Execution of spies provokes response

The Western Reserve Chronicle of 150 years ago today reported the execution of two Confederate spies, Capt. William Francis Corbin and Lt. Thomas Jefferson McGraw, at the prison for prisoners of war near Sandusky on May 15, 1863.

The Kentucky natives had been arrested on or about April 9, 1863, within Union lines near Rouse’s Mills Pendleton County, Ky. The men were acting under a recruiting commission from Confederate Brig. Gen. Humphrey Marshall and had a number of recruits with them. In addition, Corbin was carrying mail, communications and information to persons in arms against the U.S. Government.

Corbin and McGraw were tried before a military commission in Cincinnati on April 22, 1863. They were found guilty of all charges brought against them and sentenced to death.

Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding officer of the Department of the Ohio, ordered Corbin and McGraw to be sent in irons to Johnson’s Island, depot of prisoners of war, near Sandusky, to be executed on May 15, 1863. General Orders No. 114, issued by the War Department in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1863, indicated the approval of the president of the United States in the cases of Corbin and McGraw.

The Western Reserve Chronicle stated that “the execution was strictly military, none being allowed on the island except the soldiery, officers of the government, and reporters of the press.”

The graphic account, recorded by F.W. Cogswell of the Sandusky Register, was transmitted to other newspapers across the North by Telegraph Operator George Switzer, who also attended the execution. The Chronicle’s account is as follows:

“In the morning, the prisoners in the yard were restricted to close quarters, and the island strongly picketed. At 1 p.m., the battalion was formed by Captain Thomas Linnel, and marched to the spot of execution, on the south side of the island, fronting the bay.

”At twenty minutes past 1, the prisoners, securely bound, guarded by the execution party, accompanied by their escort and chaplain, left the prison, and were placed in a two-horse wagon, seated on a coffin, the spiritual adviser, Rev. Robert McCune, sitting between them, and proceeded to the beach, the band playing the dead march.

“The battalion formed in hallow square, the execution party in the center, front facing the prisoners, Major William S. Pierson and staff on the right. The proceedings of the court-martial, findings and sentence, were then read by Adjutant Bailey, after which the Chaplain stepped forward beside the condemned and said:

“‘I am desired by these unfortunate men to return their thanks to the commander of this post, and to all of the men with whom they have had intercourse, for the kindness and sympathy they have received since their arrival here.

”’I am also charged by them to say to all in attendance that they die forgiving all enemies and accusers, and in love and charity with all men, believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that they have thus far been concerned and gained by its truths, that trusting in the mercy of God, through Christ, they have good hope of eternal life.’

“After an eloquent and fervent prayer by the Rev. McCune, the condemned were blindfolded, the necessary orders were given by the Provost Marshal, and at forty minutes past one, Corbin and McGraw paid the penalty of their acts.”

“The execution party consisted of 32 men, divided into squads, half being a reserve. The firing was excellent – sixteen shots fired being as that of one man. The criminals fell back upon their coffins, each pierced through the breast, within the circle of a few inches, by twenty-five balls and buckshot, and died without a struggle. Corbin did not move a muscle, McGraw gasped but once.

”The bodies were then examined by surgeons, and life found extinct. The troops were then marched past the bodies, the band playing the dead march, thence to the parade ground and were dismissed.”

So ended the story of the execution as it appeared in the Western Reserve Chronicle. Three days after the events at Johnson’s Island, reporter Cogswell provided additional information on the executions which appeared in the Sandusky Register. Here follows some of those quotes:

“The firing was worthy of note. … In the sixteen muskets there were fourteen balls and forty-two buckshot, being seven balls and twenty-one shots for each of the condemned. … The guns of the execution party were loaded by the officer in command, four of them with blank cartridges, the day previous, kept under lock and key over night, and delivered to the execution party in the morning, so that neither officers nor men know who fired harmlessly.

“Their remains were immediately taken in charge by a detail of men, and kindly and carefully prepared for the narrow house. They were coffined and boxed and brought over (to Sandusky) to be conveyed to their friends in Kentucky for interment…”

Before going to the place of execution, Corbin and McGraw handed the post chaplain, the Rev. Robert McCune “brief memoranda of their birth, age, etc.” Corbin also gave McCune a letter he had received the evening before his execution from the Rev. Robert Graham, pastor of the Eighth Street Christian Church (Disciples) in Cincinnati. In part, Graham wrote as follows:

“May 13, 1863 to Mr. W. F. Corbin – Dear and afflicted Brother: I am charged by your sister to assure you that neither she nor your mother can attach ignominy to your memory. …She requested me to inform you what efforts had been made by her and your friends to obtain a reprieve or commutation of your penalty…

”Mr. Patterson, who saw you during your confinement here (Cincinnati), Brother Bishop, and myself had an interview with General Burnside and presented him a petition on your behalf, signed by some of the most influential citizens of your county (Campbell County, Kentucky). The General treated us very kindly and heard all we had to say. He assured us it would be one of the happiest acts of his life to recommend you and McGraw to the clemency of the president…

”Mr. DeMoss and your sister went on immediately to Washington and used all their power and the influence of friends enlisted in your behalf to get the President to commute your sentence.” They returned to Cincinnati without pardons for Corbin or McGraw.

