Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 2: War crimes at Poison Springs and Jenkins' Ferry

In yesterday's post I discussed how the opening scene of Steven Spiegberg's acclaimed film Lincoln (2012) treats the take-no-prisoners policy followed by the officers in command of the 2nd Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment at the Battle of Jenkins' Creek in Arkansas in 1964.

As I noted there, President Lincoln had approved the Lieber Code in 1863, which is considered an important advance in prohibiting the practice of "giving no quarter," i.e., "take-no-prisoners," fight until the enemy are all dead whether they are resisting or not. It's unhistorical and unfair for the movie to give the impression that Lincoln approved as such a policy which in fact he had taken special action to prohibit the year prior to that battle.

Wesley Moody in Demon of the Lost Cause: Sherman and Civil War History (2011) notes that "the standard work on the laws of war" during the Civil War was Emmerich De Vattel's The Law of Nations (link is to an 1883 printing of the 1852 edition of that work), Book 3 dealing with the laws of war. Moody reports, that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman "kept a copy of Vattel with him throughout the war."

Vattel in Book 3, paragraphs 140 and 141 dealt with the question of giving no quarter:

§ 140. Limits of this right.

But the very manner in which the right to kill our enemies is proved, points out the limits of that right. On an enemy's submitting and laying down his arms, we cannot with justice take away his life. Thus, in a battle, quarter is to be given to those who lay down their arms; and, in a siege, a garrison offering to capitulate are never to be refused their lives. The humanity with which most nations in Europe carry on their wars at present cannot be too much commended. If, sometimes, in the heat of action, the soldier refuses to give quarter, it is always contrary to the inclination of the officers, who eagerly interpose to save the lives of such enemies as have laid down their arms.

§ 141. A particular case, in which quarter may be refused.

There is, however, one case in which we may refuse to spare the life of an enemy who surrenders, or to allow any capitulation to a town reduced to the last extremity. It is, when that enemy has been guilty of some enormous breach of the law of nations, and particularly when he has violated the laws of war. This refusal of quarter is no natural consequence of the war, but a punishment for his crime, — a punishment which the injured party has a right to inflict. But, in order that it be justly inflicted, it must fall on the guilty. When we are at war with a savage nation, who observe no rules, and never give quarter, we may punish them in the persons of any of their people whom we take, (these belonging to the number of the guilty.) and endeavour, by this rigorous proceeding, to force them to respect the laws of humanity. But, wherever severity is not absolutely necessary, clemency becomes a duty. Corinth was utterly destroyed for having violated the law of nations in the person of the Roman ambassadors. That severity, however, was reprobated by Cicero and other great men. He who has even the most just cause to punish a sovereign with whom he is in enmity, will ever incur the reproach of cruelty, if he causes the punishment to fall on his innocent subjects. There are other methods of chastising the sovereign, — such as depriving him of some of his rights, taking from him towns and provinces. The evil which thence results to the nation at large, is the consequence of that participation which cannot possibly be avoided by those who unite in political society. [my emphasis in italics]
The white officers of the 2nd Kansas may have been thinking of this latter concept when they took when they decided to pursue a no-quarter policy in the encounter with the Rebels that became the Battle of Jenkins' Creek. It followed numerous killing in the vicinity of black Union soldiers and of black noncombatants by Confederate forces. But it seems doubtful whether Vattel's formulation would have justified their decision, even had if the Lieber Code had not been in place.

The Lieber Code, Art.III.49 specifies:

All soldiers, of whatever species of arms; all men who belong to the rising en masse of the hostile country; all those who are attached to the army for its efficiency and promote directly the object of the war, except such as are hereinafter provided for; all disabled men or officers on the field or elsewhere, if captured; all enemies who have thrown away their arms and ask for quarter, are prisoners of war, and as such exposed to the inconveniences as well as entitled to the privileges of a prisoner of war. [my emphasis]

Francis Lieber (1798-1872), author of the Lieber Code promulgated by President Lincoln in 1863

I include these to show that the laws of war were clear at the time, to the Confederates and even more explicitly for the Union: killing of prisoners or a no-quarter policy was illegal.

