Retaliation in the Headlines

The following is a guest blog post by Lorien Foote, author of Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War. Blending military and cultural history, Lorien Foote’s rich and insightful book sheds light on how Americans fought over what it meant to be civilized and who should be extended the protections of a civilized world.

Happy Book Birthday to Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War, officially on sale today!

Journalists covering the myriad military conflicts around the world use the word “retaliation” regularly in headlines and articles to describe the behavior of combatants.  In its June 16, 2021 on-line coverage of conflict in the Middle East, for example, The Washington Post ran a headline that read “Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza in retaliation for incendiary balloons.”  The AP’s story about five days of violence in Johannesburg in September, 2019, was entitled “Nigerians attack South African businesses in retaliation.”

 The current use of retaliation often connotes a violent action that is tinged with an element of revenge, although the word is often used simply to mean a counterattack.  Americans in the nineteenth century understood retaliation very differently than its modern usage.  Retaliation during the American Civil War was a ritual derived from the international customs of war.  Its purpose was to restrain the violence of war and to give combatants a way to hold their enemy accountable for fighting war according to the rules.  Confederate and Union military commanders used retaliation in nearly every campaign of the conflict.

 Civilian leaders and military commanders in the United States and the Confederacy believed the world was watching their war in order to judge if it was fought according to “civilized” standards.  To gain international legitimacy in the eyes of European nations, both combatants had to show that they followed contemporary practices in war that were intended to limit its impact on noncombatants, to ensure kind treatment of prisoners of war, and to restrict fighting to uniformed soldiers in the pay of the nation-state.

From the beginning of hostilities, however, both Union and Confederate officials believed the other side committed atrocious acts that violated the customs of civilized warfare.  Retaliation provided the remedy.  It worked like this.  A commander of an army wrote a formal letter accusing his counterpart of violating the civilized customs of war.  He named the specific atrocity, such as murdering a prisoner of war, bombarding a city without giving notice in advance, or pillaging private property.  He gave his enemy a set period of time to provide a satisfactory explanation.  The best explanation would be that rogue individuals had committed the atrocious acts without the sanction of governing authorities and would be punished.  But if no explanation were forthcoming, such letters always stated, then the army commander would retaliate in a specified way.

Americans from all social groups and geographic regions, through military correspondence, legal treatises, private letters and diaries, and newspaper articles, showed that they shared a common understanding of proper retaliation.  They believed it should never be implemented in a spirit of revenge, but rather with the reforming purpose of preventing what they termed “savage” behavior in war.  If retaliation was justified and proportional to the offense, it should serve to keep soldiers and their commanders in line. 

The American press widely covered the numerous retaliation episodes that occurred during the Civil War.  At times it did work to change a combatant’s behavior.  When the Confederate government refused to treat Black U.S. soldiers who were born in northern states as prisoners of war, the Abraham Lincoln administration issued a retaliation order and set aside hostages from South Carolina.  It worked.  The Confederacy amended its legislation and put free-born Black prisoners in military prisons with white POWs.

But the retaliation ritual had notorious failures.  When William Tecumseh Sherman’s Federal army marched through South Carolina, Confederate citizens and soldiers were outraged that Union soldiers pillaged and burned private houses.  Confederate soldiers murdered after capture some Union soldiers who were detailed as foragers, slit their throats, and left their bodies by the side of a road with a sign indicating what happened to them.  In retaliation, Sherman ordered the execution of forty-three Confederate prisoners of war.  This incident increased the hatred of both sides, but did not stop the escalating wave of atrocities that marked the war in South Carolina. 

The retaliation ritual was supposed to restrain the violence of war.  During the American Civil War, it often became an opportunity for headlines to proclaim the atrocious behavior of the enemy.  After the Civil War, international conferences created treaties, tribunals, and war crime commissions to take the place of formal retaliation.  Its rituals faded out of practice.  Journalists still use the word, but nineteenth century Americans would no longer understand the headlines. 

Lorien Foote is Patricia & Bookman Peters Professor of History at Texas A&M University, and author of The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners and the Collapse of the Confederacy.