10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - December 7, 2017

The American Civil War was notable for the savagery with which Americans slaughtered each other. Historians have long blamed the generals who used tactics devised in a day of less-lethal weaponry for generating up to then unheard of casualty figures, but outdated tactics are only a part of the story. The Civil War presented American sectional prejudice to the world in a new and previously unseen light.

Part of it was the harshness of the times. An attitude of fatalism prevailed. Diseases which are now considered routine were often fatal. The soldiers which filled the ranks of both armies were subject to poor diets, often malnourished, with dental diseases an accepted though dangerous fact of existence. The men wore heavy woolen clothing in the hellish subtropical climate of the American South, practiced poor hygiene and sanitation, drank fetid water from often unhealthy sources, and consumed poorly preserved foods.

The average life expectancy for a man in 1860, the year before the Civil War began, was forty years. Death was a familiar event, virtually everyone had felt the loss of loved ones at a personal level. Killing the enemy meant winning the war and going home, and the soldiers of North and South killed as many as they could, whenever and wherever they could.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
Bloody Bill Anderson committed numerous atrocities in Kansas and Missouri. Cole Younger and the James brothers served with him. Wikimedia

There were instances in the great crime of national destruction which exceeded the accepted bounds of war, crimes against nature and nature’s God. Here are ten instances of Civil war events which today would be considered war crimes.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
The mass execution of Unionists at Gainesville was sanctioned by “legal” authority. Wikimedia

The Great Hanging. Gainesville, Texas 1862

A sometimes forgotten aspect of the American Civil War is that not everyone in the Southern States supported the idea of secession, nor owned slaves. Some actively opposed the idea of going to war to preserve the institution of slavery, others simply tried to go about their daily lives while ignoring as much as possible the chaos from the war. To the active secessionists, these citizens were called “Unionists” and the Confederacy passed laws to identify them, and restrict their behavior. Many were imprisoned and their property confiscated.

Cooke County Texas had opposed secession at the ballot box with over 60% of voters expressing the desire to remain in the Union. In early 1862 the Confederate Congress passed the first of a series of Conscription Acts, which many of the citizens of Cooke County opposed, having no desire to serve in the Confederate Army. When some citizens announced the formation of the Peace Party to formally protest conscription, Texas troops of the Confederate Army – still a largely volunteer force of pro-slavery troops – arrested over 150 citizens under suspicion of colluding with the Union.

A hastily convened court of pro-slavery members began trying the prisoners, outside of Texas law, at first requiring only a simple majority of the twelve jurors to obtain a conviction. After several convictions, the court changed its rules to require a two-thirds majority. At the same time, vigilante groups continued to round up those suspected of Unionism. Some units of the Texas militia attempted to stop what had become mob rule leading to a Colonel of the Texas militia being killed during the pursuit of a suspected Unionist. Outrage among the slave holders and their supporters led to previously acquitted Unionists being retried and convicted.

Most of the Union supporters – who were really nothing more than draft resisters opposed to wealthy slave owners being exempted from conscription – were executed by hanging. More than 40 were hanged at Gainesville, others were shot, some while reportedly trying to escape. Public sympathy and the press were mostly supportive of the trials and hangings.

The Confederate government turned a blind eye to the trials and executions, which were stopped when the State of Texas, under its new Constitution, took jurisdiction and dissolved the courts. Changes to the conscription laws altered the exemptions, and those supportive of the Union wisely became less vocal. In Texas today the state maintains a historical marker celebrating the hangings, which identifies the victims as traitors.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
Jesse and Frank James participated in the Centralia Massacre in Missouri as part of Bloody Bill Anderson’s command. US Army Corps of Engineers

Centralia Massacre, Missouri 1864

By the summer of 1864, the Confederacy was in decline on all fronts, its armies weakened by the ongoing war and the ever-increasing strength of the Union forces. One hope maintained by the Confederacy was that the Union, tired of the long struggle and shocked by the casualty figures endured by the Union army, would refuse to re-elect Abraham Lincoln in November, allowing new leaders to reach a negotiated peace. Southern leaders planned several military strikes in an attempt to influence Northern voters.

