South Carolina’s execution by firing squad: The last reenactment of the Civil War?


This June 18, 2010, photo shows the firing squad execution chamber at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah. IMAGE/Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune via AP, Pool, File
Execution of five V Corps deserters, Army of the Potomac, Virginia, Aug. 29, 1863. IMAGE/House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College

Americans have an appetite for reenacting the past, especially the battles of the U.S. Civil War, which took place from 1861 to 1865. Every year, in an effort to relive something of the nation’s bloodiest war, thousands don blue and gray uniforms and gather on fields where the distant echoes of war have since faded.

There are dozens of Civil War reenactments in the U.S. every year. Participants take them very seriously. Food, uniforms, even the smells of war – all are recreated to lend authenticity to the events. Only the bullets and shells are not “real.”

Now, the U.S. reenactment community has a potential new member: the state of South Carolina.

That’s courtesy of the state’s decision in 2021 to allow its inmates on death row the option of execution by firing squad. With that move, South Carolina has elected to deploy a form of capital punishment not used in the state since the Civil War.

A target placed over his heart

The reason South Carolina adopted the firing squad is straightforward: The state apparently has trouble securing enough lethal injection drugs to execute prisoners. That leaves the electric chair as an option. And now the firing squad.

The firing squad method has yet to be used and is currently under appeal at the state Supreme Court. I am an expert witness in this case and a historian of the Civil War.

South Carolina’s Department of Corrections has drafted firing squad protocols. The firing squad will be made up of three members drawn from prison staff. They will be behind a wall, all three of their rifles loaded with live ammunition and aimed at the inmate through an opening in the wall.

After entering the chamber, the inmate will be strapped into a chair, a hood placed over his head, and a target placed over his heart.

At this point, the warden will read the execution order aloud. Members of the squad will then fire their rifles. After the inmate is declared dead, witnesses leave.

Exclusively military punishment

Firing squad executions are extremely rare in U.S. history.

Only four states currently have it on the books: South Carolina, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah. Only Utah has used it as an actual execution method. Since 1976, just three executions have been carried out by firing squad in Utah.

Execution by firing squad has, in fact, never been common in U.S. history. While the term “firing squad” can be found in U.S. newspapers before the Civil War, the phrase was usually used to describe a different custom, akin to a salute, when guns were fired into the air to honor an individual of note after death.

The use of the firing squad was also rare during the Civil War. It was used principally to punish soldiers who deserted from either the Union or Confederate Army.

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