The War Nerd: The Confederates who should've been hanged

By Gary Brecher , written on April 10, 2015

From The War Desk


It’s a tricky question: Which representatives of Southern manhood should have danced in the air, come April 1865?

I think we can all agree, Lost-Cause loons aside, that every Southern officer was a traitor who’d earned the right to dangle. But alas, if you go hanging every single officer of a defeated army, you can very easily end up with a nasty insurgency on your hands. Those men had brothers and cousins, quite a lot of them. In the 19th-century Anglo world, wealthy families had lots of kids, and their brats tended to survive at a higher rate than starved poor kids. Take the ex-Confederates I’m going to talk about here: Jubal Early and Porter Alexander each had nine brothers and sisters, and Nathan Bedford Forrest had 11 siblings. Kill the twenty-something son who served with the Confederacy, and you have to deal with four or five kid brothers swearing revenge.

At the same time, it’s clear that the policy the Union actually pursued—not hanging any Southern officers except the miserable wretch who commanded Andersonville POW camp—failed miserably. A decade after we defeated the Confederacy at the cost of 300,000 loyal Union soldiers’ lives, the same planter oligarchy was running the South again, terrorizing the Freedmen and women who were our only loyal allies during the war, making sure black people never got a chance to vote, running them off their farms, doing their best to recreate slavery without the name.

And it might have been possible to prevent that disaster by hanging key ex-Confederate officers in the spring of 1865. All the leaders of the post-war terrorist fascist gangs that disenfranchised African-Americans in the South were former Confederate officers. If we’d thinned their ranks in an intelligent way, Reconstruction might have been something other than a grotesque and bloody farce.

There are some obvious guidelines for thinning the ranks of a dangerous group:

  •  You don’t kill the top, the figureheads. They’ve got enough name recognition to become martyrs quickly, and they’ve usually passed their peak by the time of their defeat.
  • You don’t kill incompetents. Keep those incompetents alive as long as possible.
  • You don’t kill the corrupt. You buy them and use them to turn your former enemies against each other.
  • You kill the exceptional, the most ruthless, fearless, unkillable leaders in the defeated army. If you don’t kill them now, at their weakest point, you’ll regret it.

I’m not talking about justice here. Justice would have demanded hanging every Confederate with a rank of colonel or higher. But often the higher the rank, the older the man, the more tired and harmless he was by the time of the Surrender. Jefferson Davis, for example; justice says he should have hanged, if not tortured to death, but Davis was such a disaster as a Confederate symbol that he wasn’t one of the more dangerous post-war figures. Better to let losers like Davis live on as buffoons rather than kill them and start the songs and poems going.

No, I’m talking about practical killing. Who were the most dangerous ex-Confederates in 1865? Could they have been identified and killed before they neutralized all the gains of America’s most costly war?

You can assume that in a group as big, as tough, and as dispersed as the Confederate officer corps and its core civilian elite, there will be a huge range of reactions to surrender. Some will commit suicide, like the South Carolina long-haired fanatic Edmund Ruffin did in June, 1865. (He’d planned to do it on April 9, but he had company that day, and as a polite Southern host, he was forced to live on another two months before putting the barrel of a rifle in his mouth.)

Others, like Lee’s very talented artillery officer Porter Alexander, will be drawn to guerrilla warfare.

This will have particular appeal for younger officers, and those (like the buffoon-ish Sterling Price) who are far from the main front and can’t grasp the reasons for the defeat. Price had the brilliant idea of fleeing to Mexico to take service under Emperor Maximillian, soon to be known as “that dark spot on the pockmarked wall.” Price came back to Missouri and died, which was by far the best thing he ever did.

None of these men, or even more effective postwar irregulars/bandits like the James Brothers, ever represented a real threat to the Union victory. That threat came from ex-Confederate officers who were cold-blooded and intelligent enough to bide their time, take advantage of the North’s ridiculous leniency, and form quasi-legal organizations to negate every gain for which those 300,000 soldiers died. These were the men who needed to hang in April 1865.

