Atrocities or Simply War?

Tom Elmore

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#1
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From time immemorial people have wrestled with the concept of “civilized warfare.” In the Civil War it was generally held that a prisoner should not be mistreated or harmed, but even so, there existed a gray area. For instance, should an enemy soldier be allowed to discharge his weapon at very close range, and then expect instantaneous mercy when captured? We can hold a philosophical debate in the comfort of peace, but war is intensely brutal. Can we reasonably expect a soldier filled with emotions like rage, hatred and fear, and who just witnessed comrades shot down by his side (some of whom might be close relatives), suddenly display a humane regard for a surrendered foe? We might excuse some cases, yet our human consciousness tells us when the line has clearly been crossed.

The following (slightly edited) examples from Gettysburg show a range of such circumstances for each reader to decide for themselves.

(I went around a rock) right on to the muzzle of the Yank’s gun. He could easily put his gun in my face; he stuck the gun out and fired and never touched me, then threw his gun up and begged for me to spare his life. And I told him alright, that I was not hurt, and at that instant a comrade came on the other side of the rock and would have shot him had I not kept him from it. (Private john R. Wilkerson, 3rd Arkansas)

(After surrendering) I came up to a big, burly Irishman, who presented his gun at my breast and was pulling the trigger, cursing me. A file closer saw what he would do and pushed the gun aside just as it fired, cursing him and bidding him to go forward and fight those who had not surrendered. (E. H. Sutton, 24th Georgia)

A Confederate soldier arrived at the foot of Christ Lutheran Church and called out for Chaplain Howell to surrender (Howell wore the uniform of a Union captain instead of the regulation black chaplain’s uniform). Instead of throwing up his hands, he attempted to explain that he was a non-combatant and thus exempt from capture. The soldier fired, killing Howell. He fell upon the landing at the top of the steps. (90th Pennsylvania account)

Lying wounded out in front of the lines on July 1, a group of rebel stragglers appeared. After telling them that the First Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac had held the position they appeared to be astounded. One burly Southerner, after telling me that I lied and saluting me with very opprobrious epithets, raised his musket to brain me. As he did so a General, handsomely uniformed and attended by a large staff, burst upon the scene. “What are you doing with that man,” he demanded. “He has lied to me; he says he belongs to the First Army Corps,” replied my would-be assailant. “So he does,” said the General. “Don’t you see the badge on his cap? Go away and let him alone. Go to your regiment.” (“Carleton,” 12th Massachusetts)

A Rebel lying behind a rock and firing at us surrendered [when] we got right up to him. Cal Dixon was about to shoot him. I said not to shoot. Dixon [afterwards told me] it had made him so mad to think he could lay behind the rock and fire at us, and then surrender. (Capt. Jacob B. Rumbaugh, 148th Pennsylvania)

As I approached the hospital [at the Eagle Hotel], I found a line of about a dozen of the 14th Brooklyn men formed across the entrance, disputing possession of their building with about 20 Rebels … I ordered the men to give up their arms and return into the hospital; all but four or five did so … I succeeded in saving all but one, who was shot through the heart. (Surgeon Algernon S. Coe, 147th New York)

Chamberlain was wounded, and while lying on the battlefield a Confederate soldier, seeing him, fired, intending to kill him. Chamberlain, seeing the Rebel soldier halt, instinctively raised his hand to his head and thereby saved his life, as the ball lodged in the back of his hand. During the remainder of his life the hand was withered and useless. (concerning William H. Chamberlain, 56th Pennsylvania)

One Confederate rose and fired at Maj. Boynton’s (13th Vermont) back after he had passed him. Several Vermonters took aim at the wounded Rebel, but Boynton told them not to shoot and the man was taken prisoner. (Benedict, Vermont Brigade)

After the battle my comrade shot a Rebel right in the head because he would not give up his gun. (Edward Freeman, 13th Vermont)

Captain M. W. B. Ellegood was mortally wounded and fell on the field. As the enemy’s line passed over, a Rebel soldier seeing the captain not yet dead, raised his musket to bayonet him, but his commanding officer called on him to desist and threatened to run him through if he ever knew him to injure a wounded or fallen foe. (Murphey, 1st Delaware)