In September, General Sterling Price attacked Northern Missouri using troops of the Missouri Militia, with the aim of capturing St. Louis and disrupting Mississippi river traffic. Among his troops was a well-established group of guerrilla fighters led by William Anderson, who was known by the nickname “Bloody Bill.” Among his guerrillas was a pair of southern Missouri brothers named Frank and Jesse James. Anderson planned to destroy railroad infrastructure in Centralia, Missouri.

When Anderson’s troops arrived at Centralia on September 27 they encountered a train which carried among its passengers 23 Union soldiers on leave after the battles around Atlanta. After separating the civilian passengers from the soldiers, Anderson’s men shot and scalped the Union troops, retaining one sergeant as a hostage. Anderson’s men kept the Union uniforms; they often raided in Missouri disguised as Union troops. They then destroyed the depot and fled the scene.

By late afternoon inexperienced Union troops were in pursuit, newly recruited men armed with muzzle-loading single-shot rifles. By contrast, Anderson’s men were mostly armed with repeating rifles and revolvers. When the Union troops caught up with Anderson they were no match for the raiders, and of the 147 who took part in the skirmish, 100 were killed. Only one was wounded.

The high ratio of killed to wounded suggests that the raiders executed wounded men as they lay. Frank James later claimed this to be the case and also claimed that his brother Jesse killed the Union commander, Major A V Johnston. The second phase of the so-called Battle of Centralia was an open fight between armed troops, but the first phase, the execution of disarmed prisoners, was simply murder.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
The Battle of Fort Pillow came to be known as the Fort Pillow Massacre. Wikipedia

Fort Pillow, Tennessee, 1864

By April 1864 African American troops had distinguished themselves in multiple operations of the Union army, and Confederate rage over their use was mounting. The Confederate Congress had passed a law declaring that captured black soldiers were insurrectionists and liable to an automatic death sentence. The law required a trial to establish guilt, many Southern commanders considered legal procedures to be inconvenient under the circumstances.

Fort Pillow stood north of Memphis on a bluff, originally built by the Confederate Army and by 1864 occupied by Union troops. In the spring of 1864, a cavalry force of 7,000 Confederates under the command of Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest raided the area of western Tennessee and southern Kentucky, intent on taking as many prisoners as possible for potential exchange, as well as capturing supplies and horses. Fort Pillow was then garrisoned by about 600 Union troops, almost half of them black troops.

Forrest demanded that the garrison surrender or it would be taken by assault and after the Union commander refused to yield the Confederates attacked. A federal gunboat anchored nearby was likewise attacked; it had been stationed to help cover a Union retreat from the fort, instead it closed its gun ports in protection from Confederate sharpshooters. As Union troops retreated from the ferocity of the Confederate assault they were pinned against the river or along the bluff on which Fort Pillow stood.

According to the reports of multiple survivors, many of the Union troops, black and white, surrendered as they were exposed along the river, only to be shot down or bayoneted by Forrest’s troops, who repeatedly shouted “no quarter.” Civilian workers who had been present in the fort at the time of the assault were likewise killed in the massacre. One Confederate sergeant wrote in a letter home that the black troops fell to their knees begging for mercy before being summarily shot down.

The Massacre at Fort Pillow was disputed by African American Officers who insisted that there was no surrender of either the Fort or retreating black troops. After the war, US Grant wrote of the battle that, “These troops fought bravely, but were overpowered.” Today the action at Fort Pillow is widely regarded as a massacre, but whether Forrest bears responsibility for a premeditated war crime is still debated.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
A sadistic murderer to some, a war hero to others, Champ Ferguson in custody, surrounded by Union troops. Wikimedia

Saltville Virginia, 1864

As the Army of Northern Virginia withdrew down the James Peninsula, hounded by Grant’s Army of the Potomac, guerrilla actions occurred in areas behind the main battle lines, often attacks on Union re-supply columns. Other actions occurred along the lines of communication between the major Confederate commands.

