Author Interview--Lorien Foote (Rites of Retaliation) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Lorien Foote to talk about her book, Rites of Retaliation: Civilization, Soldiers, and Campaigns in the American Civil War, published by the University of North Carolina Press in October 2021.

Lorien Foote is Patricia and Bookman Peters Professor of History at Texas A&M University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma. She has previously published The Yankee Plague: Escaped Union Prisoners of War (2016), The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (2010), and Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-Century Reform (2003).

This is a rather unique topic, acts of retaliation, how did you become interested in this topic?

LF: I became interested in the topic of retaliation while I was researching my previous book, The Yankee Plague, which is about the escape of thousands of Federal prisoners of war from sites in South Carolina and North Carolina during the winter of 1864-1865.  The Confederacy brought 600 Union officers to Charleston, where they were put in buildings that were in zones under fire from the Union guns that were bombarding the city.  This launched a retaliation correspondence between Union and Confederate commanders that I found fascinating.  The more research I did in records related to prisoners of war, the more instances of retaliation I found.  I finally realized that nearly every military campaign of the American Civil War had at least one retaliation incident associated with it.  By that point, I knew this was my next book.

What do you argue in Rites of Retaliation?

LF: I argue that military and civil officials in the Union and the Confederacy shared a ritual of retaliation that shaped the conduct of military campaigns during the war.  Both sides believed that war must be civilized – defined particularly by restraint, participating in shared customs dating back to ancient times, and honor – and both sides believed the other engaged in savage acts.  Retaliation was the recognized method to try to alter the policies of an enemy, and it often worked to do so.  A particularly important sub-argument of the book is about retaliation and the participation of Black Union soldiers in the war.  I argue that the Union effectively used retaliation to stake its claim that the Confederacy must recognize free Black soldiers born in the North as legitimate combatants, and that the Confederacy explicitly altered its policy because of this retaliation.  The Confederate government changed its laws, treated free-born Black soldiers as prisoners of war, and delivered Black soldiers to Union lines for exchange.

One thing that stands out about your book is your choice of geography, why the coastal regions and the Department of the South?

LF: As my research unfolded for this project, I realized that to show readers how retaliation worked to alter the conduct of campaigns, I would have to follow some narrative threads from beginning to end.  The Department of the South was a good place to do this because retaliation incidents there were unusually well documented, both in the official records and in the private writings and correspondence of Black and white soldiers fighting there.  Three of the most contentious issues between the Union and the Confederacy came to a head in this department: the Union’s deployment of Black soldiers, the Confederate treatment of prisoners of war, and the Union’s treatment of non-combatants.  I also thought that focusing on this region would fill a gap in the scholarly literature, as the military history of the Department of the South has been relatively neglected by historians of the American Civil War.

The other aspect that I assume was not always easy, how do you distinguish between official acts of retaliation and acts of revenge? How easily do these two blend together?

LF: Francis Lieber, the main author of the United States’ General Order No. 100 and an expert on the international customs of war, would tell you that if a combatant followed the procedures properly, retaliation would be easily differentiated from revenge.  The purpose of retaliation would be to stop the conduct that violates the laws of war rather than to get revenge for past acts with no chance of altering anyone’s behavior.  Retaliation would involve carefully investigating the facts, sending a formal letter indicating the intent to retaliate, giving the accused a chance to explain the conduct, and making sure that any retaliatory act taken was in exact proportion to the wrong conduct.  Revenge is done out of anger, without following any formal procedure, and often escalates violence.  Because retaliation involved rituals and correspondence, it did usually look different than vengeful acts.  However, there were times that retaliation blended with revenge.  This happened when officials didn’t follow the rules properly, so the built-in restraints of the ritual didn’t work, or when a clever official followed the rules but manipulated them in order to get revenge.

You have a few excellent examples in that regard. How much was this also an issue of soldier "initiative" and "opportunity" so to speak? I am especially here thinking about the murder of U.S.C.T. soldiers at Olustee or the fear of U.S.C.T. soldiers taking vengeance on plantations.

LF: Because retaliation was part of the thinking and vocabulary of soldiers and civilians as well as government and military officials, we see episodes of “retaliation” that are really examples of revenge everywhere in the Civil War.  In the Department of the South, for example, Black soldiers consider themselves as fighting under a black flag in 1864 and sometimes kill Confederate soldiers after surrender on the battlefield – or refuse to take prisoners.  To them, this is retaliation for the massacre of wounded Black soldiers on the battlefield at Olustee, Florida, and the massacre of Black soldiers at Fort Pillow.  Volunteer line officers at times take the initiative when presented with the opportunity to execute prisoners of war as “retaliation” when they haven’t followed the proper protocols of investigation and correspondence.  In some regions where there is extensive guerrilla warfare, soldiers and line officers believe there is a kind of standing permission to “retaliate” if an atrocious act is committed against them, and they do so without using the forms of the ritual.  So there are places where violence begets violence in the cycle that retaliation is supposed to prevent.  

I want to quickly follow up regarding this vicious cycle of violence situation you mentioned. You do cite Aaron Sheehan-Dean's new book The Calculus of Violence a few times and he has a rather interesting line in there regarding General Order No. 11. He claims that it was the better option compared to more lethal ways to deal with the guerrilla activities in Missouri and that many people had supported Indian Removal, which was not so different from what happened in western Missouri. Obviously, the situation in the Department of the South was significantly different, how do you see this issue apply to your argument of retaliation?

LF: The Federal response to guerrillas works very differently than other retaliation issues during the Civil War because the Confederate government does not use retaliation systematically to defend its guerrillas.  The Confederate military leadership is very ambivalent about guerrilla warfare, and in essence concedes the Federal position that guerrillas (as opposed to partisans with some connection to the regular Confederate military) are illegitimate combatants.  So there are actually very few rituals of retaliation between the regular militaries of both sides regarding guerrillas.  Why you see an escalating cycle of violence, in my view, is because local Federal commanders and local guerrillas (in the west especially) respond to each other without using the ritual.  Federal commanders believe guerrilla warfare by parties not wearing uniforms and not paid by the state is uncivilized – Sherman calls guerrillas “wild beasts unknown to the usages of war” – and they summarily execute guerrillas and punish the communities that support them with fines and house burnings.  Thomas Ewing can issue General Order No. 11 because by that point in the war Union commanders aren’t worried about the Confederate government ordering retaliation for Federal actions against guerrillas.  

In the Department of the South, retaliation in at least one instance contributes to an escalating cycle of violence regarding the issue of Confederates killing Union foragers during Sherman’s marches through Georgia and South Carolina.  Sherman executes forty-three Confederate prisoners of war without investigating whether or not the deaths of Union foragers were official policy of the Confederate military and whether or not it was Confederate soldiers as opposed to citizens who committed the acts.  The personalities of commanders makes a big difference in how well retaliation works, or how badly it goes wrong.