The Execution of Henry Anderson, 9th Michigan cavalry
by Gordon Thorsby
Who was Henry Anderson? What was he like growing up? Was he a hard working young man? Did he have a girl or was he already possibly married and with children? There is nothing. However, here is the story about the end of one Henry Anderson.
Henry Anderson’s residence is unknown but he probably lived on a farm in the south central Irish Hills of Michigan. His enlistment was at Noble (then a small crossroads and today, not much larger) on May 20, 1864 at his stated age of 21. When he reached the field, Henry was assigned to Co. D since Coldwater was the closest major town to Noble. Henry’s first taste of battle was during the pursuit and destruction of Morgan’s cavalry the battle at Cynthiana, KY.
Within a short time, the 9th was called in to participate in Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Carolinas Campaign and the 9th was the only Michigan mounted unit to do so. Kilpatrick’s cavalry led the way for Sherman’s two foraging armies and the ninth was in the final fight where the last hostile shot was fired in the war east of the Mississippi.
The war in Georgia and the Carolinas different, hard, and waged on soldiers and civilians alike. Foraging, looting and burning was natural. The lines between morality and immorality changed with the circumstances of a given day. Both sides violated a decency for life of innocents. Sherman tried to lessen the terror being committed to the civilian countryside but his edicts did not have their intended effect.
Individual officers attempted to get order but efforts were inconsistent, soldiers received conflicting orders and destruction continued. On April 26, Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston, his army starving and evaporating before his eyes surrendered at Bennett Place (today northwest of Durham.) The XXIII Corps was ordered west to Greensboro and the 9th Cavalry proceeded beyond that to nearby Lexington. Roving bands of Confederate cavalry guerillas continued executing Union foragers and retribution by Union troops were taken out on civilians. All of these factors with readily available alcohol and that is when Henry Anderson made his fatal mistake.
Lt. William Collin Stevens of the 9th Michigan Cavalry reported a tragic incident (occurred somewhere between 4/28-5/2) “involving a new recruit, Henry Anderson, who was to be court-martialed for “murdering a citizen”, a sentence that if guilty would be execution. Anderson and two others had been out in the countryside and got drunk. Meeting two citizens in a buggy, he demanded their money. When refused, Anderson pulled a pistol and shot one while the other ran to the woods. Anderson was tried back in Lexington before a military commission. His excuse was the alcohol that blurred his judgment but his was act was simple, true and witnessed. He was found guilty of the murder of a Lexington citizen and he was to be executed by firing squad. "At his execution, he [Anderson] warned the assembly of soldiers of the dangers of alcohol.” After his statement, Capt. W.H.S Banks gave the command and six men fired their Spencer rifles into Henry Anderson, May 3, 1865. It was two weeks shy of the first year of his enlistment in the 9th Michigan cavalry.
The person that Anderson killed is not known today. There is no recognized location of Anderson's burial, whether an unmarked grave or as an unknown. He is not buried in a National Cemetery in North Carolina where soldiers were buried, not criminals. May 3, 1865 was simply the end of one Henry Anderson and all that was of him disappeared from the earth as well.
The regiment marched to Concord (near Charlotte) on the 14 July, where they were mustered out of service on the 21st, then sent by rail to Jackson, Michigan, paid off and disbanded to return home but not Henry.
There is no known photo of Anderson. In the records of the regimental history, there is not a report, no comment, not even a footnote. He is not a number in the regiment killed or died of disease. He existed only as a procedure in a military document of a trial and with that he is erased from human existence. When people relate of stories of their comrades in the 9th Michigan Cavalry, there is no mention of Private Henry Anderson or even his execution.
Henry Anderson became simply a nothing. That is except for a freed slave, George Moses Horton, a self-taught man not allowed by his owner to read. He had been freed with Sherman’s invasion north, and had befriended Banks, the commander of the firing squad.
George witnessed Anderson's execution and wrote a poem. The first and last verses are below:
“Execution of Private Henry Anderson,,Co. D 9th Mich. Cav. Vols.”
This Verse is plain that all may understand,
The scene is solemn and expressly grand;
The must’ring concourse form’d in great array,
Betrayed the fate of the expiring day;
Gazing spectators seemed completely dumb,
Beneath the sound of bugle and the drum;
The fun’ral march attracted every eye,
To see the trembling malefactor die;
O, memorable eve, not soon forgot,
We never can the scene portray,
The ghastly aspect of the fatal day.
Inspiring depradations all the night,
And thus betrayed the death at morning light;
Thus flies the deadly shaft without control-
He fell upon his coffin, O my soul!
Let all that live the scene appall-
He died! No more to live at all, at all!
Note: Henry Anderson wasn’t the only 9th Michigan sentenced to death. Private Solomon Siegel earned a death sentence in Kentucky in 1864, but it was commuted by Abraham Lincoln.
“County men served in the Civil War's 9th Calvary, Company D”, by Roger D. Evans, published 12/4/2021.
Hearts Torn Asunder, by Dollar Jr., Ernest A.., Savas Beatie, 2022.
Lincoln’s Virtues, William Lee Miller, First Vintage Books, 2009.
Historical Data Systems Inc., Po Box 25, Duxbury, MA 02331.
Source: Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, CHAP. LIX. [Series I. Vol. 47. Part I, Reports. Serial No. 98.]