On this day in 1864, Confederate forces under George E. Pickett were fighting down in North Carolina. They faced Union troops who were hip deep in swamps and dug into the riverbanks around New Bern, and after a tough, middle-of-the-night firefight, Pickett’s Virginians managed to cut off and capture most of Company F, 2nd North Carolina (U.S.). Including Nethercutt’s and Whitford’s battalions, the men of Company F were mostly from right there in the area. Their ranks included a few men who were staunchly loyal to the Union—North Carolina, it should be said, hesitated even longer than Virginia before seceding, and a statewide referendum on the question had actually failed. Others were, as one historian put it, “men of questionable loyalty,” while still others were deserters from the Confederate ranks.
This latter group included young men like 21-year-old David Jones and 26-year-old Joseph L. Haskett, who had avoided conscription into Confederate service by joining a home guard unit, only to see that group recently folded into the Army of Northern Virginia. That’s when Jones and Haskett decided to flee—it was either that or leave home and face the carnage up in Ole Virginny. The irony is that these fugitives often ended up in Union enclaves on the coast, where they were easy pickings for often unscrupulous army recruiters. Jones and Haskett both later insisted that they were threatened and forced into joining the 2nd North Carolina.
Whatever the case, 53 men in all from Company F were captured and marched behind Confederate lines, and there a few Confederate soldiers recognized the faces of deserted comrades, including those of Jones and Haskett. Now, it was quite bad enough if you were from North Carolina and caught wearing Union blues. But it was much, much worse if you had once worn Confederate grays. Writes Donald E. Collins:
When General Pickett confronted the two men he was openly contemptuous and left no doubt about their fate. The previous day he had been overheard to say “that every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.” At about sunset, Pickett came out of his tent and confronted Jones and Haskett, who were standing near a campfire. He asked where they had been, and after listening to their reply angrily told them, “God damn you, I recon [sic] you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert.” Jones answered that he did “not care a damn whether they shot him then, or what they did with him.” With that, Pickett ordered them away from his tent. He then told Generals [Montgomery D.] Corse and [Robert F.] Hoke, who were present during the confrontation with the two Confederates-turned-Yankee, that “we’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting.” Corse agreed, stating “the sooner the better.”
Corse got his wish. After twenty-six of the fifty-three men captured from Company F were identified as deserters, a board of court-martial—led by Lieutenant Colonel James R. Branch and composed entirely of Virginians—convened in nearby Kinston, North Carolina, on February 2 to hear its first two cases: Jones and Haskett. They were found guilty and sentenced to hang on February 5. On February 4, five more men were tried and sentenced to hang. And on February 11, the board convened in Goldsboro and sentenced another 13 to hang. There were no findings of “not guilty” and no leniency. Lawyers were denied the men and witnesses turned away.
The merciless swiftness of Pickett’s justice might suggest just how big a problem desertion was for the Confederate army. Perpetually short of food and clothing, the army, because of that, was now losing its men. Just a few days earlier, on January 22, Robert E. Lee had written to the secretary of war that “desertions to the enemy are becoming more frequent, and the men cannot continue healthy and vigorous if confined to this spare diet for any length of time. Unless there is a change, I fear the army cannot be kept together.” The previous August, Lee had even been more explicit in a message to the general John D. Imboden:
There is much desertion, I regret to say, from this army, principally from the North Carolina troops, but it also occurs among others, and, I am pained to add, among the Virginians. The [relatively light] punishment you recommend has been resorted to, but I begin to fear nothing but the death penalty, uniformly, inexorably administered will stop it.
With that in mind, perhaps, a gallows was erected in Kinston and General Hoke put in charge of the executions. With Hoke’s brigade and the condemned men’s old unit making a square around the platform, Jones and Haskett were hanged on February 5. Besides troubling the locals—many of whom knew the two men and were not entirely Confederate-friendly to begin with—the executions set off an unfriendly exchange between Pickett and Union general John J. Peck, who enclosed in a note a clipping from the February 8 edition of the Fayetteville Observer headlined, “Traitors Executed” (see image above). After telling Pickett that he hoped such rumors were unfounded, he wrote:
I am instructed to notify you that if the members of the North Carolina regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war the strictest retaliation will be enforced. Two colonels, 2 lieutenant-colonels, 2 majors, and 2 captains are held at Fort Monroe as hostages for their safety. These officers have not been placed in close custody because the authorities do not believe that any harm is intended by you to the members of the Second North Carolina Regiment.
By the time Pickett replied, he had executed five more on February 12 and thirteen all at once on February 15. A Confederate chaplain later wrote that “the scene beggers [sic] all description … They had only twenty four hours to live, and but little preparation 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.” The historian Collins, meanwhile, describes the scene after the executions on February 15 as “bizarre,” with a “tall, stout, dark-complected, cross- or squint-eyed” hangman from Raleigh taking his pay “directly from the bodies of the dead men,” leaving some completely nude.
These weren’t the only executions in Kinston, either. As many seventy soldiers were hanged or shot during this time. An officer from the 6th North Carolina wrote that it was scaring his men: “It was sort of a general hanging down there. There were so many executions that I was considerably worried at having to take my men over so often.”
By the time the court-martial board convened one last time to hear the final six of Company F’s cases, twenty men had been hanged and the appetite for more finally seemed to wane. Only two of the six were sentenced to hang this time, facing their cross-eyed executioner on February 22.
And what about those who weren’t hanged? They were treated as prisoners of war and shipped to Richmond, arriving on February 11 and 12. There they immediately came down with disease, with eleven of the twenty-seven dying. The rest were quickly sent south to Andersonville, in Georgia, with thirteen arriving alive, and ten of those dying within a month, also of disease. The remaining three were paroled. As for General Pickett, he faced possible criminal charges for his actions and after the war fled to Canada. Only intervention by Ulysses S. Grant on his behalf allowed him to return.
PS: While not a word of the Kinston hangings can be found in Mrs. Pickett‘s voluminous postwar writings, neither can mention be found in Wikipedia’s entry on George E. Pickett.
IMAGES: Top: A different execution by hanging, sketched by Alfred A. Waud, and published as an engraving in Harper’s Weekly, January 25, 1862; middle: colorized portrait of Confederate general George E. Pickett; two clippings from the Fayetteville Observer, February 8, 1864 (top) and February 11, 1864 (bottom); Confederate general Robert F. Hoke (Barden Collection, North Carolina State Archives); bottom: clipping from an Adjutant General’s Office document (like this one) used as part of the postwar criminal case against Pickett (“Murdered by order rebel Genl’s PIckett and Hoke at Kingston NC in the spring of 1864”