12 Years a Slave – My Thoughts


I finally had a chance to see to see 12 Years A Slave. Like many other scholars that have opined on the film, I have a generally favorable opinion of it. Director Steve McQueen has made a reasonably faithful adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 slave narrative and one of the best commercial films in a while dealing with slavery. Of course, that is not a high hurdle, as Hollywood rarely deals in a straight fashion with the peculiar institution, preferring a sensationalist approach, like last year’s Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy, Django Unchained (or going back in history, 1975’s potboiler Mandingo).

Hollywood is usually at its best in depicting slavery when it adapts true stories, such as Roots, the epic 1977 television miniseries, based on Alex Haley’s historical novel about his slave ancestors, or in the present case the classic slave narrative, 12 Years A Slave. McQueen’s film is actually not the first time the story of Solomon Northup has been dramaticized. In 1984, PBS showed a decent made-for-television version of the tale, entitled Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, starring Avery Brooks (best known to the public for his role as the station commander on Star Trek: Deep Space None) in the title role.

Since both the 2013 film and 1984 television version closely follow Northup’s slave narrative, the difference between them is mainly one of style. McQueen’s film is darker than Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, largely because of the more explicit depiction of slavery’s horrors that is possible in a R-rated movie compared to the self-censorship of a television program that had to satisfy broadcast standards.


Most of the violent horror in 12 Years a Slave is perpetrated by Edwin Epps, Northup’s last owner, played chillingly by Michael Fassbender, whose performance is the most striking of the film, arguably more so than Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s dignified portrayal of Solomon Northup. Fassbender’s Epps is a psychopath, making his slaves’ life a living hell, especially Patsey, who is the object of Epps’ violently possessive lust and his wife’s jealous resentment.

But what makes Michael Fassbender’s performance so impressive is not his depiction of Epps’ cruelty, which actually might seem over-the-top if he did not also manage to convey the ill-concealed fear beneath it. Transforming his portrayal from just another two-dimensional Simon Legree to a much more complicated and realistic human being, whose underlying insecurity leaks through his mask of anger and violence.

Certainly, most slaveholders were not as overtly and consistently nasty as Fassbender’s Epps, but the anxiety they also tried to hide was quite real. That is, for all their professed concern for and conceit that their slaves held them in genuine affection, slaveholders and other antebellum white Southerners were deathly afraid of the blacks in their midst, believing them to be uncivilized barbarians with a propensity for brutish violence only held in check by the discipline of slavery (which itself was based on violence, real and threatened).

I have come across this fear, again and again, in researching this blog, especially when covering the secession winter and first years of the war. For examples, please see the following editions of Civil War Emancipation: 1) February 4, 2011; 2) February 26, 2011; 3) April 14, 2011; 4) May 4, 2011; 5) May 24, 2011; 6) September 29, 2011; 7) August 10, 2012; 8) October 22, 2012. These blog entries include repeated slave revolt panics in various locations across the South during this period, sometimes resulting in horrific violence of fearful slaveholders that actually exceeded Fassbender’s Epps in its cruel ruthlessness. There also are pleas of southern citizens, begging the new Confederate government to allow militia to stay at home, because they feared slave revolts if the local troops were sent to fight the Yankee invaders.

Indeed, fear played a big role in secession. The greatest concern of white Southerners before 186o was that the end of slavery would ignite a bloody race war–Nat Turner’s revolt en masse. So they believed emancipation must be prevented at all costs, even the slightest possibility of it. Hence, when Abraham Lincoln was elected President, determined with his party to halt slavery’s spread, to many white Southerners, convinced that slavery must continue to expand to survive, it seemed Lincoln was putting slavery on the road to extinction–which could not be tolerated and prompted secession.

So, they personified Thomas Jefferson and his analogy to slavery being like holding a wolf by the ears: with slaveholders afraid to have the slaves so close, but even more afraid to let them go. Michael Fassbender captures this mentality in his performance and I greatly hope he will be nominated for a best supporting Oscar for his all too plausible interpretation of Edwin Epps.