The Confederate government treated of African-American prisoners of war as a special case. White Federal prisoners, with some inevitable exceptions, were treated as prisoners of war. Not always well treated, as the infamous case of the Andersonville prison camp testifies. Captured black soldiers, however, the Confederacy regarded as simple criminals and it refused to give them prisoner of war status. They could be imprisoned, enslaved or even executed without the rules applying to white Union prisoners.

The use of African-American troops by the Union had immense psychological importance. White Southerners had lived in horror of slave revolts for decades. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which our gun fetishists today idolize, was placed there primarily at the insistence of Southern state that required white male citizens to participate in slave patrols, whose purpose was to catch runaway slaves and generally to terrorized the black population slave and free to discourage revolts. Even nonslaveholding white were required to participate in the patrols. So the fear of slave revolts was widespread and ingrained into daily life in the South prior to the Civil War. It was accompanied by periodic panics over slave revolts, most of which existed only the in the fevered, guilty imaginations of white people, though slave resistance and the occasional slave revolt really did occur, too. John Brown had fanned those fears with his plan to set up a guerrilla army in the South to free slaves.

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) recounts the kind of hysteria with which now chronically-paranoid Southern defenders of slavery greeted the news of arming black soldiers:

African Americans are such a conspicuous and valued part of today's American military that it is difficult to appreciate the revolutionary nature of Abraham Lincoln's decision to let slaves become soldiers. Yet, when John Eakin [editor of the Washington Telegraph which Urwin calls "the voice of Confederate Arkansas] proclaimed that "the crime of Lincoln in seducing our slaves into the ranks of his army" should be ranked "amongst those stupendous wrongs against humanity, shocking to the moral sense of the world, like Herod's massacre of the Innocents, or the eve of St. Bartholomew," multitudes of Confederates on both sides of the Mississippi would have agreed. "All minor and local massacres," Eakin added defensively, "pale before it."

To Eakin and other guardians of Southern slavery, African Americans were always two persons rolled into one. On the one hand, they were simple and childlike souls, needing white care and guidance to lead happy and productive lives. On the other hand, they remained savages at heart, purportedly like their ancestors in Africa, and had to be restrained by slavery. If ever those bonds should slip, they would revert to their animal nature and attempt to kill every white person they came across."
As Urwin describes, the Battle of Poison Creek took place on April 18, 1864, and "wqas one of the most complete victories e3ver won by Confederate forces in Arkansas. The Rebs ambushed a Union force, which was forced into retreat. But "[a]s the exulting Rebels scattered the train's escort, they refused to take prisoners from its largest unit, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Thus, a glorious Confederate triumph was transformed into Arkansas's most notorious war crime." Not only did numerous eyewitnesses describe the slaughter, there was immediate indication of what had happened. "What aroused suspicion was that the 1st Kansas had suffered 117 slain but only 65 wounded." The number of wounded is typically much higher than the number killed. Urwin cites several samples of the documentary evidence, including:

In letters, diaries, reminiscences, and oral testimony handed down from generation to generation, the victors at Poison Spring described the fate that befell those black soldiers who failed to escape. Lt. William M. Stafford, a Texas artilleryman in Maxey's division, confided to his journal: "The surprise of the enemy was complete-at least 400 darkies were killed. [N] 0 black prisoners were captured." Three different Arkansas cavalrymen expressed pride in the fact that the Union dead were "mostly Negroes." A trooper in the ist Arkansas Cavalry boasted that "we almost exterminated the troops that had the train in their charge."
Slaughtering black prisoners of war: "Suthun honuh" in action.

