TWO MILITARY EXECUTIONS
by Ambrose Bierce
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 much."
"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in the direction of the enemy, who had withdrawn a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
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 rear.
"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.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~