Two Military Executions
In the spring of the year 1862 General Buell’s big army lay in camp,
licking itself into shape for the campaign which resulted in the
victory at Shiloh. It was a raw, untrained army, although some of
its fractions had seen hard enough service, with a good deal of
fighting, in the mountains of Western Virginia, and in Kentucky.
The war was young and soldiering a new industry, imperfectly
understood by the young American of the period, who found some
features of it not altogether to his liking. Chief among these was
that essential part of discipline, subordination. To one imbued
from infancy with the fascinating fallacy that all men are born
equal, unquestioning submission to authority is not easily mastered,
and the American volunteer soldier in his “green and salad days” is
among the worst known. That is how it happened that one of Buell’s
men, Private Bennett Story Greene, committed the indiscretion of
striking his officer. Later in the war he would not have done that;
like Sir Andrew Aguecheek, he would have “seen him damned” first.
But time for reformation of his military manners was denied him: he
was promptly arrested on complaint of the officer, tried by court-
martial and sentenced to be shot.
“You might have thrashed me and let it go at that,” said the
condemned man to the complaining witness; “that is what you used to
do at school, when you were plain Will Dudley and I was as good as
you. Nobody saw me strike you; discipline would not have suffered
“Ben Greene, I guess you are right about that,” said the lieutenant.
“Will you forgive me? That is what I came to see you about.”
There was no reply, and an officer putting his head in at the door
of the guard-tent where the conversation had occurred, explained
that the time allowed for the interview had expired. The next
morning, when in the presence of the whole brigade Private Greene
was shot to death by a squad of his comrades, Lieutenant Dudley
turned his back upon the sorry performance and muttered a prayer for
mercy, in which himself was included.
A few weeks afterward, as Buell’s leading division was being ferried
over the Tennessee River to assist in succoring Grant’s beaten army,
night was coming on, black and stormy. Through the wreck of battle
the division moved, inch by inch, in the direction of the enemy, who
had withdrawn a little to reform his lines. But for the lightning
the darkness was absolute. Never for a moment did it cease, and
ever when the thunder did not crack and roar were heard the moans of
the wounded among whom the men felt their way with their feet, and
upon whom they stumbled in the gloom. The dead were there, too–
there were dead a-plenty.
In the first faint gray of the morning, when the swarming advance
had paused to resume something of definition as a line of battle,
and skirmishers had been thrown forward, word was passed along to
call the roll. The first sergeant of Lieutenant Dudley’s company
stepped to the front and began to name the men in alphabetical
order. He had no written roll, but a good memory. The men answered
to their names as he ran down the alphabet to G.
The sergeant’s good memory was affected by habit:
The response was clear, distinct, unmistakable!
A sudden movement, an agitation of the entire company front, as from
an electric shock, attested the startling character of the incident.
The sergeant paled and paused. The captain strode quickly to his
side and said sharply:
“Call that name again.”
Apparently the Society for Psychical Research is not first in the
field of curiosity concerning the Unknown.
All faces turned in the direction of the familiar voice; the two men
between whom in the order of stature Greene had commonly stood in
line turned and squarely confronted each other.
“Once more,” commanded the inexorable investigator, and once more
came–a trifle tremulously–the name of the dead man:
“Bennett Story Greene.”
At that instant a single rifle-shot was heard, away to the front,
beyond the skirmish-line, followed, almost attended, by the savage
hiss of an approaching bullet which passing through the line, struck
audibly, punctuating as with a full stop the captain’s exclamation,
“What the devil does it mean?”
Lieutenant Dudley pushed through the ranks from his place in the
“It means this,” he said, throwing open his coat and displaying a
visibly broadening stain of crimson on his breast. His knees gave
way; he fell awkwardly and lay dead.
A little later the regiment was ordered out of line to relieve the
congested front, and through some misplay in the game of battle was
not again under fire. Nor did Bennett Greene, expert in military
executions, ever again signify his presence at one.