The Art of Command in the Civil War

By Steven E. Woodworth | Go to book overview

3 / War Crime or Justice? General George Pickett and the Mass Execution of Deserters in Civil War Kinston, North Carolina

DONALD E. COLLINS

During the early hours of February 2, 1864, fifty-three North Carolinians were captured by Confederate forces under the command of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett. They were wearing the uniform of the United States Army and were caught in arms against their native state. Except for a few absentees, these men represented the entire roster of Company F, Second North Carolina Union Volunteer Infantry. Most were natives either of the county in which they were taken prisoner or of surrounding counties. Within four months of their capture, virtually all would be dead. Most fell victim to diseases acquired in Southern prisoner-of-war camps in Richmond, Virginia, and Andersonville, Georgia. Twenty-two, however, were publicly hanged in Kinston, North Carolina. Watching the executions were wives, neighbors, friends, and former comrades in arms in the Confederate army. The incident precipitated a controversy between Union and Confederate authorities that lasted two years and nearly brought down one of the South's most famous generals.

On the surface, the issues were simple. From the Federal viewpoint, the executed men were Union soldiers; once captured, they deserved to be treated as prisoners of war. President Abraham Lincoln made this a point when, on July 31, 1863, he ordered retaliation on "the enemy's prisoners in our possession." "It is . . . ordered, that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed."1 The reaction of Union authorities to the Kinston hangings was outrage and desire for revenge.

The Confederates argued that the men were simply deserters. Execution, therefore, was a legitimate punishment. In reality, however, the problem

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