View Full Version : Civil War atrocities

05-19-2008, 02:33 AM
Some time ago my roommate and I ended up discussing atrocities that both sides committed during the war. Immediately acts against captured USCT soldiers by Confederates was mentioned, however other acts, that did not involve black soldiers, were brought up. One story was from my roommate who read an account about a green Federal regiment marching in Tennessee one night during the War. Some local partisans ambushed the Federals, scattering most of the regiment with around 20 members of the regiment becoming captured. The captives were led to a ravine where they were summarily executed with a single shot to the back of the head. Unfortunately I don't know any more about the story or what regiment it happened to.

That story reminded me of one described by a German soldier in East Tennessee in winter of 63-64. In letter to dated February 23, 1864 by Gottfried Rentschler of the 6th Kentucky (US) Infantry.

On the 6th we came through Georgetown, a small town that had little damage; and camped overnight on the farm of Major Baird of the 3rd Tennessee Cav. Regt. There, many of the country people in the neighborhood sought us out and gave an account of how dreadfully they had suffered from the Rebels. When Wheeler made the last invasion in the area, one of his soldiers, by the name of Roberts, went into the house of a certain Carter (the Carters consist of a very large family in East Tennessee and are all very good Union people) and shot Robert Carter, a young man, poked his eyes out, shoved them into this pocket, and went to his mother, to whom he said that he had killed Bob Carter. She said, "You did not do that." He pulled the eyes out of his pocket and threw them on the table saying: "Here, if you do not believe me here are the eyes of the son of a bitch." This is only one of the numerous atrocities. Here and there the Southern barbarians have most certainly received their rewards for their cruelty as, e.g., the Sesech who hideously beat an old man whose son was a lieutenant in a Tennessee regiment. When the lieutenant when to Knoxville with his regiment and came through his home area, and learned who committed this atrocity on his old father, he went into the house of the Sesech, pulled him into the street, and shot a bullet through his head.
Two Germans in the Civil War: The Diary of John Daeuble and the Letters of Gottfried Rentschler. Edited and Translated by Joseph R. Reinhart. Page 48

Also I remembered this account by Sergeant Patrick Henry Goodrich of the 20th Connecticut Infantry. In a letter dated Sept. 22, 1863 near Raccoon Ford, Goodrich describes the battle of Chancellorsville.

I was in the trenches until 6:00 when the firing commenced for the day. It was kept up for 1/2 an hour or so up on the right of us when the Rebs were driven back down towards us. There was one of our batteries and two regts. in front of us. One of them were ____. The Rebs fired on them. They fired one or two rounds, and then were ordered to charge. Instead of doing that, they ran back, the cowardly sneaks. They may talk as much as they please about ____. If they are all like that regt., they may as well be sent home or be put in the 11th Corps. After they had left, the Rebs took the battery and turned it on us. Their infantry then came up with a yell and shouting through the hollow in front of our Regt. We let them get pretty up, then we raised up and let them have it. THis was too much for them, and they turned and they turned on a double quick. Lots of them fell before they got out of the hollow. Some of them lay down in the bushes, and as soon as the firing was over, got up and waved their hats and wanted to come into our lines. Several did come but were shot by our men who said they had seen too much of their barbarity. THey would now shoot any hat they saw raised out of the bushes. After driving them back, we lay down in our trenches.
Civil War Letters of Sgt. Patrick Henry Goodrich: A Soldier in the Connecticut Twentieth Regiment, Company D. Edited by Lawrence P. Cogswell, Jr. page 43

05-19-2008, 08:38 AM

You may be thinking of Shelton Laurel, in Western North Carolina.


A deeper look on many of these stories finds that Home Guard were the responsible parties, not diciplined and trained military men. Note the efforts in the above account as a career officer is distanced from the executions.

Roy Queen
05-19-2008, 10:49 AM
During Sherman's campaign in the Carolinas, members of the 6th Georgia Cavalry shot a couple of foragers from a New York regiment. After the war, the commanding officer of the 6th, Colonel John Hart was arrested by Federal authorities.