It’s easy to identify the two ex-Confederate leaders who did the most to ruin the lives of the African-American and poor-white Southerners after the war: Nathan Bedford Forrest in the West, and Wade Hampton in the East. If those two had been hanged in 1865, American history might have gone in a different direction, and frankly, almost any outcome would have been better than the debacle that actually followed the war.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, un-hanged, went on to front for a little group you may have heard of, called the KKK. Wade Hampton, who gets less press but was probably the worse of these two monsters (admittedly, it’s a tough competition) created America’s first homegrown fascist group, the Red Shirts, and used them to terrorize black voters, ensuring his election as South Carolina’s first postwar racist senator in 1876.

And these guys didn’t suddenly turn bad after the war. Both of them were born bad, and had done enough during the war to deserve death by any moral or legal criteria you care to name, from the Code of Hammurabi to Buzzfeed’s “Nine Things You Shouldn’t Do on A First Date.”

Forrest was a slaver and a killer long before the war, but he distinguished himself among the bloody Southern officer corps by his fondness for “No Quarter” orders. “No Quarter” was much more common in the Southwestern theatre of the war than most people realize. The James brothers, Quantrill, Anderson—those guys didn’t come out of nowhere. They were typical of the Southern irregular cavalry, and Forrest was the best, most ruthless leader they had. Forrest didn’t like taking prisoners; he preferred killing them on the spot. And it worked for him, once his rep got around. Many weak commanders surrendered to him rather than face the prospect of being slaughtered if he won.

When he attacked Fort Pillow in April 1864, Forrest encountered a garrison that wouldn’t surrender, and was half African-American. The black troops were from two artillery units, backed up by raw infantry. Forrest’s raiders outnumbered them, 1,500 to 600, and Forrest expected to win easily. He issued one of his standard threats after initial skirmishing, telling the Union commander he and his men had fought well enough to be “entitled” to be treated as POWs if they surrendered, but if Forrest was “forced” to attack, he couldn’t guarantee their safety.

It worked, many times, but it didn’t work on the second-in-command at Fort Pillow, who replied, “I will not surrender.” Forrest’s men overran the fort and killed every black soldier they could find. One of the Confederates who took part in the massacre reported it like this:

“Words cannot describe the scene. The poor deluded negroes would run up to our men fall upon their knees and with uplifted hands scream for mercy but they were ordered to their feet and then shot down. The whitte [sic] men fared but little better. Their fort turned out to be a great slaughter pen.”

After a half hour of slaughter, Forrest resumed command, and sent a proud dispatch boasting that the “river was dyed red” with the blood of the African-American soldiers. Forrest was a master of terror in war, and saw the massacre as a good way to neutralize the growing number of African-American soldiers the Union was recruiting. He wrote, using the modest passive mode, “It is hoped that these facts will demonstrate to the Northern people that negro soldiers cannot cope with Southerners.”

Forrest later realized he might have gone too far for his own safety and started backpedaling. In a less than coincidental incident, Bradford, the Union commander who’d witnessed the whole massacre, was shot “while trying to escape” from Forrest’s men.

So by the time of Lee’s surrender, Nathan Bedford Forrest was guilty of murder several hundred times over. He was kill-able. He was the most eminently kill-able man who ever lived. He deserved death many times over. But he was allowed to return to civilian life, which for him meant becoming the First Grand Wizard of the KKK. And please, don’t go on about how he “later renounced the violence of the Klan.” What Forrest didn’t like about the evolution of the KKK was that he, Forrest, wasn’t in complete command of it, and that he felt its violence was amateurish. He was a pro, and he wanted artistic control over the symbolic violence in which the Klan traded.

Forrest’s survival after the war was a disaster on any level you want; legal, moral, political. Nathan Bedford Forrest should have graced a gallows in the spring of 1865, and that should have been clear at the time to any resolute Union government.

