I’ve been transcribing a book of orders for the Second Military District (Connecticut and Rhode Island) during the War of 1812, for the use of my students next year.
Most of it is pretty dull stuff, but scattered through it are reports from Courts Martial proceedings. There were quite a few desertions, most of which were, to my surprise, punished with hard labor (complete with ball and chain), but every now and then the death penalty was imposed – and then, so far, commuted. For example, here’s one from a Court Martial held in the autumn of 1814:
At the same Court Martial Richard Williams a private in Cap’n Gaylords Comp’y and Nathan Young a private in Cap’n Browns Comp’y were tried on the following charges – viz., Richard Williams a private Soldier in Cap’n Guy Gaylords Company – Charge Desertion, Specification Deserting from Fort Trumbull on the 14th Sept’r 1814 – to which charge & specification the prisoner pleaded Guilty.
The Court after due deliberation two thirds of the members concurring find the prisoner Guilty of the above charges & specification and sentence him to be “Shot to death.”
Nathan Young a private Soldier in Cap’n John Browns Comp’y. – Charge – “Desertion” – Specification deserting from Fort Griswold on or about the 7th Septem’r 1814. – To which charge & specification the prisoner pleaded “Guilty.” The Court after due deliberation & carefully examining the testimony and two thirds of the members concurring find the prisoner Guilty of the above charge and specification – and sentence him to be “Shot to death.”
The Court would recommend to the consideration of the General the sentence of Nathan Young and Richard Williams; altho’ they are aware that the Crime of desertion has become frequent to an alarming degree; and that it requires the most exemplary punishment to check it: yet in consequence of the Soldierlike conduct of the prisoners, anterior and subsequent to their desertion would recommend them to Mercy; But that half their monthly pay should be stopped until the expences which have been incurred in consequence of their apprehension be paid; and that they be confined to hard labour for the term of three months
The Commanding General approves the foregoing sentences as recommended by the Court & orders the stoppages and confinement to be inflicted under the direction of the Commanding Officer of Fort Trumbull.
The awful sentence of death which has been passed on these unhappy men, in hope that the Soldiery in this Military district will duly appreciate the lenity [sic] manifested on this occasion and refrain from the Commission of a crime punishable with “death” by the usages of their Country.
I’ve read that one of the complaints the militia units had about being under U.S. Army discipline was about the strictness of the discipline; thus far, the material I’ve seen suggests that this might have been a bit exaggerated.