Featured Fredricksburg: Sound tactics or war crime?

Jamieva

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I dont have a problem with them shelling Fredericksburg while Barksdale's troops were in the town using it to hide and fire on them. Once Barksdale pulls out and they cross the river and ransack the town that is totally uncalled for and showed Burnside and his subordinates had no control of their men
 

brass napoleon

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I dont have a problem with them shelling Fredericksburg while Barksdale's troops were in the town using it to hide and fire on them. Once Barksdale pulls out and they cross the river and ransack the town that is totally uncalled for and showed Burnside and his subordinates had no control of their men

Just one more in a long list of strikes against Burnside.
 

AUG

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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..
I think you misunderstood my post. I never said anything about the Federal artillery firing or not firing into the town. All I meant was that it was not unusual for troops to skirmish to delay or harass the enemy, and that I do not think it caused them to ransack the town. I am not arguing that the town should not have been shelled. It sounded like the OP was suggesting that the town was sacked for that reason (skirmishing or sharpshooting), which I don't believe it was. There is a difference between ransacking the town and firing into it.
 
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E_just_E

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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.

can we define "murder" , "maiming" and "assaults" in a war situation? And this is talking about a hostile country and applicable in future wars, but the South was not considered a different country by the North methinks...
 

Pat Young

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can we define "murder" , "maiming" and "assaults" in a war situation? And this is talking about a hostile country and applicable in future wars, but the South was not considered a different country by the North methinks...
The Lieber Code was promulgated for use by the Union armies during the Civil War. While it later formed the basis for the Geneva Convention, it was intended for immediate use.
 

E_just_E

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The Lieber Code was promulgated for use by the Union armies during the Civil War. While it later formed the basis for the Geneva Convention, it was intended for immediate use.

Understood. But it was instructions (and very vague at that) about behavior and not Law. And is totally immaterial to the Fredericksburg situation, since they did not exist yet. And was not upheld or used against any Union troops during the war. Nobody was charged and convicted for breaking those things. As a matter of fact, Mr Grant was promoted for doing so and Mr Sherman made a living in '64 and '65 out of it...

Political action and words. That's about it.
 

Pat Young

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Understood. But it was instructions (and very vague at that) about behavior and not Law. And is totally immaterial to the Fredericksburg situation, since they did not exist yet. And was not upheld or used against any Union troops during the war. Nobody was charged and convicted for breaking those things. As a matter of fact, Mr Grant was promoted for doing so and Mr Sherman made a living in '64 and '65 out of it...

Political action and words. That's about it.
OK then, since you seem to have your mind made up, there is no point in me responding.
 

kevikens

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I think you misunderstood my post. I never said anything about the Federal artillery firing or not firing into the town. All I meant was that it was not unusual for troops to skirmish to delay or harass the enemy. I am not arguing that the town should not have been shelled. It sounded like the OP was suggesting that the town was sacked for that reason (skirmishing or sharpshooting), which I don't believe it was.
As the original poster I was surmising that when the Union artillery plastered the town, the infantry, having observed it and then having just occupied a town from whose buildings they were being shot at, concluded that it was open season on Fredericksburg and abandoned the then usual constraints on soldierly behavior. This is of course, is conjecture on my part. For all we know some of the looters were simply bored, thought smashing pianos and bayoneting quilts was fun, and turned their occupation of the town into mindless mayhem for the shear joy of destroying things. I do think, however if they had not been fired on from the town, if their own artillery had not blasted the place before hand, that if they had been marched across bridges by officers in the usual line of march, they would have been unlikely to go on their looting and pillaging spree. Remember many of those soldiers were young men whose frontal brain mass was that of adolescents who could readily go off the rails if not kept under the tight control of their officers, a control that seems to have been missing in the chaotic aftermath of street fighting.
 

