|Vol. IV, No. 4, Spring 1991 / Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 1991|
By Richard W. Hatcher, III
In April 12, 1861, the nation plunged into Civil War and across the country men and boys rushed to join the armies of both sides.
On May 19, 1861, at Leavenworth, Kansas, Joseph W. Cole enlisted as a private in Company G of the 1st Kansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Fifteen days later, Michael E. Stein joined the same company, also as a private. Shortly both would have earned a unique place in Civil War history.
The newly mustered regiment was ordered to Wyandotte, Kansas, and then on to Kansas City. There it joined several other units and was placed under the command of Major Samuel Sturgis. On June 24, the column was ordered to march southeast to join forces with a second column led by Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. On July 2 Sturgis's column reached the north bank of the Grand River, near Clinton, Missouri. The river, swollen from recent rains, could not be crossed, so the Federals set up camp and waited for Lyon. On July 7 Lyon's column joined Sturgis and the combined forces began fording the river.
The army was still crossing the stream the next day when an argument arose between messmates Cole and Stein. Cole drew a knife and stabbed Stein to death.
General Lyon was a strict disciplinarian; under his command military justice was swift and severe. Cole was immediately arrested, tried by a military commission, found guilty, and sentenced to execution by firing squad.
Before Private Cole's sentence could be carried out, however, word came that Colonel Franz Sigel's command had been defeated at Carthage by the Missouri State Guard and was retreating to Springfield. Lyon and his small army had to move to Springfield with all possible speed. Cole's execution would have to wait.
On July 13 Lyon and his command entered Greene County and learned that Sigel and the Union forces located in and about Springfield were safe. Lyon's column went into camp west of town, near Little York at Pond Springs. No time was wasted in preparing for Cole's execution to take place on the afternoon of the next day.
Eugene F. Ware, a Private in the 1st Iowa Infantry, was a witness to the event:
...We were all drawn up on three sides of a hollow square to see the execution. The culprit had been taken out in the morning and compelled to dig his own grave....He sat on a box by his grave. Twenty-eight men were detailed to shoot him. The guns were stacked behind the shooting-squad; one half of the guns were loaded with blank cartridges and one-half with bullets. The men were told this, and each man given a gun, not knowing how it was loaded ....
Frank B. Wilkie, a newspaper correspondent with the Union Army left this account of the final moments of Cole's life:
The fatal command was given--five balls crashed through his heart and then went hissing over the prairie as if they had torn out his soul and were bearing it shrieking away ....
Thus, Private Joseph W. Cole had earned his fame as the first soldier executed in the War. By the end of the Civil War a total of 267 Union soldiers had been executed, more than in any other war in the nation's history. The number of Confederates executed is unknown.
In 1867, when the Springfield, Missouri, National Cemetery was established, the remains of hundreds of Union soldiers were removed from gravesites throughout southwest Missouri and reinterred. Near Little York, the remains of only one Union soldier was located. His remains were removed to the National Cemetery and placed in Section 23, Grave 25. The reinterrment book lists this soldier as "Unknown," his date of death as 1861. Remarks in the record state, "Said by citizens to have belonged to Genl Lyon's command, and to have been shot in camp previous to the Battle of Wilson's Creek."
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