A contingent of Choctaw Reb troops commanded by Col. Tandy Walker was especially brutal, including desecrating the bodies of the dead after the killing was done:

The Choctaws harbored so much animosity for their black victims that killing them was not enough. In addition to scalping and stripping, the Indians devised other ways to desecrate the ist Kansas Colored's dead. The Washington (Ark.) Telegraph treated its readers to this example of "Choctaw Humor": "After the battle of Poison Springs, the Choctaws buried a Yankee in an ordinary grave. For a headstone they put up a stiff negro buried to the waist. For a footstone another negro reversed, out from the waist to the heels." Three days after the battle, a Union burial detail discovered that three dead white officers from the 1st Kansas had been scalped, stripped, and turned on their faces as a sign of dishonor, while the corpses of their black soldiers were laid in a circle around them."

News of these atrocities traveled quickly throughout southern Arkansas.
This happened against a background of such killings. Gen. Kirby Smith of the Trans-Mississippi Department of which Arkansas was a part, criticized on of his Louisiana officers, telling him he hoped that reports of his men taking African-American troops prisoner were false. "I hope this may not be so, and that your subordinates who may have been in command of capturing parties may have recognized the propriety of giving no quarter to armed negroes and their officers." A week after Poison Springs, Confederates had attacked and defeated a Federal formation at Mark's Mills, Arkansas, that was carrying a reported 300 escaped slaves. But the Rebs only took 150 black prisoners. Many of the rest they just killed. Urwin writes, "The exact number of fugitive slaves killed at Mark's Mills will probably never be known, but it undoubtedly topped one hundred."

It was following these two incidents that the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry took place on April 30. And, as I described in yesterday's post, the white officers had decided on a clearly illegal no-quarter policy for the battle. Even after the Rebels forces retreated, the 2nd Kansas men continued to kill wounded Rebs. However, the Union force left behind 150 wounded men at a field hospital, who were taken by Confederate cavalry. Nine of them were from the 2nd Kansas. The Rebels murdered them all, three immediately, the other six two weeks later.

Urwin puts the Confederate policy toward black Union soldiers into a historical trend of white racist violence:

Confederates regarded the employment of African American soldiers as such a crime against humanity that they felt absolved from any obligation to treat black troops and their white officers as honorable opponents. Rebellious slaves and white abolitionist agitators had to be exterminated to keep other blacks in their place and save a social system based on racial subordination. These convictions added a unique 'element of savagery to the Civil War, and they persisted for a century after Appomattox. During Reconstruction, many Confederate veterans joined terrorist organizations that frequently assassinated assertive blacks who dared to press for political equality. As heirs to this heritage of racial oppression, the descendants of those veterans would preserve much of the old Southern order down to the 1960s. Thanks to the civil rights movement and the aggressive actions of the national government, expression of much of America's ingrained racial hatred has been driven underground, but students of the dark side of the Civil War should not be surprised to see it still surface from time to time."
And now that the Republican Party has completely embraced a straight-up segregationist approach to voter suppression aimed primarily at blacks and Latinos and generally making white racism more "respectable" in their ranks, we're already seeing and hearing more of that "dark side."

I hope I've made it clear that for both Confederate and Union soldiers, killing of prisoners and a no-quarter, take-no-prisoners policy was illegal under the laws and standards of the time. And to state again my problem with the opening sequence of Lincoln: the no-quarter policy and the killing of the wounded at Jenkins' Ferry was not a policy decided by the African-American troops of the 2nd Kansas, but by their white officers, contrary to the distinct impression that the movie leaves; the illegal killing of prisoners and wounded by black Federals was not a part of Union policy and in fact was clearly in violation of it; such behavior was not common practice on the Union side, but the much more frequent incidents of such conduct by Rebel forces against African-American Union troops was part of a larger criminal policy toward black prisoners-of-war by the Confederacy and, as we saw with Gen. Smith, in many cases explicitly directed by officers (as was the no-quarter policy by Union officers at the Battle of Jenkins' Ferry); and, Lincoln and the Union government did not approve of a no-quarter policy or ever encourage the illegal execution of Confederate prisoners.

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