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Civil War soldier executed in Maine for desertion may have been disabled

William Laird’s grave sits in a copse of trees, down an unmarked dirt road in Berwick, overlooking hayfields he worked during the first half of the 19th century.

Laird’s marble tombstone, once forgotten for generations, lays flat, alone and broken into two pieces. It rests on a bed of red pine spills, under two small American flags.

Not much is known about him for certain, other than the U.S. Army executed Laird for desertion at Fort Preble in South Portland in the summer of 1863.

At the time of his death, Laird was thought of as a coward who got what he deserved after abandoning his comrades and shirking his patriotic duty. Today, thanks to contemporary writers and historians, he’s largely remembered as a tragic victim of bullying who had an intellectual disability and was caught up in the cruel machinery of war.

The only soldier shot to death in Maine during the Civil War, Laird was the 20th person executed by a government on Maine soil. Three other Mainers were put to death for desertion amid the conflict, but they all died elsewhere.

Official facts about Laird are slim but hints and traditional lore are copious.

More than 1,300 men were organized into the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment at Cape Elizabeth’s Camp King on Aug. 18, 1862. Laird was there that day and assigned to Company G. New recruits agreed to a three-year hitch in exchange for an initial bounty of $27 — roughly $650 in today’s money.

Laird and the 17th then headed south a few days later and were guarding the capital, along the Potomac River, by fall.

Laird was transferred out of his Maine unit into an artillery battery at Edward’s Ferry, Maryland, around Oct. 11. Approximately two days later, Laird vanished, deserting his post.

Oral histories collected by Richard and Robert Stillings in Berwick maintain Laird had an intellectual disability and was deemed unfit for infantry duty and sent to the battery to care for its horses.

The Stillings, now both dead, also believed that away from his friends and neighbors in the 17th, Laird was mistreated by the soldiers in his new unit.

“He was bullied the whole time he was enlisted,” said Jean Flahive, who wrote a tender, young adult novel about Laird called “Billy Boy” in 2007.

Flahive originally set out to write a non-fiction book but couldn’t find enough hard facts about Laird. Instead, she hewed as close as possible to known details while filling in the gaps with conjecture, some invented characters, and educated guesses.

She definitely believes the oral traditions about Laird and his disability.

“I’ve accepted it as fact,” Flahive said. “It’s such a tragic story and it had to be told.”

Only one, short bit of written evidence testifies to Laird’s mental capacities.

History professor and prolific Cape Elizabeth author William B. Jordan Jr. wrote one paragraph about Laird in his 1996 book “The Red Diamond Regiment.” Jordan describes the Berwick soldier as “lacking common intelligence and illiterate.”

It’s unclear where Jordan got the description or exactly what he meant by it. Jordan died in 2015.

In the book “Civil War Justice,” author Robert Alotta describes Laird’s case as “cut-and-dried” with no mention of any mitigating circumstances.

Military court martial records at the National Archives in Washington D.C., which Flahive has reviewed, do not indicate anything about Laird’s intellectual capacity.

It’s unknown how or when he arrived back in Maine but military records say an army officer found Laird standing in a farm field, manure fork in hand, when he was arrested the following May.

After a brief struggle over the fork, Laird was handcuffed and led into a nearby farmhouse. There, he grabbed a pistol, but when the officer approached him, Laird threw it down.

He was court martialed at Camp Keyes in Augusta on July 2 — the same day his old unit, the 17th, was defending Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg.

Laird’s trial was swift and the sentence, aggravated by his less-than-peaceful arrest, was death by firing squad.

According to a Lewiston newspaper story, at least 16 soldiers were tried for desertion that same day in Augusta. Most were sentenced to hard labor. One other was condemned to death, but the sentence was commuted after clergy intervened.

Laird had no such luck.

There was not much public sympathy for deserters and draft dodgers at the time.

“Let us have no skedaddling,” read one non-bylined item in a Portland paper the week Laird was executed. “But all meet the matter manfully, as a duty we owe the country.”

But the army also seemed willing to draft just about anyone. Directly under the article about Laird’s sentence, the Lewiston Evening Journal reported that a woman, a one-armed man and another man with a prosthetic leg had all been drafted that week.

The story didn’t explain why.

Also, just the week before, a band of Confederate pirates stole and blew up a federal revenue cutter in Portland Harbor. Eight of the rebels were being held prisoner at Fort Preble when Laird arrived there to meet his fate on July 8.

In a letter to his superiors, the fort’s commanding officer complained about having to carry out the death sentence. Maj. George Andrews said his fort was already overburdened with the Confederate prisoners.

“The tone of the major’s letter stresses his concern over security of the prisoners of war rather than the onerous task of executing Union soldiers,” Alotta wrote.

Andrews’ concerns were ignored and Laird was shot by a firing squad on July 15 at 2:38 in the afternoon. He was 30 years old.

After publishing her novel, Flahive was given a copy of a letter, written by a soldier who witnessed Laird’s death. Writing to his family in Mariaville, Henry Frost said Laird was brought out from his cell, blindfolded and made to kneel next to his own coffin.

“When the nine shots were fired he merely fell back without so much as uttering a groan as every ball took effect. Five passing through his heart, one through his right breast and one through his left shoulder, one through his throat, and the other through his right cheek,” Frost wrote. “He was a splendid striking man.”

Frost added that he thought Laird’s death was an appropriate warning to anyone thinking of deserting during the Civil War.

In his book, Alotta states all Civil War military death sentences were carried out under strict uniform rules which included executing soldiers in civilian clothes and placing bodies face down in their coffins as a sign of disgrace.

Frost ended his letter home with a remarkable post script.

“I am going to send two buttons which I cut from the vest of the man that was shot here yesterday,” he wrote. “One is for mother and the other one is for grandmother.”

Frost’s family still has one of the two buttons.

Portland newspapers didn’t report Laird’s death until a few days later, and only on inside pages, saying the execution had been carried out in private. With the Civil War’s horrendous death tolls mounting daily, it seems Laird was not big — or sympathetic — news.

“Our government has been very lenient in its treatment of deserters but the time has arrived when it has become absolutely necessary to impress upon soldiers the magnitude of this military crime,” wrote the Portland Transcript, with an editorial flourish, in its short article about Laird.

Gen. John Wool, commander of the Department of the East, ordered a stay of Laird’s execution, pending a presidential review, but his telegram came too late.

“Wool’s order was delayed because of damage to telegraph lines in New York by [draft] rioters and did not arrive until several hours after the execution,” wrote Jordan.

It’s not known why Wool sought to stay Laird’s sentence.

After his death, the unfortunate soldier from Maine slipped into obscurity until the Stillings brothers set out to research every veteran in Berwick. They are the ones who finally relocated Laird’s out-of-the-way resting place.

According to Flahive, they were about to give up searching one day in the woods when Richard Stillings felt a vibration in the earth beneath his feet. It’s the exact spot where they found the toppled tombstone, under four or five inches of soil.

The Stillings’ dedication to Laird’s story inspired Flahive to write her book. Now, she speaks about Laird and the effects of bullying on a regular basis. She also often fields random phone calls from strangers wanting to know how they can find, and pay their respects, at the soldier’s grave.

“I get that all the time and it’s beautiful,” Flahive said. “It’s kept him very much alive.”

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(c) 2022 the Bangor Daily News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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