Execution of a Yankee Spy
Richmond Daily Dispatch February 20 1864

According to the terms of the sentence pronounced by a court-martial in his case, Captain Spencer Deaton of the 6th Tennessee (renegade) Regiment was hanged in the prison yard west of Castle Thunder yesterday at half past twelve P.M. Long before the hour of execution arrived, the neighboring housetops and fences were thronged with scores of people, anxious to gratify that curiosity which scenes of such a character seldom fail to excite in the minds of many people.

About a quarter past twelve o'clock a detachment of the miliatry marched into the enclosure and formed thenselves in a hollow square around the gallows, soon after which the condemned man was escorted out of the prison between that venerable detective, Captain John Caphart; the Reverend Dr. Carpenter, chaplain of the Castle; and Mr. Wiley, assisant executioner, the rear being brought up by the mammoth black dog so well-known to the visitors of that institution. Arriving at the place of execution, the proceedings of the court-martial and order of execution were read by Captain Callahan in a clear and distinct voice, during the reading of which Deaton stood with his hat on and gazed anxiously around him; as if expecting some deliverance from his impending doom. As soon as the edict of the court-martial was pronounced, the reverend chaplain gave the signal for prayer, when all heads were uncovered and he delivered a short but impressive invocation to God for mercy upon the unfortunate man's soul. Deaton then replaced upon his head the hat which he had, during the solemn ceremony of prayer, held in his hand; and ascended with a slow and tremulous step the platform from which he was soon to be launched into eternity. Detective Caphart followed and proceeded to adjust the rope over the beam of the gallows and about the neck, arms, and feet of the victim. During this ceremony Deaton looked about him in a half-unconscious state, and when the cap was drawn over his face, he seemed utterly overcome with emotion, exclaiming rapidly and in a feeble voice: "Oh, Lord, have mercy on my soul! I am innocent! Oh, Lord, save me! I am innocent!" The officers who ascended the platform with him had hardly reached the foot of the ladder before his knees gave way under him, and he crouched down as far as the rope would permit. From this sitting posture he was lifted to his feet three times, and finally to be held up by Mr. Wiley till the support was knocked from under him and he was left dangling in the air.

After hanging about half an hour, he was taken down in the arms of two Negro men and deposited in a common flattop pine coffin, painted red, which had been placed beside the gallows to receive his remains. From the time the pins of the platform had been knocked away until he was taken down, there did not seem to be the slightest movement of his muscles or contortion of his limbs, and everyone thought his death was as sudden as that which usually ensues from the breaking of the neck. But upon examination by Dr. Upshur, the physician of the prison, assisted by the assistant surgeon, it was found that strangulation had caused his death and that his neck had not been broken. The expression of his countenance indicated an easy death, and there were no traces of agony depicted thereon.

In appearance Deaton seemed to be about thirty-five years of age, five feet ten or eleven inches tall, sallow complexion, dark eyes, prominent nose, a pretty, fair forehead, and wore a slight mustache and imperial. He was attired in light-brown pants, black frock coat, and a high-crowned black felt hat, all well worn, his tout ensemble exhibiting a common, ignorant man, in a social point of view. He was captured at Knoxville, Tennessee, on the 27th of August. In the terms of the court-martial he was charged with being a Yankee recruiting officer and spy in our lines, on both of which indictments he was found guilty. The trial took place in western Virginia and was conducted by the officers of General Sam Jones's command. Upon the headboard which is to designate his burial place, Deaton requested that the following memorandum should be made: "Captain Spencer Deaton, Company B, 6th East Tennessee Infantry." His father's address he gave as William Deaton, Strawberry Plains, Jefferson County, east Tennessee. He also claimed to have a brother who is colonel of a renegade Tennessee regiment.

Circumstances have rendered it expedient that we should witness a number of executions, but in no instance has the subject evinced such alarm and despair as was shown by the unfortunate victim who was hanged yesterday. Incidents which have occurred during the last two weeks of his life plainly indicate that he entertained a strong hope of being rescued from his impending doom by the Yankee forces. His execution was first set for yesterday week; but from a letter which he had written to President Davis, stating that he was not then prepared to die, his execution was put off for one week, and we are informed that during Thursday night, before the decision of the president had been made known to him, he would frequently inquire whether fighting was not going on in the streets and if it was not thought the Yankees would take Richmond before day. His attending physician expressed the belief that had it not been for stimulants which had been given him for a few weeks back, he would have died from mental, as well as physical, prostration, and is satisifed that he had fallen away at least forty pounds.

The execution was also witnessed by a large number of the prisoners confined in Castle Thunder, all of whom seemed to view it with the utmost interest. It is to be hoped that the fate of this man will have a tendency to make all who ever contemplated violating them respect the laws of the country in which they reside.


Richmond Daily Dispatch, February 20 1864
The Civil War, Ironweed American Newspapers and Periodicals Project edited by Brayton Harris, pages 451-453
Uncorrected Proof, Ironwood Press, Forest Hills, NY, 2002