Confederate guerrilla units were often formed from local militia, occasionally supported by regular troops, and frequently operated barely within the law. One such group which operated in Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky, and Southwest Virginia was a band led by Champ Ferguson. Ferguson’s activities once led to his arrest by Confederate authorities, but evidence against him (in the form of testimony by a witness) vanished before he could be tried and he was released.

Saltville was an important military objective because of the salt works located there, salt is important both for the preservation of meat and the health of draft animals and cavalry mounts. Union troops including the 5th United States Colored Cavalry attempted for three days to break through Confederate lines held by Ferguson’s guerrillas and Confederate Home Guard units commanded by Huston Robertson which defended the salt works. They were finally repulsed.

After the battle, wounded Union troops regardless of race were taken prisoner by the Home Guard. Ferguson’s guerrillas killed those wounded which they encountered on the field, and then attacked the wounded in the Home Guard hospitals, murdering them in their beds, or gathering the ambulatory outside where they were killed. The murders ended with the arrival of regular Confederate troops, and Ferguson and his men fled. Estimates are that 45-50 wounded prisoners were killed.

After the war, Ferguson returned to his home in Eastern Tennessee where he was arrested by Union troops and transported to Nashville. He was tried for 53 murders (he admitted to killing ten personally) and was hanged in October 1865. He was one of two men to be hanged for war crimes during the Civil War, the other being Henry Wirz, commandant of the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
Harlan Eleazar Paine poses with law books. Arlington National Cemetery

Execution of Hostages. Gallatin, Tennessee 1864

During Sherman’s operations against Atlanta and through Georgia Confederate Cavalry operated well behind the front lines, attempting to disrupt the flow of supplies through Tennessee. In areas where there remained strong secessionist support Union officers suspected that the cavalry was supported by civilians acting as informants and spies.

Union General Eleazar Paine commanded such a district which included areas in Tennessee and Kentucky. Civilian leaders of the area repeatedly accused Paine of committing what would today be considered war crimes. According to local leaders, Paine often released suspected spies after questioning, only to have Union troops on fresh mounts hunt them down and kill them as they attempted to make their way home.

On another occasion, Paine had four hostages taken and informed the local populace that all four would be shot in a public square for colluding with the enemy unless the information was forthcoming on the whereabouts of Confederate Cavalry units. Three were shot before Paine was satisfied that the townspeople had told Union officers all that they knew. Paine also deported some civilians to Canada, without trial, for aiding the enemy, confiscating their property.

Paine was investigated by a military commission which found the Union general had conducted several activities which were violations of military and civilian law, including extortion, the illegal imposition of taxes, the resale for personal profit of stolen goods, and corruption. He was tried under a general court-martial, which found him not guilty on all charges but one – having cursed a superior officer. The court found that the charges were the result of anti-Union sentiment in the region.

Nonetheless, Paine was sentenced to receive a reprimand directly from the President, which Secretary of War Edwin Stanton refused to forward to Lincoln for action. In central Tennessee, there is still ample literature and local sentiment which condemns Paine as a war criminal. Paine resigned from the army following Lee’s surrender in 1865 and returned to his pre-war career as a lawyer in Illinois.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
The execution of Henry Wirz. A Union soldier peers through the recently sprung trap. Library of Congress

Camp Sumter, Andersonville, Georgia 1864-1865

Union and Confederate troops who fell prisoner to the opposing side faced grim conditions and after the suspension of prisoner exchange, lengthy stays in the camps established to house them. Neither side distinguished themselves in the treatment of its prisoners, another reflection of the deep-set antagonism each side felt for the other. Of all the prisons, in which sickness, poor food, and despair claimed the lives of thousands of captive men, one was so bad that its Commandant was tried – and hanged – for war crimes following the conflict.

Today is known generally as Andersonville, it was officially designated Camp Sumter, and was opened in February 1864. It was poorly designed and built-in regards to fresh water and sanitation facilities, and like the rest of the South by that time of the war, there was little food and what food was available was of poor quality. Scurvy, caused by the lack of vitamin C, was rife within the camp, many prisoners reported that they were able to pull their own teeth with their bare hands as a result of gums and jaws weakened by the disease.