AUG

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As the original poster I was surmising that when the Union artillery plastered the town, the infantry, having observed it and then having just occupied a town from whose buildings they were being shot at, concluded that it was open season on Fredericksburg and abandoned the then usual constraints on soldierly behavior. This is of course, is conjecture on my part. For all we know some of the looters were simply bored, thought smashing pianos and bayoneting quilts was fun, and turned their occupation of the town into mindless mayhem for the shear joy of destroying things. I do think, however if they had not been fired on from the town, if their own artillery had not blasted the place before hand, that if they had been marched across bridges by officers in the usual line of march, they would have been unlikely to go on their looting and pillaging spree. Remember many of those soldiers were young men whose frontal brain mass was that of adolescents who could readily go off the rails if not kept under the tight control of their officers, a control that seems to have been missing in the chaotic aftermath of street fighting.
I see your point and you make a good one. I had originally assumed that you were suggesting that solely the Confederate sharpshooting and skirmishing brought on the ransacking. Its definitely possible that the fighting before the capture of the town and any destruction done to it could have helped persuade them to do so, but as others have noted, it wasn't the first and only time a town was ransacked and looted from. As we know, many soldiers on either side would take whatever chance they could at getting food, souvenirs, etc. unless under strict discipline, which obviously wasn't the case here. I think it would be interesting to read a few first hand accounts of the capture of the town to see what was going through their minds at the time.
 
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brass napoleon

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I see your point and you make a good one. I had originally assumed that you were suggesting that solely the Confederate sharpshooting and skirmishing brought on the ransacking. Its definitely possible that the fighting before the capture of the town and any destruction done to it could have helped persuade them to do so, but as others have noted, it wasn't the first and only time a town was ransacked and looted from. As we know, many soldiers on either side would take whatever chance they could at getting food, souvenirs, etc. unless under strict discipline, which obviously wasn't the case here. I think it would be interesting to read a few first hand accounts of the capture of the town to see what was going through their minds at the time.

Here's one:

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:2001.05.0170:chapter=22
 
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Carronade

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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..

One could argue that the Federals at Fredericksburg showed worse judgement, since they kept sending wave after wave up the hill.

Keeping Longstreet busy might have been justified if they had been launching a major assault on Franklin's front to try to convert the breakin they achieved there to a breakthrough, but that wasn't happening.
 

Billy Yank

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Did Barksdale hang-up signs saying, "OK, we've moved out of town now and on up to the heights"? The whole episode reminds me of Day 1 Gettysburg. Lots of confusion, yelling, ordnance, smoke - pushing the enemy through town and up to their defensive works.
 

Flash

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From today's view, it may seem a very harsh battle, but then, which battle of the ACW wasn't?
A war crime? The judical part eludes me I must admit, but then what was Gettysburg or the Vicksburg campaign? In war terrbile things happen on either side and in all times, ancient and modern. The ACW is no exception.

"I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!"
Sherman, as quoted from accounts by Dr. Charles O. Brown in the Battle Creek Enquirer and News (18 November 1933)

"O Mother, to think that we are to have here soon what I have seen so many times, the awful loads and trains and boatloads of poor, bloody, and pale and wounded young men again — for that is what we certainly will, and before very long. I see all the little signs, getting ready in the hospitals, etc.; it is dreadful when one thinks about it. I sometimes think over the sights I have myself seen: the arrival of the wounded after a battle, and the scenes on the field, too, and I can hardly believe my own recollections. What an awful thing war is! Mother, it seems not men but a lot of devils and butchers butchering each other." Walt Whitman, from a letter to his mother (22 March 1864).
 

thomas aagaard

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Using "war crimes" is not correct. The modern Laws of war did not exist back then., And even if they had, they would not have been in effect, since they are used in wars between two sovereign powers who signed the conventions. And since the south was newer accepted as such, they would not have been allowed to sing them. To the world this was a rebellion and an internal matter for the USA.

but according to norms back then and today, it is the defender who is responsible for everything.
If you decide to defend a city, you must evacuate all civilians. and the city is a legal military target.

