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Maine's Hidden History: A Civil War Soldier's Tragic Fate
07/23/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Prepare now for a sad tale. In our ongoing series titled Maine's Hidden History, we look at some of the lesser-known chapters of this state's past. Today: The only military execution to take place in Maine during the Civil War. To find out more, Maine Things Considered host Tom Porter met up recently with local historian and regular Hidden History guest Herb Adams at an historic fort in South Portland.

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Originally Aired: 7/23/2013 5:30 PM
Maine's Hidden History: A Civil War Soldier's Tra Listen


17th Maine image 4127

The 17th Maine Civil War Volunteers, with the identities of some of the members noted.

Herb Adams: "We're down in all that remains of the World War II embattlements of Fort Preble. These big earth berms and iron doors and dank cells are all that's left of the ancient fort, as well. Underneath these big earth berms are the brick walls of the old fort, which was built here in 1808 and stood throughout the Civil War, so we're as close to the exact spot as we could be, of the events we're going to talk about today."

Tom Porter: "And that was when young William H. Laird - or Billy Boy as he was known - a private with the 17th Maine Volunteers, was bought 150 years ago this month, and indeed it was just a few days ago, in 1863 that he shot was for desertion. Tell us his story will you? It's a sad one."

Herb Adams: "Sometimes, events can be so huge and awful it's hard to grasp the whole picture, so often it's one single case, usually small, and usually very sad, which comes to symbolize the whole tragic picture. And such was the case in the Civil War of United States Army Pvt. William Laird of Berwick, Maine, who bears this sad distinction: His was the only military execution in the state of Maine during all the Civil War. And it's a story of layer upon layer of misfortune and tragic timing."


Fort Preble, the site of Pvt. Laird's execution, as it appears today.

The misfortune being that Laird was probably not fit for military service in the first place. He's described as a slow and illiterate boy who joined up in 1862 to be with his friends. The trouble started, says Adams, when Laird was posted to a new unit the following year away from his buddies.

"He was transferred to the artillery and didn't like it. And he said so very loudly," Adams says. "But, alas, that's not a soldier's choice in war time, Tom. He may have been mentally challenged - he could not read or write - enlistment standards were pretty lax back then, and other soldiers in his new companies razzed him terribly, gave him no mercy. So he simply packed up and went home. Alas ,another choice soldiers are not allowed in war time."

Laird deserted and walked all the way back to Berwick, Maine from Maryland where he was based, according to one account, using the North star to guide him. When the Army arrested him, he was working in the fields back home, holding a pitchfork. He was charged with threatening an officer - something he denied.

IMG_0592Nevertheless his fate was sealed, and Laird was sentenced to die by firing squad. The execution took place back at Fort Preble on the afternoon of July 15, 1863.

Herb Adams: "He was marched out here in the brick walls of the old fort, and faced a firing squad of the 17th Maine regulars, the United States Army regulars. Twelve muskets were distributed, 11 loaded, one with blanks. He was forced to kneel beside his own coffin. He was given a chance to speak his last words. He admitted to the desertion, denied any assault on his officers and begged the men to do their work effectually. And the order was given, and it was. Now the story takes a tragic twist."

Tom Porter: "It's already pretty tragic, Herb."

Herb Adams: "Well, double-tragic."

During his incarceration at Fort Preble, says Adams, Laird befriended a universalist minister called Rev. Bowles.

"Rev. Bowles raised a petition signed by prominent Portlanders asking for clemency for the young man, and sent it up through channels, hoping that Lincoln's well-known sympathy for sleeping sentinels and young deserters might be touched," Adams says, "and he heard nothing."

William Laird gravestoneNothing, that is, until the evening after the execution had taken place, when the telegraph machine at Fort Preble suddenly came to life.

"Turns out the petition, in a sense, did work, and Maj. Gen. John Wool of New York had granted a reprieve of one day, so that perhaps the petition might be answered from Washington," Adams says. "Alas, it arrived too long after the fact. And that's because the New York City draft riots were raging, and the mobs had torn down the telegraph lines and delayed all messages in and out of the city for days."

So, on top of the hundreds of people thought to be have been killed in the New York draft riots, one more victim in faraway Maine is added to the list.

Photo of 17th Maine Volunteers: from the collections of the Maine Historical Society. Used by permission.

Photo of William Laird's gravestone in Berwick, Maine, courtesy of Martha Reid 19 UDC Chapter of the Findagrave Project.

Other photos:  Tom Porter


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