The Three Most Interesting Civil War Documents, Part 2

November 28, 2012

“Order of Retaliation”

In the Civil War Era, racism was widespread in every region of the United States. That fact sometimes leads to the lazy conclusion that attitudes were essentially the same in the North and South, or that the federal government was only marginally better in its treatment of African Americans than was the Confederacy.

But one 215-word government document shows there was a profound difference.

The South, of course, saw African-Americans as property. And when the Union Army accepted black soldiers, it was seen by Southerners as an affront to Civilization. The Confederacy – from the leaders in Richmond to soldiers in the field – reacted by sanctioning the murder or enslavement of black prisoners of war.

In response, President Lincoln issued the most brutal and moving document in American history. In a short order dated July 30, 1863, he instructed that “for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released.”

Consider that for a moment. The President could have just appointed a commission to investigate these war crimes, or demanded an apology from Jefferson Davis, or vowed to seek out the individuals who had committed these acts. Instead he ordered that white American citizens – as he steadfastly called the southern rebels – were to be executed or enslaved in retaliation for these crimes against black soldiers. It was an act of harsh, collective justice worthy of the Old Testament.

Whatever else was true of racial attitudes in the North, and whatever the varied motivations for his action, the President was saying black and white lives would be valued equally. There can be no more poignant rebuke of the Southern worldview than that.

Here’s the full document:

It is the duty of every government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person, on account of his color, and for no offence against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age.
The government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave anyone because of his color, the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy's prisoners in our possession.

It is therefore ordered that for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war, a rebel soldier shall be executed; and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

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