Farewell for a Little Season: The Trial of Alexander Haun, Bridge Burner

December 10, 1861 (Tuesday)

It had been ten days since the first two Unionist bridge burners were executed, hanged by a railroad bridge to be a warning to all. On this date, another Unionist, Christopher Alexander Haun, was found guilty by drumhead court martial.1

While waiting for his sentence, Haun was given pen and paper and allowed to write to his family. “I have had my trial but have not heard my sentence,” he wrote from his cell. “I fear it will be bad – they may take my life and they may not. I cannot tell yet.

“If I should not reach home soon I want you all to do the very best you can. Betsy, take care of your corn for bread, there is going to be hard times about bread and have that were finished off and get shoes and clothing and something to go on as you think best.”

Haun seemed to grow more optimistic thinking of his wife, Betsy, and his children. “I may be sent to Nashville, if I am, when my time is out I may come home if it is the Lords will that I should live that long-the Lord only knows what is my doom. Be that as it may I feel that my soul is with God.”

Turning to his little ones, he reminded them to “be good to your Mother and to one another and serve God-He is your Father. Really my prayer is that you all will live for God so that of may meet me in peace forever where trouble and sorrow are unknown. If tears could do you any good you would be blessed.”

As he could not see his fate, he felt lonely for home. “Get someone to write to me for I merely want to hear whether you are well or not.” He had been on campaign, on the run and in prison for probably over a month. It may have been the longest he had ever been away from his family. “I do not want to hear of other men’s troubles up there – give me your troubles – it is enough.”

In closing, he asked them to send letters to Robert Fox, the jailer in Knoxville, adding “and do it soon.”

As his sentencing drew near, he ended his letter with a poem for his wife and children.

Dear Betsy, for I call you so
Farewell for a little season.
Dear Jacob, for I call you soFarewell for a little season.
Dear Becky Jane, for I call you so
Farewell for a little season.
Dear Sarah, my daughter, for I call you so
Farewell for a little season.
Dear Martha, my daughter, for I call you so
Farewell for a little season.
— Knoxville Jail, Dec. 10, 1861.2

While Christopher Alex Haun was in his cell writing, his fate was decided. He was to be hanged from a rope until dead at noon the following day.

The execution was approved by General William Carroll, who first sought President Davis’ approval before ending the life of another man. After a quick telegraph explaining the situation, Secretary of War Judah Benjamin replied: “Execute the sentence of your court-martial on the bridge burners. The law does not require any approval by the President, but he entirely approves my order to hang every bridge-burner you can catch and I convict.”

The day had slipped away before Secretary Benjamin had replied. The execution of Alex Haun would have to wait until noon the following day.3

Haun was not told of his impending execution, and was left to languish, alone, in his cell all through the night; to wake, if he could sleep at all, to his fate, which was already decided, as if man were now the ruler of destiny.4


The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War is Approved by Congress

The Union disaster at Ball’s Bluff, while a primer on how not to fight a battle, had little military value to either side. Politics, however, were a different tale.

Since the debacle, fingers had been pointed and accusations had flown. Some blamed General Charles Stone, a career Army officer, commander of the Union forces, while others blamed Col. Edward D. Baker, a Senator from Oregon (originally from Illinois), who had very little military experience to speak of, and had been killed during the fray. Some blamed the Regular Army soldiers, as others directed their ire at the volunteers, lately come into the ranks.

With the press, the military, the people and the politicians all clamoring to find blame, Congress took it upon themselves to sort this all out.5

For the past week, the thirty-seventh Congress had been discussing the best way to go about it. It was decided that a joint-committee, made up of both House and Senate members, would fit the bill. It was approved by the Senate the previous day, and, on this date, the House brought it into existence.

The Joint-Committee on the Conduct of the Present War would consist of three Senators and four Representatives. These seven men would “have power to send for persons and papers, and to sit during the recess of either house of Congress.”

The members would be selected in the coming days.6

Prior to the formation of the committee, on December 4, Secretary of War Simon Cameron had been officially asked by Congress “whether any, and if any, what, measures have been taken to ascertain who is responsible for the disastrous movement of our troops at Ball’s Bluff.”

Cameron would not reply until the 12th. Congress, but two miles away, would not receive it until the 16th.7

  1. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p854-855. The OR has him listed at A.C. Haun, but his given name was Christopher. However, he went by Alex, so the misplacing of the initials is understandable. []
  2. Tennessee Civil War Sourcebook edited by James B. Jones, Jr. I’m not usually a fan of online sources, but I thought this would be a fine exception. []
  3. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 1, p855. []
  4. Sketches of the Rise, Progress, and Decline of Secession by W.G. Brownlow. This account, at first, seems to contradict the Official Records, but, while Carroll approved Haun’s sentence, it doesn’t seem like Haun was told. There’s no account of him knowing about it before the 11th, and according to Brownlow, a Unionist newspaper editor, held prisoner in Knoxville, keeping a diary of events, Haun was not told until an hour before the hanging. []
  5. Ball’s Bluff by Byron Farwell. []
  6. Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 1, p67. []
  7. Journal of the House of Representatives, Second Session of the Thirty-Seventh Congress, p134. []
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Farewell for a Little Season: The Trial of Alexander Haun, Bridge Burner by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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10 thoughts on “Farewell for a Little Season: The Trial of Alexander Haun, Bridge Burner

  1. No Joint Committee On the Conduct of Any War has ever been anything but an exercise in stupidity. Soldiers do their best. The variety of individual “bests” is great. There should be no public blaming. Privately, I suppose, an after-action report is a necessary part of any action. But this? Garbage. IMHO.

    1. The good thing to come out of the Joint Committee is the many, many transcripts. They’re wildly entertaining and add a depth to the OR that just isn’t there otherwise. Granted, you have to take into account politics and backstabbing even more so with the JC transcripts than the OR, but with a bit of common sense and understanding, they’re a really fun resource (or at least a good read).

  2. Yeah–I can see that–but to lose a career? And Baker is already dead–they gonna sanction him??

    Lucky Sherman’s bummers weren’t investigated very much–lol!

    1. Heck no, Baker is a big reason as to why they were established (I’m overstating this, but he played a role). Baker was certainly to blame for Ball’s Bluff, but since he was 1) a fellow Senator and 2) dead, he could hardly take the blame. And so Stone sat in jail for a year(ish) because of this. Silly? Yes. But still, great reading.

  3. Not that it made much difference to the conduct of the war, but the Wikipedia article says that there were four Senate members: Chairman Benjamin Wade, Zachariah Chandler, Joseph Wright, and (future President) Andrew Johnson.

  4. LOL–at it again this morning. So–Baker screwed it up? Send me a book title–’cause I sure don’t have enough to read! Actually, a 700+ page bio of–here it comes–Ronald Reagan!!!–is due to be read for my history book club. I checked the Index–Civil War is not even in the listings . . .

    1. Oh in my opinion, sure he did. Baker had no business being on a battlefield. There’s a new edition of a book called A Little Short On Boats that is pretty much *the* book on the battle. I wish I could have used it, but it wasn’t released until after I had already written the posts.

  5. My great grand father was also in the Knoxville Jail, or as referred to it as Castle Fox facing the charge of bridge burning. Lucky for me he was able to escape otherwise I wouldn’t be here. He had a pretty fascinating story of his experiences during those years.

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