In the first of what I hope will become a series of posts about Irish Americans who were executed during their Civil War military service, we take a look at documents relating to the story of Private Robert Kerr, an emigrant from Co. Tyrone. Robert was making his living as a drayman in California when the Civil War broke out, and was 34-years-old when he enlisted in San Francisco on 12th August 1861, becoming a private in Company A of the 1st California Cavalry. While Robert himself is difficult to track in the pre-war period, at least one brother, James, also appears to have been in California, and may well be the hostler who was enumerated in Stockton, San Joaquin County, in 1860.

Fort Yuma, California as it appeared in the 1870s (George Baker)

At first Robert’s career as a soldier seemed to go well. In December 1861 he was part of a detail assigned to take prisoners on the trek between Camp Wright in San Diego County and Fort Yuma in Imperial County, a journey of well over 150 miles. Indeed the nature of the war in the far West saw Robert spend much his military career on such duties. It was in March of 1862 that the first signs of trouble began to manifest themselves. On the 12th of that month Robert was placed in arrest at Fort Yuma, accused of attacking one Lieutenant Harvey. It was the beginning of a long period of confinement in horrendous conditions. At the end of July, still in irons, The Tyrone man was at his wit’s end. He appealed to his commanding officer for assistance:

Fort Yuma July 31st 1862

Col David Ferguson

1st Cavalry Cal Vols

Sir, From the confidence I have in your kind and humane disposition I am induced to ask your favourable interposition in my behalf. At the time I committed the offence for which I am now suffering I was totally unconscious as to my actions and was in reality no more responsible than a maniac. I have been in irons ever since I have been here and am so reduced physically that I am unfit to perform the simplest duty. Prior to the fortunate occurrence that caused my confinement I am confident there was no soldier who performed his duties with more cheerfulness than myself as the officers I think will justify. May I not then beg you yo write to Genl Wright and have my sentence commuted. I am confident through your influence that I can be released and if you should be pleased to take an interest in my welfare you will receive the heartfelt thanks of an unfortunate man.

I have the honour to be very respectfully your obedient servant,

Robert Kerr

Private Co. A 1st Cav. Cal Vols.

Despite his actions in assaulting his officer, Robert’s plight did elicit sympathy from some of his superiors, perhaps not least because Lieutenant Harvey does not appear to have been well liked within the regiment. A further appeal from Kerr of 6th August had a note added two days later by Major Ferguson, who sought clemency for his soldier:

Fort Yuma August 6th 1862


From the confidence I have in your kind and humane disposition I…ask your favorable interposition in my behalf as I am placed in a confinement almost beyond endurance. I have been confined five months at this place in irons the first two months solitary. Since that time I have been at work and I am now destitute of everything in the line of clothing I have never drawn any since last December, consequently I am in a manner naked. I have to go bare footed over this hill which is as great punishment as flesh can stand and cannot get shoes or pants to cloth my nakedness as the commanding officer will not issue prisoners anything. Other prisoners is better situated than me as they have all had officers to provide for them of there own company or regiment whilst I have been left here entirely alone a stranger to every officer and soldier here and I have been treated as such for no officer has spoken to me since my stay at this place.

Tucson, Arizona, 8th August 1862

I was present when the soldier Kerr committed the act for which he is suffering punishment. Taking the whole circumstances into consideration I would respectfully recommend that his sentence be commuted for on the commission of the offence Lieut Harvey summarily chastised him and came very near taking his life, unintentionally of course. Drunkneness was the cause of the man’s conduct. Now that he has suffered so long promises reformation. I therefore submit his case to the clemency of the Coming Genl through Col Bowie the commanding officer of this post and district.

D. Ferguson, Major, 1st Cavy C.V.

Description of Robert Kerr, a document that also outlines his ultimate fate (NARA)

Major Ferguson’s intercession had the desired effect, and in September Robert Kerr was finally released, after almost 6 months confinement. One wonders the mental impact it had on him. One also wonders if Major Ferguson later came later to regret his intervention. By October Private Kerr was back in the saddle once again riding out on detached service, duty he would carry out again in November and again the following February. During most of this period his regiment was involved in garrison duties, and in engagements with Native American Apache and Navajo peoples. Whatever warning signs there were in Robert Kerr’s career and service through the course of 1863 were either missed or ignored. In the end, the incident that sealed his fate occurred near San Elizario, Texas, on the night of 29th December that year. It was reported in horrified fashion by an officer the next day:

Head Quarters, Texas

December 30th 1863


On the night of the 29th instant whilst Lieut Samuel Allyne and several of the men of his Company 1st Cavalry California Vols were returning to their station at San Elizario from a scout in the vicinity of Isleta he was cruelly murdered by one of his men, Private Kerr of the same Company, who shot him. I have not yet fully learned the particulars of this atrocious act, but have heard that he shot him from behind and that he died almost instantly and that it occurred a few miles this side of San Elizario.

Captain French upon being informed of the death of Lieutenant Allyne went out at once and had the body taken to that place where he will be buried tomorrow.

He immediately than started in pursuit of the murderer and I am pleased to inform you that at daylight on the morning and the 30th instant he succeeded in arresting him at Lozano, and now has him in close confinement heavily ironed.

Very Respectfully

Your Obedient Servant

G.W. Bowie

This time there would be no reprieve. On 28th January 1864 Robert Kerr was court-martialled at Mesilla, New Mexico, for “wantonly and maliciously” killing his officer. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. The condemned man left behind some property in Washington County, Illinois and some money, which he left to his relatives. Private Robert Kerr was executed by firing squad at Franklin, Texas at 2pm on 20th March 1864.

The marker on the grave of First Lieutenant Samuel Allyne, who Robert Kerr murdered. The Lieutenant’s body was returned to his home in Brewster, Barnstable County, Massachusetts (Caryn via Find A Grave)


Compiled Service Records.

1860 Census.

Robert I. Alotta 1989. Civil War Justice: Union Army Executions under Lincoln.