So in the end it is Lee who is responsible for any civilians death and the shelling. Just like the union was responsible for it in Chattanooga... or Denmark was for the Prussian shelling of the Danish town of Sønderborg in 1864.(it was just behind the front lines. and was used to house the soldiers who made op the secondary reserve force, supplies and similar.)

In all cases the defender could have declared it an open city and pulled out.
---

Now about the looting. Clearly there where a breakdown in discipline, and that is naturally the responsibility of the officers.

Now, Iam not sure what units started it... But if it was the units who had been invoked in the house to house fighting... I do think it is understandable. Fighting in a town like that would split up units make it much harder for the officers to control and so on. And not something they where trained for. And some soldiers ended up in a random house where they found something to drink...
 

dvrmte

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If the orders from Washington were carried out, the AOP might have had more deaths from executions than they received from combat with Lee. Burnside and many of his subordinates were guilty of war crimes. I couldn't find General Orders Numbers 108 or the 52nd Article of War, which are said to include more regulations.

APPENDIX.

A.

GENERAL ORDERS,

WAR DEPT., ADJT. General 'S OFFICE,

Numbers 107.

Washington, August 15, 1862.

I. Officers of the Regular Army will, as a general rule, receive leaves of absence to accept the rank of colonel in volunteer regiments, but not lower grades. Non-commissioned officers and privates will be discharged on receiving commissions in volunteers regiments.

II. The oath of allegiance will not be administered to any person against his own will; it must in all cases be a voluntary act on his part, nor will any compulsory parole of honor be received. But oaths taken and paroles given to avoid arrest, detention, imprisonment, or expulsion are voluntary or free acts, and cannot be regarded as compulsory. All persons guilty of violating such oaths or paroles will be punished according to the laws and usages of war.

III. The laws of the United States and the general laws of war authorize in certain cases the seizure and conversion of private property for the subsistence, transportation, and other uses of the Army, but this must be distinguished from pillage; and the taking of property for public purposes is very different from its conversion to private uses. All property lawfully taken from the enemy, or from the inhabitants of an enemy's country, instantly becomes public property, and must be used and accounted for as such. The fifty-second article of war authorizes the penalty of death for pillage or plundering, and other articles authorize severe punishments for any officer or soldier who shall sell, embezzle, misapply, or waste military stores, or who shall permit the waste or misapplication of any such public property. The penalty is the same whether the offense be committed in our own or in an enemy's territory.

IV. All property, public or private, taken from alleged enemies must be inventoried and duly accounted for. If the property taken be claimed as private, receipts must be given to such claimants or their agents. Officers will be held strictly accountable for all property taken by them or by their authority, and it must be returned for the same as any other public property.

V. Where foraging parties are sent out for provisions or other stores the commanding officer of such party will be held accountable for the conduct of his command and will make a true report of all property taken.

VI. No officer or soldier will, without authority, leave his colors or ranks to take private property or to enter a private house for that purpose. All such acts are punishable with death, and an officer who permits them is equally as guilty as the actual pillager.

VII. Commanding officers of armies and corps will be held responsible for the execution of these orders in their respective commands.

By command of Major-General Halleck, General-in-Chief of the Army:

E. D. TOWNSEND,

Assistant Adjutant-General.
 

Mild53

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Please don’t misinterpret this post, I am not weighing in on the morality of the destruction, just a possible reason it may have occurred.

I have read letters of individual US soldiers where they expressed frustration at the protection afforded secessionist residents in areas occupied. They asked why the property of those in rebellion with the US was not fair game. In their view, most of the residents of Virginia were traitors ( the description used in letters at the time) and they thought that they should be treated accordingly. So the homes in Fredericksburg were not considered the homes of innocent bystanders, but the homes of those supporting the enemy and soldiers that were out to kill them.

Use of the city by marksmen may have played into this thinking.
 

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