February 22, 1864 (Monday)
When we last left General George Pickett, he had just ordered the execution of thirteen Union soldiers – this was almost immediately after hanging seven others and shooting two more. Apart from the two who were killed by firing squad, Pickett had tried each in a court martial, presided over by his own officers, and seemingly without knowledge by Richmond. The issue had been that these condemned men were once Confederate soldiers. They had, according to Pickett, joined the Rebel army only to desert and join with the Union.
But that was not really the case. The men, all from several counties in North Carolina, had joined with the local, secessionist militia with the assurances that they would be used only as home guards. When their units were selected to join the actual Confederate Army, they left. General Pickett, however, didn’t let the fact that they had never been soldiers in the Confederate Army stop him from trying and executed them as deserters from the Confederate Army.
Two days after the mass hanging of the thirteen, Pickett informed Union General John Peck, giving him the names of the deceased. Peck was in command at New Bern, North Carolina, the town that Pickett had been trying to assail when he was beaten back and managed to capture a Federal outpost populated with the gruesomely dwindling number of prisoners.
Pickett was becoming bitter and plain nasty. Peck, having not yet heard of the executions, had supplied him with a list of fifty-three names of men who had once served in the North Carolina militia. Pickett thanked him for the list “so kindly furnished me,” and boasted that it would enable him “to bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.”
Thus far, Pickett admitted to ordering the killing of twenty-two Union prisoners of war, and from the looks of things, he was just getting started. “Your letter and list,” continued Pickett, “will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the confederate colors.”
News between Pickett and Peck traveled slowly. By the 20th, Pickett’s letter, which was written on the 17th, had not yet arrived. What did arrive, however, was the Fayetteville Observer, dated February 8th, which reported “traitors executed” and that others were undergoing a trial. Still having no knowledge that Pickett had killed twenty-two Union prisoners, General Peck tried to reason with the man.
“Having reported this matter to higher authority,” he submitted, “I am instructed to notify you, that if the members of the North Carolina [US] regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war, the strictest retaliation will be enforced.” Peck went on to remind Pickett that “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” were held at Fortress Monroe “as hostages for their safety.” Peck was obliquely suggesting that the fort might have a few less mouths to feed should Pickett take to killing more Union prisoners.
The higher authority, in this case, was General Benjamin Butler, commanding the department and operating out of Fortress Monroe. More than likely, he believed the reports that two Union prisoners had been killed and others were on trial. He also probably suspected that more had already been killed. He wished for Peck to inform Pickett of his ignorance, saying “I do not believe the story that any harm is intended to the officers and men of the Second North Carolina [US] Regiment.”
By this date, Peck’s information had become wildly tangled. He had just returned from Newport and there learned “that General Pickett has been arrested and that General Armistead is at Kinston in command.” the latter half of this statement was, of course, impossible, since General Louis Armistead had died on the third day at Gettysburg. This bit of misinformation would soon be cleared up.
Unlike Peck, Pickett did not consult a higher authority, writing only to General Robert E. Lee, who had sent him on the mission to New Bern, once following the battle. He submitted his report on the 15th, but failed to mention anything about the executions or trials, even though by that time, he had ordered the killing of thirteen for that same day.
From this point onward, Pickett seemed to lose track of who he was executing. While many witnesses came forward after the war to testify to the twenty-two being executed in four waves, any that met the same fate after February 15th were seemingly not accounted for.
In a report filed in September of 1865, a passing statement to “ten more soldiers of the same regiment, whose names are not yet ascertained, were hung at the same place by the same rebel generals.” This was said to have taken place “a few days” after the mass hanging on the 15th. Very little more was ever mentioned of these “ten more soldiers” – if they ever existed.
If they were indeed executed, it was a much more private affair. Many of the widows and townspeople of Kinston, where the previous hangings took place, witnessed the gruesome events. Several newspapers even covered it. Pickett, who was sadistically open about his orders, forwarded the names to Peck. If he had ordered the deaths of ten more, what reason might there have been for him to keep them secret?
Still, by this date, neither Generals Peck nor Butler knew about the executions, apart from the first two. Over the coming days, they would learn and call Pickett to task.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p556, 569, 585; 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. [↩]