Wade Hampton, the other leading candidate for a spring hanging in the wake of Apomattox, was, if you can believe it, even worse than Forrest. At least Forrest was a self-made monster; Hampton was a rich boy, the son of the South’s leading slave-holder. Hampton’s family owned more than 3,000 human beings, but rich didn’t mean pampered in the planters’ world. Wade Hampton III was not pampered. His hobby was hunting bears. With a knife. None of these guys were pampered. In fact, you feel a lot fonder of pampered, soft people after reading about these monsters.

Like a lot of tough kids, Wade Hampton III had something to prove. His grandfather, the original Wade Hampton, was the commanding American officer at the Battle of the Chateauguay in 1813, against a small, hastily assembled force of Mohawk Indians and Canadian militia. You don’t hear much about that fight in America, just as you don’t hear much about the Battle of Patay in Britain. If there’s one thing us Anglos are good at, it’s burying our humiliations. Chateauguay was a complete humiliation, with an American force routed by a mixed militia half its size, then lost in the woods by Wade’s grandfather.

By the time the Civil War started, Wade Hampton III was 42 years old, with no military experience. But he was a mean bastard, he knew how to ride and kill, he was willing to use his own money to raise his own “legion,” and he rose fast. In fact, one of the best ways to identify candidates for hanging is to look at fast risers.

In the whole Confederate army, only two men who started with no previous military experience rose to the rank of Lt. General: Wade Hampton III and Nathan Bedford Forrest. That’s a good noose-fitting device right there.

And if you’re looking for good legal cause to hang ol’ Wade, you won’t have much work to find it. Hampton talked his head off to Sherman’s officers, late in the war, as they arranged the surrender of Johnston’s forces, and his main theme, as recorded in multiple Union officers’ memoirs, is shooting deserters and “recruiting” new troops at gunpoint. Military life, for Hampton and many another Confederate officer in the last year of the war, consisted of rounding up deserters, shooting every one who didn’t seem useful, and re-enlisting the rest by holding a pistol at their head until they sang “Dixie” in the proper key. There’s no knowing how many Union men Hampton killed, but he boasted about killing dozens of reluctant Confederates.

Hampton survived the war, alas, in the same state of mind of most of the planters: not having learned a damned thing except to hate Yankees, African-Americans, and anyone else who failed to genuflect to the Lost Cause myth that his buddy Jubal Early was peddling—the South’s version of the ol' “stabbed in the back” myth so popular with certain Teutonic parties of the 1920s and 30s.

As the North lost the will to enforce basic human rights for African-Americans and white dissidents across the South, Hampton made his move to regain control of South Carolina for the planter elite. He borrowed an honorable symbol, the “Red Shirts” of Garibaldi’s insurgents, and made the red shirt the mark of his own racist militia. The South Carolina version of the Red Shirts murdered African-American leaders (150 of them during the 1876 Senate election, by one account) terrorized black voters and white Republicans (yeah, the Republicans were the good guys in those days) from voting, and indulged in any private violence that happened to interest its members. The 1876 election, with Hampton vs. a Reconstructionist, was a bloody draw, but Hampton’s fascists wanted it more and he eventually simply took power. He never looked back, and neither did South Carolina. Any threat of a new South, where something other than class or money might determine your chance in life, was wiped out for a century.

An outcome like that is worth preventing. If a few hangings had interrupted the premature love-fest between (white) North and (white) South in 1865, that outcome might have been avoided. And it would not have been difficult to identify the Confederate leaders most likely to organize treasonous groups like the Red Shirts and KKK. Both were led by civilians who rose quickly through the ranks, ending up as Lt. Generals—the only two men to follow that trajectory in the whole huge Confederate army. Both these leaders, Forrest and Hampton, were notable for their efficiency and extreme brutality throughout the war. Both were relatively young. Both were unrepentant racists and secessionists. For all these reasons, they were all obvious candidates for the top spots on a gallows list.

Granted, it might not have been possible to isolate their names among other brutal, successful, young, civilian-origin leaders. But there’s a simple solution for that problem: Hang every damn traitor who fit that bill.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]