February 15, 1864 (Monday)
Following his botched expedition against Federal-held New Bern, North Carolina, General George Pickett had exacted his revenge by executing two Union prisoners and threatened the same for more. When retreating, Pickett’s men captured 200 or so enemy soldiers. Twenty-two of them were found out to be former Rebels, who had joined the North Carolina militia before defecting to the Northern cause. Though they never officially joined the Confederate Army, this seemed to matter not at all to General Pickett, who, by the end of the first week of February, had found them to be Confederate deserters worthy of the death penalty.
Ten days had passed since the execution of the first two. In that time, Pickett had established a court-martial in Kingston, North Carolina, officiated by his own officers. Since the prisoners had never actually been part of the Confederate Army, they should have been treated as any other prisoners of war. Disregarding this, Pickett went forward.
The trials moved swiftly, as did the executions. By the 12th, five more prisoners of war were found guilty of treason and hanged by Pickett’s officers. Their deaths came less than twenty-four hours after the verdict.
According to Rev. John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina Regiment, who witnessed almost all of the executions described the scene:
“Upon entering the cell in which they were confined, I asked if any of them were members of the church. Armyett [one of the prisoners] replied that he was, and had been a Methodist for years; that he was prepared to meet his judge in peace. But as I don’t admit a man’s lips as a test of his Christianity, I thought them only as sinners against God of the most heaven-defying character. I urged upon them the importance of making a full and complete confession of all their sings before both God and man; yet I am afraid these men were willing to look the great sin of perjury, of which they were guilty, fully in the face. Yet each one, before starting to the gallows, professed to have made his peace with his God, and two of them were baptized in the Christian faith. I suggested to them that they owed to their fellow men one duty, viz: that they should give to me the names of the men who had seduced them to desert and go to the enemy.”
According to Rev. Parris, they listed the names of five North Carolina citizens who were “the authors of their ruin, disgrace, and death.” Two begged forgiveness for joining the Union Army. Parris claimed that the other three felt the same way. And so by the 12th, eight men who had never joined the Confederate Army had been hanged for deserting the Confederate Army.
On the 14th, a Sunday, Rev. Parris visited with the thirteen of the remaining prisoners, each sentenced to die the following day.
“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only twenty-four hours to live, and but little preparation had been made for death. 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. I told them they had sinned against their country, and that country would not forgive; but they had also sinned against God, yet God would forgive if they approached him with penitent hearts filled with a godly sorrow for sin, and repose their trust in the atoning blood of Christ.”
The Reverend seemed less certain that these remaining men were as repentant as the previous five. On this date, they were to be executed, and Parris lamented that they had received no religious visit from anyone but himself and another chaplain.
“The thirteen marched to the gallows with apparent resignation,” he continued. “Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear not. On the scaffold they were arranged in one row. At a given signal the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling; but it was as truly the deserters’ doom. Many of them said ‘I never expected to come to such an end as this.’ But yet they were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom.”
Rev. Parris was not the only one in attendance. Many of the wives of the executed were on hand to say farewell and claim the bodies of their husbands. Most of the bodies had been stripped of all clothes, save the pants. None were given coffins. All thirteen of the men were from the same county, and not a few knew each other since childhood.
Presiding over the court-martial, as well as the executions, was General Robert Hoke. According to a large number of witnesses (later interviewed by the Federal War Department as part of a war crimes trial), Hoke was in charge of the whole thing, while Pickett was still in the area, backing the proceedings.
Most of the men executed, being from the same town, originally joined up with the same militia unit, Nethercutt’s Battalion – that under J.H. Nethercutt. According to his own testimony, he was near by, but did not attend the executions. Neither was he asked to take part in the court-martial. When asked shortly after the war (November 1865) if the executed men were ever part of the official Confederate Army, he replied, “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the regiment [meaning the 66th North Carolina, partially made up by the militia men from Nethercutt’s Battalion].” When asked why the men deserted before even joining the Confederate Army, he replied that he didn’t think “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”
On the day before their execution, sometime around when Rev. Parris was preaching to the condemned, Nethercutt went to General Hoke and asked if something could not be done for these boys sentenced to die. Hoke replied, according to Nethercutt, that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Though he could not remember for certain, he believed the order came straight from General Pickett.
According to the local sheriff, William Pope, the mass execution on this date was officiated by “a man about six feet high, stout, cross-eyed.” Apparently he claimed to volunteer for the job. “He stripped the clothes from them the same night he hung them,” continued the witness. “He spoke in a boastful way; said he had got well paid for it; that he would do anything for money.”
Perhaps General Hoke’s hands were indeed tied by Pickett. When Sheriff Pope approached him on the day of the execution, speaking “How do you do, general,” Hoke replied, “don’t you speak to me, you damned son of a bitch.”
Of course, this was all happening with few outside of North Carolina being any the wiser. But some word had trickled into the local papers, and thus into Federals hands.
On the 11th, Union General John Peck, commanding at New Bern, wrote to George Pickett concerning the rumors that a black Union soldiers was executed for shooting a Confederate officer during a skirmish. He wished to remind Pickett that even black men were to be considered United States soldiers. Two days later, hearing no reply from Pickett, Peck wrote again, this time reminding him that many of the Federals he had captured who were from North Carolina were to be treated as prisoners of war, and not as disloyal Confederates.
With the latter communication, Peck furnished a list of fifty-three soldiers who had been with the North Carolina militia and were now in the Union army. “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.” Soon enough, Peck would receive Pickett’s replies.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. [↩]