Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Execution of Peter Pelt - March 7, 1865


The War Between the States in Florida was a time of great tragedy and many stories of that era have been handed down through the years.

One of the most tragic of these tales is the story of Peter Pelt, a young soldier from Jackson County. Pelt grew up as a neighbor of Governor John Milton in the plantation lands east of Marianna. His family worked a small 160 acre farm, overshadowed by the massive plantations around it, but despite the size of the operation, it was among the most prosperous small farms in the region, with a value of $1,600 in 1860.

Like most young men of his age, Pelt served in the Confederate army. In September of 1863, he enrolled in Company G, 2nd Florida Cavalry, then commanded by his former neighbor, Captain William H. Milton. In February of 1864, however, he deserted. The young man's reasons for doing so are not clear, but desertion was then rampant among Florida troops who were outraged over tightening conscription laws and overzealous activities by Confederate commissary agents who took so much livestock and food from local families that the wives and widows of soldiers were often left on the brink of starvation. In Pelt's case, his desertion also closely coincided with the receipt of news that two of his family members had been killed at Missionary Ridge.

Along with 21 other men from Jackson County, Pelt soon appeared on the records of Company E, 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry. It is a curious fact that the county provided almost 20% of the Union company's total strength. He served with his unit in several raids and engagements, most notably the Natural Bridge Expedition in March of 1865. After fighting at Newport on March 5, 1865, Pelt was among the troops left there to prevent Confederate troops from crossing Newport Bridge (site shown in photo above) and moving on the rear of the main column as it moved north to the Battle of Natural Bridge. He was captured on March 7, 1865, being part of a detail that was left behind as the Federal forces withdrew.

Recognized by his former comrades from the 2nd Florida Cavalry (C.S.), Pelt was given a hasty trial for desertion and his execution was ordered by Brigadier General William Miller. Dr. Charles Hentz, who had served as a surgeon at Natural Bridge, was an eyewitness to what happened next:

The poor creatures had just been led out for execution, as I arrived; they were halted close to me, as a hollow square for the execution was formed; some bandages, pinned around their eyes, were taken from my haversack; how dreadfully did I commisserate their awful condition. Pelt, whom I had known as a little boy...was trembling in every fiber; his face was the hue of ashes - his lips quiverying compulsively in prayer, his eyes closed and bandaged...At the words "Ready" "Aim" "Fire" the double volley was discharged and both men fell...Pelt uttered a fearful, bloodcurdling, bubbling wail, as a torent of blood gushed from his mouth, & struggled for several minutes dreadfully.

Stripped of his clothes and possession, Pelt and the other executed man (Corporal Asa Fowler) were tossed into a hastily dug pit and covered with dirt. He remains buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Newport vicinity of Wakulla County.

To learn more about the Natural Bridge Expedition, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/nbindex.

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