December 1861 brings a heartrending scene

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Special to The Journal

At 11:30 a.m. on the beautiful, crisp morning of December 9, 1861, several thousand somber Confederate soldiers in General Edmund Kirby Smith's division formed a three-sided square around a slight natural depression outside their camp near Centreville, Virginia. The little hollow was to serve as a natural amphitheater for the drama to come. Outside the ranks, both soldiers and civilians climbed into trees and onto rooftops to get a better view, for this was no ordinary muster. A military court had convicted two men for attacking an officer and trying to free some prisoners from a guard house. The sentence was death by firing squad.

The condemned men were Privates Dennis Corcoran and Michael O'Brien of the Louisiana Tiger Rifles. Outfitted in colorful Zouave uniforms, the Tiger Rifles was one of five companies that made up Major Roberdeau Wheat's 1st Special Battalion, Louisiana Infantry. The battalion had gained considerable fame in both the North and South for its almost reckless bravery at First Bull Run, but it was the men's behavior off the battlefield that garnered the most attention. In a letter home informing his sister of the men's execution, a fellow Louisianian wrote, "They were of the notorious Tiger company, which you have no doubt heard of." One Maryland soldier claimed the battalion was "a rough set of men who had to be ruled with a strong hand," and a Georgian wrote that they were a "wild set of men and may well be called 'tigers.'"

Since its arrival in Virginia, Wheat's Battalion had engaged in several bloody brawls with other units, and many of the men had been arrested for robbery and other criminal activity. Soldiers and civilians, alike, viewed them as dangerous criminals, and the battalion had created so much mayhem that brigade commander General Richard Taylor claimed "every commander desired to be rid of it." Because of the rowdy Tiger Rifles, Wheat's Battalion was soon nicknamed the Tiger Battalion, and eventually all Louisiana soldiers in the army became known as Louisiana Tigers (see the September 13, 2011, DISUNION article "The Terrifying Tigers").

Corcoran and O'Brien were convicted of striking Col. Harry T. Hays, commander of the 7th Louisiana. Some of Wheat's men had shared their whiskey with members of the 21st Georgia, but the Georgians promptly absconded with the bottle. A fight broke out between the two units, and several Tigers were placed in the guard house. On November 29, Corcoran and O'Brien led a group of Tigers in trying to free their comrades and during the scuffle they struck Colonel Hays

Despite the seriousness of the men's crime, Major Wheat pleaded for leniency. Wheat loved his Tigers, and one of the condemned men had risked his own life to help carry Wheat from the Bull Run battlefield after Wheat had been shot through the lung. But General Taylor turned a deaf ear and approved the death sentence because he believed strict discipline had to be established to tame the Tigers. Most sources claim that Taylor even chose twelve men from Corcoran's and O'Brien's own Tiger Rifles to serve as the executioners. A Louisiana soldier, however, wrote his wife that Corcoran and O'Brien requested that they be shot by their own comrades and that the chosen men were distraught at being forced to do it. Whatever the case, Wheat reportedly begged Taylor not to use the Tiger Rifles because he was afraid they might refuse to fire when ordered. Taylor stood firm, however, and the twelve men were selected.

A few days before their execution, Corcoran and O'Brien published the following farewell letter in a local newspaper:

"Fellow Soldiers: We are standing upon the eve of eternity; in a few shorts hours we will have learned the hidden mysteries of the unknown world; may God in his infinite mercy accept our humble, heartfelt repentance as an atonement for our past sins. And may the rendering up of our lives prove a benefit to the souls of our companions and a lesson to all to guard against the vice of drunkenness. We are to suffer death in vindication of laws outraged while we were under the influence of reason-destroying liquor. We acknowledge the justice of our sentence, and from our hearts freely forgive those whose sworn duty it was to try our case, and also all others who were in any way instrumental in our condemnation. Oh, brother soldiers, let this our unexpected and untimely end prove a warning to you; and should it be the means of saving you from the soul-destroying vice, we will not have died in vain. Here we are to bid a last adieu to our beloved and brave officers . . . They have led us in the thickest of the fight, and as we speak these, our last words of farewell, we ask them to do justice to our memories, and give us a soldier's epitaph. To our spiritual adviser, we simply say, Father Smoulders, Holy Father, through your instrumentality we have been led to seek pardon for our sins, and we feel within that God, through the intercession of the blessed Saviour, will not shut the gates of mercy against us. Father, with our dying breath we bless thee, and when we meet our Judge we will bear witness of your labors in our behalf. We die good Catholics, placing our reliance upon a merciful God, whom we hope will pardon all our sins and permit us to enjoy an eternity of bliss.

One of us has three brothers in the army, and when they learn of his untimely end let them think that although called upon to suffer for a violation of military law, we die a soldier's death; and although we would rather have died upon the field of battle, fighting as we have done for our beloved country, yet in dying thus no ignominy is attached to our death, and we cheerfully yield our lives a sacrifice upon the altar of military order and discipline, without which we could never hope to gain the glorious liberty for which we fight.

