Fresh from his failed attack on New Bern, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett withdraws his disorganized forces back toward Kinston, 53 prisoners from the 2nd North Carolina Union Regiment in
Fresh from his failed attack on New Bern, Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett withdraws his disorganized forces back toward Kinston, 53 prisoners from the 2nd North Carolina Union Regiment in tow. They halt on February 4, 1864, to spend a night at Dover, well beyond reach of the Yankees.
In the clearing beyond Pickett’s tent, his officers interrogate some of the Yankee prisoners beside a campfire. Two of them look familiar to Sgt. Blunt King, a 46-year-old veteran of the Mexican-American War. They resemble two young men who used to be part of his own Company B. King asks his lieutenant whether these men are indeed Joe Haskett, a 26-year-old farmer from Carteret County, and David Jones of Craven County, just 21.
The lieutenant tells him that is exactly who they are.
“Good evening, boys,” King greets them, and, sullenly, they wish him good evening, too.
But Pickett, humiliated once again on the field of battle, is not in the mood for pleasantries. He stalks out of his tent, where he has been conferring with Gen. Robert F. Hoke and Gen. Montgomery Corse. He confronts the prisoners. “What are you doing here? Where have you been?”
The young soldiers, dressed in Union blue, don’t have a good answer.
Pickett’s fatal anger is roused. “Damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert.”
Jones, young and defiant, tells Pickett that he does “not care a damn” whether they shot him then, or what they did with him.
On Pickett’s orders, soldiers take the men away. He turns to his subordinate generals and declares, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot, the rest will stop deserting.”
“The sooner the better,” Corse says.
Before they leave the Dover camp, Pickett convenes a court-martial headed by a Virginia officer, Lt. Col. James R. Branch. Jones and Haskett admit they are deserters, but they claim they were conscripted into the Union Army against their will. But the outcome is never really in doubt. The court finds them guilty and sentences them to death by hanging. Not by firing squad, the time-honored military method. Hanging is for cowards and criminals, not soldiers.
The officers march the prisoners to Kinston and lock them up in the Lenoir County Courthouse, where they sleep on the floor without blankets and subsist on a diet of one cracker a day. Outside on the sandy lot behind the jail, they hear the gallows being hammered together. The next day, February 5, 1864, Jones and Haskett receive a visit in jail from The Rev. John Paris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina, a thin-faced man with close-set eyes. He reports, “They were the most unfeeling and hardened men I have ever encountered. They had been raised up in ignorance and vice.”
The hangman is recruited from a gang of soldiers playing cards at the railroad depot: Their old company sergeant, Blunt King, volunteers for the duty. There’s no rope to be had in the army, so he scrounges a coil from the C.S.S. Neuse, an ironclad moored on the river.
The two unfortunates are marched outside to the gallows and mount the scaffold. General Hoke, their fellow North Carolinian, orders his brigade to form up in ranks to witness the hanging. Gen. Seth Barton’s brigade completes the hollow square of gray-clad soldiers surrounding the scaffold. Another North Carolinian, 21-year-old Lt. John G. Justice, Hoke’s aide-de-camp, reads out the charges and the sentence. No one remarks that many of the officers present, including Pickett himself, once swore allegiance to the Union and are, at this very moment, guilty of “taking up arms for the enemy” — the same crime for which these men have been condemned to death.
King hoods each man’s head in a corn sack, then pulls the lever that drops them into the next world. After they are cut down, King slices off their brass “U.S.” tunic buttons for souvenirs.
In the wake of the first executions, desertions increase. Two dozen men evaporate into the Union lines at New Bern.
On February 8, Union Maj. Gen. John J. Peck, commander of the Department of North Carolina, is appalled to read an article in the Richmond Examiner about the hanging of a captured “negro soldier.” He sends a letter to General Pickett through a truce pouch reminding him of President Lincoln’s order that for every U.S. soldier executed in a manner contrary to the laws of war, a Confederate captive will be executed. Peck — still unaware of the Kinston hangings — informs Pickett that he believes this must have happened without Pickett’s knowledge and urges the general to take prompt action to bring the offenders to justice. He concludes, “I shall refrain from executing a rebel soldier until I learn your action in the premises.”
Pickett responds that he has captured 450 federal soldiers. “And for every man you hang,” Pickett says, “I will hang 10 of the U.S. Army.”