In short, I liked 12 Years A Slave, which captured the reality of the antebellum American slavery about as well as any commercial film I have ever seen. As indicated, that puts me in good company, as academics have largely embraced the film, although some are mildly critical of certain aspects, such as Glenn David Brasher’s assertion (which I agree with) that the film depicts slaves as too passive (in McQueen’s defense so does Northup’s narrative possibly influenced by northern abolitionists). Yet my main take away from the film was Michael Fassbender’s riveting performance as Edwin Epps, portraying him as a man who unsuccessfully hid his fear and insecurity toward his slaves with monstrous abuse. While most antebellum slaveholders were not so ruthlessly psychopathic on as regular a basis as Fassbender’s Epps, the cruelty they practiced was all too real and so was the fear that underlay it, and it is indeed ironic that it was that very fear that brought about secession that started the chain of events that brought an end to the very institution it was meant to make secure.

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Kidnapping Northern Blacks into Slavery during the Civil War

I confess I have yet to see 12 Years a Slave. It is not from a lack of interest. I long ago read Solomon Northup’s book on his kidnapping and enslavement, and I have seen the Avery Brook’s made-for-television adaptation, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, which originally appeared on PBS  in 1984. Director Steve McQueen’s theatrical adaption was finally released nationwide last Friday, and one of these days soon, like a year ago when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out, I will shell out some money and let everyone know what I think. The early signs, to judge from comments from other scholars of American slavery on Facebook, are generally favorable, but I will reserve judgment until I see the film for myself.

Yet in considering the case of Solomon Northup, it is important to realize that although his case was unusual, it was not unique. African Americans in the antebellum North shared the same vulnerability as Northup, especially after the passage of 1850’s Fugitive Slave Act, which on its face would have seemingly made it possible for any white American willing to perjure themselves to claim any African American in the North as their slave, since the black person in question would not be permitted to testify, and the compensation scheme for federal officials hearing cases of alleged fugitives was designed to favor the supposed slave owner.

It is uncertain whether any free persons of color in the North were enslaved under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Yet there is evidence that the kidnapping of African Americans from the North continued as late as Autumn 1863. On October 23, 1863, David L. Phillips, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Illinois sent the following letter to Abraham Lincoln (who had appointed Phillips to his post). It read:

Dear Sir,

I have Just received a letter from Hon. Chauncy I. Filley, Mayor of St Louis, enclosing an open letter from Major Easton U. S. Army, addressed to Gov. Yates, both relating to, what Seems to be, a very extensive Scheme of Kidnapping of free Negroes, and Negroes freed by the proclamation, and their removal to Kentucky through Illinois and Indiana by the Ohio and Miss. R. R. to Seymour and thence by the Jeffersonville R. R. to Louisville where they are sold for from $200. to $300, each into Slavery. It is said that the parties who are engaged in this nefarious traffic, generally, have permits from Some one in or about the Provost Marshal’s Office in St Louis.

You know the law of Illinois touching such a traffic and therefore I will say nothing as to the legal questions of the Case. That the traffic is going on to quite an extent seems beyond any reasonable question.

I enclose to you a Slip from the Chicago Tribune which I have Just Seen. It explains itself. I do not know what evidence the Tribune people have in their possession. Gov. Yates being in Washington I have taken the liberty of calling attention to the matter, knowing that you alone can, by an order to Gen. Schofield, Stop a trade which is not only legally a crime, but an outrage on humanity and an insult to the States of Illinois and Indiana.

Very truly yours

D. L. Phillips

So, with slavery on the ropes in the South in Autumn 1863, it is fascinating and chilling that there were still persons at that late date evidently kidnapping free persons of color in the North and selling them into slavery. As Kentucky was exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, it is an understandable destination for such nefarious activity. Clearly, even in the wake of Lincoln’s proclamation and significant Confederate defeats in Summer 1863, some people were still betting on slavery’s survival, and willing to defy the federal authorities to kidnap northern blacks, much as had happened to Solomon Northup decades before.

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Groping for a New Order

Although the process of emancipation in the Civil War was far from over in Autumn 1863, on the ground in parts of the Union-occupied South there was an effort being made at that time to devise its replacement. After all, while evil and immoral, slavery was a way of organizing labor to produce valuable commodities like cotton, rice, tobacco, etc. Even if slavery died the demand for those commodities would not. Some other way of organizing labor to grow them would have to be found.

