Wednesday, February 5, 2014

February 4-5, 1864: The Kinston Hangings begin

Major General George Pickett,  C.S. Army, ordered the "Kinston Hangings."
It was a dark time in North Carolina. While North Carolina had seceded along with the other upper South states in April 1861, a significant percentage of North Carolina's population remained skeptical or even opposed secession. North Carolina had the dubious distinction of providing more soldiers and more deserters than any other state in the South. By 1864, North Carolina's soldiers already had a reputation in the Confederacy for deserting or just sort of wandering away from their units.

It was under these circumstances that a mostly Virginian force under Virginian Major General George E. Pickett arrived in eastern North Carolina tasked with attacking New Berne--or at least raiding it. On February 1, 1864, Pickett probed the defenses of Union-held New Berne and captured several Union prisoners--among them 53 men of the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers. Of the 53 members of the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers captured, several had deserted from the Confederate Army after being drafted. On February 4, 1864, their Confederate captors discovered the presence of two of these deserters among their captives, and resolved among themselves to inflict the ultimate penalty.

On February 5, 1864, at Kinston, North Carolina, the first two of these men were executed for desertion--in a series of incidents that has since become known as "the Kinston Hangings." Some--if not all--of these hangings would be declared illegitimate on the basis that not all the men executed had been properly inducted into the Confederate Army, and therefore could not be properly labeled deserters.

A note about sources: I will be posting several documents regarding these executions over the coming days. Part of the controversy surrounding these events is that Confederate sources seem to have deliberately destroyed all records related to these events. The only contemporaneous Confederate records we have are correspondence sent by Confederate commanders to Union commanders. Beyond that limited correspondence, the best records we have is the testimony collected in March 1866 at a series of hearings on the Kinston Hangings.

The following is the testimony of Blunt King, a North Carolina soldier who recognized two of the deserters and subsequently ended up being forced to act as hangman. King's memory is at least partly faulty: he remembered the event as occurring in March 1864, when in fact they occurred on February 4-5th, 1864. It can also be a little confusing because the interrogator asked about the events of February 5, 1864--in Kinston--before backtracking to the events of February 4, 1864--in Dover, North Carolina.
Court met on Saturday, March 17, 1866, at 10 o'clock a. m. 15th witness, Blunt King, appeared, and being duly sworn, testified as follows:

Question. State your name, age, and place of residence and present occupation.

Answer. Blunt King; forty-eight years of age; reside in Goldsborough, North Carolina, and am assistant chief of police.

Question. What was your occupation and where did you reside in the months of February, March, and April, 1864?

Answer. I was in Goldsborough, and was a private in the 10th North Carolina infantry, company B.

Question. State whether you were in Kinston during those months.

Answer. I think I was, in March, 1864, at Kinston for one day only.

Question. What was the occasion of your being there?

Answer. I went down on the first Newbern raid and stopped there coming back. Our company was with a pontoon train, and was delayed there a day waiting for transportation for the pontoons on the railroad.

Question. Did you have on soldier clothes then?

Answer. Only partially; I often had citizen's clothes on.

Question. What was your captain's name?

Answer. Captain Daniel Coggwell, of Raleigh.

Question. Do you recollect of seeing any prisoners hung there at Kinston?

Answer. Yes, sir.

Question. How did you come to be at the place of hanging?

Answer. Captain Adams, the adjutant general of Hoke's staff, ordered me there. The orders were to go up to the gallows with some ropes; and two other men, whom I don't remember, received similar orders.

Question. When you went to the gallows with these ropes, what did you do?

Answer. I handed them to a man, who put them over a beam and tied them; I was sitting playing cards on the pontoon boats at the depot; we were waiting for transportation; Captain Adams, of General Hoke's staff, came down to the depot and got some ropes from the pontoon boats, picking them out, I think, himself, and then said to us, "Who can tie a good hangman's knot;" some of the boys with whom I was playing said I was good at tying a knot; I said if General Pickett wanted any hanging done he had better do it himself." What's that you say," said Captain Adams; I saw I was getting into trouble, and said, "I could beat any man playing seven up;" Captain Adams then said he would send for me in a few minutes, and did so. The reason I know it was Captain Adams, of General Hoke's staff, was because I inquired.

Question. What were the names of those two men you assisted in hanging?

