February 8, 1864 (Monday)
On this chilly morning, the readers of the Petersburg Register, a Confederate newspaper operating south of Richmond, were treated to an account of the recent debacle at New Bern, North Carolina. The undertaking was led by General George Pickett, and it failed miserably, embarrassing the South, and the general in particular. The paper stated simply that “the place was stronger than we anticipated.” This was true, but also related a story that Pickett might have rathered be kept out of print.
“From a private, who was one of the guard that brought the batch of prisoners through, we learn that Colonel Shaw was shot dead by a negro soldier from the other side of the river which he was spanning with a pontoon bridge. The negro was watched, followed, taken, and hanged after the action at Thomasville. It is stated that when our troops entered Thomasville a number of the enemy took shelter in the houses and fired upon them. The Yankees were ordered to surrender but refused, whereupon our men set fire to the houses, and their occupants got bodily a taste in this world of the flames eternal.”
Not surprisingly, Pickett failed to mention this in either of his official reports, and glibly denied it when questioned by Federal officers, stating: had I caught any negro who had killed officer, soldier, or citizen of the Confederate States, I should have caused him to be immediately executed.” This particular episode might have been just a story drummed up out of thin air, but Pickett was involved in something even more nefarious.
As his troops retreated from New Bern, they managed to capture a couple of hundred Federal soldiers. Twenty-two of these men were recognized by former comrades-in-arms as having been part of a North Carolina Home Guard unit. When talk of conscripting the militia into the regular Confederate army began to be tossed about, they officially joined the Northern cause.
After they were brought into the Confederate camp and recognized, Pickett came out of his tent to have a few choice words with them. “What are you doing here?” he spat. “Where have you been?” The men gave some sort of answer to which Pickett replied: “God 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.”
One of the prisoners, a Mr. Jones (there were three Jones’ among the captured), replied that he, according to a witness, “did not care a damn whether they shot him then or what they did with him.” Pickett stormed away, but soon met with his fellow officers.
“We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon,” said Pickett, “and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting.” An older general agreed, “the sooner the better.” Pickett concluded the conversation, stating that “every god-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”
A court-martial, however, would take time, and Pickett wanted this over quickly. Two of the prisoners were executed by firing squad within days of their capture (probably on February 5th). For some reason or another, Pickett then decided to go through with the court-martial. The problem was that the none of the men had never actually served in the official Confederate army – only in the militia. The authority of a court-martial did not extend to them.
This bit of information either escaped Pickett or he simply didn’t care, as he threw together an impromptu court-martial comprised of his own officers. According to a witness who was also a brother of one of the accused, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.”
By this date, according to the Fayetteville Observer, the trial was continuing. “Traitors executed,” read the copy. “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and other are undergoing trail.”
The remaining twenty men were held in a dungeon and awaited their fate, which soon would be judged. Meanwhile, the Union authorities, specifically General Benjamin Butler, commanding at Fortress Monroe, would shortly catch word from the Southern papers and open a bizarre dialog with George Pickett.1
- Sources: Murder of Union Soldiers in North Carolina – this book, published in 1866 by the US Government, brings together all the official correspondence with Pickett, as well as scores of pages of testimony from those in Pickett’s command. It’s a fascinating and horrific little book, available here. [↩]