Tag Archives: Prisoners of War

North Carolina: Confederate Deserters Executed

February 15, 1864 – Thirteen men who deserted the North Carolina militia to join the Federal army were executed by Confederate officials, even though they had never officially belonged to the Confederate army.

Confederate forces withdrawing from New Bern captured several Federal troops near Beach Grove and identified 22 of them as former members of the North Carolina Home Guard. They had served in J.H. Nethercutt’s battalion of the 66th North Carolina, under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. The men had apparently deserted and joined the Federal cause when rumors swirled that the Home Guard would be drafted into the Confederate army.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina, confronted these prisoners and exclaimed, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert!” He later told his subordinates, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting… every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”

However, a court-martial had no authority over these men because they had belonged to a state militia unit, not the national army. Nevertheless, two were executed by firing squad before Pickett even approved the creation of a court-martial to try the remaining 20 men. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and others are undergoing trial.”

The tribunal consisted of Pickett’s officers, headed by Hoke. According to one of the defendant’s brothers, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.” Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, received a list of 53 Federal prisoners who had once belonged to the North Carolina militia. He forwarded this list to Pickett and wrote, “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.”

Before Pickett responded, seven men were found guilty and hanged less than 24 hours after the verdict. On the 14th, the remaining 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death the next day. According to Reverend John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina:

“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only 24 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.”

Nethercutt urged Hoke to intervene on the condemned men’s behalf, but Hoke told him (according to Nethercutt) that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Parris wrote:

“The 13 marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. 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.”

Pickett replied to Peck’s letter the day after the executions. He told Peck that he had only executed 22 of the 53 men on the list, but because the list had been “so kindly furnished me,” it would help Pickett “bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.” Pickett wrote, “Your letter and list 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.”

Before Peck received Pickett’s reply, he was shown the article in the Fayetteville Observer stating that two men had been executed and the rest were awaiting trial. Peck wrote, “Having reported this matter to higher authority, 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.”

Peck warned Pickett that the Federals held “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula “as hostages for their safety.” Peck received information from various sources, some accurate and some not, and he tried sorting it out with his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, before learning the truth in March.

After the war, Nethercutt testified before a Federal war crimes commission regarding those executed: “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the (66th North Carolina) regiment.” In response to the question why these men deserted before their unit was absorbed into the Confederate army, Nethercutt said that he did not believe “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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The Daring Escape from Libby Prison

February 9, 1864 – Colonel Thomas E. Rose of the 77th Pennsylvania plotted a remarkable escape from disease-ridden Libby Prison in Richmond.

Libby Prison | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Libby was a four-story warehouse situated near the James River that held captured Federal officers. This building housed about 1,200 men in extremely overcrowded, drafty, and damp conditions that invited the spread of illness and disease. Rose, who had been captured at the Battle of Chickamauga, worked with Major Andrew G. Hamilton, a Kentucky cavalry officer, to tunnel out of the prison from underground.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Rose estimated that digging a 50-yard tunnel to a warehouse shed beyond the compound fence could enable prisoners to escape undetected. Rose opened a hole in the fireplace on the building’s first floor, which enabled him to gain access to the basement. He enlisted the help of other officers to tunnel out from there, and each man was sworn to secrecy.

The men worked in shifts in the east section of the basement, which they called “Rat Hell.” They collected the dirt in spittoons and emptied them among the basement straw and rubbish. The work took several months to complete; the prisoners estimated the tunnel to be eight feet below ground and just wide enough for a man to crawl through.

Colonel Abel D. Streight, who had been captured by Nathan Bedford Forrest, was the ranking officer and became the first man to use the tunnel on the 7th. He emerged short of the fence, but the guards did not see him. The hole was plugged and the digging continued.

Two nights later, a loud music show covered the escape of six colonels, six lieutenant colonels, seven majors, 32 captains and 58 lieutenants. The escapees scattered throughout Richmond, and when guards noticed their absence, the city’s alarms were sounded.

