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Connecticut's Connection to Fort Leavenworth

Sgt. Robert Bales, alleged murderer of 17 Afghanis, is imprisoned at Leavenworth — a place named after a beloved Army general born in New Haven.

One of the U.S. Army’s most famous military posts is Fort Leavenworth in Leavenworth, KS. Strategically located at the junction of the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails, Leavenworth played a key role in the development of the American West. Though many Americans have heard of Fort Leavenworth, few realize that the man after whom it was named — General Henry Leavenworth — was born in New Haven, CT, in 1783 — the final year of the American Revolution. His father, Col. Jesse Leavenworth, served as an officer under the command of George Washington.

As mentioned in last week’s column on Connecticut’s role in the War of 1812, one of the officers wounded in the Battle of Niagara Falls on July 25, 1814, was Maj. Henry Leavenworth. Beloved by his men, Leavenworth had skillfully led his unit to victory at the Battle of Chippawa on July 5 of that year. Having distinguished himself in the War of 1812, Leavenworth quickly rose through the ranks to become a brigadier general in charge of the fort that bears his name in Kansas.

A student of European methods of military drill and discipline, Leavenworth made an enduring contribution to the development of the U.S. Army, as the following tribute clearly demonstrates:

General Leavenworth seems to have exercised a profound influence on the development of the standard of training and discipline in the army …. He was one of the first … regimental commanders upon whom devolved the duty of adapting European methods of drill, discipline, and administration to the peculiar needs of our own military service.

So pervasive was the influence of their education training on the officers of the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth, that it was a common saying during World War I that “Leavenworth is running the war.”

But besides being an important center for the training of U.S. military personnel, since 1874 Fort Leavenworth has also been the home of the largest and most important military prison in the country — the United States Disciplinary Barracks (USDB). It is the only maximum-security prison for the military in the nation. It is the place where Sgt. Robert Bales, alleged killer of 17 Afghani civilians, is currently housed. Rebuilt in 2002, the USDB has a capacity of 515 prisoners; currently, it houses about 440.

The use of capital punishment by the U.S. military has an interesting recent history. The military has not executed any of its personnel since 1961, even though punishment by death is still on the books. Between 1942 and 1961, 160 members of the armed forces were executed. Prior to that, the military executed 36 service members during World War I.

The majority of executions occurred during a three-year period of World War II from 1942 to 1945 — a total of 141 — most by hanging. With one exception, the vast majority of these capital felony cases were due to convictions of murder or rape or both. The one famous exception was the execution by firing squad of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, who was convicted of desertion. In 1974 Martin Sheen starred in a movie called “The Execution of Eddie Slovik.” Though it is estimated that over 20,000 American soldiers deserted during World War II, only Eddie Slovik of Michigan paid for it with his life.

Additionally, 14 German POWs were executed at Leavenworth during World War II. All of the German POWs had been convicted of murdering fellow Germans who were thought by them of collaborating with the U.S. military. All were hanged in a makeshift elevator shaft at Leavenworth between July 10, 1945, and Aug. 25, 1945. They are all buried at the cemetery at the Leavenworth prison. The U.S. Navy also executed 14 Japanese nationals on Guam following the war. All 14 had been accused and convicted of serious war crimes.

Under the current Uniform Code of Military Justice, there are 14 offenses that are punishable by death. Some of these offenses — such as being a spy, desertion, willfully disobeying or assaulting a superior officer, or misbehavior by a sentinel — are only capital offenses during wartime. By far the most likely reason for execution, however, is murder.

Should Sgt. Robert Bales be convicted of the willful murder of 17 Afghan civilians, he might face the death penalty. Currently, there are five other servicemen convicted of murder who face the death penalty. Four of them are housed at Leavenworth; if convicted, Bales could be the fifth and would be executed by lethal injection — the method currently preferred by the military. It is likely that any future military executions would also be at the USDB facility at Fort Leavenworth, an important military facility still bearing the name of Gen. Henry Leavenworth, hero of the War of 1812 and a New Haven native.

Notes, Sources, and Links

1. 1-22infantry.org/commanders

2. skyways.lib.ks.us

3. kansasgeneaology.com

4. "Capital Punishment By The United States Military" at wikipedia.com

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