General Peck then sends across the lines a roster of the 53 men captured at Batchelder’s Creek, and Pickett sarcastically thanks Peck for help in identifying the rest of the Confederate deserters.
The court-martial doesn’t skip a beat. A duplicitous Union sergeant helpfully provides a company roster, naming all the former Confederates who joined the 2nd North Carolina. Five men are tried and sentenced to death, to be carried out “in twenty-four hours after the publication of the sentence.”
But before those five can be executed, the court-martial convenes again on February 11, this time at Goldsboro, where Pickett now has his headquarters. Thirteen more men are sentenced to be hanged at Kinston.
With 18 men now under sentence of death, Pickett orders a larger scaffold erected. On February 12, it stands ready to receive the five men convicted in the second round.
Again the chaplain, Paris, attends the first five condemned men, this time baptizing two: John Stanley and William Irving Hill. At the gallows, Amos Armyett, the oldest of the men at 44, speaks on behalf of all of them. He confesses that they have “done wrong and regret it. And warn others not to follow our example.”
These men are already dead by the time General Peck’s letters reach Pickett. The two generals exchange other letters, but Peck cannot persuade Pickett to stop hanging prisoners.
Barring a miracle, which is not likely, the remaining 13 will die on Monday, February 15. Paris visits the jail on Sunday the 14th to offer spiritual solace. He writes in a letter to the Wilmington Journal, “They had only twenty-four hours to live. … Here was a wife to say farewell to a husband forever. Here a mother to take the last look at her ruined son, and then a sister who had come to embrace for the last time the brother who had brought disgrace upon the very name she bore by his treason to his country.” Paris baptizes eight of the men. Two others are escorted to the Neuse River, where they are baptized by immersion.
Paris conducts a prayer service. Then he exhorts the prisoners to tell him the names of the “men who had seduced them to desert and go to the enemy.” They name five men from Jones County. Paris reports the names to General Hoke so they can be arrested and tried.
The day is so cold that the assembled troopers complain. The 13 men climb the scaffold and leave behind no record of their last words, save a general protest that they are not guilty. A brass band plays the death march. This time the executioner is a mysterious cross-eyed stranger from Raleigh. He strips clothing off some of the corpses, cuts buttons from the coats of the others. Now some of the dead lie naked to the biting February cold. Others are stripped down to long johns.
Families brave enough to dare Pickett’s wrath claim the bodies of their men. “Plenty would have been willing to have assisted me, but did not dare for fear of being called Unionist,” laments the widow of William Jones, who lies dead wearing only his socks. Other bodies are buried in a shallow grave at the foot of the scaffold.
Morale among the Confederate ranks sinks to a dismal low. Witnessing the hangings gives some would-be deserters second thoughts, but many of the ordinary soldiers find the spectacle disgusting and unnerving.
Six more men are put on trial. Of those, two are sentenced to be branded with the letter D for “deserter” on their left hips and sent into hard labor with a ball and chain attached to their leg; one is spared the death penalty and confined to hard labor on account of his “extreme youth, … physical disability and mental imbecility”; a fourth, Sgt. William Clinton Cox, is found not guilty because he was a railroad guard in the North Carolina Bridge Guard Company, not technically enlisted in the Army of the Confederacy. Nonetheless he remains in custody, to be tried for simple treason.
His acquittal may be a tacit recognition of his role in betraying so many of his fellow captives.
But two more men receive a death-by-hanging sentence: Elijah Kellum and William Irving Hill. Kellum is an illiterate conscript, who twice tried to enlist in the Confederate service but was turned down by reason of physical deformity. Then he was “sent to a conscript camp by some persons who wished to scare him; he hearing of it deserted to the Union lines.” Notwithstanding, he is hanged along with Hill on February 22, 1864.
In all, Pickett hangs 22 North Carolina men. Their Union Army careers were short-lived. None lived past 90 days from enlistment. Not a single one received the promised bounty of $300.
Six days after the hangings, Reverend Paris, who acted as a spy and interrogator among the prisoners, delivers a sermon to Hoke’s brigade. Of the hanged men, he preaches, “Ignoring every principle that pertains to the patriot, disowning that natural as well as lawful allegiance that every man owes to the government of the State which throws around him the aegis of its protection, they went, boldly, Judas and Arnold-like, made an agreement with the enemies of their country, took an oath of fidelity and allegiance to them, and agreed with them for money to take up arms and assist in the unholy and hellish work of the subjugation of the country which was their own, their native land! These men have only met the punishment meted out by all civilized nations for such crimes. To this, all good men, all true men, and all loyal men who love their country, will say, Amen!”