It was not just a matter of continuing the production of staple commodities. Finding a new way of organizing labor in the South was needed to deal with a long standing and growing humanitarian problem. For two-and-a-half years, slaves had either been coming under Union jurisdiction as federal troops occupied Confederate territory or as slaves escaped to Union-controlled areas in the South. These now effectively free people needed food, shelter, and other necessities. Federal authorities were limited in what they could do, both as practical matter in terms of the resources available to them and out of the fear of creating a population permanently dependent on the government. They could employ some of these “contrabands” as they were called in support of federal operations in the South, but not all or even most. Hence, the obvious answer seemed to be to utilize the remainder, as they had historically, in plantation agriculture, but how, now that slavery was effectively dead or dying in the Union-controlled South?

A variety of whites, Northerners and southern Unionists, some well meaning, other less so, proposed and experimented with new labor systems to replace. All, in one way or another, stemmed from the free labor ideology prevalent in the North before the Civil War. Free labor ideology was a group of beliefs that developed about paid labor in the northern states in opposition to the unpaid slave labor common in antebellum South. One of these beliefs was that free laborers were more efficient and productive than comparable slave laborers. Hence, some northern entrepreneurs were interested in giving free labor a try on southern plantations, convinced they could produce cotton and other staple crops humanely and more profitably than slaveholders.

The New York Times in October 1863, reported on one such experiment in plantation agriculture with free labor, conducted near New Orleans under the control of George C. Brott, a merchant of the city, part of a firm that was a prominent supplier to the Louisiana’s planters. Brott had taken over the plantation of Pierre Adolphe Rost, the Confederacy’s emissary to Spain. The Times correspondent indicated that an Irish-born overseer, named Keenan supervised the black laborers, and that despite two decades of experience in that position prior to the war he was a good choice to supervise the now free laborers because had found even under slavery, “kind … treatment was more effectual in producing a larger amount of work from the same body of men.”

The correspondent continued about Keenan:

He manages the hands very much as he did slaves, but he says that under the impulse of freedom, they produce about one-third more than they did under the old system. The negroes rise at 4 o’clock, and at daylight, which is about 5, go to the fields. At 7 o’clock one hour and a half is given for breakfast, which they sometimes take in their quarters and always cook for themselves the night before, instead of having it cooked and carried to them as before. At noon they have two hours, and stop work at sundown. This is half as much again time as they had under their old master. A weekly task is assigned to each hand — at present the work being wood-cutting, it is a cord a day — some of the hands do their week’s work in four days, and this week they finished in three. In the next two days they cut two cords a day or more, for which they get one dollar a cord on hauling it out, and they are allowed the use of the teams. You will see that they thus produce thirty-three per cent. more than their task.

Hence, the pro-Lincoln Times was eager to describe the system being used on the plantation, which mixed the slave task system of work quotas with wage labor, as a resounding success. The correspondent also described the African Americans on Brott’s plantation as paragons of workers under free labor system: industrious, honest, and frugal–not the lazy, shiftless slaves described by southern planters before the war. He wrote:

They are more contented and happy than they were under the patriarchal institution, though they work a good deal harder. They save their money for a future day, and their savings amount already to a “good bit.” The working hands will make from seventy-five to a hundred dollars apiece; so the overseer tells me, over and above their share of the crop. They support their families and take care of their aged parents. Now this does not look as though they were so utterly shiftless, does it? Again, on Sunday, after the bible had been given them, I went into the midst of the congregation, and, after saying a few words, so as to get them somewhat acquainted with me, commenced a running fire of questions on this very topic. I addressed myself solely to the men, who sat apart from the women. From the conversation that ensued, I am convinced that they do appreciate their responsibilities and duties. They will spend their money as discreetly as white laborers do, and I am inclined to think more so. They will put their savings in the Savings Bank. They will try to be temperate and industrious. Not a theft has been committed on this place, by the negroes belonging to it, Mr. Brott took it! They understand the influence they are to have on future generations, and on the policy of the country, provided they shall succeed in doing well and accumulating property. They are desirous of vindicating themselves, their race, and the system of free labor, and thus laying for their posterity the foundation of a home and a country.

