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

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

Larry Holzwarth - December 7, 2017

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