Wednesday, April 6, 1864

Nashville, Tennessee

I am concerned that some of the troops are taking the law into their own hands:

TO JOSEPH HOLT
Nashville, Tennessee April 6,1864
Col. Joseph Holt, Judge-Advocate-General, Washington:

Sir:
I wrote you from Memphis some time ago asking your specific instructions as to the power of a commander of an army in the field to approve and execute the sentence of death. I have not yet time nor the means to examine the question, but the law of Congress approved December 24,1861, on page 490 of the volume Military Laws, 1776-1863, gives division and even brigade commanders power to order general courts-martial and to approve and execute sentences, save in cases of death and dismissal of a commissioned officer, which requires the approval of the general commanding the army in the field. I have always construed that as final, and to substitute the said commander in place of the President of the United States in the cases enumerated in the Sixty-third and Eighty-ninth Articles of the old Articles of War.

The question arises daily, and I expect to execute a good many spies and guerrillas under that law without bothering the President. Too many spies and villains escape us in the time consumed by trial, review, and remission to Washington, and we all know that it is very hard for the President to hang spies, even after conviction, when a troop of friends follow the sentence with earnest and ex parte appeals.

Spies and guerrillas, murderers under the assumed title of Confederate soldiers, deserters on leave, should be hung quick, of course after a trial, for the number of escapes made easy by the changes on guard during the long time consumed by trial and reference have made that class of men bold and dangerous, and our own scouts and detachments have so little faith in the punishment of known desperadoes that a habit is growing of “losing prisoners in the swamp,” the meaning of which you know. This horrible attendant of war originated in the practice of our enemies, and I have seen it chuckled over in their public journals; but our own men are quick to learn, and unless a legal punishment can be devised, you will soon be relieved of all such cases. I believe that the veriest demon should have a hearing and trial, but punishment should be prompt, yea speedy, or it loses its efficacy.

I believe the laws I have quoted give the commander of an army in the field lawful power to try by court-martial, approve and execute the sentence, and I believe the law to be right and humane to society. If wrong I should be corrected at once. Forty or fifty executions now would in the next twelve months save a thousand lives.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. T. Sherman, Major-general

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