Rose and 47 others were eventually recaptured, and two others drowned while trying to cross waterways. However, 59 managed to reach Federal lines, making this the largest and most sensational prison escape of the war.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 373; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 396; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 436-38; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462-63; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-28

Confederate Peace Overtures

July 4, 1863 – Confederate officials arrived off Hampton Roads, Virginia, to negotiate prisoner exchange terms with the Federals. They were also unofficially authorized to negotiate a possible end to the war.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

President Jefferson Davis instructed Vice President Alexander Stephens to “proceed as a military commissioner under flag of truce” to Hampton Roads, Virginia, and then, if the Federals permitted, on to Washington. Robert Ould, the Confederate agent in charge of prisoner exchange, accompanied Stephens.

The men were to try renegotiating the violated prisoner exchange cartel, as the Confederates accused the Federals of keeping officers and men in confinement even after being exchanged. But Stephens was also authorized to entertain offers to end the war if the subject came up.

Stephens and Ould boarded the flag-of-truce steamer Torpedo at Richmond on the 3rd and proceeded down the James River to the Federal lines at Norfolk. Davis hoped to time the journey so that Stephens would arrive at Washington around the same time as General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The Torpedo reached Hampton Roads on the morning of Independence Day. Stephens sent a request to the Federal admiral stationed there to be allowed to continue to Washington. The admiral instructed Stephens to wait while he notified his superiors.

When President Abraham Lincoln received the request, he favored the idea of talking with Stephens, his old friend from Congress. But news of the Federal victory at Gettysburg arrived around the same time, and Lincoln’s cabinet argued that negotiating peace now would give the Confederacy false hope that it still may gain independence. Lincoln ultimately acknowledged that once the Federals destroyed the Confederacy’s ability to wage war, southerners “would be ready to swing back to their old bearings,” without negotiations on ending the war, or even on prisoner exchange.

Stephens and Ould waited for two days aboard the Torpedo before Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton telegraphed a response to the Federal commanders at Fort Monroe: “Until you receive (Lincoln’s) instructions hold no communication with Mr. Stephens or Mr. Ould, nor permit either of them to come within our lines. Our victory is complete. Lee’s in full retreat.”

The Federals informed Stephens and Ould, “The request is inadmissible. The customary agents and channels are adequate for all needful military communications and conference between the United States forces and the insurgents.” The Confederates returned to Richmond the next day, unable to discuss either prisoner exchange or peace with the Federals.

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21469-75; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 300, 302; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9671; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 652-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 323; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 376, 379; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 650, 664; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363

The Prisoner Exchange Cartel

July 22, 1862 – With the number of prisoners of war quickly growing, Federals and Confederates agreed to a tentative system of prisoner exchange.

By this month, the major battles of 1862 had resulted in the capture of tens of thousands of prisoners on both sides. The Confederate government tried working with the Federals on a prisoner exchange agreement, but the Lincoln administration was reluctant to negotiate such a deal with a government they did not consider legitimate. Talks had taken place between the two sides in February, but they broke down in early March.

Finally, both sides came together to discuss the growing problem on July 18, when Federal Major General John A. Dix and Confederate Major General D.H. Hill met at Haxall’s Landing on the James River. The men signed a cartel agreement regarding a prisoner exchange system based on the agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain during the War of 1812. It was approved by both governments four days later.

Generals D.H. Hill and John A. Dix

Officers and men of equal rank would be exchanged one-for-one. A scale was developed to exchange men of unequal rank, such as 30 enlisted men equaled a major general, six equaled a captain, two equaled a sergeant, and so on. Prisoners who could not be immediately exchanged would be paroled (i.e., sent home on the promise that they would not take up arms again until an equal number of men were paroled on the other side). The cartel had no provisions for civilians seized by Federal forces in southern areas under occupation.

The Lincoln administration demanded that no mention of the “Confederate States of America” be written into the official document, and only military officers would administer the program. President Jefferson Davis appointed Robert Ould to be the Confederate prisoner exchange agent. President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Lorenzo Thomas for the Federals.

The cartel eventually became very difficult to manage due to the mounting bureaucracy involved. Its heavy reliance on promises and “gentlemen’s agreements” also hindered the cartel’s effectiveness. And when Federals began recruiting slaves into the army, this added a complication because the Confederacy would not consider slaves eligible for exchange. All these factors assured that the system would eventually break down.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 500; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21346; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 184; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 353; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 111; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q362