The courtroom was cleared and the board, "after having maturely considered the evidence," returned to address William H. Howe, Private, Company A, 116th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers. He was found guilty of both charges, the sentence that he would be hung by his neck until dead.

William and Randall agreed that the court's decision was indeed a bad one, based on faulty, inadmissible testimony. With all court-martials, there would be no appeal. In cases involving the death penalty, an execution could be suspended until the military authorities received final approval from the president. Thus, a copy of the entire proceedings were send to the judge advocate general for review and recommendation. After that, it would be presented to the president of the United States for final disposition. On 26 February, President Lincoln had directed that all deserters sentenced to death were to be reprieved and instead imprisoned at Dry Tortuga, Florida for the duration of the war. William hoped that this would be his fate.

Following the trial, William was returned to Fort Mifflin, where had been held during this court-martial. Newspaper accounts alleged that an escape of over 200 deserters and rebels was led my William on 24 February 1864. During that time, it was reported that he was shot in the leg. However, nothing was ever mentioned during the trial and no injury prevented William from appearing before the court the day after the supposed "escape attempt." Rumor and innuendo plagued William and made Randall's job of obtaining any mercy for him all that more difficult.

Randall wrote to Judge Advocate General James Holt, asking him to review the case. He repeated the claims of the difference in the name, a prejudicial attitude by the president of the court who had prepared the charges against William, and the questionable testimony. It took more than five weeks after the trial for the papers to reach Holt's office on 18 April 1864.

When Randall did not hear back from Holt, he was frightened by the lack of response. Firmly convinced in William's innocence and the injustice against him, Randall wrote directly to President Lincoln on 30 April, requesting the commutation of William's sentence to imprisonment. Time was running out for William.

However, Randall's letter did not go directly to the White House; nor did any of William's. He had been writing letters to the president as early as 23 August 1863. All of the letters went to the judge advocate general's office. The response to Randall's correspondence, dated 4 May, indicated that the final decision rested with the president.

Holt's report that was sent to President Lincoln outlined Randall's objections and his plea for clemency. He explained to the president how he saw the case: desertion was a certainty and, while the evidence for the murder charge was conflicting, William's confession established his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He told Lincoln that, in his estimation, William should die. If President Lincoln thought differently, that was his own concern.

On 6 May, William was moved from Fort Mifflin to Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Randall, in the meantime, knew he could not wait any longer. Four days before the scheduled execution, he travelled to Washington, hand delivering another plea for clemency. He also attached two letters. The first was signed by current and former members of William's unit, asking for "charity towards the Prisoner and his unhappy family" and his sentence be commuted to imprisonment. The second was written by Reverend G.F. Krotel, pastor of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Philadelphia who had visited William in Eastern Penitentiary and listened to his story. He was so moved that he wrote to President Lincoln with a request for mercy, stating that "the poor man has a wife and children, who tremble at the thought of his approaching doom."

Holt's office presented a detailed documentation of Randall's defense to President Lincoln on 21 June 1864. The letters from the officers of the 116th and Krotel were not forwarded, but summarized. The minister, he said, had listened to William's confession and admission of guilt; the officers asked for clemency, but did not introduce any new facts about the case.

Another communication was forwarded through Holt's office. On 27 June, Henry R. Bertolet, Abraham's brother, wrote a letter to President Lincoln. It was a request on behalf of Abraham's parents demanding that the sentence be carried out. He wrote "There have quite a number of union men been murdered through the state that it seems but proper that an example should be made of this man Howe. For if all are pardoned it only lizences Traitors to murder our citizens. I would earnestly solicit an early reply to this letter."

There is no indication that the president responded to Henry Bertolet's letter. But, on 8 July 1864, Abraham Lincoln took his pen and wrote two words on the documents, "Sentence approved" and signed his name.

It is unknown exactly why President Lincoln chose to approve the sentence. He had a reputation for preferring mercy. He did not particularly like the death penalty and sought ways to avoid it except for cases that were committed against civilians - rape, robbery, arson and the like. In cases similar to William's, he had commuted sentences to imprisonment with hard labor. Was it to make an example of William to stop desertion, draft evasion and resistance in Pennsylvania? That question will probably never be answered.

Three weeks after the president sealed William's fate, the order was issued that William would "be hung by the neck until dead" on Friday, 26 August 1864 between 11:00 A.M. and 4:00P.M. at Fort Mifflin. The duty for carrying out the order fell to the fort's commandant.

At half past six on the morning of 26 August, William was escorted from Eastern Penitentiary to Fort Mifflin. He had met with Hannah for the final time on Thursday afternoon for an emotional meeting. It took more than an hour to make the trip. As they entered the fort through the main gate, William saw the gallows. It was supposed to have been completed the day before, but workmen were still nailing boards in place. William was placed in the small guardhouse where he could see the scaffold, not more than ten feet away.

As William waited, a steamboat carrying spectators arrived. Among them were Reverend Krotel and Edmund Randall. The Reverend was granted permission to talk and pray with William until half past eleven. William was escorted by a small guard across the parade ground. He remained calm and showed no emotion. At the foot of the scaffold, his handcuffs were removed. He walked up the steps of the gallows with Reverend Krotel at his side. William pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and read the prepared statement, concluding with "And now I about to leave this life and I commend my wife and little ones to the charity of the world, and as a last request I ask pardon to those I injured, and hope they will forgive me and pray for my soul."

After he said a prayer for William, Reverend Krotel descended the scaffold steps. Manacles were fastened on William's wrists, the noose placed around his neck and a white covering over his head. At precisely seven minutes past noon, the signal was given and the trap doors opened.

At half past twelve, Dr. William Blackwood, the fort's surgeon pronounced William dead. His body was cut down and turned over to Mr. Black, the government's undertaker. He would embalm the body that afternoon and send it to Hannah. William would be the only prisoner known to be executed at Fort Mifflin during the Civil War.

The majority of inhabitants in the Perkiomenville area sympathized with Hannah. Many supports of William attended his funeral at Keelor's Church in Obelisk, PA. The pastor of the congregation, Reverend Henry Wendt conducted the service. Hannah had arranged for William to be buried in the church cemetery. However, the church council did not want it to appear that they supported the antidraft sentiments of the community so they denied his burial in their grounds.

Hannah, her children, and a few friends buried William near a low stone fence within a few yards of her home. A small stone was later placed to mark the gravesite.

Hannah never remarried. By 1870 she was living in Norristown, PA with her two young sons. Her occupation was listed as "keeping house." By 1880, Hannah was working as a cigar maker, Charles, now 19 years old, was apprenticed to a tailor and William, Jr., 17 years old, was working as a farm laborer. Both sons would marry have families.

Hannah died on 4 November 1909 at the age of 76.

On a side note, "Ghost Hunters" investigated Fort Mifflin in Episode 1 of Season 4 in 2008. During their visit, they were shown Casemate 11, which had been buried for more than 130 years and only discovered the prior year. It was the location where William had been placed in solitary confinement during his court-martial.

Steps leading to Casemate 11


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