The Execution of Pvt. James Preble

The material in this page is an excerpt from a book, The History of Wayne County, North Carolina, which was published in 1979 (revised edition in 1986) in Goldsboro, N.C. by the Wayne County Historical Association.

The book includes several chapters by various people in the Wayne County area. Among the stories is one dealing with problems encountered by the occupation force. The following deals principally with a member of the N.Y. 12th Cavalry.

Chaplain Hight of the union army felt that a moral reformation took place among the soldiers at Goldsboro and was encouraged at the large number of men converted to different religious faiths while here. However, some of the soldiers got into trouble for their misdeeds. The most serious one was the case of Private James Preble of the 12th New York Cavalry who was accused and convicted of rape. A military execution was ordered for March 31. A graphic account of this gruesome spectacle was told by the correspondent of the New York Tribune.

The division arrived on the ground at precisely one o'clock, and was formed in two ranks on three sides of a square, the rear ranks ten paces in rear of the front rank, which came to an about face when the unfortunate condemned one was paraded through the ranks.

At about twenty minutes to three o'clock, the procession which attended the unfortunate man who was soon to be summarily summoned into the presence of his Maker, made its appearance in the following order: A detachment of the One Hundred and Thirty second New York and Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteers, under command of Captain Keenan, Acting Provost Marshal, four men carrying a coffin, an ambulance containing the condemned man and his two spiritual advisers, the Reverend H.M. Bacon, Chaplain of the Twenty-fifth Massachusetts. Upon arriving on the ground the unfortunate man was taken from the ambulance and escorted in mournful procession with Drum Corps playing the dead march through the ranks forming the three sides of the square.

James Preble did not appear to be more than twenty years of age, and about six feet in height; his appearance in no way gave indication of the brutality which would be naturally supposed to characterize the appearance of one proved to have been guilty of so heinous an offense. He marched with a remarkably steady step all the way round the square, and but seldom raised his eyes from the ground.

In the center of the space in the open side of the square, Preble's grave was dug and on arriving at it, after marching around the square, the procession halted, and the proceedings and sentence of his court-martial, together with the order for his execution, was read by the Provost Marshal, after which he knelt down by his coffin, with the Chaplain in attendance, and prayed for about five minutes, when his eyes were bandaged with a white handkerchief, and the firing party, consisting of twelve men from the One Hundred and Thirty-second New York and Seventeenth Pennsylvania were formed in line about twelve paces in front of him.

At precisely five minutes past three the order to 'make ready, aim, and fire,' was delivered in a clear and audible tone by the Acting Provost Marshal, and the unfortunate man fell down dead pierced with four balls, one through the neck and three through the breast. He was immediately examined by the Provost Marshal and the surgeon in attendance and pronounced dead.

The whole division was then marched past the corpse, which was placed on top of the coffin, by columns of companies, and filed back to their quarters. This will doubtless prove, as it is intended it should, a warning to evil disposed and reckless men, and they will know acts of barbarity will not be tolerated in an army whose purpose is to restore law and order.

No further accounts of soldiers' executions appeared in the Newspapers.

Jeff Lewis, the correspondent who provided me with this information says that he has come across a letter written by one of the men who was reluctantly made to attend this, but that he can not now find it anywhere. He thinks he saw it in a web site but cannot locate it again. It mentioned how nobody wanted to witness the execution and how they could see 'Rebels' in the trees watching it but didn't cause trouble. It also mentioned that the girl was from Seven Springs (a little town just outside of Goldsboro).

Can anyone help in locating this other web site?

On July 25, 2001, Jeff Lewis sent me another email calling to my attention to a web site from France, Owned by the Club Confédéré et Fédéral de France (Confederate and Federal Club of France), a member of the French Civil War Roundtable, this site lists all soldiers convicted of rape during the Civil War. I have excerpted to present here the paragraph giving the information regarding Preble.

Preble James, 22, b.Batavia (NY), pvt, co K, 12 NY cav., shooted [sic]at Goldsboro (NC) 31 March 1865 for the attempted rape on Mrs. Rebecca Drake (23) and Miss Louise Jane Bedard, her cousin (17), and rape of Miss Letitia Craft, her aunt (58), near Kingston [sic] (NC) on the afternoon of 16 March 1865.

Also on July 25, 2001, Jeff Lewis alerted me to a website of at that presents a diary and letters from James M. Randall of a Wisconsin regiment. The entry for March 26, 1865 follows:

Mar. 26th This was our first Sunday in camp at Goldsboro. It passed off quietly. Our corps received a large mail, the first since our arrival here. The hearts of many of the boys were gladdened by the reception of letters from friends. I received one from my wife dated Feb. 19 - five weeks old - but new to me. I also received a letter from brother, Frank. who was still connected with the 14th Wis. regiment. I rode into town for the first time. Goldsboro, the county seat of Wayne County, N.C., contained nearly 2,000 inhabitants and was a railroad center of some importance. A soldier belonging to the 15th Corps was publicly shot after having been condemned by court-martial for making an assault upon an old woman. The weather was disagreeably cold and windy.

Guy Potts on September 17, 2001, directed me to a web site at that contains the following:

This article was written in 1934 by Goldsboro businessman F. L. Castex, Sr. He was 82 then, so his recollections of the Civil War were of a child nine to 13 years old. He was born in one of the oldest houses still standing in Goldsboro at the southwest corner of John & Pine streets.
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On General Schofield's march from New Bern, one of his soldiers committed rape on a white woman in White Hall (Seven Springs). He was arrested, court martialed & ordered shot. I witnessed the shooting.
They took him from the jail, placed him in an ambulance with a chaplain, an officer of the day. His box or coffin was in another ambulance which preceded him, brass band in front. The firing squad & his regiment followed. They marched out where the city waterworks are now located & placed the box beside the grave.
After the chaplain read the Bible & prayer, they seated the man upon his box blindfolded & pinned a white piece of paper on his left breast. The firing squad having taken their place about thirty paces away. The officer of the day gave the order that sent his soul into eternity.
Then they placed the body upon his box & marched the regiment by so that they could see the man.
There was twenty-four men in the firing squad, four Indians; twelve guns loaded with balls & twelve loaded with blanks.  
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© copyright Kenneth Jennings Wooster
File created: October 18, 1997.
File modified: November 18, 2001; December 26, 2002.