The number of men that were executed on 04 MAY 1864 were originally fourteen; two from Stewart's Division, eight from Stevenson's Division (mostly from the 58th North Carolina), and several from the various other commands. However, the lives of a Georgian and another soldier were appealed for and mercy shown by General Johnston.
One of several accounts was that of Robert M. Magill, Company F, 39th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He reported, "Witnessed a scene to-day that I humbly pray God I may never witness again. Army marched out and made to see fourteen men tired (sic) up to stakes and shot to death. Charges, desertion. Most of them belonged to the 58th North Carolina. Will this army prosper after such as this?"
To the statement that Johnston put these men to death you need to read what the Regulations said about desertion and courts-martial as seen below.
Source: Regulations for the Army of the Confederate States, Richmond, 1863, pages 407-20. An Act for establishing Rules and Articles for the Government of the Armies of the Confederate States.
Article 21. Any non-commissioned officer or soldier shall, without leave from his commanding officer, absent himself from his troop, company, or detachment, shall, upon being convicted thereof, be punished according to the nature of the offense, at the discretion of a court-martial.
Article 87. No person shall be sentenced to suffer death but by the concurrence of two-thirds of the members of a general court-martial, nor except in the cases herein expressly mentioned; and no officer, non-commissioned officer, soldier, or follower of the army, shall be tried a second time for the same offence."
Executions were not new to any of the Federal or Confederate Armies. According to Larry Daniel in SOLDIERING IN THE ARMY OF TENNESSEE, the rate of executions remained relatively steady under both Bragg and Johnston. Usually, the number of simultaneous executions was smaller and the number for this execution caused many to take notice.
Order and discipline is necessary thing in an Army and military justice and punishment is fast, efficient, and unique unlike a civilian laws and organizations. Although it is unlikely in doing so, the U.S. has the ability to execute those that desert present day under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Roman Armies executed cowardly or mutinous soldiers by decimation. They divided a Roman cohort into ten soldier groups and lots were drawn. The man with the short straw was either clubbed or stoned by the other nine.
Was General Johnston punishment harsh? I say no. A commander must preserve the combat power he has in order to carry out the National Policy of winning a war. Desertion is like a plague and if a command and commander does not take immediate and effective action to prevent it then the other soldiers then will think they can get by with it and soon you will have no soldiers standing in formation to face the enemy. I know that far more deserted than were executed and execution was generally reserved for at least the second offense.
Also, take these facts into consideration. The Army of Tennessee had suffered all winter from desertions and especially from the regiments from North Georgia, Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina. These men were executed on 04 MAY 1864. The Army of Tennessee had just completed preparing for the upcoming move by Sherman who had massed Schofield's Army of the Ohio in the vicinity of Lee & Gordon's Mill, McPherson's Army of the Tennessee at Red Clay, and Thomas's Army of the Cumberland at Ringgold. This was no secret to Johnston and he knew that the time of the Federal spring offensive was near. The Federals would hit Rocky Face just a couple of miles west of Dalton on 07 MAY 1864 and Dug Gap the next day. The executions could have been allowed to take place as a warning to the faint hearted to stay in the ranks.
Warfare and military life is harsh. As Sherman put it to the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell." I will add that it is not a business for the weak, lame, lazy, and faint of heart. All must do the duty that is called upon them.
I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Gerald D. Hodge, Jr.
War Between the States Historian
39th Georgia Volunteer Infantry Regiment