I went about 30 rods after I was hit, got over a stone wall and laid down there. In a short time the enemy came over the wall where I lay. I asked one of them for a drink of water; he gave it to me, but while I was drinking he was loading his gun. He said he hated our men, then went off about eight rods and shot at me, but I happened to lay down so he did not hit me. He was the only one who saw me. The bushes were so thick I kept out of their sight. (Sergeant J. A. Bosworth, 141st Pennsylvania)

After being wounded on July 1, a Rebel straggler, unkempt and powder-begrimed, came along, and seeing an officer before him in the hated blue coat, demanded my arms. As no one but an officer had a right to disarm me, I told him to “Go to h---.” But instead of minding my admonition, he raised his gun, as if to club me. Luckily for my brain, however, as I was grabbing at my revolver, an officer on Gen. Gordon’s staff appeared, and stopped him. The officer rode up to me, demanding my arms, which I reluctantly surrendered. (Theodore Dodge, 119th New York)

I was stunned but not hurt. In coming to, I found myself inside the Rebel lines. A soldier shouted several times, “where is an officer?” Upon seeing me lying on the ground, he leveled his gun and was about to pull the trigger, when an officer of his company stepped in front of me and beckoning to his men said: “Come on, my brave boys, come on.” (Lt. Albert Wallber, 26th Wisconsin)
 
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#2
The following occurred at the Battle of Spotsylvania on May 10, 1864, during the advance of the 5th Alabama Infantry Regiment:

As we got nearer and nearer to each other, the roar of the musketry and the cheering of the men in the rear was deafening. Just about this time I heard a man at my side receive an awful blow to the head with a gun. I turned and saw it was one of the men from Dallas county (Company F) trying to kill a prisoner. I caught him by the coat and asked him, “What in the world are you treating that prisoner so, for?” He replied, “Captain, he was just in the act of shooting you.” We moved on, and when the company from Pickens county (Company H) got to where the Yankee was, he raised himself and shot and killed Lieutenant Smith (2nd Lieutenant David N. Smith) of that company. I was told that as quick as lightening, nine bayonets were thrust through the Yankee’s body.
 
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#3
During operation Market Garden in WWII, United States Airborne units were assigned to capture a secondary bridge over the Meuse River. After capturing the bridge they shot all of the German prisoners and threw the wounded off the bridge to drown. Was this atrocious? Yes! The airborne units were in a big hurry. They had to assault the bridge "NOW", no matter what. The Germans on the bridge put down a withering fire on the Americans, killing many men, they then wanted to surrender. The Rangers were in a rage and didn't have time for prisoners. You don't see this incident in many history books.

I think it's hard to "turn it off" like light switch. To go from fighting like a mad dog to acting with mercy and compassion.
I have never had to and I thank God for that and the men and women who did serve.
 

CW3O

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#4
"From time immemorial people have wrestled with the concept of “civilized warfare.”

Not surprising that they struggle with this concept. Might as well set unicorn traps.
War has never been civilized and never will be civilized.
There is a difference, however, between war and criminal/illegal activity that takes place during war or is masquerading as war. The standards for such criminal/illegal behavior have changed over the centuries and there have been efforts to codify standards and have them universally agreed to and adhered to. These efforts have been only partially successful.
 
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#5
After Brigadier General James Wadsworth was shot in the head at the Wilderness, he fell into Confederate hands. Still alive, he was taken to a hospital and was attended to by an injured Union soldier. The day after he arrived, a Confederate officer came into the hospital and, upon seeing Wadsworth, asked who he was and if he was the wealthy Wadsworth from New York. Upon hearing that it was, he declared that he was going to kill him and began to draw his revolver. Some fellow officers who were there restrained the man and then escorted him out. The Union soldier thought that the officer may have been drinking which caused his actions.

Ryan
 

diane

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#6
Col N B Forrest was briefly occupying Murfreesboro in 1862 and was sitting his horse in the middle of the main street, directing action. His back was to a store front. A Union soldier, hiding inside the store, drew a bead on the rebel commander and was about to kill him when the storekeeper put his hand on the soldier's shoulder. "Don't do it!" he said. "His men will burn my store to the ground!" Because the man had sheltered him, the soldier did not fire and his window of opportunity shut. Forrest moved rapidly further up the street, out of range.
 
