4 Criminals Prosecuted During the American Civil War

Civil War Cannons on an historic battleground site.


The conditions that captured Union soldiers endured at the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison were horrific. During the 18 months that the prison was in operation, nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died from malnutrition, disease, and exposure to the elements due to inhumane treatment by Andersonville’s Commander Henry Wirz. So it really should come as no surprise that his prosecution for war crimes after the South’s surrender is the most well-known trial resulting from the Civil War. But it is not as commonly known that there were almost one thousand other military prosecutions of Confederates. Many of these were due to the mistreatment of captured Union soldiers.

Henry Wirz

Henry Wirz took command of Andersonville Prison on March 27, 1864, about one month after the first prisoners arrived there. One of Wirz’s first acts was to create an area called the dead-line fence, designed to increase security by keeping prisoners away from the stockade wall. Any prisoner who crossed the “dead-line” was subject to being shot by the prison guards. During Wirz's reign as commander, he used threats to keep prisoners in line. When threats didn’t appear to work, Wirz ordered sentries to shoot prisoners. In May 1865, Wirz was arrested at Andersonville and transported to Washington, D.C. to await trial. Wirz was tried for conspiring to injure and/or kill captured soldiers by improperly denying them access to food, medical supplies, and clothing. He was also charged with murder for personally executing a number of prisoners.

Approximately 150 witnesses testified against Wirz at his military trial, which lasted from August 23 to October 18, 1865. After being found guilty of all charges against him, Wirz was sentenced to death and hanged on November 10, 1865.

James Duncan

James Duncan was another officer from Andersonville Prison who was also arrested. Duncan, who had been assigned to the quartermaster's office, was convicted of manslaughter for intentionally withholding food from the prisoners. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor but escaped after serving only one year of his sentence.

Champ Ferguson

At the onset of the Civil War, Champ Ferguson was a farmer in Eastern Tennessee. This area's population was fairly equally divided between supporting the Union and the Confederacy. Ferguson organized a guerilla company that attacked and killed Union sympathizers. Ferguson also acted as a scout for Colonel John Hunt Morgan's Kentucky cavalry, and Morgan promoted Ferguson to the rank of Captain of Partisan Rangers. The Confederate Congress passed a measure called the Partisan Ranger Act which allowed for the recruitment of irregulars into service. It should be noted that due to a lack of discipline amongst Partisan Rangers, General Robert E. Lee called for the repeal of the Act by the Confederate Congress in February 1864. After a trial before a military tribunal, Ferguson was convicted of killing more than 50 captured Union soldiers. He was executed by hanging in October 1865.

Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy was a Confederate officer who had been captured by Union forces and was imprisoned at Johnson’s Island Military Prison. The prison was located in Sandusky Bay, which is on the Lake Erie coast just a few miles from Sandusky, Ohio. Kennedy escaped from Johnson’s Island in October 1864, making his way into Canada — which maintained neutrality towards both sides. Kennedy met up with several Confederate officers who were using Canada as a launching pad to conduct war acts against the Union. He participated in a plot to start fires at numerous hotels, as well as at a museum and a theatre in New York City, with the intent to overwhelm local authorities. All the fires were either put out quickly or failed to do any damage. Kennedy was the only one who was captured. After a trial before a military tribunal, Kennedy was executed by hanging in March 1865.

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Kelly, Martin. "4 Criminals Prosecuted During the American Civil War." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/prosecuted-war-criminals-during-civil-war-104542. Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 28). 4 Criminals Prosecuted During the American Civil War. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prosecuted-war-criminals-during-civil-war-104542 Kelly, Martin. "4 Criminals Prosecuted During the American Civil War." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prosecuted-war-criminals-during-civil-war-104542 (accessed June 2, 2023).