The Sandusky Register printed the following biographical information on Corbin and McGraw:

“William F. Corbin was born March 8th, 1833, in Campbell County, Kentucky. He joined the Masonic order when 21 years of age and the Christian Church (Disciples) the next year. He joined the rebel army in October, 1862, and came to Kentucky in February, 1863, and was taken prisoner on the night of April 8th last. At the time of his death, he was an elder in the Christian Church at Flagg Springs, Kentucky.

“Thomas J. McGraw was born in Harrison County, Kentucky, on the 8th of June, 1829. In 1850 he moved to Campbell County, Kentucky, where he lived at the time he enlisted in the rebel army, in April, 1862, in the 5th Kentucky volunteers.

”In February, 1863, he was sent to Kentucky by General Humphrey Marshal, to recruit a company for his command, and was taken prisoner, April 9th last. He concludes his memoranda as follows: ‘I joined the Christian Church at California, Kentucky, in 1856, and leave a mother, two sisters, a brother, and friends to mourn my loss. But their loss is my gain. Prepare to meet me in Heaven. I freely forgive all men as God, for Christ’s sake, has forgiven me.'”

Corbin and McGraw’s story does not end here. On May 22, 1863, Robert Ould, Agent for Exchange of Prisoners, war Department, Richmond,Virginia, wrote to Lt. Col. William H. Ludlow, the Union Agent for Exchange of Prisoners:

“Sir: I perceive by the Northern papers that Captains McGraw and Corbin were shot death with musketry on Friday, the 15th instant, at or near Sandusky, Ohio.

”These are the cases which I brought to your attention when last I saw you. These men were duly authorized to recruit within the limits of Kentucky. They were tried by a court-martial upon the charge of recruiting within your lines. They were sentenced to be shot and that sentence was approved by General Burnside and President Lincoln.

”The Confederate Government has ordered that two captains now in our custody shall be selected for execution in retaliation for this gross barbarity. The order will be speedily executed.”

On May 25, 1863, Lt. Col. Ludlow fired back this notice to Robert Ould:

“Sir: Captains McGraw and Corbin were executed upon conviction of being spies. They were also guilty of recruiting within our lines.

”Without waiting to know the facts or evidence in these cases (for you have admitted that you are acting on mere general newspaper statements which give neither facts or evidence) orders have been given as you inform me that two of our officers now in your custody are to be selected for execution in retaliation for what you term ‘gross barbarity,’ and that the order will be speedily executed.

”I give you formal notice, that for each officer so executed, one of your officers in our hands will be immediately put to death and if this number be not sufficient, it will be increased.

”The United States Government have been most lenient in their treatment of prisoners who have fallen into their hands…They (Corbin and McGraw) have been taken in citizens’ dress under all the circumstances clearly surrounding the character of a spy… And yet you propose to select brave and honorable officers who have been captured in fair and open fight on the battlefield and barbarously put them to death in retaliation for the just punishment of spies.”

From the Confederate Prison in Richmond, Virginia, came the following announcement on July 6, 1863:

“In accordance with instructions in Special Orders, No. 160, I have selected by lot from the entire number of Federal captains confined in this prison (not including two in hospital under medical treatment) two for execution, viz, Capt. Henry Washington Sawyer, Company K, First New Jersey Cavalry; Capt. John M. Flinn, Company F, Fifty-first Indiana Infantry.”

The order was endorsed by Brig. Gen. J. H. Winder to the Confederate War Department asking for instructions as to time of execution.

Only July 16, 1863, Lt. Col. Ludlow notified Robert Ould, the Confederate Agent, as follows:

“Sir: I am directed to inform you that Brigadier-General William H. F. Lee (the second son of Robert E. Lee) and another officer not below the rank of captain, and whose name I will send to you by the next flag of truce, have been selected as hostages for Capt. H. W. Sawyer, First New Jersey Cavalry, and Capt. John M? Flinn, Fifty-first Regiment Indiana Volunteers, whom you inform me have been chosen by lot for execution.

”Upon information being received of the execution, by order of you authorities, of these officers or any other officers or men in the service of the United States not guilty of crimes punishable with death by laws of war, the Confederate officers above named will be immediately hung in retaliation, without giving you other for further notice.

”I am directed further to inform you that the United States Government will proceed to retaliate for every similar barbarous violation of the laws of civilized war.”

In his year-end report to President Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton noted that “two prisoners, Captain Sawyer and Flinn, held by the rebels, are sentenced to death by way of pretended retaliation for two prisoners tried and shot as spies by command of Major-General Burnside. Two rebel officers have been designated and are held as hostages for them.”

With the confinement of the son of Robert E. Lee and another officer of lower rank at Fort Monroe, the proceedings at Richmond were checked. In March 1864, Sawyer and Flinn were exchanged for officers of like grade, and W.H.F. Lee was exchanged for Brigadier General Dow.

The remains of William F. Corbin and Thomas J. McGraw were delivered by steamboat on the Ohio River to California, Kentucky in Campbell County, south east of Cincinnati, for burial.

Compiled by members of the CW150 Committee of Warren’s Sutliff Museum.