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#7
An enlistee or draftee is given a lethal weapon, trained to shoot the enemy and through repeated commands learns to obey reasonable orders or get into trouble. The opposing soldiers are indoctrinated likewise. Battle commences and you are ordered to go kill or capture the enemy who is trying to kill or capture you and may very well have just killed your best buddy. So yes, there are instances where the opponent are captured and treated fairly, but we all know this doesn't always occur. WW2 was mentioned where American Paratroopers killed or drown wounded Nazi's. We also know American soldiers surrendered to Nazi's in "Bulge" and were mercilessly machined gun to death standing in a snowy field. War is Hell.
 
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#8
An enlistee or draftee is given a lethal weapon, trained to shoot the enemy and through repeated commands learns to obey reasonable orders or get into trouble. The opposing soldiers are indoctrinated likewise. Battle commences and you are ordered to go kill or capture the enemy who is trying to kill or capture you and may very well have just killed your best buddy. So yes, there are instances where the opponent are captured and treated fairly, but we all know this doesn't always occur. WW2 was mentioned where American Paratroopers killed or drown wounded Nazi's. We also know American soldiers surrendered to Nazi's in "Bulge" and were mercilessly machined gun to death standing in a snowy field. War is Hell.
The Canadians and the SS didn't take prisoners when facing one another either.

Ryan
 

dlofting

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#9
It's a bit of an aside but I think related. I was rereading a book about Johnny Cash, titled 'Cash, An American Man". It contains bits and pieces about his life, his musical career and things he did and wrote. One selection follows:

I heard it on the news that there is a lull in the fighting in Viet Nam because so many Vietnamese are busy planting a rice crop again. The report said that full scale fighting is expected to resume immediately after the planting season. I reply "What kind of animal is man that he would pause in his killing in order to go about the business of preparing for the living knowing that he will immediately return to the business of killing."
 

1950lemans

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#11
David Armitage's book Civil Wars: A History of Ideas (2017) is about civil wars from the Roman period to about today.

It's an overview of such wars. The American Civil War is covered in a chapter entitled "Civilizing Civil Wars, The Nineteenth Century". In the bloody history of civil wars, as civil wars go, the American version was quite civilized. At first it makes you wonder just what is an atrocious civil war.

Chapter cover Vattel, Halleck's book, Lieber Code, international law books that were required reading by some of the famous generals, etc.
 
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AUG

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#12
Speaking of WWII, there were very few prisoners taken in the Pacific Theater, since the Japanese usually fought to the death and often killed or tortured prisoners on the spot. The Allies quickly learned to not bother with taking them prisoner either, if they had the option.
 
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#14
Does the Battle of Fort Pillow or better yet the Massacre of Fort Pillow ring a bell? The senseless slaughter of close to 300 Union men-most black after surrendering.....
 

Tom Elmore

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#15
Three more examples from Gettysburg:

[Field hospital at the Lutheran Seminary] One of our men who was a prisoner and unhurt was bringing us a very badly wounded comrade when a Reb private, who was standing near, raised his musket and shot the sound man through the heart. The Reb pulled his hat over his eyes and slunk away. One of our men reported the matter to some of the Reb officers, but the man never came up again. (Lt. Col. George F. McFarland, 151st Pennsylvania, J. Horace McFarland Papers, Pennsylvania State Archives; on file at Adams County Historical Society, Gettysburg)

I heard of but one act of violence [during the campaign], which was the murder and robbery of an old man – the two murderers were hanged by General Lee’s orders. (John Cheves Haskell, Reminiscences of the Confederate War, 1861-65, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, MSS 7:3 E605 H2738:1)