To our beloved mother and dear sister far away, a long heartfelt farewell. The God of the widow and the orphan will strengthen them in this their hour of trial. Dear mother and sister, we shall meet in heaven-farewell.

And now to our companions in arms, our friends: Boys, do us justice. Speak of us as you knew us. We fought side by side with you upon the Potomac shores, and on the bloodstained field of Manassas.

We have mingled in intimate connection with you all for some months past, with some for years; forgive us for all our faults as we sincerely forgive all who have grieved us. Look upon our deaths as a means of salvation to our souls, and a service to the cause in which we have all been engaged. And now, our dear companions and friends, let us exhort you to abstain from liquor, act as we know you will, subordinate to your superiors officers, fight well the good fight, and our dying prayers are for the triumph of liberty-our glorious country; and that you all, Holy Father, officers, companions, brothers, sister and beloved mother, may meet us in that bright and happy land, where there is no wars, no dying, and no separation. We die trusting in God, and leave our memories with our friends. Do not mangle us, aim at our hearts! Tigers, a last farewell."

The heartfelt farewell touched the men now assembled on the hillside. The two Tigers manfully admitted their guilt, accepted their fate, and forgave everyone involved in their execution. As a result, many of the soldiers who were forced to watch the execution felt sympathy for the two condemned men.

On that beautiful December morning, the silent division watched as a band approached playing the mournful "Dead March." A covered wagon, escorted by two companies of infantry with fixed bayonets, followed the band and slowly drove to the open side of the square. Inside the wagon Corcoran and O'Brien sat on their coffins, surrounded by three officers and a Catholic priest (assumed to have been Father Smoulders). The wagon came to a halt, and Corcoran and O'Brien stepped out near two stakes that had been driven into the ground about six feet apart. Next to the stakes were two freshly dug graves.

A colonel rode up to Corcoran and O'Brien and read to them the charges for which they had been convicted and the sentence of death. Their hands were then tied behind their backs and they were led backwards to the stakes. When they were made to kneel, one of the men began to struggle slightly, but the priest leaned down and calmed him with a few quiet words. The two men were then leaned back against the stakes and tied fast.

For one last time, the priest stepped forward to administer to Corcoran and O'Brien. An eyewitness wrote, "The priest is seen going constantly from one to the other of the two criminals, comforting them in preparing them for the awful death. . . .He holds to their lips a crucifix, which they passionately kiss and over which they pray. The doomed men maintained a remarkable coolness, never flinching when the priest bade them farewell and stepped aside. . . ."

An officer then walked up and tied a bandage over each man's eyes. When he retired, the twelve unfortunate Tigers who made up the firing squad were brought forward. Two sergeants commanded six men each, and each squad took up a firing position just twenty-five yards from Corcoran and O'Brien.

The Tigers were not aware of it, but General Taylor had heeded Major Wheat's warning that the men might not obey the order to fire. To make sure the executions were carried out, one company of Colonel Henry B. Kelly's 8th Louisiana stood behind the twelve men with loaded muskets. Colonel Kelly was prepared to execute the executioners if the need arose. The concern was unwarranted, however, for the order "Ready! Aim! Fire!" was given and a dozen muskets split the crisp December air with a thunderous volley. The two men were dead by the time the echoes faded into the hills. Afterward, one soldier wrote that Corcoran and O'Brien "died bravely."

In the hushed silence that followed, a lone Tiger broke ranks, ran up to Corcoran's body, and gently held and caressed it. "It was heart-rending," a correspondent wrote, "to see the poor brother's agony." After the burial, a number of soldiers ghoulishly combed the site for pieces of the stakes and other souvenirs until the distraught Tigers Rifles angrily dispersed them with fixed bayonets.

Major Wheat was the only man in the division who was excused from attending the execution. According to one soldier, he remained in his tent that morning "sobbing like a broken-hearted woman. All felt for him and pitied him."\par }{\plain The execution of Corcoran and O'Brien was the first in what would become General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, but it would not be the last. Approximately 500 Union and Confederate soldiers were shot or hanged during the Civil War for various crimes. That is more military executions than in all of our other wars combined.

There is a moving postscript to Dennis Corcoran's and Michael O'Brien's sad end. The residents of the Centreville area remembered the story of the executions, and in the 1930s a historical marker was erected on the site to commemorate the event. Unfortunately, the location of the two men's graves was forgotten over time.

In 1979, National Park Service historian Michael R. Thomas discovered that the execution site was going to be developed and received permission from the land owner to search for the lost graves. Remarkably, Thomas and his colleagues located them and excavated some teeth, bone fragments, a crucifix, and even pieces of Zouave uniforms. On December 9, 1979-the 118th anniversary of their deaths-Corcoran's and O'Brien's remains were reinterred in St. John's Episcopal Church in Centreville.

A Civil War firing squad (Harper's Weekly)
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has published six books on the American Civil War.