Civil War: The execution of a Union spy

150 years ago, Union spy Spencer Kellogg Brown was hanged behind the present-day Science Museum.

The Execution of Spencer Kellogg.–This person, convicted of desertion and of being a spy, was hanged yesterday at Camp Lee, in the presence of the military and a large concourse of citizens. Richmond Sentinel, 9/26/1863

If you picked up a newspaper on the streets of Richmond in 1863, it would not surprise you to find a significant number of articles about two things: hospitals and prisons. This was due in large part to the fact that neither hospitals nor prisons existed in the city in any major capacity prior to the war and were now a significant part of daily life in the city. The prisoners and wounded that flowed both in and out of the city on a daily basis played as much of a role in the story of the city as its citizens. Regular updates on prison populations, hospitals, and the wounded regularly filled the pages of Richmond’s newspapers.

So it’s entirely possible that an execution notice for a prisoner like the one above might have gone unnoticed (even by someone digging for stories 150 years later). However, even in the shortest of announcements, there’s usually an interesting story hiding, and I’ve tried as best I can to uncover the human lives and stories of Richmond that they can tell. Last month we learned (from a similar newspaper announcement) about Henry Sawyer, a Union officer who narrowly escaped a death sentence in Libby Prison. This month, we’ll learn about Spencer Kellogg Brown, a Union spy and prisoner in Richmond who was not so lucky.

As a boy, Brown grew up in Kansas, caught up in the hellish pro- and anti-slavery fighting known as “Bleeding Kansas.” largely seen as a precursor to the Civil War. He was taken prisoner for a few weeks and watched his family home burn to the ground in retaliation for an abolitionist raid in Lawrence, Kansas when he was barely a teenager. When the war broke out, he was ready to join the Union and continue the fight that he’d been a part of since he was a boy. He joined the Union navy, and while doing reconnaissance along the Mississippi River, he posed as a Union deserter and allowed himself to be taken prisoner. He kept up this ruse for several weeks, even enlisting in the Confederate army in the 1st Louisiana Volunteers. He would later escape across the river to Union lines and report enemy positions, fortifications, and plans to General Ulysses S. Grant.

Brown was captured a second time after successfully destroying a ferry boat loaded with Confederate supplies. Upon his capture, his role as a Union spy was revealed, and he was sent to Richmond for imprisonment in Castle Thunder in Shockoe Bottom. Brown’s stay at Castle Thunder was better than most. The man who ran the prison, Captain Alexander, often allowed special exceptions for certain prisoners, permitting Brown to have access to newspapers and books along with a more spacious room. Prior to his execution, Brown mentioned Alexander in multiple letters to family and friends, expressing his gratitude for his treatment during his imprisonment.

Brown’s stay in Castle Thunder would last approximately a year. On September 18th, 1863, he was finally put on trial for being a spy. Even in the days leading up to the trial, Brown was resigned to his fate. In a letter to his sister, he wrote:

Dear Kitty, my sister: After lying in prison for over a year, my time has come at last. To-day I went out for trial, but it got deferred until to-morrow. The witnesses are there, and there can be but one result, death. So I have written to you for all, to bid you a last good-bye. God bless you. I have tried to write often to cheer all, and it seemed very hopeful for a while, but within a few days all hope has left me. But don’t mourn, Kitty, as for one without hope. These only take away the mortal life, but God, I trust, has given me one that is immortal.

Brown’s predictions came true. He was sentenced to be hanged on September 25th, 1863.

At 11:00 AM on the 25th, a detail of a hundred men of the City Battalion marched from Castle Thunder to the gallows at Camp Lee. Camp Lee, initially a garrison and later hospital grounds, was located outside the city at the time, on the land currently behind the Science Museum of Virginia on Broad Street.

Brown arrived to the gallows at 12:30 PM to find a large crowd of people had gathered. Captain Alexander read the charges and Brown’s sentence–“hanged by the neck until dead”–aloud for all to hear. The Richmond Whig offered up a description of the events that followed:

A short but impressive prayer was offered; at the conclusion of which the condemned man, unaccompanied, mounted the scaffold. In a few moments Detective Capehart followed and commenced to adjust the rope over the neck,…in which he assisted, all the while talking to the officer. Taking off his hat, to admit the noose over his head, he threw it to one side, and falling off the scaffold, it struck a gentleman beneath, when the prisoner turned quickly, and bowing, said, “Excuse me, sir.”

Continuing in his almost casual approach to his own hanging, Brown then began to remark about the length of the rope after it was around his neck:

[He] looked up at the rope and remarked, “This won’t break my neck. ‘Tisn’t more than a foot fall. Doctor, I wish you would come up and arrange this thing. I don’t want to have a botched job of it.” The rope was then rearranged to his satisfaction, and the cap placed over his head.

Given how much he wrote of God and coming to terms with his fate in his final days, it was clear that Brown was composed and ready to face what lies beyond, but the next description shows it most clearly:

The condemned man then bowed his head and engaged in a few seconds of prayer, at the conclusion of which he raised himself, and, standing perfectly erect, pronounced in a clear voice, “All ready!”

Earlier in the day, on the way to the gallows, Brown had asked one of the soldiers accompanying him, “Did you ever pass through a tunnel under a mountain? My passage, my death, is dark, but beyond all is light and bright.”

Spencer Kellogg Brown died by hanging on September 25th, 1863. He was only twenty one years old.

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Phil Williams

In addition to being an amateur Civil War enthusiast, Phil is a musician, beard owner, dance party enthusiast, blogger, technology geek, and spends whatever time is left over working in the advertising industry. He can also be found DJing around RVA as his alter-ego Robot E. Lee.

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