Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
More than 150 years have elapsed since Robert Gay, a private in Company D of the 71st Indiana Volunteers, was executed by a 20-man firing squad at Burnside Barracks near Camp Morton in Indianapolis.
The former Clay County school teacher had been convicted of desertion at court martial.
Proof that Gay deserted the Union army after the Battle of Richmond, Ky., was overwhelming. Indeed, Gay admitted he gave an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.
Yet questions linger regarding the magnitude of the punishment he received on March 27, 1863. Scholars and members of his own regiment have argued that Gay’s health, behavior and demeanor did not justify a death sentence.
Desertion was universally punishable by capital punishment but the sentence was rarely imposed unless it was accompanied by spying or another egregious act.
It was the first military execution of the American Civil War west of the Alleghenies and the first and only execution of an Indiana soldier during the war. Gay had no family in Indiana to support him or to initiate an appeal to President Lincoln, who was granting pardons to virtually all deserters at that time.
A native of Marietta, Ohio, where he was born in about 1836, Robert Gay was raised in Gallia County, Ohio, and became a tanner in the village of Vinton. In about 1858, he relocated to Bowling Green, then the Clay County seat, and became a teacher at Bellaire, a small village two miles south.
According to his acquaintances, it was Gay’s dream to become a physician. From all accounts, he was a good teacher. But, upon learning he could be a steward at an army hospital, he enlisted Aug. 18, 1862 in the 71st Indiana Regiment at Camp Dick Thompson in Terre Haute and was assigned to Company D.
The regiment was placed under the command of Lt. Col. Melville D. Topping, a prominent Terre Haute lumber dealer.
Without the opportunity to organize or train, the 71st Indiana was dispatched to assist repelling the rebel invasion of Kentucky by troops under Gen. E. Kirby Smith.
Gay was not in good health when he entered the service and had not received the hospital assignment he coveted. According to Capt. Thomas M. Robertson, who befriended him, Gay was physically unable to serve in an infantry but was forced to do so.
Capt. Robertson reported that the teacher had no muscle tone and was unable to carry his gun and his knapsack at the same time up and down hills and ravines for any distance.
“I carried his gun for a while to relieve him of part of his burden,” Robertson later wrote.
The Battle of Richmond was a catastrophe for the 71st Indiana. Col. Topping and Maj. William Conklin of Greencastle were killed Aug. 30 and more than 200 others were seriously or mortally wounded. Moreover, 347 soldiers, including Gay, were captured.
Most of the prisoners were paroled and returned to Terre Haute. Gay chose to remain in Richmond to serve as an aide in the army hospital there.
On Sept. 5, Gay approached a rebel officer in Richmond and asked if could join the Confederate Army. During an interrogation in the presence of two federal surgeons detained to treat Union soldiers, he represented that he was “a Southern man in principle.”
The officer warned Gay that his decision could have dire consequences but the Hoosier soldier insisted on taking an oath of allegiance. He was slowly nursing himself back to health and anxious to see his ailing mother in Ohio as well as acquaintances in Clay County. He was sent to Camp Chase in Ohio and then spent three days in Bowling Green.
He then reported to Daniel A. Conover of Terre Haute, captain of Company D, at Camp Dick Thompson and received a 15-day sickness furlough.
At about the time Gay’s furlough ended in late October 1862, Lt. Edward A. Thompson received a letter from one of the two surgeons in Richmond, describing Gay’s desertion. Upon ascertaining that the furloughed soldier was visiting Bowling Green, Thompson ordered Major William W. Carter of that town to arrest him.
Gay did not resist and was delivered the next day to Gen. Henry B. Carrington at Camp Morton. He initially denied signing an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy but was forced to admit it when Gen. Carrington found a copy of the document sewed inside a leg of his pantaloons.
Gay was formally charged with desertion on Dec. 27, 1862, and appeared before Brig. Gen. Henry Van Rensselaer, Inspector General of the U.S. Upon finding the defendant guilty, the court ordered Gay “to be shot to death.” The defendant was transported under guard to the Soldier’s Home in Indianapolis to await further orders.
On March 22, 1863, the execution was scheduled for 3 p.m., March 27 at Burnside Barracks. Col. James Biddle of Indianapolis, commander of the 71st Indiana, was entrusted with the arrangements. Gay spent his last few days in the Marion County jail.
On the day of the execution, a plain black walnut coffin with flat lid was placed 25 to 30 feet away from the line-up occupied by the 20-man firing squad. Only 10 of the 20 were furnished live ammunition. Firing squad members did not know who did or did not have real bullets. Gay’s request to “watch himself die” was denied.
Four men stood in front of the coffin: Gay, the Sergeant Major who bound and blindfolded him, Chaplain Thomas Griffith of Montezuma, and an unidentified friend of Pvt. Gay’s. When asked if he had any final words, Gay gave a wistful speech in a steady voice, admitting his guilt but saying he did it “unthoughtedly (sic).”
“I meant no wrong,” Gay said. “I only intended to get home. My health was bad. I never realized the fate which awaited me until my sentence was read to me.”
“I forgive all my enemies,” he added. “I have no malice against any living being. I forgive those who are to fire at me and those who thirst for my blood. To you who will fire at me, take your aim well. Fire at the breast; that is the place. I want to die quickly. “
As his hands were being tied, Gay said calmly: “If I could only be spared I would enter the regiment again and do my duty as well as any man in it, or as well as I am able.”
Then, he mourned, sadly, “Oh, that I could see my death.”
Few, if any, who heard his words ever forgot that moment.