Monday, April 01, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 1: 10th editionthis feature

It's amazing at one level, since it doesn't seem like that long. But I started blogging in 2003, so this blog will have a 10th year anniversary later this year.

I started in 2004 using the occasion of Confederate Heritage Month to do a daily post on the broad topic of opposing neo-Confederate ideology. So this is the 10th version.

Some of these posts have focused on neo-Confederate ideology directly, which is part of a larger segregationist and white racist worldview in the United States. And integral part, actually. Some years I've selected a single thematic topic, like John Brown of the Southern Agrarians. Other years, including this one, I've taken a more eclectic approach.

This year I'm starting out with a look at racial atrocities during the Civil War. Like almost everything about the Civil War, it has become a topic of ideological posturing by segregationists and fans of the Confederacy.

Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012) starring Daniel Day-Lewis has recently provided dramatic new images of parts of Civil War history for American and foreign .

Here's a YouTube video of that opening scene, which depicts African-American Union troops in what is identified as a battle at Jenkins' Ferry in the midst of a bitter fight with white Confederates, Opening scene of Lincoln:

The fight is explained in the following conversation, in which a black soldier later addresses Lincoln on a rainy night as he apparently is receiving troops who want to come by and chat with him (my transcription):

Soldier: "Some of us was in the 2nd Kansas Colored. We fought the Rebs at Jenkins' Ferry last April just after they killed every Negro soldier they capture at Poison Springs. So at Jenkins' Ferry, we decided we weren't takin' no Reb prisoners. We didn't leave a one of them alive. For the ones of us who didn't die that day, we joined up with the US 116th Colored, sir, from Camp Nelson, Kentucky."

Lincoln: "What's your name soldier?"

"Private Harold Green, sir." ...

"How long have you been a soldier?"

"Two years, sir."

"Second Kansas Colored Infantry, they fought bravely at Jenkins' Ferry."

"That's right, sir."
Then the conversation turns to exposition of the role of black troops on the Union side. Lincoln talks to them like a kindly uncle with obvious compassion. And apparently with complete approval of the atrocities that Pvt. Green has confessed.

Several things bothered me about this scene the moment I first saw it on the screen. One is that it clearly had Lincoln reacting to a confession of a no-quarter approach to a battle, i.e., refusing to accept a surrender and just killing every one of the enemy soldiers. It also gave only the barest hint of the most common kind of racial atrocity during the war, the repeated murder of African-American Union prisoners by Confederates.

I didn't recall immediately Lincoln's own position on that particular issue, though I thought his casual approval of such a thing would have been unlikely in the extreme. But now that I've researched it a bit, here are some relevant dates and events.

Both battles mentioned above were real ones. The Battle of Poison Springs was on April 18, 1864. The Battle of Jenkins's Ferry took place on April 30, 1864. (Both were in Arkansas.)

Here is what John Burns writes in his article, "Quarter, Giving No" in Roy Gutman et al, Crimes of War 2.0: What the Public Should Know (2007):

Although ancient history contain examples of general ordering troops to spare soldiers defeated in battle, and even of attempt by early lawgivers to punish those judged too brutal with the enemy, modern efforts to ensure humane treatment of enemy fighters date back to the American Civil War, when President Lincoln, in 1863, promulgated what became known as the Lieber Code, a codification of the laws of armed conflict, which expressly forbade Union troops to give no quarter.
In other words, the President that Spielberg's film depicts as casually approving of no-quarter battles in 1864 was the President who in 1863 had established the Lieber Code "which expressly forbade Union troops to give no quarter," a rule that is historic in the international laws of war for forbidding just the kind of action we see him approving in the opening scene of Lincoln.

Jens David Ohlin at his blog which is also named LieberCode explains in the permanent footer at the bottom of his blog:

The Lieber Code was the first codification of the international laws of war. Commissioned by President Lincoln during the Civil War, the Lieber Code was formally known as General Order No. 100 and was published as a pamphlet that could be carried by Union soldiers during battle. The Code was written by Columbia University Professor Francis Lieber, who was heavily influenced by, among other sources, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Though published in 1863, the Lieber Code is still cited today by legal scholars, courts, and international tribunals.
In his post Response to Goodman 03/08/2013, he notes, "Although the law of war has advanced considerably since Lieber, its general structure remains relatively unchanged."

The opening scene to Lincoln does have an arguably legitimate artistic purpose in introducing this particular film. The subject was the passage of the 13th Amendment by Congress and the legislative sausage-making that went into it, with some unsavory deal-making leading to a historic step for freedom and democracy. The opening scene sets the stage with a brief tale of a justifiable goal from the standpoint of Constitutional government in America (defeating the Confederate Army) being achieved by unsavory, evil immoral means (no-quarter fighting).

Still, films are a major way people get impressions of history. And that opening image in this popular movie nominated for an Oscar for Best Movie was and will be seen by more people than are likely to look the article on "Quarter, Giving No" in Crimes of War 2.0. And the impression that opening scene will leave with most viewers is that African-American troops murdered white Confederates (true but only a part of the story of racial massacres in the Civil War, most of which were by white Confederates murdering black Union soldiers) and that the perennially most-popular-President Lincoln cheerfully and kindly approved of such massacres (when in reality he established a major precedent against no-quarter battles in the year before the one in which the opening scene is set).

The Lincoln movie leaves another misleading impression in that scene. The viewer is left to think that the "colored" troops agreed among themselves that they would take no prisoners among the Confederates in that battle ("we decided we weren't takin' no Reb prisoners"). In fact, the take-no-prisoners goal was established by the white officers in charge; the officers in charge of the "colored" units were all white, as we see in the much earlier film Glory (1989), for instance.

Here is the description of that decision by Gregory Urwin in "'We Cannot Treat Negroes ... as Prisoners of War': Racial atrocities and Reprisals in Civil War Arkansas" in Urwin, ed., Black Flag Over Dixie: Racial Atrocities and Reprisals in the Civil War (2004):

Within a day of the bloodbath at Poison Spring [a take-no-prisoners by Confederates against black Federal troops], Col. Samuel J. Crawford called the officers of the 2d Knasas Colored Infantry into council at Camden to discuss the enemy's treatment of their sister regiment. Before they adjourned, Crawford and his officer solemnly swore "that in future the regiment would take no prisoners so long as the Rebels continued to murder our men."
I'll post more this month around the essays in Urwin's book. But one last thing about the Lincoln opening scene shown above.

Even considering the dramatic function of the scene in introducing and framing the political conflict which is the main subject of the plot, the encounter as depicted seems very unlikely. For one thing, it shows an African-American private in 1864 using his time during a brief encounter with his white Commander-in-Chief to confess to a war crime in violation of Lincoln's own Lieber Code. And his cheeky friend presses the President on better pay and promotion opportunities for the the black troops. And then two white soldiers, both notably less articulate than the black soldiers, come up and recite most of the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln after which Pvt. Green recites the last part eloquently.

But since he uses that concluding part of the scene to establish an heroic aura for Lincoln, it's understandable, and most viewers would see that the borderline corny setup with the Gettysburg Address is meant to play that purpose. It's not likely to leave any substantive historical misconceptions.

Portraying Lincoln misleadingly as approving of take-no-prisoners warfare will. That and the image of black troops slaughtering whites in a no-quarter battle will not only create wrong historical impressions. They also will feed easily into neo-Confederate polemics against Lincoln and the Union cause.

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