The remaining 31 prisoners captured at Batchelder’s Creek disappear into Confederate prisons in Richmond and Georgia. Twenty-five die of disease and malnutrition within two months of the hangings. Three eventually receive a parole. The remaining three are unaccounted for.
Two months after his acquittal as a deserter, Sergeant Cox, the railroad guard, succumbs to fever at Andersonville Prison.
The mass executions shock the citizens of Kinston, many of whom witnessed the hangings. As word leaks across Union lines on the coast, the loyalist North Carolina troops are driven to a state of near panic. Col. Edward Ripley reports, “Indeed they are already looking to the swamps for the protection they have so far failed of getting from our Government. … I believe they will inevitably, in case of a fight, become panic-stricken and have a bad effect on the rest of this slim command.”
General Peck will not let the matter drop. Although his correspondence with Pickett saved no one, he reports the executions to Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, his superior, who argues Peck’s case with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant is reluctant to act: “I would claim no right to retaliate for the punishment of deserters who had actually been mustered into the Confederate Army and afterwards deserted and joined ours.”
But not all the hanged men swore the oath to the Confederacy, though all took the oath of allegiance to the Union.
An assistant quartermaster in New Bern, Capt. W. H. Doherty, pursues the matter with zeal. He convinces the secretary of war to seat a board of inquiry composed of three officers, with Doherty in charge. For two months between September 13 and November 14, 1865, the board hears from 28 witnesses in New Bern and Kinston. It determines that half the men who were executed served, not in the regular Confederate Army, but in state militia and guard units not subject to Confederate military justice.
Therefore, under the law, the hangings constitute a war crime, and the two men with the greatest culpability are General Pickett and General Hoke. Doherty sends his findings to Washington, where they are criticized. The investigation stalls — until Pickett’s letters to Peck are forwarded to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. He is outraged by their haughty tone and murderous threats. He concludes, “Not only does the imperious and vaunting temper in which these letters … indicate his readiness to commit … any … atrocity, but his boastful admissions that he was in command at the time that the twenty-two men had been executed … all tend to show that he was in responsible command and furnish evidence upon which it is believed charges can be sustained against him.”
Holt convenes a second board of inquiry in Raleigh on January 23, 1866. This one holds hearings not just in Kinston, but also in Salisbury, Goldsboro, New Bern, Halifax, and Beaufort. A host of luminaries testify, including William Woods Holden and former Gov. Zebulon Vance.
The board concludes that Pickett alone is culpable. In July 1866, Judge Advocate General Holt calls for a trial for Pickett.
Pickett flees the country to Montreal, Canada, where he lives for a time with his new wife, Sally, under the name of Edwards. Meanwhile, his case goes before Congress, which is mired in deliberations regarding the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, still in charge of the Army and a favorite to succeed Johnson, intervenes on Pickett’s behalf.
In part, he acts on principle: The parole he granted to the officers who surrendered at Appomattox remains in force unless they commit some unlawful act after the parole. There are no exceptions for crimes committed before the surrender.
But in fact, other officers have been prosecuted for war crimes, and many believe it is simply Grant’s long friendship with his old West Point comrade that saves Pickett.
George E. Pickett, now a civilian, returns to Virginia, where he lives until 1875, selling insurance. He is snubbed by former comrades, notably Robert E. Lee. The hard-drinking general dies of an abscess of the liver at age 50 in a Norfolk hospital.
His body is returned to Richmond to be interred at the Hollywood Cemetery among other famous officers. He is eulogized as one of Virginia’s “noble sons.” His funeral is grand, but the Richmond Dispatch delays printing a story about it for two days. For those two days, the paper devotes itself to coverage of the new statue erected on Monument Avenue — of a much more successful and beloved general: Thomas E. “Stonewall” Jackson.
The author is grateful to Jan Barwick, Director of Special Programs and events for the Chamber of Commerce of Kinston; and Jane Phillips, President of the Historical Preservation Group of Kinston, for help in locating sites in Kinston.
In addition, the author is indebted to the following documentary sources:
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was just published by Hub City Press.
To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit https://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series