In 1864 Dr. James Jones toured the camp, and found conditions so appalling that he wrote a letter detailing the conditions there to the Confederate Surgeon General. Some apologists have since postulated that the Commandant, Henry Wirz, was not liable for the starving conditions in the camp as there was no food to be had, but Dr. Jones noted in his letter that Wirz himself was in fine health, well-fed, with access to plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and apparently indifferent to the plight of the prisoners.

Wirz was also accused of torturing prisoners. Punishments for violations of rules such as theft of food or blankets included hanging by thumbs, whipping, and branding. It should be noted that all of these punishments were also present in the contending armies of the day, and theft was often punished in the Union army by hanging or shooting the miscreant.

Wirz was accused of war crimes including personally murdering several prisoners, physically abusing others, and depriving all prisoners of sufficient food, water, and medical supplies and attention. Despite overwhelming testimony that he had not personally committed the crimes for which he was accused and further testimony that the shortages were not of his making he was convicted by a military tribunal and sentenced to death by hanging, which was carried out on November 10, 1865.

Read More: Deadliest POW Camp of Civil War.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
Robert Cobb Kennedy was hanged for crimes which violated the laws of war as a saboteur. Wikimedia

Attempted burning of Manhattan, 1864

Robert Cobb Kennedy was a Georgia-born Louisianan who had attended the United States Military Academy before drinking his way out after two years. While there he befriended Joseph Wheeler, later a Confederate General, and Kennedy served on Wheeler’s staff after a wound sustained at the Battle of Shiloh left him with a permanent limp. Kennedy was captured by Union troops while carrying dispatches and sent to the Union Prison Camp on Johnson’s Island, in Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio.

Kennedy escaped from the prison, and rather than find his way home through hostile country opted to flee instead to Canada, where he sought out Jacob Thompson, head of the Confederate Secret Services under the cover of a diplomatic mission there. Thompson and Kennedy created a plan to burn numerous buildings in New York City, overwhelming the fire-fighting services there, as an act of retaliation for the destruction wrought by Union forces in the South.

The plan called for the burning of P T Barnum’s popular American Museum, several hotels, and at least one theater, all to be started simultaneously on the night of November 25. With several other operatives recruited by Thompson, the plan was executed but none of the fires were sufficiently built and all were rapidly extinguished. The would-be arsonists escaped back to Canada, although several were identified by witnesses.

Kennedy returned twice more to American soil, the first in an attempt to hijack an American train which was carrying Confederate prisoners to confinement, which failed. The second time he attempted to return to Confederate territory but was identified by officers in Detroit while waiting for a train and apprehended. He was charged with several crimes, pilloried in the press as a “terrorist” and despite a noted lack of evidence, convicted of crimes which “violated the laws of war.”

Despite efforts to have his sentence commuted, Kennedy was hanged in March of 1865, just two weeks before Lee surrendered at Appomattox in Virginia. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, much speculation regarding John Wilkes Booth and the New York Conspirators was prevalent, but no evidence of Booth’s involvement in the plot has surfaced.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
General Philip Sheridan at left, with four cavalry officers, including George Armstrong Custer, seated facing him. Wikimedia

The Shenandoah Valley, 1864

During the summer campaign of 1864 Union troops under Grant battered their way through Virginia towards Richmond and Sherman struck deeper in the south at Atlanta and later Savannah. With the nation’s newspapers fixated on the movements of the main armies, Grant prepared a campaign to further weaken the South’s ability to carry on the war.

Grant ordered Philip Sheridan in August of that year to destroy the crops and farms of the Shenandoah Valley, an area which provided large amounts of food to the southern people and armies. Grant told Sheridan that the destruction should be total and as long-lasting as possible. “If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste,” Grant wrote in his orders.

Sheridan burned a path over 100 miles wide through the Valley, vowing to destroy everything in his path “…from Winchester to Staunton.” Many of the diaries and journals recorded by the troops who performed the destruction – often farmers themselves, impressed with the fertility of the Valley – complained of the wasteful nature of their work. Sheridan’s men burned not only the planted fields but sheds, silage, barns, and houses. After one of Sheridan’s aides was shot by a Confederate sniper the Union general ordered the destruction of all buildings within five miles of where he stood.

