1861: Joseph Howland to Eliza Newton (Woolsey) Howland

Capt. Joseph Howland

This letter was written by Capt. Joseph Howland (1834-1886) to his wife, Eliza Newton (Woolsey) Howland (1835-1917). Joseph was the son of Samuel Shaw Howland (1791-1853) and Joanna Esther Hone (1799-1848). Eliza was the daughter of Charles William Woolsey (1802-1840) and Jane Eliza Newton (1801-1874). They were married in January 1855 in New York City.

Joseph Howland enlisted in May 1861 and was commissioned an officer in 16th New York Infantry where he served as an adjutant. In September 1861 he was promoted to captain and Assistant Adjutant General (AAG). He rose quickly in rank to Colonel of the 16th New York Infantry but in June 1862, during the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, he took a bullet in the thigh which eventually and essentially ended his military career.

After the war, Howland was New York State Treasurer from 1866 to 1867, elected on the Republican ticket. He also had an active role in drafting the trust deeds for Cornell University and in organizing the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane, the humane treatment of the mentally ill being one of his and his wife’s great concerns.

Addressed to Mrs. Joseph Howland, Washington D. C.


Headquarters 7th Brigade
December 13, 1861

My dearest wife,

This has been a melancholy day. The whole division has been out to witness the military execution of a deserter [William Henry Johnson] who was shot to death at three o’clock this afternoon on the division parade ground. ¹ The case was clear and the execution was eminently right, but it was none the less a terrible thing come to think of. He willfully deserted to the enemy but fell by chance into the hands of a patrol of our own force which he mistook for rebels. He declared himself a deserter and offered to show the supposed enemy how to capture our picket guards at Benton’s Tavern. He also gave all the information respecting our position and force he could give and there is strong circumstantial evidence tending to prove he enlisted with the intention of deserting and that he was in correspondence with the rebels. He was tried by the General Court now is session in this brigade, was found “guilty,” confessed his guilt. and was sentenced to be shot to death with musketry at 3 P.M. this day.

The division was formed in three sides of a square — like this [sketch] — and where the cross is, the execution took place. The scene was the most impressive I ever saw. I will tell you all about it when I see you. The man was a Roman Catholic and had two priests with him all the time who seemed to be anxious he should be shot as he had confessed and been absolved, and all that sort of thing, and was as innocent as a lamb and ready to go to heaven.

The General and I rode off when the execution actually took place but I shall not easily forget the impression that the rattle of the carbines made on me as I realized that a man was being deliberately put to death for perjury and treason.

Execution of William H. Johnson described by Howland’s letter

I was very glad to hear from Mr. Hopkins today that you were quite well again. I shall be in on Sunday and see for myself.

Elia Newton Woolsey Howland

Thank you for your note of yesterday morning. I return Mr. Hone’s letter with my remarks. It was very kind in S. Williams even to think of sending a library to the men of the 16th [New York Infantry].

We had a splendid brigade drill today only marred by the old colonel eccentricities. ² He does so hate to take orders that he is constantly getting his battalion out of place and in confusion.

I have no more news for you. I am well and so is Mopsie and rest of the staff. Good night darling. Love to Sister Biffim

— Joe

¹ “On December 13, 1861, the first execution of a deserter in the Army of the Potomac was carried out in a field just outside Alexandria near the Fairfax Seminary, now known as the Virginia Theological Seminary.  The drumhead court-martial and execution of Private William H. Johnson, of the First New York Cavalry (“Lincoln Cavalry”), received widespread press coverage and served as a stern warning to the potential, though relatively rare, fate that awaited deserters.” See full article in Civil War, Washington D. C.]

² This was probably Thomas Alfred Davies (1809-1899), the first colonel of the 16th New York Infantry. He was an 1829 graduate of West Point. 


Griff View All →

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.

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