It is debatable whether the New York Times correspondent was making an accurate assessment of the success of the experiment on Brott’s plantation. It also is noteworthy that while the plantation had traditionally grown sugar, Brott’s overseer, Keenan, launched his free labor venture growing cotton, which historically had been grown little in that region of Louisiana, although planters there that dabbled with the crop had proven it could be grown there successfully. The correspondent wrote:

Mr. KEENAN, the overseer, who has much experience in raising cotton, says he expects about 200 bales of cotton, which will equal the finest Red River cotton, and will be worth 400 hogsheads of sugar. It sells now in New-Orleans at between sixty and seventy cents a pound. It is certain that for years cotton will pay better than sugar, and though the crop costs more labor than it does in States further east, owing to the coco, a sort of grass that grows very fast and exhausts the soil, it requires less attention than sugar, and as many influences seem to indicate the gradual abandonment of the sugar business here, the planters of the neighborhood are watching this experiment with the most intense solicitude. It will probably cause a revolution in the labor of the country.

Hence, the correspondent’s conclusion seemed to be that cotton would be more compatible with free labor than sugar. The spread of cotton cultivation in the postwar period suggests this prediction was accurate, although there were other reasons for the spread of cotton after the Civil War occurred for other reasons in addition to its compatibility with free labor. Much else in the organization of postwar labor in the former slave states would be quite different than on Brott’s plantation in October 1863, but there and in the rest of the Union-occupied South, long before the guns fell silent, both whites and blacks were groping for a new economic order, especially as it concerned the organization of labor.

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Whistling Dixie

If they were not defending such an inhumane and horrific labor system, in hindsight it might be possible to feel just the slightest bit sorry for slaveholders and those defending the slavery being in denial in late Summer 1863 as the peculiar institution crumbled right in front of them. They could not or would not believe what was happening.

A good example is an article at appeared in the Richmond Daily Dispatch, 150 years ago, on September 11, 1863. Entitled “Rule or ruin,” it basically accused the Lincoln administration of seeking to destroy the economy of the South because it could not defeat the Confederate Army on the battlefield. That is, having failed to “rule” the Confederacy, it now sought to ruin it in spiteful vengeance. The article read:

–To “rule or ruin” the South has been the manifest and controlling principle of the Abolition Government of the United from the beginning of this war. Its efforts were first directed to rule, but failing after two years trial in that, its whole energies are now bent to ruin.What is this but an admission that it never expects to conquer theSouth? If it did, why should it labor with all its power to render theSouth not worth having?

It is not merely the ruin of towns and public buildings, and the desolation of fields, or the slaughter of our people, which show the inconsistency of the present destructive policy of the Lincoln dynasty with the anticipation of conquering the Confederate States. Towns may be rebuilt, desolated fields will grow green again, a population grievously thinned by war may be again replenished; but when the only system of labor by which towns can be restored, fields cultivated, and a population supported, is to be torn up by the roots, we may fairly conclude that the architects of such destruction are aiming to ruin rather than to rule.–That the Cotton States can ever be cultivated except by slave labor, is a lunacy which we are not warranted in attributing even to the Washington Cabinet. If they really expect to emancipate the slaves and still make the country profitable, which is the only condition on which the Yankees desire a country, they are the most hopeless madmen the world has ever seen. If the South is to be subjugated, she could not inflict upon her conqueror a more fatal stab than that he is preparing for his own bosom.–Burning the cotton that it may not fall into his hands is nothing to his own plan of destroying the labor by which the cotton is raised. Emancipate the slaves and the cotton-growing States become as profitless to the commerce and manufacturers of the world as Jamaica and St. Domingo. Hence we can only under stand the abolition and destructive policy of the United States Government, by referring it to a foregone conclusion that it will never be able to rob the South permanently, and, therefore, that it will ruin it.

The author of the editorial, of course, assumed the experience of the South with emancipation would parallel his conception (or to be more accurate, misconception) of emancipation in the Caribbean. Subsequent events would prove cotton could be grown with free labor and that slavery was not necessary for its success. Likewise, during the Civil War itself various experiments were taking place in the South testing out various alternatives to growing cotton. While many of them were not successful, they demonstrated for subsequent planters how not to organize free labor for cotton (mostly importantly, do not try to treat free laborers like slaves). So, in retrospect, it is easy to see that in this instance the Richmond Daily Dispatch was whistling dixie.

Source: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2006.05.0857%3Aarticle%3D3

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A Letter from General Grant: August 23, 1863

Donald R. Shaffer:

A relevant and interesting post from Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads, in which U.S. Grant discusses emancipation and black recruitment into the Union Army in a letter to President Lincoln.

Originally posted on Crossroads:

One of the keys to understanding the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant is to understand Grant’s ability to work with Lincoln, as the following letter suggests.

