Author Interview--Lorien Foote (Rites of Retaliation) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Lorien Foote 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.

Part 1

You are also raising a rather interesting concept that both sides were very concerned with their image abroad when it came to these acts of retaliation and embraced a civilized form of war. Why did public opinion matter so much to some of these policymakers, opinion-makers, and generals? (It is not like Europe would have overlooked the inhumanity of slavery in regard to the South.)

LF: Public opinion mattered for two reasons.  The first was honor – both sides collectively cared for what gentlemen cared about individually, their reputation.  Honor in the 19th century meant that you only have as much worth as your peers give to you.  In true honor cultures, public presentation is more important than inner virtue or worth.  The ritual of retaliation is a performance that allows combatants to claim and display honor.  The second reason for being concerned about image was that both the Union and the Confederacy were trying to prove they deserved to be counted among the nations of the civilized world.  Civilization was ancient, and it was exclusive.  It mattered very much to Americans to show that they participated in the customs and etiquette that separated civilized people from barbarians.  White Americans claimed they were different than “barbaric” Indians and “savage” enslaved people – but if European nations did not concede that to them, it meant they weren’t really in the club.  As for the inhumanity of slavery, Confederates went to great lengths in their retaliation correspondence to show that civilized nations from ancient times practiced slavery and that it was an institution that advanced civilization.  A key element in retaliation correspondence was showing your knowledge of history and showing that your claims had the backing of historical precedent.  Confederates had a long list of examples that they asserted proved their claim that civilized nations did not instigate servile insurrections during warfare.  Of course, the Union countered with examples of civilized nations offering freedom to enslaved people who would fight for them.  Both sides expected other civilized nations, and later historians, to evaluate their claims and prove them right.  Both sides constantly appealed to the “verdict of history.”      

I assume you will get some Neo-Confederate pushback to your argument, but why is it important, especially for the general public, to better understand this process and formulation of a retaliation system during the war?

LF: I think it is important to understand the retaliation system because it helps us to understand what kind of war Americans wanted to fight, and what they tried to do about it when things were not turning out like they thought.  We must take seriously how widespread the worldview of civilization was throughout the Union and the Confederacy, and how this mindset shaped the conduct of military campaigns.  Retaliation allows us to explore the underlying beliefs that guided people’s behavior during the American Civil War.   

There has been much conversation and controversy surrounding the "Dark Turn" in Civil War history, where do you see your book fit into that conversation?

LF: Rites of Retaliation discusses some atrocities that occurred during the Civil War, a theme that fits in well with the Dark Turn’s attempt to highlight the atrocities, suffering, and trauma of the war.  But my book also offers some important correctives to the Dark Turn, I think, because it recovers how Americans in the 19th century processed these type of events through the world view and language of civilization.  I think that some, though by no means most, of historians who have entries in the Dark Turn body of literature impose modern views of suffering and trauma upon the study of the past.  Without an understanding of what Americans believed about “savage” behavior and “civilized” behavior, we can’t explain their experience of and reaction to violence.  My book explains how retaliation was supposed to address and limit atrocities, and why it worked sometimes and why it did not work at other times.  I think that my book also helps ensure that historians better understand how Americans tried to fight a “civilized” war and what they did about it when they feared the war was taking a “savage” turn.  There have been several good books recently, by scholars like John Fabian Witt, Stephen Neff, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, and Burrus Carnahan that explain the laws of war and how important those were to the conduct of the American Civil War.  But I think many people remain unfamiliar with the laws of war when they write about the violence of the war.  I have read books that decry specific incidents as atrocities that were in fact actions that were sanctioned by the customs of war and were applications of retaliation that neither side would have labeled an “atrocity” at the time.

Do you have any new plans/projects?

LF: I tend to have one new project/plan at a time, so I am currently pursuing my new project, a study of dogs in warfare in 19th century North America.  I’ve found incredibly interesting material on the role that dogs played in policing enslaved people in the Confederacy and guarding and tracking Union prisoners of war.  There is a reason that Union soldiers killed thousands of dogs in Georgia during Sherman’s march.  As part of that research, I am also exploring the warrior cultures of different indigenous societies and the U.S. army, and finding that dogs, hunting, and honor, were commonalities.