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The Second Mass and Its Fighting Californians

A Reference site of images, articles, artifacts of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry including the Cal 100 and the Cal Battalion.

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The Execution of a Traitor

The following diary entries tell a story.  

February 6, Saturday
Sent for Caseys tickets. Private Jones, Co. L was buried this afternoon. Was at the funeral.
The 2nd Bat. returned to camp this evening. They brought with them Private Omsby of Co. E who deserted from his post at Lewinsville some two weeks ago. He led a charge on the guard of the column while passing through Aldie. The court was called together this eve to examine his case. (Dress Parade)

February 7, Sunday
Fur butter, washing etc. 75˘
Weather dark and cloudy.
Inspection of arms and quarters at 9 a.m. At eleven a.m. the Brigade was formed on the sides of a hollow square to witness the execution of Private Wm. Omsby Co. E, 2nd Mass. Cav., who was sentenced to be shot for deserting to the enemy. He bore it bravely. He died at half past twelve with two bullets in his left breast. Sad, sad, indeed. ---Diary of Valorous Dearborn

"Just before his eyes were bandaged, he stepped up before the firing party, placed his hand upon his heart, and said "boys, I hope you will fire well." He was then seated upon his coffin, his eyes bandaged; the word was given to the firing party, and William E. Ormsby was in eternity." ---Diary of Samuel J. Corbett 2/7/1864

Private Ormsby was admittedly a traitor but there are several extenuating circumstances in his case. Some months prior to his desertion he was arrested and confined to the regiments jail. The charges were that in the course of returning to camp with two prisoners he accepted a bribe from one of them to release the prisoner. He denied the charges and was finally released.

He was convicted by a drum head court martial, a type of trial that was illegal under Army Regulations.  If a unit was in touch with headquarters they were required to call a general court martial.  Lowell was aware of the regulation, a fact his wife commented on in "Life and Letters of Charles Russell Lowell."  Lowell was a strict disciplinarian, who had shot a soldier who refused to obey his orders.  Desertions in the regiment were high particularly among the new recruits from New England and New York.  Perhaps he felt he needed to set an example. Perhaps he feared that a regularly constituted court might result in an easier sentence or even a pardon. At any rate he went ahead with a drumhead court martial where the sentence was not subject to review.

In spite of the number of Harvard graduates among the officers who would have far more capable, Chaplain Humphreys acted as Ormsby’s defense attorney. In the course of the trial Humphreys mentioned another consideration, Ormsby had fallen in love with a local southern woman. One wonders how Ormsby’s execution would have "played in the press" if this item had been seen by the public.

James McLean