March 3, 1864 (Thursday)
Nearly a month had transpired since Confederate General Pickett ordered the execution of two Union prisoners captured during his failed attempt to take New Berne, North Carolina. Since that time, he ordered eighteen more to the same fate, and threatened to go farther. His reasoning was that the men were originally in the Confederate army, had deserted and taken up arms against their country. In truth, the men were never in the official Confederate army, only serving in the state militia until their unit was folded into the regular service.
When last we visited this sad situation, neither Union General John Peck, who was commanding in the area, nor General Benjamin Butler, department commander, had caught wind of the mass execution, knowing only of the first two. When Butler read in the southern newspapers about the others, he went around Pickett and wrote to Robert Ould, the Confederate commander in charge of prisoner exchange.
By this time, the threats of retaliation were getting out of hand. General Peck had slyly suggested that there were Confederate officers held as prisoners at Fortress Monroe who had fought for the Federal Army (as did many Confederate officers) who could be executed in turn. Pickett replied that if such a thing was done, he would kill ten Union prisoners for every Confederate officer executed.
Wishing to avoid such a bloodshed, and probably figuring that Pickett’s actions were unknown to Richmond, Butler essentially asked Ould to reign in his errant officer.
Butler reminded him that executions were “worthy of careful consideration and discussion.” This was a fine point, but he also could not resist bringing up how ironic the situation was becoming.
“True,” he continued, “Gen. Pickett, having deserted his own flag and the Army of the United States on 25th June, 1861, would probably know what should be the fate of a deserter found in arms against his Government, but the question will be whether he shall be permitted to allow his own personal feelings to prevail in a matter now in your hands.”
While not ignoring the executed prisoners, Butler turned to the incident that actually started the whole thing – the murder of a black Union soldier who was tracked down and caught after he killed a Rebel colonel during a battle situation. Butler argued that the killing of a colonel was “a meritorious act on the part of the soldier, and one because of which under no rule of civilized warfare should a hair of his head be injured.”
General Pickett, having already been quizzed about this by Peck, flat out denied it, calling it “without foundation in fact, but so ridiculous that I should scarcely have supposed it worthy of consideration.” Pickett’s denial was probably suspected, but perhaps it was true. “I would respectfully inform you,” he went on, “that 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.”
The trouble was that while the North was sending forward thousands of black troops to battle, the South was refusing to accept them as actual and official combatants. If a citizen, for example, would rush out of his house to assassinate an officer during wartime, it would acceptable to execute this person on the spot. Since Pickett refused to view the black troops as anything more than escaped slaves incapable of officially being soldiers, he was threatening to treat them thusly.
Returning to the subject of retaliation, Butler laid down that he was more than willing to execute Confederate soldiers and officers held prisoner “unless some period is put to such acts and such threats.” This wasn’t an outright threat, he insisted, but merely part of doing business if Ould couldn’t restrain Pickett.
Butler promised to “wait for a sufficient time to elapse” to hear from the Confederate authorities about whether or not more Union prisoners would be executed. More than anything, however, he wanted the Confederate authorities to finally state whether or not they would treat black soldiers as soldiers:
“But the question which I desire to submit for authoritative decision on the part of those you represent is whether a soldier of the United States who is duly enlisted, and has not deserted from your Army, and who has committed no act which could be construed as crime, save acts of hostility in the field against the Confederate Armies, whatever may be the color or complexion of that soldier, is to be regarded and located by your authorities as a prisoner of war, and as such entitled to the rights and immunities of such condition.”
The matter, being overshadowed by the Dahlgren Affair, appeared to drop off of Butler’s radar, at least temporarily. Pickett continued his executions, though he became smarter, keeping them out of the papers. Finally, after the war, the Federal government would attempt to try him for war crimes related to these executions. When Picket caught wind, he fled to Canada with his wife.
In late 1865, Pickett’s arrest was ordered, but he was no where to be found, though he returned from exile around this time. Three months later, in March of 1866, a trial would be held, sans Pickett, and the widows, locals and Confederate soldiers who witnessed the mass executions were interviewed. The presiding judge found that Pickett’s court-martial had no jurisdiction over the prisoners, since they had never been in the Confederate Army.
It was then that Pickett would turn to his old friend, Ulysses S. Grant, whom he knew from their days together at West Point and the Mexican War. He complained of “certain evil disposed persons” who were “attempting to reopen the troubles of the past.” Pickett argued that he was simply following the rules of war.
Grant would then go to bat for Pickett, sending a letter to President Andrew Johnson. As a personal favor to Grant, wouldn’t the President just forget about it? The issue would drag on through the whole of 1866, until finally the matter was dropped. In 1868, Johnson would finally issue official amnesty, but by then it was pretty obvious that Pickett had gotten away with it.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p869-870; Series 2, Vol. 6, various pages related to the affair; Private and Official Correspondence Vol. 3 by Benjamin Butler; 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; General George E. Pickett in Life & Legend by Lesley J. Gordon. [↩]