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.
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