Roy Queen

05-19-2008, 11:22 AM
Might I recommend "The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865 (Campaigns and Commanders)" by Robert R. Mackey?

05-19-2008, 11:23 AM

You may be thinking of Shelton Laurel, in Western North Carolina.


A deeper look on many of these stories finds that Home Guard were the responsible parties, not diciplined and trained military men. Note the efforts in the above account as a career officer is distanced from the executions.

Well said Terre - this is normally the case in many Civil Wars...all less civil than ours. Its the irregulars, bushwhackers and home guard that commit most of the atrocities and are the most cruel prison guards, etc. Front line soldiers know the score and develop a respect for their foe that is shared where the danger is greatest. Having spent all their energy fighting and trying to stay alive, they have little energy left to mistreat the foe, unless they consider the foe somehow not deserving of such respect (Ft Pillow, etc). Irregulars, not enduring much stand up combat, exercize their hate for the enemy in other ways...and perhaps worse, mix local feuds (revenge) and other conflict into the broader picture to justify unspeakable acts, like the Kansas/Missouri border war.

The fact that one needs to dig for such accounts I believe is a great testament to the American character of everyone from military leaders down to the lowest private in the ranks and most of the citizens. In most such wars, the losers get hung or lanquish in prison.

05-19-2008, 11:42 AM
The "Hicksford Raid", (aka The Apple Jack Raid), comes to mind. In Grant's continuing efforts to cut off Petersburg from the rest of the south, a foray down the Weldon RR was put forth in December 1864. In the end, some Federal soldiers are punished by the Johnnies and a few are "staked out". One report mentions a Federal soldier staked to the ground with the stake going through his throat. In retailation, Union soldiers burn numerous buildings and homes. Rough stuff, this.

05-19-2008, 12:01 PM
Dealing with captured Yanks in the Valley, 1864.

Some time in October the valley was filled with smoke from the burning mills, barns and factories, grain and hay stacks and that Yankees were driving all the live stock they could find before them as they went…Even dwelling houses were destroyed, and one afternoon in October as we were marching down the back road the command suddenly came to a halt. Something unusual was going on. Without permission I left my company and rode to the top of a hill near by, where my attention was attracted to a clump of officers and men engaged in some unusual work. I rode to where they were and found it to be a military courtmartial. Colonel Blank, the judge, had just rendered his decision, from which there was no appeal. Six Yankee barn-burners were doomed to die. A circle had been formed, they were in its center and begging that their lives be spared. The valley Virginia boys who had witnessed their mothers, sisters and younger brothers hovering around the smoldering ashes where their elegant homes once stood, volunteered and shot them down one by one as he was ordered to march out of the circle. Some of them ran for life, hoping against hope.

The last one that was shot was a handsome young fellow not over seventeen years of age, and claimed to be a lineal descendant of Ethan Allen, of revolutionary fame, and when told to walk out of the circle that he might be shot down with back to us, he refused to do so, and standing perfectly erect with his arms folded across his breast, said “If I must die, I will die like a man.” In another moment the blood spurted from his brain and he fell to the ground a corpse.
-- William B. Conway [4th Va. Cav.], “From the Wilderness to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia 1864,” in Atlanta Journal, February 8, 1902.


05-19-2008, 12:21 PM
The fact that one needs to dig for such accounts I believe is a great testament to the American character of everyone from military leaders down to the lowest private in the ranks and most of the citizens. In most such wars, the losers get hung or lanquish in prison.

I definately agree. I have always considered it rather uniqe that former Confederate generals...Fitzhugh Lee, Joseph Wheeler as commander of 5th Corps, at least one other that I cannot recall...served generalships in the army over thirty years later in Cuba, serving side by side with former federal officers. It is hard to imagine that type of reconciliation occuring anywhere else...all the warts of reconstruction being duly noted...