Orchards bearing fruit nearing ripeness were destroyed, eliminating the crop for that fall and for the next several years. Following Grant’s orders to the letter, Sheridan ensured that not only would the Valley not produce crops to feed the rest of the South, but its residents would not be able to sustain themselves off the land where they had lived. Homeless and starving refugees streamed out from the Valley, many to never return.

The damage done in the Shenandoah was a precursor to that which would be done in Georgia. Both actions are described as being a necessity of modern total warfare. Up until that time the willful destruction of the personal property of non-combatants had been considered to be outside of the rules of war, a crime by vengeful troops akin to the pillaging of the Huns or Mongols.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
The murder of 13 Union sympathizers from Shelton Laurel took place near here. Wikimedia

Shelton Laurel, North Carolina 1863

In January 1863 armed Unionists raided the salt stores in Marshal, North Carolina, an act which precipitated an armed response to the Shelton Laurel valley to arrest the culprits. After North Carolina troops arrived there they kidnapped and tortured several women in an attempt to uncover their husband’s whereabouts.

Homes and barns were burned, women hanged and whipped, and children tortured. The troops eventually rounded up 15 men and boys (some accounts say 16) and began marching them towards the nearest Confederate regular troops in Eastern Tennessee.

At least two and possibly three of the captives escaped in the course of the march, enraging the commander of the troops, Lt. Colonel James Keith. Keith ordered the remaining prisoners to be taken into the nearby woods, off the road. The prisoner’s ages ranged from 13 to over 60.

At Keith’s order, the captives were shot by the North Carolina troops, the first volley killing four men instantly, while another that was hit required a second round to kill him. As the troops reloaded their weapons, the remaining captives were forced to kneel and wait, five more were killed in the second volley. Eventually, 13 were executed.

Keith was charged with their murders in a civilian court following the war, but after waiting two years in jail to be sentenced he escaped. Days later it was revealed that the state Supreme Court would have set him free. Keith was never brought to justice for the murder of the 13 Unionists. He fled to Arkansas and vanished.

10 of the Most Heinous Forgotten War Crimes of the American Civil War
Confederate Major General George Pickett in a photo taken early in the war.

Hanging of Union Prisoners, North Carolina, 1864

Confederate General George E. Pickett is remembered primarily for the attack launched by his division on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, known to history as Pickett’s Charge. In February of 1864, Pickett was in command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, under orders from Robert E. Lee to attack and capture New Bern, North Carolina. His attack failed, but he did capture a large number of Union troops as prisoners.

Among them were members of a Union regiment from North Carolina, some of whom Pickett determined to be deserters from the Army of Northern Virginia. Pickett ordered the prisoners to be hanged. It was customary for captured deserters to be shot, but Pickett was not dissuaded.

While some of the captured Union troops were undoubtedly deserters it is likely that some if not most were not. Other regiments of Union troops had been raised in North Carolina during the war. There is also no record of any of the troops being court-martialed for desertion. The hangings took place over the course of several days.

The hangings were decried as murder by northern newspapers and by Union officers, who called for a Court of Inquiry. Pickett fled to Canada in the aftermath of Lee’s surrender and was living in Montreal under an assumed name when it appeared he would be charged with multiple counts of murder.

In the end, Pickett’s old friend, Ulysses S. Grant, interceded by petitioning President Andrew Johnson, arguing that the terms of Lee’s surrender of his army – which included Pickett – did not mention the possibility of trials for war crimes. Johnson agreed, and the general amnesty issued on Christmas Day of 1868 removed the threat of charges being brought against the former Confederate general.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 40 Disturbing Photographs from the Battlefields of the Civil War

History Collection – The Daily Lives of Confederate Soldiers vs. Union Soldiers During the Civil War

History Collection – Fascinating Civil War Facts that Won’t be in the History Books

History Collection – 9 Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War by The Numbers

History Collection – 5 Pivotal Battles that Changed the Course of the Civil War