Answer. Joseph Haskell and David Jones.

Question. How do you come to know their names?

Answer. They were in the company I belonged to.

Question. What were they hung for?

Answer. Desertion, I think.

Question. Were they captured from the Union forces?

Answer. They were captured somewhere near Batchelor's creek, but I was not with the party which captured them.

Question. State how you knew they had previously been members of your company.

Answer. Because they had both fought in Fort Macon, I believe, not being then a member myself; but when I joined the company they were members of it, wearing the rebel uniform, and in our company long before they deserted.

Question. State what was done at the execution of these men.

Answer. I was standing in the end of the wagon with the old minister. Captain Adams was standing off about ten feet from the gallows; there were three or four other men, private soldiers, present; I think I adjusted the rope about the neck of one, but of which I cannot remember. I think Captain Adams read some orders before they were hung, but what the orders were I don't remember; these men were executed the third day after they were caught.

Question. Where were you when you first saw these two men who were hung?

Answer. We were falling back; I first saw them in Dover about sunset, and should not have known them had not my lieutenant, Lieutenant H. M. Whitehead, who resides near Newbern, called my attention to them. I said, "Good evening, boys;" they said "Good evening, Mr. King." That was all I said, and sat down on a log near the fire, where they were standing; it was right at General Pickett's headquarters in Dover, North Carolina. I had gone up with two or three other soldiers to see them, out of curiosity. Before I sat down General G.E. Pickett come out of his tent, which was a large wall tent, and came up within four or five feet of these prisoners, and took Lieutenant Whitehead a little to one side and asked him about these two men. I heard Lieutenant Whitehead say they belonged to his company. General Pickett then walked up to the prisoners and said, "What are you doing here; where have you been?" They answered something which I did not hear; General Pickett then said, "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." Jones then said to Pickett "He did not care a damn whether they shot him then, or what they did with him." General Pickett then ordered him to be taken away from his tent. General Corse and General Hoke were standing by when General Pickett said this.

Question. Did you recognize any other of the prisoners there?

Answer. No, sir; I do not think I knew any others of them.

Question. What kind of uniforms did these prisoners have on?

Answer. I think they were dressed in blue; but don't remember either at that time or when Jones and Haskell were hung.

Question. State if these men said they belonged to the United States forces.

Answer. No, sir; not to my knowledge.

Question. Who commanded the rebel army there at this time when these two men were captured and hung?

Answer. Major General Pickett did.

Question. State whether you recollect one of the men assisting at the execution as having a squint or cross-eyes.

Answer. No, sir.

Question. What officers did you see at the execution of these two men?

Answer. General Hoke was close by with his brigade. I heard some of the boys say that General Pickett was there as we marched off after the execution, but I did not see him.

Question. Were you present at the execution of any of these others?

Answer. No, sir.

Question. State whether you volunteered your services at this execution or was ordered.

Answer. I did not volunteer; I was ordered by Captain Adams, the adjutant general of Hoke. I was vexed at being ordered on this duty, as I was playing cards at the time, and so made sure to find out Captain Adams's name.

Question. State whether you ever served in the army previous to entering the 10th North Carolina rebel infantry.

Answer. I was sergeant in company B, 1st North Carolina volunteers, and was in Mexico two years during our war there.

Question. State if you know whether these two men or any of those captured were tried by court-martial.

Answer. I do not know; I never knew any members of any such court.

Question. How do you come to think there was any such court?

Answer. When I was sitting on the log at Dover, after the prisoners had been taken away, General Pickett said: "We'll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting," or some similar expression. Then old General Corse answered, "The sooner the better." My lieutenant, Whitehead, then nudged me with his elbow and said,"You hear what they are saying?" A moment after we got up and went away. I heard General Pickett say, when within four miles from Newbern when we went down on this march, "That every God-damned man who didn't do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung." He was saying this to some soldier, but whether of our brigade or not I don't know. The paper I hand you was written for me, and in my presence, by H. M. Whitehead, who was the lieutenant of my company in the 10th North Carolina, whom I have been speaking about.
In retrospect, the "Kinston Hangings" would seem even more brutal because the hanging of supposed deserters had been ordered by George E. Pickett, a man who had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and then had foresworn that oath to join the Confederacy. If the men Pickett had hanged were deserters, what did that make Pickett?

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