05-19-2008, 02:17 PM
Fort Pillow
Bloody Bill Anderson
Guerrilla warfare in Kansas and Missouri
Sherman's western campaign

05-19-2008, 03:38 PM
The Shelton Laurel Massacre was perpetrated by the 64th NCT which was an organized body of soldiers that were definitely not Home Guard. However, this regiment was stationed close to home and had many issues with soldiers deserting and then becoming 'outliers.' The raid that precipitated this action was launched at Marshall, the hometown of a number of the men in the 64th including their Colonel. Colonel Allen's house was sacked and his family suffered some abuse. It was January and of course there were sick children involved.

The Shelton Laurel massacre was not an isolated incident, nor can the severity of the atrocity committed be blamed solely on policy decisions or misjudgments on the part of commanders Heth [Department commander], Allen, or Keith [regimental commanders]; rather it represented the most extreme manifestation of escalating tensions between lower-ranking troops and civilians, as guerrilla warfare blurred the lines between combatants and noncombatants and obscured the rules of war that defined both. (Inscoe and McKinney, p120)

Two books on this episode and others in western North Carolina:
Phillip Paludan's "Victims"
Inscoe and McKinney's "The Heart of Confederate Appalachia"

05-19-2008, 04:09 PM
This brings to mind the story involving several of Wheat's Tigers, just after the Battle of Williamsburg. A number of Confederate soldiers had gathered around a group of wounded Federals, one who had been shot thru the bowels and was begging piteously to be put out of his misery. Several of Wheat's men had been passing by and stopped to see what was going on. One of them pushed his way to the front and approached the grieviously wounded Federal. All around heard him say "Put you out of your misery? Certainly Sir.", at which point he used the butt of his musket to smash in the Federal soldier's skull. All around were in shock at this display of barbarity as Wheat's men continued on their way down the road. This first hand account can be found in the book "Wheat's Tigers". Thanks.

05-19-2008, 06:21 PM
You can easily support every conceivable variation of good and evil perpetuated by both armies. Here for example are two accounts from the same person of diametric behavior by CS soldiers within earshot of each of other as Sgt Lang of the 48th New York lay wounded on the Olustee battlefield on Feb 20, 1984 at probably about 5:30 in the afternoon knowing the February sun set in FLA

I grew fainter and fainter, yet with an iron determination raised myself from my faintness, cut open my trousers, and with the only handkerchief about me, and the help of a stick succeeded in stopping the bleeding of my wound. I took out my pipe and finding just enough tobacco, to keep away faintness and keep away wretched thoughts growing apace with the darkness spreading over the battlefield and to divert my thoughts from listening to the groans of the dying and wounded and from the blasphemous language of some soldiers who were ill treating some wounded negros" The History of the 48th NY, Abraham Palmer 1885

SgtLang had previously given this account in the NY Tribune

"In this state two young Confederates came to me and holding a lighted match to my face they recognized me as one of the 48th Rg. They inquiried about ther home in Savanah...at last one of them said to the other "I would like to make the Yank a fire: look how he is shivering! He will not stand the frost to-night" So they kindled me with a blazing fire which revived my benumbed limbs, then one of them un buckled his blanket, covered me with it then brought me water and bidding me good by, they left me...not, however till the younger of them gave me a good plug of tobacco" NY Tribune March 1, 1864

James Brenner
05-19-2008, 08:42 PM
Here's an except from Record of the 9th Independent Battery, Ohio Veteran Volunteer Artillery. While at Guy's Gap (July 1863), ten men from the battery accompanied a search party looking for two men from the 33rd Indiana Infantry. The searchers found two suspects who admitted that confederate partisans had murdered the two soldiers. In an effort to discover the location of the bodies, the party attempted to force the information. "We had no rope along, but the sling straps from a dozen guns were quickly knotted together and [one] gent suspended from a limb. The straps broke, but he would reveal nothing. Again he was run up and the straps held until his eyes began to project rather prominently. The lieutenant ordered him to be lowered. After he rested, he was marched back to camp and the guard house. It is doubtful that the bodies or the assasins will ever be discovered."

