On this, the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, it’s worth considering which Confederates should have been hanged. Understanding that the Union couldn’t really execute all the high ranking Confederates, Gary Brecher makes the very strong case that at the very least, Nathan Bedford Forrest and Wade Hampton, two extraordinarily loathsome people, should gotten the rope.
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.”
And then there’s Hampton.
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.
This doesn’t even get into what these horrible people did after the war, what with Forrest starting the Ku Klux Klan and Hampton heading the Red Shirts.