Cairo Illinois

August 23d 1863.


Your letter of the 9th inst. reached me at Vicksburg just as I was about starting for this place. Your letter of the 13th of July was also duly received.

After the fall of Vicksburg I did incline very much to an immediate move on Mobile. I believed then the place could be taken with but little effort, and with the rivers debouching there, in our possession, we would have such a base to opperate from on the very center of the Confederacy as would make them abandon entirely the states bound West by the Miss. I see however the importance of a movement into Texas just at this time.

I have reinforced Gen. Banks…

View original 460 more words

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The Falling Price of Slaves – August 1863

One of the barometers of the progress of emancipation over the course of the Civil War was the price of slaves. (This is a topic that Civil War Emancipation has covered before, earlier this year on February 21 and March 11.) As confidence in and commitment to slavery’s survival fell, so did the price of slaves. A good example is an article that appeared 150 years ago today in the New York Times. The Times article analyzed the price of slaves in various places, including both the loyal slave states and the Confederacy. The article read:

Slaves command a higher price in Kentucky, taking gold as the standard of value, than in any other of the Southern States. In Missouri they are sold at from forty dollars to four hundred, according to age, quality, and especially according to place. In Tennessee they cannot be said to be sold at all. In Maryland the negroes upon an estate were lately sold, and fetched an average price of $18 a head. In the farther States of the Southern Confederacy we frequently see reports of negro sales, and we occasionally see boasts from rebel newspapers as to the high prices the slaves bring, notwithstanding the war and the collapse of Southern industry. We notice in the Savannah Republican of the 5th, a report of a negro sale in that city, at which, we are told, high prices prevailed, and at which two girls of 18 years of age were sold for about $2,500 apiece, two matured boys for about the same price, a man of 45 for $1,850, and at woman of 23, with her child of 5, for $3,950. Twenty-five hundred dollars, then, may be taken as the standard price of first-class slaves in the Confederacy; but when it is remembered that this is in Confederate money, which is worth less than one-twelfth its face in gold, it will be seen that the real price, by this standard, is only about $200. In Kentucky, on the other hand, though there is but little buying or selling of slave stock going on, we understand that negroes are still held at from seven to twelve hundred dollars apiece.

The prices listed in this piece make sense. Slaves in Kentucky still fetched a relatively high price not only because that state was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, and because slaveholders there were determined to hold on to their slaves. Indeed, Kentucky, unlike Maryland and Missouri, would stubbornly refuse to free its slaves on its own and slavery would only end there with final ratification of the 13th Amendment. Still, the slow turnover of slaves between slaveholders meant even in the Bluegrass State, slave owners were worried about the future of the institution.

Maryland and Missouri had much lower slave prices because in both states, the presence of Union troops from the early days of the war had undermined the peculiar institution, with army camps providing a refuge for fugitive slaves willing to become servants of soldiers and officers. Slavery’s end in the District of Columbia in April 1862 gave Maryland slaves a new place where they could disappear. While Maryland slaveholders resisted the pressure these events put on them, it also gradually sapped their commitment to slavery. With the start of widespread recruit of African Americans into the Union Army in 1863, the institution was further undermined putting both Maryland and Missouri on the path to ending slavery on their own before the end of the Civil War.

Recruitment of African Americans hurt slavery as an institution because slaves became free when they joined the army, and in March 1865 congressional legislation freed the family members of black soldiers as well. Eventually, black recruitment would undermine slavery even in Kentucky, as it was the only legal way out of bondage for African Americans there prior to the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Indeed, Kentucky no doubt contributed the second most soldiers to the Union Army (just behind Louisiana–where African Americans made up a much higher percentage of the total population) because of that fact.

And as the New York Times story astutely indicates, adjusted for inflation, which by Summer 1863 was rampant in the Confederacy, as the Richmond government ran the printing presses to fund the war, in real terms (measured by gold dollars) slaves by August of that year were fetching but a small fraction of the price they commanded before the war. So while slavery in the late summer of 1863 was far from dead, market prices in both the Union and the Confederacy demonstrated a distinct lack of confidence in the institution’s future. In other words, the theft of human lives was becoming an increasingly uncertain investment.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/1863/08/22/news/market-price-of-slaves.html

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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) http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/39620; 2) http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/august/treatment-colored-soldiers.htm; 3) http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=69908

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