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Madera soldier witnessed an execution

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Frederick Quant is shown here in uniform. He moved to Madera after the Civil War was over.


Madera’s old soldier shuffled out to the front porch of his home on Cottonwood Creek. He eased himself into his rocker for one of his favorite past times — telling Civil War stories. The attentive audience of adults and children, including his granddaughter, Lena Northern, gathered in closely. They always hung on every word that spilled from the old warrior’s lips, even when they had heard them before, and this story they had heard many times. It was one of Frederick John Quant’s favorites.

As he remembered it, the weather had been unusually warm on the night of Feb. 6, 1864, almost 150 years ago. Quant’s company, the famous California One Hundred, had been attached to the 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment, and they had been constantly engaged in northeastern Virginia trying to capture the elusive John Mosby, the Confederate Gray Ghost.

Mosby and his band of guerrillas had been nipping at the flanks of the Union Army for months, and it had been made all the more intolerable for Quant and his comrades by the fact that one of their own Californians, William E. Ormsby, had deserted and was riding with the enemy.

For reasons known only to him, Ormsby had left his post to join the Rebel side on the night of Jan. 24, 1864, but now two weeks later, he was about to pay for his traitorous defection.

Frederick Quant had been part of the scouting party of 75 California troopers who had been sent out on February 5 to flush out Mosby’s raiders. After a fruitless scouring of the countryside, they began their return to camp the next day when eight of the rebels attacked their rear guard at Aldie, Virginia.

In the skirmish that followed, three Rebels were wounded, and one was captured — Quant’s former comrade William E. Ormsby. With great relish, the Californians brought their prize into camp.

A drumhead court-martial was held that very night, and Ormsby was found guilty of desertion. He was sentenced to be executed by firing squad the next day between the hours of noon and 2 p.m.

As daylight broke on the morning of Feb. 7, 1864, the camp of the California One hundred came alive. They were about to witness the shooting of Ormsby, the turncoat.

Those on picket duty remained at their posts, but everybody else prepared for the execution. One detail built a rude coffin while another dug a grave at the edge of camp.

At noon, the company was formed along three sides of a rectangle. Ormsby was taken out of the guard house and escorted to the place of execution by the band, which included Corporal Quant, and four pall-bearers carrying the condemned soldier’s coffin.

Slowly, while the band played a dirge, the procession made its way to the center of the assembly and then marched around the three sides of the hollow square to the open end where the coffin was placed in front of the freshly dug grave.

Suddenly the music ceased, and all was quiet until the Chaplain offered a prayer and asked Ormsby if he had any last words. The doomed man replied that indeed he would like to bid “the boys good-bye.” He made his way, accompanied by the chaplain, to every man and bade them all farewell, acknowledging his wrong doing and accepting the consequences.

The chaplain then led Ormsby back to his original position. At that point, he turned to give the firing squad an admonition. Placing his hand over his heart, he said in a loud, clear voice, “Boys, I hope you will fire well.”

With that Ormsby hopped up on the wagon and sat down on his coffin. A former comrade bandaged his eyes, and the turncoat awaited his fate. It was not long in coming.

At 12:30 p.m. the order to “fire” was given, and Ormsby tumbled backward off his coffin with two bullets in his heart. He was pronounced dead and buried right there on the spot.

As Quant remembered the event, Ormsby “bore it all bravely.” Meanwhile, the future Maderan and his comrades in the California One Hundred continued to answer the call of “boots and saddles” until their war ended honorably at Appomattox on April 9, 1865.

After his discharge on July 20, 1865, Quant made a quick journey to Oswego County, New York, where he married Mary Elizabeth Fletcher, the sister of his soldier buddy, John Fletcher. The three of them then boarded the steamer “New York” at the wharf in New York City and sailed for Aspinwall where they caught the “Colorado” on the Pacific side of the Isthmus and headed for San Francisco.

After nearly a three-year absence, Frederick John Quant set his feet on California soil at 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 24, 1865.

Farming occupied the Quants for the next 20 years or so, and then they heard good reports about the productivity of land near Madera. Therefore, in 1888 the family set out in covered wagons for a 320-acre parcel about three miles west of where Cottonwood Creek crossed the Southern Pacific tracks. There Quant farmed for 30 years and raised his family.

On July 14, 1916, Frederick Quant died and was buried in Arbor Vitae Cemetery. There he rests today along with Madera’s other veterans of the Civil War. His marker only records his service in the Union Army. One wonders how he really felt about William E. Ormsby?


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