Retaliation to Defend Black Union POWs


Harper’s Weekly – August 15, 1863

Caption reads: “Mr. Lincoln. ‘Look JEFF DAVIS! If you lay a finger on that boy, to hurt him, I’ll lick this ugly cub of yours within an inch of his life.'”

The advent of black Union soldiers in combat created an interesting wrinkle on the road to emancipation in the American Civil War. One which pitted the desire of African Americans for equality as well as freedom, against white Confederates who tried to paint black soldiers as savages in uniform foisted on them by their white Union enemy who in a desperate attempt to stave off total defeat was prepared to throw out the rules of civilized warfare and foment what amounted to servile insurrection against the South. In the middle, of course, was the Lincoln administration, which while it had no enthusiasm in Summer 1863 for black equality, recognized that it had some duty toward the African-Americans soldiers unfortunate enough to fall into rebel hands.

Supporters of black Union POWs had good reason to fear for their safety. The previous December, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had ordered “That all negro slaves captured in arms be at once delivered over to the executive authorities of the respective States to which they belong to be dealt with according to the laws of said States.” Although not stated explicitly, the clear implication was since black Union soldiers would treated as rebellious slaves under state law, meaning they would be put to death since this was generally the punishment meted out to rebel chattel. This approach towards black Union soldiers was more-or-less confirmed by the Confederate Congress on May 1, 1863, when it passed the Retaliatory Act. This legislation addressed the question of black POWs, stating, “All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war or taken in arms against the confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, to be dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.

These policy statements, and growing numbers of black Union soldiers in Confederate hands, especially after three significant engagements in Spring/Summer 1863 involving African Americans and other more minor encounters, put the Lincoln Administration on the spot. Its credibility was on the line, especially with the black community the administration was asking to send its fathers, sons, and brothers to risk their lives on its behalf. But mainstream opinion in the North also called for Lincoln to take what steps he could to protect African-American POWs held by the enemy. Harper’s Weekly, the great national periodical of the age put the matter eloquently. It wrote:

We invited these men to fight for us. We did not give them an equal pay with other soldiers; we did not allot to them the offices of honor; we adjured them by a flag whose protection we doubtfully concede to them; we required, in a word, of these men, whom our prejudices have hitherto kept at every conceivable disadvantage, the qualities that only the proudest and most self-dependent people show, and we promised them but a very uncertain reward for all their fighting. . . .

Now then is the time to show every colored man in the land whether we are in earnest, or whether he would be simply a fool to fight for a flag which does not protect him. How can a solitary man of that race, except the few sublimely heroic, enlist, until he knows the fate of his brethren captured at Wagner? Or how can we ask any man whatsoever to imperil his life for us, without promising him equal fair play with every other? The Government can not evade the question. Already the rebel journals declare that if the colored prisoners are treated as prisoners of war, the rebellion may be as well abandoned at once. And the rebel Congress have long since doomed every officer of our colored regiments to the gallows, and every soldier to the slave pen.

So, the very real possibility of death or re-enslavement for black Union POWs and public opinion in the North forced Abraham Lincoln to act to try to protect them. The only leverage he had over the rebels in this regard was Confederate POWs held by Union forces, so that is what Lincoln used. On July 30, 1863, he issued an order which read:

It is the duty of every government to give protection to its citizens, of whatever class, color, or condition, and especially to those who are duly organized as soldiers in the public service. The law of nations and the usages and customs of war, as carried on by civilized powers, permit no distinction as to color in the treatment of prisoners of war as public enemies. To sell or enslave any captured person on account of his color, and for no offense against the laws of war, is a relapse into barbarism and a crime against the civilization of the age.

The Government of the United States will give the same protection to all its soldiers, and if the enemy shall sell or enslave anyone because of his color the offense shall be punished by retaliation upon the enemy’s prisoners in our possession.

It is therefore ordered, That for every soldier of the United States killed in violation of the laws of war a rebel soldier shall be executed, and for every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war.

It was an extraordinary executive order. While Lincoln never really implemented the order, it helped sow seeds of doubt among Confederate troops that they were free to do what they wished with any black Union soldiers that fell into their hands. And while it did not stop Fort Pillow and other massacres, it no doubt prevented some black prisoners from being wantonly killed by making Confederates think twice because Lincoln had formally linked the safety of rebel prisoners of war to the way they treated African Americans in federal uniform. Extending equality in its protection to black POWs also made it harder for the federal government to discriminate against black men in uniform in other ways, such as their rate of pay. Indeed, if Lincoln’s executive order of July 30, 1863, succeeded clearly in any way, it was in sending a meaningful political signal to African Americans that his government valued their military service and considered black troops more than simply cannon fodder, to be used and discarded. With that sort of statement it also became politically harder for the Lincoln administration, even if it had ever wanted to, to back off from the Emancipation Proclamation and freedom for the slaves more generally. With Lincoln’s executive order of retaliation, he had in essence made protecting black Union POWs a matter of honor.

Sources: 1); 2); 3)

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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3 Responses to Retaliation to Defend Black Union POWs

  1. Pingback: News and Notes, August 13, 2013 | Crossroads

  2. msualumni says:

    Reading the actual testimony of the Fort Pillow massacre is truly harrowing. Are there documents showing whether or not the Union killed any Confederate prisoners in direct retaliation for black POWS?

    • As I say in the blog post, Lincoln, as far as we know, never actually carried out the threat to kill Confederates in retaliation for killing black POWs. But the threat probably created enough uncertainty with the rebels that it undoubtedly helped save some black POWs lives. And it served a valuable political purpose on many levels, especially for black soldiers in that it signaled them the federal government valued their lives.


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