05-20-2008, 03:07 AM
What I also find interesting is the number of stories of mercy we hear of. Like the "Angel of Marie's Heights", and the story of Sgt Lang noted in a previous post. Unusual in a civil war. Then you have stories like the Lawrence Kansas massacre. It also seems like I hear more tales of atrocities committed by Southerners than by Northerners. History written by the victors? Or a side effect of the war being fought mostly on Southern soil?
Or it could be I'm reading all the wrong books.

Sean Collicott

05-20-2008, 03:12 AM
Sorry, computer/ operator error. Please delete.

Yours most humbly....
Sean Collicott

05-20-2008, 12:27 PM

I'd completely forgotten that story! Its been a while since I've read the book, but do you recall what unit that was attributed to? I want to say either the 14th Regiment or Coppen's Battalion, but I'm not sure.


I was looking for contemporary accounts of atrocities to try to weed out any post-war reconciliationist memory.

A good amount of literature has been produced since the war about Southern partisans and their actions against local Federals, but does anyone know of accounts involving front line troops against other soldiers?


05-20-2008, 01:37 PM
U.S.C.T.'s are said to have killed surrendering Johnnies near Battery #6, Dimmock Line, (Petersburg, VA). And of course, the racial incidents at the "Crater" merit a mention. More than one account of black soliders being shot after they surrendered.

05-20-2008, 04:47 PM
It was Coppen's men who committed the killing, if memory serves me correctly. Thanks!

05-21-2008, 05:55 PM
Ever heard of Lt. Colonel Fielding Hurst, 6th TN Union Cavalry? How about Hurst Nation?

Though it seems that General Grierson convened a courtmartial, Hurst was never turned over to the Confederates. On March 22, 1864, Forrest had the following dispatch delivered throughout the surrounding territory:

"Whereas it has come to the knowledge of the Maj. Gen. commanding that Col. Fielding Hurst . . .has been guilty of wanton extortion upon the citizens of Jackson, Tennessee and other places guilty of depridation upon private property, guilty of house burnings, guilty of murders, both of citizens and soldiers of the Confederate States . . . I therefore declare . . . (them) outlaws, and not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war . . . ." Forrest was never to personally capture Hurst, although men of his command still skirmished with the 6th Tennessee. On April 20, Gen. James R. Chalmers wrote that Col Neely had ". . . drove Hurst hatless into Memphis, leaving in our hands all his wagons, ambulances, papers, and his mistresses, both black and white."

The rest of 1864 saw the same pattern as the first. In May, Hurst's men looted and burned Commerce, Mississippi. Again Forrest petitioned Federal Command for the surrender of Hurst, this time, in June to Maj. Gen. CC Washburn in Memphis, that Hurst ". . . deliberately took out and killed seven Confederate soldiers, one of whom they left to die after cutting off his tongue, punching out his eyes, splitting his mouth on each side to his ears and cutting off his privates." Meanwhile, Federal commanders such as Col. Waring at White Station, were worried about unexplained ordnance accounts and Hurst's refusal to discuss them. Col. E. W. Rice (US) was still concerned about the money extorted in Jackson, Tennessee "which he (Hurst) has not turned over to the government, but has it deposited for his own private benefit." In August, one Federal commander wrote headquarters demanding that "if Hurst is under my command that he be arrested and confined."


Callan Clark
05-21-2008, 07:31 PM
I believe the other confederate general that was in the 5th Corps with Fitzhugh Lee and Joseph Wheeler during the Spanish-American War is Matthew Calbraith Butler. He served in the cavalry under JEB Stuart. He was wounded at the battle at Brandy Station and lost his foot as a result. He quickly got back on duty and rushed to South to stop W.T. Sherman march into South Carolina. He served in the U.S. Senate for eighteen years, oversaw the Reconstruction of South Carolina, and was a major general in the Spanish-American War.

05-22-2008, 07:43 AM
I had both acl replaced yesterday with some other knee surgery.

I have some good stuff to post later re: atrocites when I can get someone to bring some reference materials downstairs for me.