Featured Fredricksburg: Sound tactics or war crime?

kevikens

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Jun 7, 2013
Location
New Jersey
I have always enjoyed visiting the city of Fredericksburg. It seems an easy battle to visualize and follow. One thing I have noticed, though is a tendency, both then and later, to castigate the Union forces for first attacking the city and then wrecking much of the place.

I agree that the sacking of the city, perhaps in frustration, was unlawful, impermissible, and just plain wanton, and an illicit lapse of discipline on the part of officers who did not do much to control their men. Having said that, though, I cannot but think that Southerners have been wrong to criticize the Northern forces for attacking the city, first with artillery, and then assaulting the place, driving out the civilian population into the December cold. So I ask whether or not Southern leadership must bear some responsibility for the ensuing mayhem by placing snipers within the city's waterfront district, shooting the engineers laying the pontoon bridges and prompting the North's artillery to fire into the city to clear the riverfront. My own thinking is that the Union forces were justified in opening up on the city, and, unwittingly, giving the rank and file the notion that the city itself was the enemy. Surely the Confederate leadership must have known that if gunfire came from Fredericksburg that would open up the city to retaliatory fire.

So I ask our members if the outrage over the Union troops venting their anger on the city has been somewhat overplayed and Confederate leadership's responsibility for putting snipers into the city somewhat muted.
 

E_just_E

Captain
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
Sep 3, 2014
Location
Center Valley, PA
I agree that the sacking of the city, perhaps in frustration, was unlawful, impermissible, and just plain wanton, and an illicit lapse of discipline on the part of officers who did not do much to control their men.

Those are some big words. There were no laws at the time that prohibited that. Those came about a century later but still urban centers are targeted, esp. if they harbor combatants. And nobody really needed to ask for permission to do that. Not much different than Vicksburg and slightly better than Atlanta. Even in Gettysburg private houses have been shelled.

Part of the war. Nothing unusual. Unfortunate, yes. Wanton, unlawful and impermissible, no.
 

brass napoleon

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Member of the Year
Honored Fallen Comrade
Joined
Feb 6, 2010
Location
Ohio
Well, some of it certainly was wanton. I agree that as long as Confederate snipers were firing from Fredericksburg, it was fair game. But after the Confederates left, when the Union forces occupied the city, they engaged in some pretty disgusting acts of wanton vandalism. Certainly not sound tactics, or any kind of tactics whatsoever, seeing as the enemy had already left. Not a war crime either though, seeing as there were no rules of warfare against such a thing then (and even by today's standards, if it were a war crime, it would be a fairly petty one). But poor discipline and repugnant behavior, absolutely.
 

E_just_E

Captain
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
Sep 3, 2014
Location
Center Valley, PA
Again, hard to judge back then with today's standards. Looting and destroying anything they could not take with them but the enemy could use, was pretty much a standard back then, as soon as they realized that long slow supply lines are more of a hindrance than a benefit. What the Federals did to Fredericksburg was less than what they did to Atlanta and Richmond and what the Confederates did to Chambersburg.

And the enemy did not leave. They were at the high ground (Marye's Heights) and, frankly, history is kinder to Sumner than to Pickett, because the Sunken Road was about as brutal of an advance as was Pickett's charge...

Here:

Expired Image Removed
 

brass napoleon

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Member of the Year
Honored Fallen Comrade
Joined
Feb 6, 2010
Location
Ohio
Again, hard to judge back then with today's standards. Looting and destroying anything they could not take with them but the enemy could use, was pretty much a standard back then, as soon as they realized that long slow supply lines are more of a hindrance than a benefit...

I agree, in terms of supplies that can be useful to the enemy. But that's not what I'm talking about here. There was a lot of wanton vandalism to private homes that was clearly done just out of spite. I've been trying to find some examples here, but I haven't been having good luck with the search engine lately. (It's as if it's forgotten everything more than a year old or so.) If I can find some examples, I'll post them here later.
 

E_just_E

Captain
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
Sep 3, 2014
Location
Center Valley, PA
That book is full of judgement vs. history:

this increasingly callous attitude could rationalize nearly anything

Got to filter authors' opinions out. Too bad she is teaching kids about History...
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
So I ask our members if the outrage over the Union troops venting their anger on the city has been somewhat overplayed and Confederate leadership's responsibility for putting snipers into the city somewhat muted.
While the Lieber Code, General Orders No. 100 by President Lincoln, was not issued until April 14, 1863, it was a codification of existing usages and standards. It explicitly said that there were laws of war that soldiers had to abide by.