[July 3 attack against the 15th Georgia in Rose Woods] While charging up the hill we came on a group of about twenty huddled together in a ledge of rocks, who began tearing off their accoutrements in token of surrender. But one big fellow, thinking he could kill one Yankee yet, raised his gun again and fired it in the faces of the men not ten feet in front of him, and then threw it down. A fatal mistake for him, for one of the Bucktails, who had just barely dodged his bullet, with a “No you don’t; you --- -- - -----,” shot him through the body. (Account of Benjamin F. W. Urben, 1st Pennsylvania Reserves)
 

Cavalry Charger

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#18
This is from a post I added to the thread "The Black Flag":

I think I've found what I was looking for in relation to my Captain. He was wounded, but rather than capture him, the Confederates killed him. I don't know why, as it seems they did take some prisoners. Eyewitness accounts in Greg Eanes book "Wilson-Kautz Raid - Battle for the Staunton River Bridge" seem to confirm this with perhaps another Union soldier at the time:

"A former slave also recollected the event in 1927. A man by the name of Red Randall recalled the Confederates had made it to the railroad cut. He also recalled at one point a Federal trooper came out from under cover to an exposed position when some Confederates fired on him. "ah, God allow me a chance", Randall recalled the Federal saying, noting, "but they didn't allow him no chance. They shot him".

The Lieber Code also made it possible for 'atrocities' to occur, but under it they wouldn't be considered atrocities:

59. A prisoner of war remains answerable for his crimes
committed against the captor's army or people, committed
before he was captured, and for which he has not been
punished by his own authorities.

All prisoners of war are liable to the infliction of retalia-
tory measures.


60. It is against the usage of modern war to resolve, in
hatred and revenge, to give no quarter. No body of troops
has the right to- declare that it will not give, and therefore
will not expect, quarter ; but a commander is permitted to
direct his troops to give no quarter, in great straits, when
his own salvation makes it impossible to cumber himself
with prisoners.


18 INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE GOVERNMENT

61. Troops that give no quarter have no right to kill
enemies already disabled on the ground, or prisoners cap-
tured by other troops.

62. All troops of the enemy known or discovered to
give no quarter in general, or to any portion of the army,
receive none.

https://archive.org/details/governarmies00unitrich

This mentions 'body of troops' and centres around the order of 'no quarter'. I'm guessing individual instances relate more to heightened emotions at the time, rather than any command being given. Still, it's interesting to note Government instructions around these things.
 
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#19
The following incident occurred at First Manassas:

I found a pretty strong force posted in a thicket and pushed forward, the enemy retiring as we advanced. These troops were part of the 14th New York Chasseurs. Here the red breeched Federals were lying thick, dead and wounded. The first man killed in our regiment was shot by one of these men as the line swept by him. It was a spiteful act and he did not live long enough to repent of it, for as soon as he had fired, Major Cabell shot him down with his pistol.

Lieutenant Julius E. Irby - 18th Virginia Infantry
 
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AUG

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#20
In describing the battle of 2nd Manassas, Capt. James T. Hunter, commanding Co. H, 4th Texas Infantry, mentions yet another incident where a soldier fires his weapon shortly before surrendering, only to receive no quarter from his would-be capturers:

"About four in the afternoon the signal was given for a general advance of our lines. Immediately in my front was a narrow field about three hundred yards across to the timber, and the enemy's first line occupied this timber. They did not wait to receive a full volley, but fell back to the second line. When we reached the timber I was some five paces in front of my company and saw, about thirty yards in my front, about half a company of the enemy standing in double ranks and making no demonstration to shoot at us. I ordered my men not to fire, as I thought they would surrender. We were still approaching them. The 1st Texas was thirty or forty yards to my left, and the officer commanding the nearest company allowed his men to make an oblique fire at these Yankees, and they, instead of firing at the 1st, fired directly in front into my company. My men then fired, and all the Yankees that were not killed ran. One big Yankee came running directly toward me and when within ten feet stopped short, threw up his gun, and fired at me. He was so close that the blaze came to my face and the ball passed close to my ear. He then fell at my feet and said: 'I surrender; don't kill me.' My first impulse was to run my sword through him, and I was in the act of doing so when I thought: 'He is down and begging.' I could not stop my men, some of whom shot him."
("At Yorktown and What Followed" in the Confederate Veteran, vol 26)
 



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