As It Was: Oregon Cavalryman Faces Firing Squad for Desertion

Nov 17, 2017

When pro-slavery Oregon Gov. John Whiteaker stalled after President Lincoln called for volunteers at the outbreak of the Civil War, the president pulled federal troops from the state.

Whiteaker reacted by creating the Oregon Cavalry, assigned to escort emigrants arriving on the Oregon Trail.  They were paid $13 a month, plus a $100 bounty and 160 acres of land for three years’ service.

About then, gold was discovered in Eastern Oregon and the cavalry was sent to guard the miners.  Some 150 cavalrymen deserted to give mining a try.

Punishment for desertion was harsh, with repeat offenders sentenced to death by firing squad, although only one was ever executed.  He was Pvt. Francis Ely of the First Oregon Cavalry in Jacksonville, Ore.  He was caught on a stolen government horse headed for the gold fields and accused of desertion and horse theft. 

A firing squad executed him on March 6, 1865, most likely the only soldier on the Pacific Coast put to death by the military during the Civil War. 

A year later, Lincoln granted amnesty to all army deserters.
 

Source: Fletcher, Randol B. Hidden History of Civil War in Oregon. Charleston, SC, The History Press, 2013, pp. 10-11.