Here is a link to it:
http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lieber.asp#sec1
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Here is Article 4:
Art. 4.
Martial Law is simply military authority exercised in accordance with the laws and usages of war. Military oppression is not Martial Law: it is the abuse of the power which that law confers. As Martial Law is executed by military force, it is incumbent upon those who administer it to be strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor, and humanity - virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men, for the very reason that he possesses the power of his arms against the unarmed.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Article 11 would seem to render illegal the sacking of private property for the profit of individual soldiers:

Art. 11.

The law of war does not only disclaim all cruelty and bad faith concerning engagements concluded with the enemy during the war, but also the breaking of stipulations solemnly contracted by the belligerents in time of peace, and avowedly intended to remain in force in case of war between the contracting powers.

It disclaims all extortions and other transactions for individual gain; all acts of private revenge, or connivance at such acts.

Offenses to the contrary shall be severely punished, and especially so if committed by officers.
 

E_just_E

Captain
Forum Host
Retired Moderator
Joined
Sep 3, 2014
Location
Center Valley, PA
Here is Article 4:
Art. 4.
Martial Law is simply military authority exercised in accordance with the laws and usages of war. Military oppression is not Martial Law: it is the abuse of the power which that law confers. As Martial Law is executed by military force, it is incumbent upon those who administer it to be strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor, and humanity - virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men, for the very reason that he possesses the power of his arms against the unarmed.

And what that exactly says specifically? As in what behavior is "legal" or not? Buzzwords: "oppression", "justice", "honor", etc without a definition of what is that vs what is not. Practically nonsensical as a legal piece.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
On the other hand, the shelling of houses to expel snipers is clearly legal under the Code:

Art. 14.
Military necessity, as understood by modern civilized nations, consists in the necessity of those measures which are indispensable for securing the ends of the war, and which are lawful according to the modern law and usages of war.

Art. 15.
Military necessity admits of all direct destruction of life or limb of armed enemies, and of other persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable in the armed contests of the war; it allows of the capturing of every armed enemy, and every enemy of importance to the hostile government, or of peculiar danger to the captor; it allows of all destruction of property, and obstruction of the ways and channels of traffic, travel, or communication, and of all withholding of sustenance or means of life from the enemy; of the appropriation of whatever an enemy's country affords necessary for the subsistence and safety of the army, and of such deception as does not involve the breaking of good faith either positively pledged, regarding agreements entered into during the war, or supposed by the modern law of war to exist. Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings, responsible to one another and to God.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
And what that exactly says specifically? As in what behavior is "legal" or not? Buzzwords: "oppression", "justice", "honor", etc without a definition of what is that vs what is not. Practically nonsensical as a legal piece.
What it says specifically is that the actions of soldiers are governed by law; "Martial Law is simply military authority exercised in accordance with the laws and usages of war."
 

AUG

Major
Retired Moderator
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Location
Texas
I don't believe that Confederate "sniping" caused the Federal troops to ransack the town. That was Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade that was positioned in the town to skirmish with Federal engineers constructing the pontoon bridges and the troops who crossed. There was nothing unusual about delaying and harassing the Federal advance by skirmishing and sharpshooting.

And I solely mean what caused them to ransack the town, not fire into it. Those are two completely different things.
 
Last edited:

wilber6150

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Retired Moderator
Joined
Apr 1, 2009
Location
deep in the Mohawk Valley of Central New York
I don't believe that Confederate "sniping" caused the Federal troops to ransack the town. That was Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade that was positioned in the town to skirmish with Federal engineers constructing the pontoon bridges and the troops who crossed. They weren't so much "sniping" but delaying and harassing the Federal advance, and there was nothing unusual about that.
So Union artillery was supposed to know which building held concealed Confederates and which didn't? If you place troops in a town then that commander is responsible for turning it into a legitimate target..
 

JerseyBart

Brigadier General
Moderator
Forum Host
Joined
Jul 19, 2006
Location
New Jersey
So Union artillery was supposed to know which building held concealed Confederates and which didn't? If you place troops in a town then that commander is responsible for turning it into a legitimate target..
Agreed. You don't say, "well, they're just skirmishing" when your men are being fired on. You fire back. Ransacking the town afterwards...low class.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Article 44 demonstrates what a serious violation the sacking of a city is:

Art. 44.
All wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, all destruction of property not commanded by the authorized officer, all robbery, all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force, all rape, wounding, maiming, or killing of such inhabitants, are prohibited under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense.

A soldier, officer or private, in the act of committing such violence, and disobeying a superior ordering him to abstain from it, may be lawfully killed on the spot by such superior.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Location
Long Island, NY
Here is a related article:
Art. 47.
Crimes punishable by all penal codes, such as arson, murder, maiming, assaults, highway robbery, theft, burglary, fraud, forgery, and rape, if committed by an American soldier in a hostile country against its inhabitants, are not only punishable as at home, but in all cases in which death is not inflicted, the severer punishment shall be preferred.
 

Similar threads

Top